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This Gaming Life

The Rise and Fall of 3E

by Ian O'Rourke
February 14, 2002  
For all those reading this, it's worth noting that this is a personal tale. I write this with no intention of telling you how good or bad D&D is for you, or even if it concerns you. It's just a game. So pause, and consider before posting comments.

The third edition of Dungeons and Dragons was a huge issue in the gaming world, and a great concern for many people - either because they loved the idea or hated it. The game was owned by Wizards of the Coast, the company born out of the collectable card game boom - hell, the man who created the original collectable card game founded the company for God's sake.

The third edition, named and branded simply 3E (with an obligatory snazzy logo), generated flames across the Internet as the issues around its launch gathered steam. It was the closest gaming came to the buzz, anger, debate and shear adrenaline rush (for better or worse) of an election.

But this column is not about the 3e/D20 politics. It's much more personal than that. As while 3E entered the gaming world as a colossus, creating shockwaves throughout the industry, it also affected some people on a more personal level. It's not about D20 politics, or the issue of classes, it's just about gaming: the lack of it, the quality of it and just the miracle that it is happening.

Rewind 5 or so years:


In 1996 I stopped gaming. No big decision made out of artistic reasons (I'm not that pretentious) or a feeling of disillusionment. If the truth were told, I'd reached a peak in my gaming life over the last three years (93-96). I was running some of my best stuff, for an imaginative and enthralled audience, and was playing in a campaign that I still view as the best one I've experienced.

So, the abrupt end to my gaming was akin to stopping a TV show in its prime. I met the love of my life though, and that caused problems within my social circle. Complicated, and not something to be described here, but it's certainly not a decision I regret.

So, I became an armchair gamer, someone who viewed himself as a role-player, but never role-played. Someone who talked a lot about role-playing, mostly on the web, but never played a game. It happens, indeed some people hold to the theory that a lot of people on the Internet talk about gaming more than they actually play.

This was not all bad, as in those four years, I got articles published, in a real magazine, and I traveled a lot, mostly to America. I was also introduced to gaming on the web, not actually gaming on the web, but portals about gaming. I started to post on and investigate The Gaming Outpost, RPG.Net, and The Forge. As mentioned, I discussed gaming instead of playing games.

I also thought about them in depth, something I'd never overly analysed before. I became embroiled in why things worked a certain way. How best to achieve my goals and where the borders existed between GM'ing skill and system. How could a system facilitate what I was wanting to achieve in my, theoretical at this point, role-playing sessions. I also discovered free role-playing games on the web, and they further developed some of these concepts.

Four years passed, and I wanted to get back into gaming.


Well, I became part of a gaming group; 'got back into gaming' is probably a bit of a lie. You see this was a gaming group in their mid-twenties-to-early thirties, and I'd joined them at a crises point. Basically, they'd become seriously dissatisfied with the quality of their gaming and the frequency: it did not happen that often and when it did, it tended to fall away due to apathy.

We tried everything to kick-start some enthusiasm. We tried to organize open gaming days in our area; one got quite a good number of attendees, and then the second was completely empty. A horror game was proposed, but it did not get past character concepts despite an apparent groundswell of enthusiasm. I then tried to create a packaged game (a whole other story), which did everything for them, they just had to play the characters and develop them from their initial outlines.

This failed as well, as I was not enjoying it, my goals and some of the group's goals were not aligned and I've grown to old, with too little time, to compromise on my entertainment.

A year passed. We had reached a low point, as we had tried everything, and still no gaming of a regular nature (even a once a month proposal) seemed impossible.


Something did eventually change, and while 3E does not deserve all the credit, it can't be removed from the equation. I firmly believe that 3E, call it being affected by the hype, or overcome with nostalgia (two of the best games I've played in have been D&D based), gave five people the impetus to get off their arses and actually game. The arrival of 3E provided that 'excited about gaming factor' that provided some of the impetus to push aside other issues and just game.

It took sacrifices, and nearly caused one argument due to people feeling they had been left out, but this was part of the impetus. 3E provided some of the push needed for people to realise they had to compromise, make decisions and that gaming for four hours every other week (mostly) was a relatively easy commitment to make if everyone truly wanted to make it. As a result, those interested put gaming higher up their agenda. There is nothing wrong with putting gaming lower down on your priorities in terms of your social calendar, just don't try and hold back those who still have gaming higher on their list.

In the interests of 'just gaming,' a lot of the material people normally insist on (so again, people had shifted their focus, or those demanding it had been sidelined) before play begins, such as character backgrounds, world maps and lists of cultures were dropped. In fact, the game began with very little. Four sketchily detailed characters (to one degree or another) got off a ship at an Island based city (the only location that existed at the time) and from that, a quality campaign was born.

From the very beginning it was always about characters, as some players used character diaries (of the sessions) to retrospectively add detail to their character's background, but in the initial stages it was fun to play with the new toys: the new (or new old) classes, unlimited multi-classing, feats, and numerous character combinations.

Some (well, myself) had designed a character to be multi-classed from the beginning, to fit a concept, while others chose other classes as they progressed. We liked the way the characters abilities mapped how we viewed them, specifically how two characters progressing largely as fighters could be made vastly different by selecting different feats and multi-classing combinations.

As a character/story focused group is prone to do, even this ended up enriching the campaign, as the character that started off as a relatively uncultured warrior became a warrior priest. In many ways, through no conscious design, the four characters eventually became mythical archetypes, but supported by solid foundation due to them growing into it (rather than being designed that way).

It was noted once how broadly similar the characters had become to Babylon 5 archetypes: Sheridan, the hero; Delenn, the mystic; G'Kar, the warrior priest; and Londo, the man who walked the line between hero and villain.

It got better as the sessions progressed, as the epic story got woven in with ever deepening characters and personal relationships driven by both GM and player authorship.


Eventually, the nostalgia and no doubt a bit of the hype, started to wear thin (for me, I cannot speak for the rest of the group). The campaign was still great, excellent in fact, but the system underpinning it was like a dodgy foundation, causing things to crack around the edges, detracting from what was being driven at in the sessions, rather than carrying it along. It did not ruin the campaign, but it cannot be said to have helped.

The problems largely stemmed from the fact we were not playing 3E; we had characters in 3E, but a lot of the rules were ignored, or we just made it up as we went along. No problem with that, but then why use that system? Pick one that supports, enriches and enhances what you are trying to achieve. We ignored encumbrance, a lot of the tactical elements in the combat rules, thus negating about a fifth of the feats, and so on.

One of the first elements to show how the system was dragging the game down was during combat. The 3E combat system can turn the most emotionally charged combat into a boring affair. I agree, exciting combat is largely the responsibility of those involved via the use exciting descriptions and heroic actions - but 3E does not inspire you to do so!

Its tactical and resource management combat style just drags things down. The action is not driven by the need to create a good story, or the drama of a heroic story - but by game tactics and inevitability. You know you have to wear down someone's hit points before he falls. You know the abilities you can bring to bear to do it and the resources you have to play with.

It's a tactical exercise, it's possible to rise above it, and we did in moderation, but it should not be so much hard work. This was with a lot of the tactical stuff stripped out, attacks of opportunity for instance, and playing fast and loose with rounds and movement (ignoring the rules, so why not use something that enforces/supports what you want to do?). 3E combat is interesting, but as a tactical exercise, anything else is just a case of pushing against a strong current (which is where the hard work comes in).

The system sets out to provide a challenge; it's essentially driven to be a tactical game at its core. The majority of character classes have unique abilities within the team and a different set of resources to manage. The weapons all cause set amounts of damage based at some level on size and power, while certain character classes find themselves restricted as to what weapons they can use. In short, rules are not there to support, enhance, and drive drama or your character's role as a protagonist (the job of the player, but the rules should support his endeavours).

A character fighting to save a loved one should have that reflected in the moment, in the roles he makes (such as relationships being attributes that enhance rolls in Hero Wars) and in most cinematic sources, the size of the weapon is superfluous (such as in the Lord of the Rings movie) - it is the dramatic purpose of the attack that is important. Do you see Legolas suffering any major disadvantage in Lord of The Rings for using two small knives instead of Aragorn's broadsword? No. In 3E the drama is stripped out at the system level; my dagger does a measly 1D4, and the dice play the same even if I'm in a life and death struggle with my archenemy trying to save my long lost love.

3E is a very good game, and I freely admit it was the wrong system for the goals we had for the campaign (in my view), but that is the point. Not that 3E is wrong, or inferior, just that it does not match my gaming goals, and as such, it lost some of its initial euphoria (as a system, the campaign was still great).


Now the grand experiment begins. We seem to have a reliable platform for gaming; five people willing to put in the effort to get two sessions a month in. We now have an alternating format between two GMs, myself and another; we run mini-series and then we swap over. This stops burn out, or sessions suffering a quality drop due to being crunched on time (you have the whole of the other guy's mini-series to prepare your run). I want to use this platform to experiment with systems that are focused, and support what I want to achieve in my sessions.

I don't want to be bothered about minutia, be it characters buying equipment (pretty much solved), or specific weapon damage, endless lists of skills and so on. I want to drop the pretense of simulating a reality and instead move to systems that promote drama, and support the players (and myself) in their goals. The plan? Once system and player goals are aligned then we'll have a feedback loop that will raise the bar, and increase overall quality.

I'm starting slowly, and the first game I'm going to run is 'Adventure!', basically because it's a brilliant game and also because it's familiar to the players (it has the White Wolf system at its core) and the genre and the systems to support it advocate some of the principles I'm trying to bring into the game. The system is unobtrusive, and minimal effort is put into accurately modeling specific weapons (little difference exists between a character using his fists or a gun), and the genre demands quick editing, no superfluous scenes that are just taking time, not progressing the plot or developing the primary antagonists within the drama.

In addition, 'Adventure!' offers the dramatic editing rules, which basically provide a rules structure for the players to author parts of the game. These rules allow them to change scenery, add elements to the scene or even change aspects of GM characters with the goal of enhancing the story. It's true that this could be done without rules, but if there are rules for it, it sends a clear message to players that this is a major element of the game, so they should do it, while if it's left to GM/Player whim they are never sure if its right to do it, or how much they can get away with.

Anyway, 'Adventure!' is a friendly way of introducing some concepts I want to play with. When 'Adventure!' is finished, well, I'm eyeing up the second edition of 'Hero Wars,' so I'm planning on jumping in at the deep end after that.

The important issue is, despite the flame wars surrounding D20, D&D, and Wizards of the Coast, the game got me gaming again. I suspect it did a lot of other people as well, and for this reason alone, it deserves a place on my shelf. I'd never GM it, but it deserves a place all the same.

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What do you think?

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All This Gaming Life columns by Ian O'Rourke

  • Reality TV by Ian O'Rourke, 18jul02
  • The Rise and Fall of 3E February 14, 2002
  • Defence System August 10, 2001, guest column by Steve Darlington
  • Gaming in the Modern World July 4, 2001
  • And It Involves Rubber Swords June 6, 2001
  • A Wasted Youth? May 9, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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