Monday, October 25, 2010

10 Years of 3E & OGL

Here's a date that almost slipped by without me noticing: It's now been 10 years since 3E D&D was published.
... the Player's Handbook is only the first of three core books for the Dungeons & Dragons game. The Dungeon Master's Guide, available in September 2000, gives the DM all the tools to create and run fantastic D&D adventures. And the Monster Manual, available in October 2000, offers more than 500 fair and foul creatures. ["2000 Survival Kit", appendix to the 3E D&D Player's Handbook]
Let me give 3E a little bit of praise here, in retrospect. The frequency that commercial products these days evidence someone really caring about their production (or as I usually put it, "Did somebody at least give a shit?") is all too low. But 3E rises past that bar; whatever else one might say, clearly they cared (speaking of Cook, Tweet, Williams, et. al.).

Obviously, 3E was the first major D&D effort by WOTC and after TSR's long, slow, sad, stupid decline. In some ways it was a more detailed format, with high-level production values. It showed a generally deep understanding for the original AD&D system, even in places where it made different decisions. Its links to older works were respectful without being cheaply slavish (e.g., the quote above: "fair and foul creatures", echoing OD&D's "hostile & benign creatures" [Vol-2, p. 3] or AD&D's "creatures malevolent and benign" [Fiend Folio cover] without directly parroting them).

On top of all that, the rules were released in conjunction with the Open Game License, which offered the prospect of all of us contributing and publishing works for the game. I remember being absolutely excited at the combined prospect of all that; these were the first D&D books I bought since the end of 1E, and I wasn't alone.

In some sense, 3E was the initial "renaissance" of D&D, bringing lots of lapsed players back to the game, establishing a strong product line coming from a non-terminally-ill company, and laying the intellectual and legal groundwork for the spinoff OSR today. The truth is, since the only time in my life that I had a regular-as-clockwork weekly gaming group was in this era (1999 to 2005), I've probably played more actually-at-the-table 3E D&D than any other game system.

Of course, over time the heaviness of 3E came to feel a bit like a Sisyphean ordeal; I found myself struggling with the game and its choices, always feeling like the "right" game was within reach with a few fixes, but those fixes always led to other, larger fixes. Ridiculous hours were spent trying to get monster and NPC attack bonuses, skill points, feats, armor and size adjustments calculated properly. The complications of cleric domain spells probably contributed to breaking my camel's back on the whole class. Splatbook production had me sparking with some friends about exactly what "new" stuff should be allowed and what shouldn't on a near-monthly basis. Some of my casual players never intuited how attacks-of-opportunities would work, even after months of play. And of course the whole corporate project took a torpedo-hit when the 3.5 edition was rushed out only 3 years later, clearly signaling an end to company support for the OGL philosophy.

I stuck with 3E for while, until finally procuring a copy of the OD&D 1974 boxed set (what, close to 30 years after I started playing Holmes D&D?), and at some later point, decided that was my preferred ruleset, and then, this blog. To my surprise, it seemed like a lot of other people did something similar around the same time. Maybe without 3E we wouldn't even care about it any more; without the OGL, certainly the legal status of the OSR would be a lot more challenging. For all its warts, I'll say "thank you" to the guys who worked to bring it to us.


  1. Well said, all around. This very much echoes my experience with 3e, as well as my current attitude toward it.

  2. Great post.

    I always thought it was silly that people would struggle to make their monsters and NPCs "built right". Like handwaving setting and personality traits is ok, but not a couple of boring numbers.

    Then again, it is what you're "supposed" to do.

  3. Excellent post. I couldn't have said it better. Kudos!

  4. Story of my life, pretty much. Well, except that part about getting a copy of the 1974 edition, which I haven't been able to afford.

    Well. If I saved the money I've spent on Fight On!, I guess I could have managed...

    Oh, well.

    I've had lot of fun with 3rd ed.

  5. I do give them credit for attempting to systemize a lot of things that earlier D&D systems had glossed over or failed at. It's not easy to design those decent, consistent, reasonably simulative subsystems, especially for a high fantasy world.

    And while I think they made some core mistakes (e.g. the action system was a hacked-up mess)--cracks in the foundation--it did at least give people something to play. They had to make something that returning gamers could actually use, and they looked that challenge in the eye and did their best. As much as I've heaped criticism on 3E's original design, I've never thought what those guys did was easy.

    As you say, they gave a shit; not just about the game's place in the industry, but about producing something that was actually good, instead of merely good enough.