Friday, December 16, 2022

Dungeons and Dragons Player's Handbook (3rd Edition)

 Oh, wow, the nostalgia. This is another one of those books where it hasn't quite been twenty years, but those twenty years ago, I must have read it a dozen times. And revisiting this beloved treasure, my main thought was, "damn, was I ever that young?"

Until very recently, my main thought about this book was as an improvement over AD&D 2nd edition, because when I was eighteen years old, in winter of 2000, my experience was that this allowed me to do things I'd long wished for - demihuman characters can go all the way to level 20, a versatile multiclass system that allows you to make a wide variety of character concepts, a rational skill system, a consistent roll-over system, instead of the weird stuff with  ability checks being roll-under, and attack rolls and savings throws being roll-over, but with lower scores being better.

And aside from my main thought, my secondary thought was that this game is the driving technology behind a lot of great games - Blue Rose and Mutants and Masterminds, d20 Modern and, of course, Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition. This is the start of a creative explosion in the rpg scene, and while many people would describe its era with unflattering terms like "bloat" or "glut" or "bubble," I'm just kind of thrilled that the OGL exists and I love the diversity of the games it inspired. It's a big reason I decided to make Ukssd20 the official rpg of this blog. 

Which is why it comes as such a shock to me that the fatal flaws of the baseline d20 system were so glaringly obvious even from the beginning - its creative new multiclassing system will destroy your core competencies, rogues have thirty-one class skills, spells still take up half the book. I noticed none of this at the time, and I have to assume it was because I was still a child, with only a child's breadth of knowledge. I loved D&D 3rd edition because it was not AD&D 2nd edition, the only other game I could compare it to.

But I could spend all day waxing poetic about the superior hindsight powers of middle age. Yes, this book has deep shortcomings, but some are just assumptions that should have been questioned, but weren't. It introduces "Item Creation Feats," but they spellcaster levels as a prerequisite, because tactical-scale spellcasting, story-scale magic rituals, and background activity crafting magic are all the same basic skill. . . and there's no real reason for that. Other shortcomings are things that were improved, but not by enough. Non-caster classes at least get something at high levels. What that Barbarian is going to do with 4 points of damage reduction or how the Monk is going to benefit from not aging, the book does not say, but they only seem like weak powers when you compare them to bringing back the dead or stopping time. Only a few were genuinely a design dead-end - like the split between combat, skill, and magic competence and being able to sacrifice one to improve the others.

But as much as this book could sometimes seem like a catalogue of ideas we've collectively outgrown, it's also the first game in a long time where I felt tempted to make a character in the middle of reading (it was actually infuriating - this pointless distraction character had the best stat roll of my entire roleplaying career - a total of 84 attribute points, with my lowest roll being a 12). It has a vitality to it, a sense that we're going to have Dungeons and Dragons, but now it's going to be intentionally designed. The chassis is versatile enough that you can build almost anything on top of it. It's taking a tenative, but real step in questioning the old magic system with the introduction of the sorcerer class. I may be jaded by the two decades worth of innovative rpgs that came in its wake, but I did also get the feeling of being present at the turning of an age. Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition is peak 90s design, in both the good and bad senses of the term.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of the flavor of this book is legacy material, with all the weird cruft that entails ("Stone to Flesh" is still in here), and in that tradition, the best type of stuff is the extremely niche spells that are absolutely delightful as character powers, but which are not reasonably worth the opportunity cost in D&D's system of limited spell slots. My favorite example is the "Shrink Item" spell. You take a regular item (which can include an actively burning campfire!) and reduces it to a cute little cloth patch. Then, at some later point, you toss the item onto the ground and it returns to its normal size and composition. Yeah, you can have a whole host of useful mundane items available on demand, but you have to renew the spell every few days and you're giving up "Fly" or "Fireball" to do it. It's the sort of spell you only use during downtime, which means it doesn't really need to be a spell at all.

But it's an incredible image. And Ukss doesn't have to cleave to spell slots as a mechanic, so I might be able to implement it in a more practical way.

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