Thursday, July 15, 2021

Mechanics that did not Age Well

A month or two back I decided to mix things up a bit (while still stuck entirely on Roll20) and I started running some D&D 3.5 again. Dragging out the old books was fun. There are aspects of D&D 3.5 that I still like a great deal, and realize that their utility has not diminished with time; I still prefer more granular skill systems, for example, and like the idea that spot, listen and search are all separate skills, and that being good at one of them isn't automatically a certainty to be good at another. I really like the fact that the reduced healing mechanics mean PCs need to think and be more careful as there are consequences for pushing on without regard for health and safety. A lack of at-will magic means wizards do have a reason to carry a staff or dagger for other than purely aesthetic reasons. Even some combat rules in 3.5 are appreciated: higher risk from firing in to combat, penalties for lack of proficiency and other little details all make sense to me. Sure, they are fiddly bits which don't need to be in the game as 5E demonstrates, but they add some versatility to the design and make combat feel more tactical and dangerous.

However, what I have found most interesting is in the moments where I notice that a rule from 3.5 not only didn't age well, but it aged so badly that I basically change the rule and substitute a 5E method instead. So far I've run in to this situation a few times. Damage reduction as a rule is just a pain in the ass, and something that is in many ways potentially invisible to the players. If I as GM tell them, "Your blow seems to have little or no effect," the players need to guess if that means they can't penetrate the DR or there's something more troubling going on (like immunity to the attack). If your whole group is striking and rolling low on the damage against a DR protected creature they could be in for a brutal slog. This is where the much more effective resistance/weakness mechanic of 5E is so much more sensible, and luckily incredibly easy to substitute. It even gives the DM easy descriptive language to use: "You strike your foe and it seems especially weak/resistant against your attack," tells the player all they need to know, and if its an actual immunity that is easy to communicate, too.

We've been sticking to low level play in 3.5 so far (that will change over time), but I already know how insane the stackable vs. non-stackable modifiers get as the game progresses along. Needless to say, the elegance of 5E's design eliminates this issue entirely and seamlessly as well.

As fun as advantage/disadvantage is in 5E I haven't seen any reason to introduce it in 3.5 yet. I am quite comfortable with basic modifiers and DCs working as intended, but the ability to award inspiration is missed. 

The way 5E handles magic items is so remarkably different from 3.5 that it bears mentioning. The extremely processual design of 3.5 magic items is in many ways one of the Achilles' heels of the system, as it created the rules and expectation of magic economies, and provided hard rules that sort of demystified the entire process of magic item creation. Nothing short of epic artifacts could not be found at the right level of market, or made by the players, with the rules as presented. In 5E it deliberately eschews this entire affair and only in later 5E do we se some rules creep back in (chiefly because as a result of 3.5 more than anything the notion that every city and town must have a magic item economy had become thoroughly engrained in the genre*).

5E's basic rule on training new skills and languages (pay coin, spend time, get skill) is far superior to the class/level restrictions of 3.5. So while I like granular skills and the skill point method, I much prefer 5E's more organic division on skills, allowing for more realism in how people learn things. It also lets the DM incorporate learning skills over time as a reward without breaking any game balance.

The most noticeable detriment to 3.5 over 5E is that rolling a nonhuman character is a pain in the ass, thanks to the scaling issues being dealt with throgh level adjustments. The 5E method is simply less hassle for the same result.

By coincidence (or not) we are resuming 5E on the next live off-week session, so make of that what you will!

*Sure the notion of a magic item shop existed long before 3E, but the idea that it was part of a mercantile economy with clear rules of commerce and manufacturing, and an almost total absence of mystery was very much a 3rd edition introduction. In 2nd edition and earlier the magic item shop was the weird wizard and strange shop in a large city, surrounded by mystery, usually with a specific and well regarded name attached. But the key idea was that prior to 3E, the magic item shop was a contrivance of the GM and fully in their control, and laden with mystery. The magic item shop of 3E was by contrast well defined and something the players themselves could establish if they were so inclined. It stopped being a DM tool and macguffin and became a player utility. 


  1. I'll be the grumpy pedant and voice my irritation at the commonly seen notion that rules 'age'. They don't. We, the players, age... our tastes change and what seemed cool or 'innovative' initially starts to feel like a pain in the ass. But the rule has not changed, the same ink remains on the page.

    I don't know why it bugs me so much, maybe it's just how it ties with with the rampant ageism in our culture and a notable shunning of 'old' rules by some corners of the RPG hobby (not that I'm tying YOU in with THEM).
    Sorry... I feel better now.

    1. LOL fair points! I think it is possible for a rule to not weather well, though....sometimes the reason we did things a certain way wasn't because the rule was better, but rather because no one had thought of a more efficient way to do it. Sometimes the rule may work fine but maybe not for the purpose it is intended.....for example, its fair to say that my removing DR as a mechanic and using the half/double mechanic of strong/weak resistance has more to do with the fact that the math is simpler and the descriptive properties are more elegant, but there's a chance my younger self in 2001 was also comment on how much nicer DR was than the arbitrary "immune to all but +1, +2 etc weapons" that prior editions had, and how much more interesting and elegant a solution DR was to creature immunities in 2E. It might be better to say that rules evolve over time to suit different purposes, with an emphasis on the idea that "evolve" doesn't mean improve, just change to suit the environment.

    2. On the other I think back to the old 1E/2E days I have to say that the creature immunity vs. damage except magic rule for some monsters had a huge early advantage of being easy to arbitrate and it also made some monsters terrifying. Ever since the introduction of DR a lot of monsters lost their prospective "bite" if you will. So....yeah, agreed, it's probably not a "rules don't age well" thing in the conventional sense.

    3. I'm glad you included that caveat about, ""evolve" doesn't mean improve..."... that's another petty bugaboo of mine... people talking about games 'evolving' as if there is some Manifest Destiny they are headed toward, some Platonic Ideal of an RPG rising above the corpses of older defunct systems.

      My own ageing quickly led me to decide that I did not care for class/level games... then more ageing led me to not caring as much and eventually re-embracing them in the forms of DCC and B/X-ish OSR games.

  2. Hardness. Hardness was the worse of all the mechanics in 3.x

    1. Yes that's anither one that slows everything down and poorly simulates reality.