Dungeons and Dragons

by Mike Shea on 16 December 2003

On Sunday I had my first D&D game in ten years. I was the dungeon master, and had to come up with an adventure pretty much right out of my pocket. Our players were all new to 3rd edition rules as was I, so I tried to come up with a simple enough adventure just to get the ideas for combat and general rules for play. It seemed to work out but even with my simple three encounter adventure it took us almost five hours.

I like 3rd edition rules a lot. I like that there is an open-format D20 rule-set that allows outside expansions to be written without a license from Wizards. I like how much they have simplified things. In fact, they simplified it so much that my complex 2nd edition mind had some trouble wrapping my head around the simplified combat.

For example, almost all actions are d20 rolls against a Difficulty Check (DC). If Hagbar wants to kick in a door and you determine that the door is of moderate strength (DC 10) you have Hagbar's player roll a 1d20, add a strength modifier, and see if its higher than 10. Combat follows the same rule. Hagbar wants to chop up the goblin in front of him. The goblin's armor class is based on 10 plus his armor bonus (+2 for hide) and his size (+1 for being small) for a total of 13. Hagbar rolls a 1d20, adds his strength bonus (+3), his attack bonus (+1), and his weapon specialization bonus (+1) for a total of 1d20+5. If he rolls higher than 8 he hits the goblin and chops him up. Saving throws follow the same rules as well, something that confused me in my game on Sunday. If Pant-dalf the wizard casts a sleep spell on a pair of goblins, they roll a saving throw against his ability to cast the spell which is 10 plus his intelligence bonus (+2) plus the level of the spell (+1) or 13. They each have a +1 to save against will type spells so they have to roll 12 or higher to save. It's the same kind of roll that Hagbar had to do to kick in the door. Almost everything but damage is handled by a d20 roll plus modifiers against a difficulty number plus modifiers.

The other thing about 3rd edition is how surprisingly powerful it is. 2nd edition removed a lot of the power from the original dungeons and dragons game not to mention all of the fun demons, devils, and the infamous demon princes which have all been restored in the Monster Manual and the excellent Book of Vile Darkness. Feats are very powerful. Unlike skills which are generally mundane rope climbing things, feats give some excellent abilities like Cleave (chop through multiple targets at once), Two Weapon Fighting (fight with a pair of swords for less of a penalty), and Weapon Specializations. Some feats like power attack or point-blank shot may seem powerful but their disadvantages seem to harm their advantages. Straight up bonuses like two weapon fighting and weapon specialization seem to be nicer. Spell casting feats like quick cast (cast an extra spell a round) and empower spell (do full damage with a spell instead of rolling damage) seem on the verge of overpowered. Imagine a wizard casting a pair of empowered lightning bolts on that great hill-giant lord you threw at them. In one round the hill giant may take 120 points of damage right off the bat.

I saw a bit of this power when the party of six adventurers carved through twenty goblins, two goblin body guards, one goblin wizard, and one goblin commander without a break. Not one member of the party fell. Even at level one it will take a bit of work to really threaten a party. the challenge ratings seem to make sense and make it a little easier to balance out encounters assuming you don't give the PCs too much strength. There are a few different ways to hand out experience as well, another thing I will have to play with.

Overall I remember greatly the fun I had with pen-and-paper role playing. Its quite different to look at it in this age of massive online role playing but there is something about having full control over the characters, the adventures, the rules, and the environment that is missed in computer RPGs. Some may think that the computer is the death of such pen-and-paper role playing, they're wrong.

If you wanted to start up your own pen-and-paper role playing game, I would recommend the following books:

D20 Reference Documents and character sheet: A local copy of the free D20 reference documents. This has all of the rules, spells, classes, monsters, treasures and everything else that one would need to play a game. It doesn't have near the detail or the ease of use as the sourcebooks below, but for the price of the paper its a great deal. Its also a great way to catch up to 3.5 if you only have 3.0 books and don't feel like buying a new one.

Players Handbook Version 3.5: Required for every player who wants to play. You may get away with one or two of these at first but if you plan on playing more than a couple of times, a few of these are a must. We spent far too much time hogging the book from one another.

Dungeon Masters Guide Version 3.5: I don't think I opened this up once during my game on Sunday except to read about how to distribute experience. Its good for the first-time DM but not a critical book in the long run. Most of it centers around how to build a world and how to run a game. Its got a lot of good advise for first time GMs but the players handbook has all the real rules for how to play. About a third of the book is spent on magical items and treasure. I suppose every game should have one of these but it just doesn't feel as critical as the Players Handbook and Monster Manual.

Monster Manual Version 3.5: This book has all the beasts you would ever need. Sure there is a Monster Manual 2 and a Fiend Folio and about twenty other books with monsters in it but this one has all of the basics. Dragons, Demons, Devils, Goblinkind, Giants, and Undead are all covered quite well. I don't see ever needing another Monster Manual for a nice simple D&D campaign.

Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting: Most people will be happy making up their own world and there is nothing wrong with that. If you wanted a world with quite a bit more detail, one with many political factions, geographical locations, and a lot of background and lore, this sourcebook has everything you need. There are quite a few expansion books on this world but I don't think any more are needed than this. I wouldn't recommend it for first-time players, but if you have a new campaign and want to run it in the Realms, this is a good book to have.

The Book of Vile Darkness: From a fun factor, this book is worth every penny. It has all of the demon princes that are missing from the Monster Manual as well as discussions of the blood war (the war between demons and devils) their twisted and vile equipment and even rules for running an evil game. If you want to add some fun and gory new spells, this has them. Its probably not really important to have, but its a fun book to flip through.

Dice: Every player should have at least 1d20, 2d10, 1d8, 4d6, and 1d4 (5d4 if you are a wizard).

I happened to record our D&D play session and some kind folks put some nice animations in. You can view it here