Jonathan Tweet: Prologue to Third Edition

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Jun 11, 2019, 3:17:40 PM6/11/19
The story of Third Edition D&D starts, perhaps, with Peter Adkison reading
2nd Edition AD&D (1989) and being sorely disappointed. For one thing, he felt
the new system left several underlying problems in place, so players didn’t
get much benefit from the effort it took to switch to a new system. For
another, 2nd Ed stripped away all the charm and character of 1st Ed. No more
half-orcs, arcane sigils, monks, or assassins. Demons and devils were renamed
to avoid the ire of superstitious parents. The new AD&D was tamed and

Peter wasn’t the only one to dislike 2nd Ed. When it came time for Mark
Rein•Hagen and me to release a “second edition” of Ars Magica, our
collaborator Lisa Stevens warned us that there was a great deal of hostility
around that word at the time. She was involved in TSR’s RPGA program of
organized play for AD&D, and the members were unhappy with the changes. As
for me, I had stopped running AD&D round 1979, switching to RuneQuest and
then a home-brew hack instead. D&D seemed to be behind the times, it was
interesting to see TSR stumble with their 2nd Edition.

TSR’s goal in creating a generic version of AD&D was to allow an endless
number of settings that could use the same basic rules system. For 2nd
Edition, TSR released Forgotten Realms, Maztica, Al-Qadim, Spelljammer,
Planescape, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Masque of the Red Death, Dragonlance, and
Greyhawk, not to mention one-offs like Jakandor. All these incompatible AD&D
lines split the market so that each line sold less and less. How did things
go off-track? At TSR, the people who did the creative work did not coordinate
with the people who did the business planning, and the owner of the company
was an heiress, not a gamer. From outside, some of us could tell that the
business model was a big problem. At Wizards in 1994, we reviewed a science
fiction RPG for possible acquisition, and it featured an AD&D-style business
model of one ruleset and many worlds. I said no way because that model would
be a huge negative. TSR managed to hide how bad things were for years—until
it all came apart in 1997. When TSR couldn’t pay its bills, Wizards of the
Coast bought them out.

In 1995, two years before the acquisition of D&D, Wizards cut all its
roleplaying game lines. I moved off the defunct “Alter Ego Games” team and
started working on card games. Magic: The Gathering and Netrunner are two of
my favorite games, and I got to work on both of them. One bright side to
roleplaying lines being cut, my boss pointed out, was that I could now do my
own roleplaying design on the side and it would not be considered
competition. So it was that in 1997 I was working on a faux-Greek-myth RPG,
inspired in part by Xena: Warrior Princess. The idea was that the gods were
all oppressive jerks, and the player-characters were all rebel demigods, the
half-mortal children of the bullies they’re fighting. Half-gods as player-
characters seem like a good niche—powerful enough to feel formidable, aligned
with the common people against the elites, connected to a recognizable deity
such as Ares or Zeus, and hailed as heroes while being outsiders to everyday
life. But before I got anything up and running, Wizards bought D&D and the
game of Greek half-gods got shelved.

After acquiring D&D, Peter Adkison traveled around talking to AD&D players,
especially RPGA players. He would ask whether they would like to see a new
edition, and they all said the same thing. They did not want a Third Edition.
Then he would ask what changes they might like to see if there were a Third
Edition. In response, the fans talked at length about all the problems with
Second Edition and what a better rule set would look like. The fans didn’t
want a Third Edition, but they needed one.

We knew that the game needed a major overhaul, and we knew that players
didn’t want a Third Edition. We explicitly discussed the prospect of losing
players with this new edition. We figured that even if we lost 10% of our
players up front, the benefits of a better game system would accrue year by
year and eventually would be glad we did the Third Edition. In 1999, however,
Ryan Dancey started rolling out publicity for Third Edition. He did such a
good job month by month that we could see the enthusiasm build. By the time
Third Ed released, we knew we had a major hit on our hands, and all thought
of losing players in the short term was forgotten.

The first work I did with the new D&D system was for an unpublished project,
a roleplaying game set in the world of Magic: The Gathering and using
streamlined rules derived from the AD&D rules. We experimented with ways to
use cards, such as putting monster stats on cards and constructing random
encounters by selecting from random draws. In one version it was a board game
where the characters turned off mana nodes as they pressed deeper into the
dungeon, one raid at a time. In another version, it was a light RPG with
D&D-style rules set in the world of Dominia. I gave characters three types of
saving throws and made Armor Class the target number for your attack roll.
Other game designers had independently come up with these same common-sense
ideas. My work on these games turned out to be good practice for later when I
ended up on the 3rd Edition design team.

The rule I really liked from the Dominia RPG was that the characters had to
stick it out exploring the dungeon until they had accumulated a minimum
amount of treasure. If they retreated to town to heal up before reaching the
treasure milestone, they were penalized XP. Years later at Wizards, I would
experiment with similar milestone rules for random dungeon crawls, another
experimental design that never got published. 13th Age has a similar rule
based on battles rather than treasure: the group suffers a “campaign loss” if
they take a full heal-up before they have defeated a minimum force of

Gradually my involvement with the new D&D edition grew, from working on a
parallel project to being assigned the beginner version, to landing on the
design team itself and then finally getting assigned the lead role.

:Note from Morrus: This is the first article in a monthly column from WotC
:alumni Jonathan Tweet. You'll know him from Ars Magica, for being the lead
:designer on D&D 3rd Edition, and for co-designing 13th Age, amongst many
:other things. Upcoming articles include My Life with the Open Gaming
:License, and Origins of Ars Magica. Let us know in the comments what stories
:and topics you'd like to hear from Jonathan! Also, don't miss Jim Ward's
:excellent column!

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