3rd Edition: Thoughts and 3.5 House Rules


A picture of the art on DMG 16. Characters prepare for an expedition.

I said I'd write a bit about 3rd edition. It boils down to three things:

  1. It's a good game.
  2. The popular homebrew focuses on the wrong things – Pathfinder included.
  3. A few low-cost, high-value house rules can dramatically improve a campaign.

It's a good game

There's plenty wrong with 3rd edition in the frame of "Real D&D," but it's an entertaining enough game that it's provided my friends and I with thousands of hours of enjoyment – maybe more. If you want to "build" your character and select key magic items for that "build," 3.5 is basically the greatest RPG ever created for that kind of gameplay and I highly recommend it.

There are a lot of other old-school-style gamers who appreciate 3rd edition. It's just a popular meme to hate on it, like other popular memes. As a successor to AD&D, 3.5 is a failure. As a standalone game – a "D&D: Tactics," if you will – it's a good game. And depending on your style, you might prefer it over "Real D&D."

Focusing on the wrong things

Some of the misrepresentation of the game in the last 10-20 years stems from misunderstanding of the game's weaknesses. This is highlighted by the popular belief that Pathfinder "fixed" a lot of those weaknesses. I completely disagree.

The prevailing homebrew for 3rd edition "fixes" "balance issues" and "streamlines" systems. It rarely – if ever – replaces the inferior game systems (character advancement, multi-classing, magic item crafting, "Leadership"), restores the numerous missing systems (morale, reaction, mass combat, domains, timekeeping), deletes the harmful systems (d20 system skills, feats), adds the missing DM content (such as proper wilderness encounter tables), or fixes the "Numbers Go Up" game design.

You might ask, "why not just play AD&D?" Indeed, why not. But I think there was (is?) room for something between AD&D and 3rd. A game that offers 3.5-style gameplay without giving up so much of its predecessors'. So it's worth thinking about this stuff.

My house rules

Despite its issues, I don't heavily modify 3.5. I don't try to make the game something it isn't. I don't try to make it AD&D. And I certainly don't attempt to rebalance classes or "nerf" the "power level." When I play 3.5, I play it RAW, with a few tweaks.

In my present 3.5 campaign, I have the following house rules:

  1. 1:1 timekeeping, straight out of the AD&D DMG. When no play is happening, one day passes in the game world for every day that passes in the real world.
  2. Defined, required training time for advancement. A number of consecutive weeks equal to the character's new level, divided by two, rounded up. This is RAW as per PHB 58, plus the time suggestion on DMG 198. I don't require gold costs because 3.5 is so strongly balanced around character wealth that would simply require me to give out more wealth to compensate. Otherwise, CR and EL would become even less reliable than they already are. I don't require a trainer for this simply because I don't think it's a mechanic worth forcing on my particular group when I know they wouldn't like it.
  3. Side initiative. PCs roll individually. I roll once for all monsters, using the highest initiative mod amongst the monsters. PCs beating the monsters go. Then the monsters. Then all PCs. Then all monsters. Then all PCs. Then all monsters. And so on. Technically, the slow players are going last and then the fast players go at the start of the next round. But the idea here is to encourage player cooperation and speed up combat, so I mix them together.
  4. Followers. The Leadership feat is unavailable. Instead, all characters get the ability to attract followers at 6th level as though they had the Leadership feat. All allies of any kind who assist PCs – from this rule or otherwise – get a full share of XP. Hirelings, followers, and cohorts take a 50% penalty to that XP.
  5. Hit points. I let players take the high average of the hit die, or roll. If they roll less than the low average of the hit die before CON mod, they are considered to have rolled the low average. I am generous here because this campaign was intended to be higher difficulty. I've since had to tune down the difficulty, but this rule remains. I wouldn't include it in a new campaign.

Tweaks 1-4 above are huge value for little cost. Even players who don't care for AD&D can be convinced of these tweaks, and their value quickly becomes obvious. When you consider that tweak #2 is actually kinda RAW, you have 3.5 house rules for 3.5! I'll be writing more about their importance in D&D later. I'll also write about high-level play in D&D, and why it should be celebrated – even in 3.5.

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