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[D&D 3.0/3.5] The kid two houses down

Started by Ron Edwards, April 03, 2006, 11:32:05 PM

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Ron Edwards


Two houses down from where my wife and I live, there's a family whom we like a lot. They include Christopher, who's 11 or 12. Since we moved here, 3 1/2 years ago, Christopher figured out that I was one of "those" adults who read SF and fantasy, knew about cool movies and cartoons, and had a million books and comics. He decided I was ultra-cool when he lent me some pre-teen SF, Animorphs if memory serves, and I - gasp! - read it, discussed it with him, and recommended some stuff like it. The dad, Dan, played a little AD&D back in the day, and always liked the idea of role-playing but never got into the whole subculture. My wife and I socialize with them every so often, doing the barbecue thing in the back yards, etc.

A couple of weeks ago, Christopher asked me if I would run some D&D for him and Dan. I said sure, and dug out my copy of 3.0 with the little character-making CD, that I got at GenCon 2000. I also went out and bought a copy of 3.5. I didn't get the Monster Manual or the DM Guide, having perused them in the past. For the former, the internet is full of cool D20 monsters, especially with the help of stalwarts like Clinton, and for the latter, I think it's mostly ass, sad but true.

I did bring over a few other games to let them see them, like HeroQuest and The Shadow of Yesterday. Marketing and history won out; Christopher is dead-set on D&D as a cultural icon, and that's that. Dan did borrow The Mountain Witch with a gleam in his eye, though.

We all had a little talk about what we'd like to do, and my jargony conclusion from what they said is, "light-hearted Narrativism, with necessary attention to strategy in order to keep characters alive." So no gonzo Gamist Magic-deck style Feat combinations, no crazed perusing of spell lists from every possible supplement, etc. These guys are still getting their feet wet in terms of "It's my turn to hit?" and don't really want to read up on every rule in order to maximize every hit's damage. And bluntly, when it comes to looking over every little box on the sheet and figuring out that they should be getting +7 instead of +5, well, I warned them - that's not my job. I'll be hitting them with penalties and AC bonuses to foes, and if they don't track their +'s for various things, too bad.

In order not to do too much violence to the rules, though, I'm going over their characters and listing out all the stuff about bonuses and options, but I didn't bother to do that before the first session. As I say, they're still just grasping the basic idea.

I also put into practice a decision I made after first reading this book  5 1/2 years ago, which is: start at 3rd level and emphasize multi-classing. I decided long ago that every D&D character should have at least one level in something fight-y, and suggested this to them. I also had each player create two characters, to be played simultaneously for a four-character party. Results, after they whipped up characters by clicking on the CD's options:

Human, 2nd-level fighter + 1st-level cleric
Elf, 2nd-level paladin + 1st-level cleric

Half-orc, 3rd-level barbarian
Half-elf, 2nd-level fighter + 1st-level sorcerer

Now, I realize that a bunch of you are shaking your heads in tactical dismay. You know what? Bugger off. These are what these guys want to play, and if they're pitifully weak in spellcraft, then they are. If Christopher likes clerics, then he gets to play some cleric-ness. If he wants them both 1st-level and hence misses out on a primary survival tactic, then he does. Case closed. I specifically did not take over character creation from them, like I habitually did twenty years ago, and like GMs typically do up through the present day. My job is suitable challenge and fun scenarios, for what they want to play.

I did go over them to point out stuff like "make sure you PUT ON the armor you bought," or telling Christopher that a two-handed sword cannot be used at the same time as a battle-axe, like he was thinking. I also revised some details based on what 3.5 gives them, e.g. beefing up the sorcerer a little. I also pointed out that social skills may be as important as combat ones, because you can defeat some opponents socially rather than kill them.

Hey, one thing that's really cool! I played my first D&D game back in 1978, and I've never ever seen this before. It is really cool! Wait for it ...

... Dan's two characters are half-brothers, with the same mom. Is that not totally cool or what? How utterly stupid not to have thought of that! 1978 to 2006, that's 28 years, and I never did! Smack my forehead with a frat paddle. 

So, on to our first adventure, run last Saturday afternoon. Prep was easy and fun. I'm good at light-fantasy situations. A cool monster or too with Clinton's help, a couple maps from the internet, and my relationship-map habits (especially small, easy ones) always create adventure.

In this case, I came up with aging Lord Khoros, his arrogant son, and his son's catamite-ish scheming friend. The older sibling, Raetha, was given away long ago to forestall the curse of the dead grandfather. Now, she's running around the forest all feral, with a pack of hyenas. But, the grandfather (who's now a ghast) is still after her, which no one knows about yet. And the son, who's officially the heir now, is an idiot. Lord Khoros thinks his daughter is dead and feels he's betrayed his honor by giving her up. I found great portraits for all the characters at the Wizards D&D site, especially the half-elf, Corin, and his half-orc brother, Forin.

Our heroes are friends of the family in various ways and are showing up for Lady Khoros' funeral. I armed myself with some hyenas for an encounter as they arrive in the area, and then got some social skills ready among the initial characters to meet.

Big picture: our time was shortened on both ends, because Christopher was studying with a friend, and because Dan's wife & sister decided they could call and summon them home for a movie just because they felt like it. Note to self: establish social contract that includes non-involved family members, to make sure that we actually have the agreed-upon time. I can play some serious cards for this goal, because I'm not a pimply older teen but a fellow wage-slave like them and can say stuff like "My time is valuable, and I'm taking said time to meet the request of your kid, so please respect that," and so on.

So we only had time for the hyena fight, which frankly, went rather well, I thought! The hyenas were taken straight from the Hypertext D20 SRD, which Clinton told me about. I added one ability, that their laughing yelps could be used to force a Fortitude Save; if the character fails, he becomes flatfooted as per the Surprise rules. Clinton also made up Hyena Zombies for me, which I plan to use later.

My map provided a perfect fight-spot en route to the Khoros keep, along a river bounded by thick woods. So the characters had a couple squares' width with the river at their backs when the hyenas lurked out of the forest. I tossed seven at'em. Here's what I had in mind.

1. We could start with skill checks, like Hide and Spot, and then I could use that as a basis for Surprise.

How'd this work? Pretty well! The funny thing is that I rolled a 1 for the hyenas' Hide skill. Since I roll openly, the players appreciated that the hyenas got a bad bounce and that the characters were totally unsurprised, able to get un-flatfooted, and able to ready whatever weapons they wanted, while the hyenas sorted themselves out.

2. The hyenas would primarily attack from inside the underbrush and trees, lunging out at the characters on the path. That gave the hyenas +3 AC, I figured. Then if and when a character took a good hit, a few hyenas would leap out and swarm him, losing the AC bonus. If anyone went in the water, well, there would go their DEX bonus and all kinds of other neat things might happen there too, like losing footing and being swept downstream.

This worked really well. It's all old-school stuff for me, dating mainly back to The Fantasy Trip, in which facing and movement are a really big deal. Veterans of 3.0/3.5 will find this very old news, but to me, the Attacks of Opportunity made play more interesting for all the obvious reasons. One of the characters did take a bad hit, at which point several hyenas went after him at once - upon realizing the importance of maneuvering, a player had another character move in such a way as to protect the more-wounded guy, threatening the zones around him so the hyenas would pay too high a price by continuing to rend him.

3. I didn't see this as a to-the-death fight, as the hyenas actually were trying to protect Raetha, and I wanted Raetha to be glimpsed 'way back in the trees at one point in the fight. I decided that after three or four rounds, she would call the hyenas off. (Note: this was definitely a bit bogus. It smacks of having a gratuitous fight with no consequences, and also of having a fight with critters that didn't really have a reason to kill the characters. I may retrofit some of the character-based logic later. On the other hand, I do want to leave it up to the players to decide about Raetha's fate, eventually, and I don't want her to be a 100% positive character. So maybe it's not so bad.)

Part of the reason I stuck with this in play was the interruptive phone call, so against my better judgment I decided to have Raetha call off the hyenas. Some good Spot and Listen rolls gave them some good information on her, too.

It ended with a couple characters down to very few hit points. I would have liked to finish the fight without withdrawing the hyenas, and I'd anticipate that at least one party member would go down, but not be killed, before all the hyenas either fled or died. We came pretty close to that anyway.

Other good points about the fight include ...

1. I didn't fuck up the magic. My old skillz remained, and although I thought there were some new rules I was overlooking, it turned out, upon reading the book, that I didn't. It all got run just right. I believe the most effective spells thrown were a well-placed ray of frost and, of course, Ye Olde magic missile which nailed a hyena for 5.

2. The two players made important decisions when the hyenas all backed out of the combat simultaneously. Christopher, conscious of his character's special status as paladin, specifically did not take his Attack of Opportunity and let the animal turn around and retreat. Dan, who'd been irked at Corin getting mauled and who'd enjoyed playing Forin coming to his half-brother's rescue, did take the opportunity and killed a final hyena, essentially striking it down from behind. Raetha's going to remember both of them quite well for those actions.

Oh, there are all sorts of other things to mention ... I'm never really going to like D&D combat, I'm afraid. It has a grind-down quality that's native to the system, and D&D fighters' tank-like, clanking tough-it-out tactics are always a little boring. "Initiative" is, to me, a little like taking out the old tricycle and riding it around the driveway in expectation of fond nostalgia and discovering that, you know, this thing wasn't all that great.

But we'll run a fun little story together. I'll see how they decide which NPCs they like and don't like, I'll bust out the ghast grand-dad with his nasty zombie hyenas, and the characters will probably take sides on who gets to be the heir. So far, so good, even though we only had a little fight.

All told, the two guys had a great time and Christopher was agog with joy at playing D&D.

Questions for you D20 dungeon-heads

1. Am I missing something, or are sorcerers really not that much different from wizards except for how many spells they get at which times? I was expecting a bigger distinction in terms of actual spell use.

2. Are there any substantive combat-tactic or procedure differences between 3.0 and 3.5? I know that some of the character options and packages are different, but I'm looking for potential pitfalls if we use both books freely as look-up sources during combat, during play.

Best, Ron



Quote1. Am I missing something, or are sorcerers really not that much different from wizards except for how many spells they get at which times? I was expecting a bigger distinction in terms of actual spell use.

-The only difference I've ever detected was that sorcerers tend to be a bit more flexible since they can cast whatever they got so long as they have a spell slot open.  As far as the actual spells go, they are very similar.

QuoteNow, I realize that a bunch of you are shaking your heads in tactical dismay. You know what? Bugger off. These are what these guys want to play, and if they're pitifully weak in spellcraft, then they are.

-In the four or so 3.0/.5 campaigns I've played in, spell casting (especially wizards and sorcerers) always seemed a bit weak, especially in the higher levels.  So many monsters have spell resistance and decent saves that it can be hard for non-twinked characters to land stuff.  Buffs and healing are the best ways to IMO.




1. Am I missing something, or are sorcerers really not that much different from wizards except for how many spells they get at which times? I was expecting a bigger distinction in terms of actual spell use.
Well, Sorcerers have access to fewer spells, and are essentially tied to the choices they make when they choose their Spells Known (except to some swapping out at certain times between levels), but they don't need to prepare spells. They have the flexibility to cast one of their spells known as many times as they have slots available. Wizards have to prepare spells, so they often lack tactical flexibility, but they more than make up for it by having more spell options at their fingertips in their spellbooks. The benefit of being a Wizard is that you can cast any Wiz/Sor spell they are able to, given some time, research, and a bit of money. They have strategic flexibility.  Also, they get bonus feats, which are nifty (they make much better item crafters).

Also metamagic works differently for the two classes. Sorcerers, for instance, can't really benefit from Quicken Spell, but can apply most other metamagic spells on the fly.

Quote2. Are there any substantive combat-tactic or procedure differences between 3.0 and 3.5? I know that some of the character options and packages are different, but I'm looking for potential pitfalls if we use both books freely as look-up sources during combat, during play.
I can't think of anything huge. The main differences were in the classes and stuff, as you say, and they overhauled the Damage Reduction system for monsters. They also changed the way weapon size works, though I'm not sure if that falls in the scope of what you're looking for.
a.k.a. Adam, but I like my screen name.

Ben Lehman

First of all, let me say that if, for any reason, Clinton doesn't want to hit you up with d20 goods (in terms of monsters, whatever), I'm happy to help out.  Lord, let my hours with those books be useful to someone!

Now to answer your two questions:

1. Am I missing something, or are sorcerers really not that much different from wizards except for how many spells they get at which times? I was expecting a bigger distinction in terms of actual spell use.

2. Are there any substantive combat-tactic or procedure differences between 3.0 and 3.5? I know that some of the character options and packages are different, but I'm looking for potential pitfalls if we use both books freely as look-up sources during combat, during play.

1) At the level of strategy you're playing at (which is totally fine -- D&D works as long as everyone's at basically the same level of strategy), there isn't a huge difference.  Sorcerers use their spells more often, wizards get slightly more selection.  Since low-level casters are generally pretty limited in their selection anyway (magic missile, mage armor, shield, sleep), Sorcerers are slightly better.  At higher levels, the Wizard's ability to make better use of metamagic and item creation will help enormously.
  In higher strategy play, spell selection and usage is totally different between the two.  Certain spells are simply better for Sorcerers or better for Wizards, because the Sorcerer's usage pattern is "have a hammer, look for nails" and the Wizard's is "have the right tool for the job at hand."
  Over 5th level or so, Sorcerers can be remarkably hard to strategize for (it requires serious advanced planning of the MtG deck-building type.)  I doubt that you're going to get to that point with this game, though, so don't sweat it.  If your sorcerer dude ends up taking a lot of levels, expect to have him end up lagging a bit behind the other characters.

2) There are technical differences between 3.0 and 3.5 -- mostly a lot of niggling details in the procedures of combat.  The classes that underwent the most revision were the Ranger and Bard, and the Rogue and Sorcerer also have some different bits.  Many, many spells were changed in 3.5 -- I suggest using either one book or the other for all of your spell look-up (either is fine, actually, it's only in high-strategy play that the difference matters)

Now, I'm going to poke a couple of things you said:

1) First, you're down with the fact that D&D3's initiative works very differently from the previous versions, right?  You only roll it once, and that sets up a turn order for the rest of the combat situation.  I just noticed the off-hand comment and wondered.

2) Are you bumping up the CR of the Hyenas for the extra ability?



Already partly answered but:

1) The big differences between sorcerers and wizards come out at high level - Ben's got them nailed pretty well, but those extra feats for the wizards are also important in item crafting. I wouldn't play a 3.0 wizard without Craft Wand as my bonus feat at 5th - those extra fifty fireballs come in handy. (This part of the game is totally Not Like any version of D&D I ever played, back in the day.)

2) Main combat differences are minor. Miniature size changes, in an IMO lame way - horses are 5x10 in 3.0 and 10x10 in 3.5, ogres go from 5x5 to 10x10 as well. Also, there are no more 'partial actions' in 3.5 IIRC, just move and attack actions. Also, the sleep and haste and harm and a few other spells get nerfed in 3.5, they're much weaker.

In general Monte Cook's review at does a good job summarizing the differences, though it may be more info than you wanted.

I personally sort of like switching back and forth between both - it's quite 'old school' to have subtly different and conflicting rule sets, like when I played with the Original Collector's Edition and Holmes Boxed Set side by side, trying to extrapolate the Holmes rules to higher levels using the older sources (I didn't have the Greyhawk supplement which would have bridged them). Undoubtedly this is perverse though.

3) If you want some nasty Arduin monsters and items I converted a bunch here:

Callan S.

Quick note on intiative: Initiative is like a 'save Vs one attack per monster'. Like if you were fighting a monster and it took you five rounds to kill him, if you lost init to him he's going to get his fifth round on you before you finish him off. If you win init, he dies before he gets to do that. If your fighting multiple monsters and fail init to them, their all going to get that extra round on you.

Not to mention rogues and flatfootedness, or even regular joes (an opponent can have a considerably lower AC when their flat footed).

And as said, you only roll it once. That's quite alot staked on one roll, if you tally it up.
Philosopher Gamer


Hi Ron,  Based on what you said (and no-one has mentioned this so far) one difference to watch out for between 3.0 and 3.5 is Cover

In 3.0 you have different degrees of cover - like 1/2, 9/10ths, etc - which give different bonuses, but in 3.5 it gives a flat +4

(This is all subject to an IIRC caveat!)


Ron Edwards

H'm, well, there was one fuckup then - we re-rolled initiative each round. I suppose we'll have to do it right from now on, but I'm a little boggled as to why one wouldn't roll each time. Although I appreciate your point about the over-structure of combat, Callan. Oh! Now I get it ... the whole point of D&D, modern version, is to focus on multiple fights over the long haul, not individualized components of fights. That's the scale of the reward system, after all. OK. Letting a key roll affect each fight as a whole, then, makes sense.

Sean, I too find the option of freely switching between 3.0 and 3.5 during play, even contradictorily depending on which book was closest to whoever's looking it up, strangely appealing. I'm serious. That seems to be a comfy-zone in my mind, relative to D&D as an experience. I might have to fight against that attitude in order not to confuse my fellow players.

Arduin critters for D20? Oh, yes, baby! Sean is my hero.

Ben, regarding the Challenge Rating of the hyenas, one of my tasks this week is to read up on the Experience Points system and levelling in general, in detail. I really don't want to have to buy the DM Guide, which probably would force me to deface most of its "how to DM" pages with a thick black Sharpie out of sheer horror (gahhh! it's not even good Gamist advice! someone stop me, please!), so is there a good summary on-line? Currently the hyenas are at CR 1, and there were seven of them, and I suppose the yelps might bump them up to CR 2 - although I don't think so, all but one character handily saved against it, and the one guy is the one who got savaged. Frankly, I think it was a good straight-up, evenly matched fight, with every ability and spell and weapon and circumstance (e.g. Cover) factored in just right.

More thoughts on CR and so forth after I've read more. I've followed a lot of the dialogues over the last six years about this issue, so all I need now is to brush up on the rules. For now, guys, don't talk to me about CR issues regarding higher-level characters. These guys are 3rd level. Let me think about it for them.

Cover is +4? OK, the +3 I gave them isn't terribly off from that, especially since I think of it as leafy brushy cover at close range, not a brick wall. Not a big deal.

Thanks for all the comments about sorcerers and wizards. I have now received all the feedback about that issue that I can stand. Remember, 3rd level, 3rd level. I can't use a dissertation about 12th-level options and item creation is totally off the radar screen.

H'm, I'll have to look up Damage Reduction now.

Oh yes, in the spirit of retro appreciation, you guys will like this - the same day I bought 3.5, I was reading it and sipping a soda, then got up quickly and knocked the soda right onto the open pages. Goddamit. But now the book looks like it should, scarred through use and the close association of snack beverages.

Best, Ron

Lance D. Allen

One further note on initiative that I remember from 3.0 (may be different in 3.5) is that you can take a full round action (no attacking, defending, moving, etc.) to reset your initiative roll as if you rolled a 20. I don't remember what the rule is called, but I tended to roll badly on initiative, so I took advantage of it more than once.
~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls

Tommi Brander

Quote from: Wolfen on April 04, 2006, 04:46:45 PM
One further note on initiative that I remember from 3.0 (may be different in 3.5) is that you can take a full round action (no attacking, defending, moving, etc.) to reset your initiative roll as if you rolled a 20. I don't remember what the rule is called, but I tended to roll badly on initiative, so I took advantage of it more than once.
Refocus (IIRC) works on both editions. And is generally a bad idea as it postpones your action.

Lance D. Allen

Not if you're the bottom of the order, anyhow. It's not an always tactic, but it has it's uses.

I am interested in seeing where this goes, Ron. My interest in D&D 3.x has been reawakened lately because I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons Online off and on for the last month. I've been reevaluating it's strengths and weaknesses somewhat, and I'd like to see how your observations match up with my own.
~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls


Simple expression of the D&D XP system:

First, the encounter level (EL) system: A CRx creature is an ELx encounter, which is the "standard" encounter for a group of 4 LEVELx PCs. Two identical CRx creatures are ELx+2 (if x is >= 1, for x < 1, 1/x creatures = EL1).

Now the XP system: it takes about 13 ELx encounters for a group of 4 LEVELx characters to advance one level. It would take 26 ELx-2 encounters, or 6.5 ELx+2 encounters. The XP chart actually works by CR, but two CRx-2 creatures gives the same XP as one CRx creature, which if you do the math all out, means that you can actually just plug in ELx and save a lot of math.

Now there is one exception to this general XP rule, for levels 1-3, the system is different. I don't think you'll be hurt by ignoring it.

Also, the EL system is generally considered to not hold well for more than 8 creatures. The official XP charts also give no XP for creatures below some cut-off level (that I can't remember - but it probably keys in just fine with the no more than 8 creatures).

Personally, I wouldn't worry about the exceptions. Now you don't need the DMG. The SRD will give you all the magic items you need.

Oh, if you cared about it, the DMG does also give expected treasure per encounter, and expected wealth per level. I followed the expected wealth guidelines, but I don't think it will kill the game to just wing it.

I'd tend to agree with the suggestion, pick one PH or the other for spell reference (which of course mostly eliminates the advantage you thought you could get by having both on the table). Optionally, have each player consistently use one PH (which could mean the same spell works differently for two different players).

As to the 5x10 or 5x5 vs 10x10 large creature "facing"/"space" difference between 3.0 and 3.5: I ended up going with the 3.5 space because I kept forgetting that ogres got 10' reach. Having a big fat 2"x2" counter on the battle mat made it much easier to remember that bigger reach. Unless you have large PCs, or they acquire lots of companion creatures, the fact that more people can gang up on the 10x10 ogre than the 5x5 ogre won't make much of a difference.

Frank Filz

Ron Edwards

Excellent! So far so good.

Quick clarification: the only reason I bought 3.5 was because I wanted two texts at the table for lookup purposes, and another copy of 3.0 wasn't readily available at the moment, as in "that minute." I would have bought another 3.0 for our second text if it had been. Not a big deal, so generous notifications of E-bay copies or offers to mail me one are not necessary (I speak from experience).

Best, Ron

Ben Lehman

If you're going to be mixing rules, be aware of this -- the Big Spell Change means that, in 3.5, boost spells (like Bull's Strength or Fly) tend to last on the order of rounds or minutes, and be more powerful.  In 3.0, they tend to last on the order of hours, and be less powerful.  Honestly, for your purposes, 3.0 is probably better -- less combat applicable but more fun for general usage.


Here's basically how CR works:

A theoretical average party of four N level characters ought to be able to take on four N level encounters before resting.  Encounters are staged such that 13-14 of appropriate level will give enough XP for an advance.  Higher level encounters (so a fifth level characters fighting a 6th level monster) give more XP than they should, and lower level encounters less.

Encounters with groups give +1 CR per doubling.  So an encounter with 7 hyenas (CR 1, let's say) as actually CR 4, because it's two doublings.  Which means it should chew up your party pretty bad but not beat them -- exhausting 1/3 - 1/2 of their resources.  Which sounds about right for what happened.


Initiative in 3rd ed D&D is quite sane, not because of the rewards, but because it means that people necessarily get turns in order.  There's no "I go, now you get to go twice, now I get to go" wierdness like previous editions had.  If you stop thinking in absolute rounds and think of it like turns in Monopoly, everything will make more sense.  We don't have all the players roll to go first in monopoly, then they all take their turns, they they all roll for turn order again.  We roll to go first, once, and that sets the turn order for the rest of the game.

3rd edition D&D is probably more akin to Monopoly than it is to some of its more obvious ancestors...


Adam Dray

Set up index cards to manage initiative. Write each character's name on a card and a list of important stats for each that you want at your fingertips. When you bring a monster into an encounter, have a card ready for it.  Roll initiative and write their roll on their card, then sort the cards in descending order. If you need it, drop a different-colored card at the bottom to tell you "round over." I color-code PCs differently than DM-controlled characters and monsters.

In combat, you can just look at the top of the card stack to know whose turn it is. If someone pulls an initiative trick (refocusing, etc.), you can move the card to the right position in the stack; you still have the numbers everyone rolled on each card. When someone finishes their turn, move that card to the bottom of the stack. Simple, very effective.

I believe that 3.5 introduced the atrocity of the trip attack with the spiked chain. If any of your players takes Improved Trip, you'll want to check that out. But, really, good for them if they do. =)
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777