What Third Edition does right, part one

We’ve looked at what Fourth Edition D&D does right (here, and here) and now it’s the turn of Third Edition D&D. We are taking a stroll through every edition of Dungeons & Dragons to highlight some of the positive aspects of each one to see what they could bring to the next Edition of the game.

This time it’s the turn of Third Edition D&D, and the variants thereof. Good word, thereof.

Open Game License

This is a biggie, so it goes right at the top of the page. The OGL wasn’t just a single page of legalese at the back of the books; it transformed the industry and was the one thing which brought Dungeons & Dragons back from TSR created near extinction. No matter how good Third Edition D&D was, without the OGL allowing third-party publishers to spawn a plethora of satellite gaming material, Third Edition D&D would have failed.

I really can’t stress this enough. Call me crazy and demand proof of this claim? Cool.

Here’s your proof: Fourth Edition D&D.

4e D&D sorely lacks that third-party support (in fact, I would struggle to name three third-party publishers creating 4e material right now), and that translates to a lack of buzz about the game and fewer options. Fewer options means fewer gamers. Simple as that.

Picture the scene. Two gamers.

Gamer 1: “I like Third Edition D&D, but I wish it did [insert game option here] (mass combat, urban warfare, modern era, dragon PCs, whatever)”

Gamer 2: “Well, [insert game publisher name] have just released a supplement that does that. Then there’s [insert another publisher] or [insert another publisher] as well. They’re only a couple of bucks on RPGNow.”

Gamer 1: “Cool!”

Gamer 1 immediately orders a copy of the PHB, MM and DMG from Amazon along with a handful of PDFs from RPGNow, and another happy gamer is born.

Let’s try the same scene in Fourth Edition D&D.

Gamer 1: “I like Fourth Edition D&D, but I wish it did [insert game option here] (mass combat, urban warfare, modern era, dragon PCs, whatever)”

Gamers 2: “Yeah. That sucks.”

The wind blows tumbleweed across their path.


If Fourth Edition D&D had the OGL from the start, it would not have gotten into the mess it has. Any issues or player preferences regarding the game would have been tackled by third-party publishers. We’d be seeing retro-clone variants of Fourth Edition, stunning adventure modules, new and innovative campaign settings and much more, all of which ultimately help generate revenue and love for Wizards of the Coast. But without the OGL, watch that tumbleweed fly.

Here’s how I would love to see the next Edition of D&D play out. Spoiler: It’s pretty much how Fourth Edition was released, in reverse.

1. Release Dungeons and Dragons Basic. It’s a box set covering levels 1-5, entirely released under the OGL. Game mechanics are fast, simple and readily adaptable to all styles and eras of play.

2. Dungeons and Dragons Essential is launched. This is a set of small format books which update the rules from the Basic set with minor errata (the game having been extensively playtested prior to Basic‘s launch so there’s no major bloopers) and covers the full 30 levels. Players get a series of books and they’re chock full of lovely fluff to spark the imagination, GMs get campaign settings and monster books – again, all fluff filled. Parts but not all of the rules (campaign specific elements, unique monsters, etc) are released under the OGL.

3. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. This is a set of three core books containing dense  text, advanced options and are the final word on the core rules. These are high crunch, low fluff tomes designed with expert players and GMs in mind. The PHB contains the full set of core character classes and races along with many feats, abilities, etc. the DMG covers DM-specific rules as well as advanced world building tips and advice. The MM contains 400+ monsters with relatively little fluff. The OGL is updated, and finalised.

4. With the core rules officially closed, WoTC focuses on campaign settings, adventures, new non-OGL game options (custom character classes, new class options and stuff that just doesn’t need to go in the OGL) and quietly begins thinking about 6th Edition D&D.

5. Profit!

Any questions?

Just the OGL alone is enough to chew on for one post about Third Edition D&D. I’ll continue with part two in…..errrr….. Part Two!

13 Comments on “What Third Edition does right, part one”

  1. I think that “Without OGL for 3.x, 4e would have been a real success” is at least as believable as your thesis.
    Without OGL, there would have been no way for disgruntled players to continue to play 3.X (and get new books). No Pathfinder.
    I don’t think we’ll see again 3E-type OGL (with a SRD and so on). Something less restrictive than GSL, maybe..

    1. i’m optimistic. i know the next designers understand the value of the OGL, and i’d guess that even the penny-pushers have noticed the thundering failure (with ongoing damage) of the GSL, relatively.

      1. I think the penny pushers have above all noticed that : 2e without OGL => 3e success, 3e with OGL => 4 (relative) failure

        Because nobody can say for sure that OGL was able to sold a lot more 3E than a limited/noOGL 3E , but it’s obvious that the main problem for 4e was OGL-related competition

  2. And a lot of freaking morons bought the Dragon Age box set, and a lot of freaking morons bought the D&D red box set. Which really puts the ownership of the freaking moron title in question.

  3. I agree with everything except the part about named the high crunch “advanced” and having an essentials. I think one of the better decisions by Wizards was to drop the advanced moniker. What’s a new game going to think? That they should buy the essentials, advanced or basic? You’d assume basic, but maybe his friend the DM has essentials or advanced so he thinks he should buy one of those and gets confused, then stops playing.

    If I were Wizard I would do something similar to Pathfinder. Save the level 1-5 adventure stuff for free RPG day and online PDF downloads. Have a Rulebook and a Dungeon Master’s Guide. The Rulebook is essentially the Essentials book you mentioned and the DMG is a boxed set and the AD&D book you mentioned.

  4. Once 4e got Character Builder, third party developers were at a huge disadvantage. As GM, I could buy a third-party module, but my players simply wouldn’t look at anything where they had to do their own calculations. (That may have been just as well, considering how much trouble they had, even when Character Builder did all the work for them). Basically, if it wasn’t in Character Builder, it didn’t exist — no new character classes, no new magic items, no new mechanics that affected the character sheet. If my players were typical, I can see why third party developers gave up on 4e and went with Pathfinder: Character Builder was a very effective lock-out mechanism.

    I imagine the dynamic will be similar with 5e. It will have character-building software, and the software almost certainly won’t allow third party add-ons. That will tilt the playing-field against third parties, and make it that much harder for third party folk to turn a profit.

  5. I really like your suggested roll-out for a new edition, but that is probably the soft, nostalgic side of me feeling all gooey and warm. :) It is more likely that a “core” set of rules will be released (whether it is titled “essentials” or anything else), followed later by a “basic set”. This is because WotC will be looking to appeal to current players (or at least those familiar with the concept of roleplaying) more immediately. As much as I could deal with an “Advanced D&D”, I don’t see that happening as you will inevitably get people seeing them as two different games (in the same way the the core 4E books are seen as something different to the essentials books). The suggestion that 5E will be more modular makes me think that the need for a distinct “advanced” set of rules will not be necessary.

  6. The OGL is top of my 3.x list too – I loved Monte Cook’s Malhavoc stuff, the Freeport adventures from Green Ronin, Bluffside, the early Necromancer Games modules, Atlas’ En Route supplements and more!

    For dndnext, starting with Red Box/basic set sounds like a good idea but I don’t think the A in D&D should come back.

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