What Third Edition gets right, part three

We’re taking a whistle-stop tour through each edition of D&D (with a few detours along the way) to focus on the positive elements of each. It is the turn of Third Edition and in parts one and two we took a look at the OGL, starting power level, Vancian magic, Savage Species and the core races.

We’re up to part three.


….or, more appropriately, the idea of Feats. I don’t think that Feats were particularly well implemented in Third Edition and a slew of supplements only served to turn the whole Feat thing into an unmanageable powergamery mess.

Despite what they became, what Feats did was to help the players differentiate their characters. Bob Swinghitter with Power Attack, Cleave and Great Cleave isn’t the same as Bob Fasthands with Combat Expertise, Improved Disarm and Improved Trip.

When written well, Feats are those things which the character can do reliably. Sure, the Feat might give a bonus or additional benefit to something you’re rolling anyway, but you don’t have to make another roll just to see if you can. Your hero can Cleave, use Power Attack, Quick Draw or possess Iron Will, These feats either provide a fixed bonus to an item on your character sheet (Iron will), a situational bonus (Power Attack), cancel out a penalty (Two-Weapon Fighting) or allow the PC to use a special rule (Quick Draw).

What I would like to see in the next edition of D&D is clear delineation between Feats (3e-style) and Backgrounds Options (4e-style) where Feats represent special things the PC is able to do thanks to aptitude or training, and Background Options confer fixed bonuses directly to the sheet as a one-time deal. Feats which confer a fixed skill bonus and Iron Will (and the other related Feats) become Background Options that can be selected only during character generation. These are either innate, or take a lifetime of training to consistently master.

Feats are then free to offer situational bonuses or unlock special rules. For example, Stealthy should be a Background Option whilst Lost in the Crowd could be a Feat which grants +2 to Hide checks when in a group of 6  or more.

Which leads us to……..

Unified Skills list

Before Skills we had AD&D’s version of them, the ludicrously named and grudgingly designed Non-Weapon Proficiencies. There were a lot of NWPs and they covered a whole range of things from the darned useful (Undead Lore) to the downright weird (Silk Making. Seriously?). Every class, Complete book or campaign setting added more NWPs to the list

Skill lists are important. They subliminally show the flavour of the game to the player each and every time this look at the sheet. The skill list is there, in black and white, telling the PC what the world around them expects them to do. D&D would be a very different beast entirely is the skill list looked like this:

Hide Body
Identify Target
Silent Kill

It would be awesome, but it would also not be the D&D as we know and love. The Third Edition skill list tells the player that the world expects the PC to climb, hide, appraise valuables, handle animals and survive in the wilderness, all with varying degrees of success (depending on skill rank). It’s unlikely a single PC will be trained in all skills, but a decent adventuring party should be able to cover the majority of them.

Some skills, of course, are more important than others, but exactly which skills they are depends on your play style and campaign world. As a broad sweep of the brush, the Third Edition skill list is a darned good start [1. Personally I prefer the Fourth Edition skill list, but that’s not to take away the important contribution to skills which Third Edition gave.]


D&D is blessed with many game worlds, and we’ll be talking about most of those when I get to AD&D. Third Edition D&D gave us a new one to add to the mix: Eberron.

For those few of you that don’t know, Eberron has a very different feel to your regular faux-medieval dungeon world. This is steampunk action fantasy noir  where lightning rails cross the landscape, dark furnaces churn out clockwork horrors (or worse) and everything is either made of iron or covered in soot.

OK, I’m exaggerating just a little, but not by much. It’s just a shame that such a wonderful setting has produced such lacklustre adventures (most of which are just standard dungeon crawls transplanted, and do nothing to capitalize on the change of pace and atmosphere at all), but that’s a whole nuther blogpost for another time.

Eberron stands alongside Spelljammer, Planescape and Dark Sun to show that D&D is more than just Dungeons, and Dragons. The rules should be a toolset which is not limited by the tropes and expectations of an implied setting.

Hangonaminute – didn’t you just say that the Skill list was great because it obeyed the expectations of D&D, and now you’re saying that a ruleset shouldn’t obey those expectations. Make your mind up!

Quite so, and well spotted. One of the things I would like to see more of in the next edition of D&D (perhaps in the DMG, if it has such a thing) is a discussion on changing, adapting and adding to the skills list to suit the flavour of the setting and style of play. One group might use no skills at all (something we’ll save for when I discuss Classic D&D), another might just use four core skills (Physical, Knowledge, Subterfuge & Communication, Microlite20 style), use the suggested skill list or add their own skills in a freeform manner. Every group uses the same rule mechanics, but D&D becomes their game.

And that, dear readers, is what a good rpg engine should do. Provide the rules to allow you to take ownership of the game and make it yours.

Next: What Pathfinder gets right. Oh my.

11 Comments on “What Third Edition gets right, part three”

  1. I skimmed, but I agree with your headings. I also liked the creation of specific conditions for backstab/SA, point buy as standard (or at least recommended), normalized stat & bonus progression and one or two other aspects of the edition.

    1. Agreed. I could easily carry on and write more about Third Edition D&D (or any edition, for that matter), but had to draw the line and stop somewhere.

      Thanks for adding to the list. Anyone got any more positives about Third Edition D&D that we haven’t covered yet?

  2. Great post – totally agree about feats and the 3.x skill list. The mess that was NWPs is best forgotten but I do have a soft spot for some of the 1e Oriental Adventures ones – is that where silk making appeared? Now to check out the other posts in the series to make sure you’re not being biased or taking sides in the Edition Warz ;)

    1. Thanks! Yes, Silk Making was in Oriental Adventures. Well spotted!

      Parts one and two about Fourth Edition D&D are here and here with posts about Pathfinder, AD&D, Mutants & Masterminds and Classic D&D to follow.

  3. That has always been my feeling on feats. It’s a great idea that was badly implemented. In my own game, I completely threw out the official feats and created a list of my own. We got rid of the powergamery aspects and now have a system that works well for us.

  4. Good article.

    I like the fact that in 3.x most everything is d20 + bonus vs. DC instead of the hodgepodge that previous editions were.

  5. I feel that FEATs are over used. Almost an offering to the God of WTF.

    I think WOTC realized that almost no feats were getting used by players, so they reduced that quantity and limited them to more generic and useful ones.

    I think that future editions need to address this issue. Pathfinder’s archetypes go a long ways to doing just that. (Eliminating the so called FEAT tax to create the character you want.)

    What I’d like to see is lists of abilities (like combat styles) that can grow with a character regardless of class. Your wizard wants to grow as a two handed sword master? Sure, but its going to be slow and he’s still going to have hard time hitting. At 6th level he could probably get adept and sundering. At 20th level he may even get improved critical.

    There is precedent for this. Mike Mearls’ Iron Heroes (the 3.5 template for 4e) used ‘lists’ of feats. While these lists were overpowering, it could easily be tailored to something more tame and suitable for multiple classes to use.

    There is also no reason you couldn’t have lists of non-combat abilities. A wizard who’s great in the outdoors (Ranger), great with spells and kind of sucks with weapons. What I’m talking about is having a Ranger ‘list’ of abilities like tracking, setting traps, and survival skills, perhaps even favored enemies. Combat is a completely separate issue.

    If you templated the character classes this way, it be relatively easy to reinvent what you want your character to be about. A Scholarly Fighter? A Civilized Barbarian (he’s just got a bad temper)? A Noble Rogue?

  6. Fortitude, Reflex and Will saves. It makes it easy and logical to figure out what save was appropriate for any effect.

  7. I 100% agree with you on feats. Why is the power level of the feats all over the place? Why are there not awesome fighter feats with like six prerequisites that can compete with high-level spells? Why is there such a disproportionate number of combat feats?

    I’ve seen other d20 products that come much closer to doing feats right. My personal favorite is Spycraft. They have a lot of feats that address things other than combat (critical for an espionage game), and some really great long feat chains to strongly reward sticking to a concept without requiring a prestige class.

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