Why play D&D 3rd Edition instead of 5th?

I’ve recently been again captured by the charm of the 2003 Forgotten Realms book Unapproachable East. It came out right after the released of the revised 3.5e edition, but still feels in many way like the tone and style of of the earlier books. Back in the day when the revised rules came out, I was very much in love with the changes, and so was pretty much everyone else I knew about. Even though the changes to the rules were not that severe, the people at WotC used the opportunity to make new versions of many of the splatbooks to begin a stylistic remodeling of D&D, which in hindsight was one of the biggest shifts in feel and tone that D&D ever did. Instead of simply dividing D&D’s different phases of identity into TSR old school (1974-1999) and WotC new school (2000-present), I think we could just as well split it into Oldschool D&D (1974-1983), Middle Period (1984-2002), and Dungonpunk (2003-present).

I find myself having a lot of nostalgia for 3rd edition books from the first three years, but feel absolutely nothing for Eberron-Pathfinder period. I actually really like Wayne Reynolds’ art style, but it doesn’t mesh with the kind of fantasy campaign I want to actually play.

So these last days I’ve been pondering the admittedly very silly idea of perhaps maybe running another game with the original version of the 3rd Edition rules 20 years later. No rational reasons for that choice, just plain, straightforward nostalgia. Over the years, people have been looking back at the changes made by the rules revision, and a good number of people have shared the opinion that many of the apparent improvements actually made the game worse. There’s even some really fringe weirdos who think the original version is actually better suited to running and playing a modern D&D game with a more oldschool approach.

But this morning, I had for a moment a thought that maybe, I could even run the campaign idea I am pondering simply with 5th edition and call it a day. But I soon remembered several reasons why 3rd Edition is still beating out both 3.5e and 5th edition as the rules that feel the most right:

  • Damage reduction in 3rd Ed. only cares about the modifier of the main enchantment of a weapon to overcome. A +3 weapon will go through the DR of any enemy who has DR against +3, +2, +1, and silver weapons. No need for a golf bag of different blades for different types of enemies. Also, having a plain +2 sword can be a visible game changer instead of just a +1 increase to attack and damage from your previous weapon.
  • Damage reduction and energy resistance in 3rd Ed. tends to block very large amounts of damage to the point of easily outright cancelling an attack instead of just making it less efficient. This means more situations where an enemy is close to invulnerable to what the players can throw at it, and that require them to come up with unusual out of the box solution instead of just brute force attacking.
  • In 5th edition, demons, aboleths, and other big critters lost almost all of their spells that make fighting them different from oversized ogres.
  • The low-levels in 5th edition are stupid. That’s the fun part of the game, not something that should be rushed through as fast as possible.
  • Even with just the PHB, 3.5e and 5th edition try to put cool new special abilities into every level of every class, creating a much stronger incentive to get deeply invested in character builds. Class level tables looking boring and empty in 3rd Ed. is something I regard as an advantage.
  • Concentration in 5th edition really changes the fiction of how Forgotten Realms used to work in its original presentation.
  • When you invite players to join a 5th edition game, they want to play tiefling bards, dragonborn paladins, and githyanki warlocks. Even when you specifically tell them in advance that this version of the Forgotten Realms is not that kind of setting.

3 thoughts on “Why play D&D 3rd Edition instead of 5th?”

  1. How does concentration change the fiction? I have no knowledge of the old FR, but it seems odd that a rule like that could have implications for the setting.

    1. Simply that certain combinations of active spells are no longer possible in 5th edition. As you go higher up in levels, it increasingly changes how the world ticks.

  2. I have a lot of affection for the first few 3.0 adventures and splatbooks. The Sunless Citadel and The Forge of Fury were written with a very different adventure paradigm than the kind of tactical wargame approach 3.5, and the early splats were short paperbacks with black and white interior art from usually one or two artists. It’s this more restrained, semi-hobbyist approach that, rather than pad things out to get a hefty tome, was using sidebars to cram interesting ideas into a smaller space

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *