Title: Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook (3rd edition)
Creator Name: Wizards of the Coast
Publisher Name: Wizards of the Coast
Authors: Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, Skip Williams
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Year: 2000
304 pages

Product Rating: 3 (***)
Game Play Rating: 3 (***)

Review by John H. Kim (Copyright 2000 John H. Kim)
cf. other reviews by John

         This is the first core rulebook for the new Dungeons&Dragons (D&D) system. D&D is a swords-and-sorcery genre game, similar in genre (but quite distinct from) J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or Terry Brooks' Sword of Shanarra. The Players Handbook is not really a standalone game since a few sections are missing: notably how to award experience. Also, while it has background information, there is no overview of the game-world. However, with the brief appendix and some imagination the rules are easily usable to run a game. This "3rd edition" of D&D from Wizards of the Coast is apparently intended to replace two former games lines from TSR: Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (2nd edition) and the Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopedia (4th edition). It is not directly compatible with either of these, although conversion can be done.

Material

         The Players Handbook is 304 pages of glossy paper with color borders and occasional color illustrations. There are faint lines across the page that match up with the lines of text, but fade in and out as if pencil-drawn. This is a bit odd, but it allows the unboxed, unruled tables to be more readable.

         Almost all of the text is pure rules mechanics. There are some peripheral descriptions of society mixed with the race, class, and god descriptions -- but there is no section devoted to describing the world. There is also no introduction to roleplaying or to D&D beyond a half-page note.

         The book is divided into 11 chapters and a separate 16-page "Survival Kit" at the end with sample sections of rules from other rulebooks. Over one-third of the book is the list of spell descriptions (116 pages), with other chapters being 6 to 36 pages each. The beginning has a single-page table of contents and list of tables. The end has a 3-page index and an 8-page glossary.

Background

         The core D&D rules are peculiar in that they are set in a fantasy world with a distinctive set of races, gods, societies, goods, and magic. However, no overview or even name of this world is provided. There are a great many of these assumed and/or implied qualities of the setting, but the setting itself is never described. For example, the Players Handbook informs us that the halfing race doesn't have any land of their own. Further, unlike elves and dwarves, they do not have a rich body of written work in their native language. As another example, the Players Handbook gives fixed prices for various items. The list is based on many game-world facts like how advanced metallurgy is, how common different metals are, and so forth. But these facts must be inferred backwards from the prices, rather than the prices reflecting the described world.

         This applies further to the player characters (PCs). The book states that all PCs are "adventurers", but it never says what that term means. The rewards chapter suggests that adventurers generally make their living by looting and mercenary work. The equipment chapter suggests adventurers live with ready cash but few social ties or property. As it describes, adventurers tend to pay in gold when other folk would typically barter or receive from institutions. In character creation, PCs begin owning only a set of equipment they can carry - with no opportunity for contacts or a home.

         The problem here is a host of hidden assumptions that are part of the rules. The effect is that rather than having rules which flow from inspiring stories and an interesting world, you have a world which must be inferred backwards from the rules and numbers. Worse, the approach seems to discourage such inference in favor of simply ignoring background and society.

Mechanics

         The central mechanic is rolling d20 and adding in your bonuses, trying to roll higher than a Difficulty Class (DC). Various other die types (including d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12) are used for determining starting attributes, damage, spell effects, and other minor functions. The basic d20 roll usually results in a simple binary success/failure result. There is an "Extraordinary Success" rule, which suggests extra effects if the total is 20 or more above the DC. There is no corresponding "Extraordinary Failure" result, however.

Classes, Skills, and Feats

         3rd edition D&D is a class-based system, which splits up a character's capabilities into a mix of "class levels", "skills", and "feats". I don't see any simple logic for determining what category an individual capability is in, however.

         A "class level" is your rating (from 1 to 20) in one of of the 11 different classes. Starting characters get 1 level in a single class. The rules suggest that most characters will have levels in only one class ever, and the experience system tends to encourage this. In theory, however, you can have levels in two, three, or more classes. Class level determines your base offense and defense (attack bonus and hit points) along with "saving throws" that determine resistance to disease, poison, and magic. Class level also determines spellcasting ability, and certain special abilities.

         Skills cover most non-combat, non-magical abilities. Skills are also numerically rated in "ranks", where 1 rank is +1 on a D20 roll. Your maximum rank in a skill is either your total levels plus 3 or half that -- depending on whether you have a class that covers that skill.

         Feats are binary advantages (i.e. you either have it or you don't) which represent special skills like "mounted combat" or "brew potion". They can apply to combat, magic, or other skill use -- sometimes overlapping skill and class. For example, one feat is a +2 bonus to a single skill.

         It is not clear why a particular power is made a feat, a skill, or a special class ability. For example, "Ride-by Attack" is a feat but "Sneak Attack" is a special class ability. "Search" is a skill but "Track" is a feat.

Character Creation

         Initial character creation is based on rolling ability scores, picking a race and class, spending your skill points, and then selecting one or more feats.

         Abilities are determined by rolling 4d6 and totalling the highest 3. This is done six times and then the results can be assigned in any order to the 6 attributes. Depending on your choice of initial class and your Intelligence score, you get somewhere between 4 and 40 skill points to distribute initially. Skills related to your class get +1 on a d20 per point; other skills get +1 per 2 points spent. You can put 4 points max in any one skill (i.e. +4 or +2, depending of type).

         Notably missing from character creation is any sort of social stats or descriptions. Characters start with a random amount of money depending on class, but there is no option to have different social status, perks, contacts, patrons, etc. Indeed, even the concept of having a home, family, or job are absent from character generation. It also leaves out the concept of developing motivations for the PCs, although it is implied that as adventurers the PCs make their living by looting and mercenary work.

         While the skill and feat selection gives some flexibility, it is fairly difficult to make a starting character very distinctive this way. The maximum on skill ranks is such that any starting skills are not much different than default. i.e. If you take the maximum on Disguise, you only have a 20% better chance on any attempt than if you had no Disguise skill. Even that is only if you are one of the 2 classes that has Disguise as a class skill, while for other classes the maximum is only +10%.

         There is some flexibility in the system. However, it is really geared towards first making rolls and choosing a class, and then developing a character concept to fit those. The opposite approach -- forming a concept outside of the rules, and then designing the character to fit that concept -- isn't very workable under this system.

Character Advancement

         Characters advance in discrete levels. Each new level requires a number of experience points equal to the total of your current levels times 1000. When you get your new level, you can in theory take that level in any class. However, there are some restrictions which discourage taking levels in other classes (known as "multiclassing").

         The first restriction is that there is a potential penalty of -15% from all further experience for each class you take, unless you stick to certain restrictions. Essentially, it is easy to have two classes without restriction. After that you must tailor your advancement or get penalties.

         The more important restriction is simply that you get more benefits by taking a higher level in an existing class than starting in a new one. This is particularly noticable for spellcasters. Going from wizard-12 to wizard-13 gets you very powerful spells (7th and 4th level), while going from cleric-1 to cleric-2 only gets you a 0th and a 1st level spell. This effectively discourages significant multiclassing.

Gaining a level also helps your skills, feats, and ability scores. Each level gets you from 2 to 10 skill points depending on your class. All classes get 1 new feat every 3 levels, with some classes getting bonus feats in addition. Finally, you can add 1 to an ability score for every 4 levels you gain.

Combat

         The chapter on combat is about 36 pages of fairly dense rules. The basic operation of combat is not too complicated. The order characters go in is established at the start of combat (by "initiative" rolls), then that sequence is kept thereafter. When it is your turn, you can either move and make one attack, or you can make multiple attacks if you have that ability.

         The basic attack mechanic is: roll to hit, and if you get over the target's Armor Class, then you roll the damage to subtract from your target's Hit Points. If you roll a 20 (or sometimes close to 20), then you automatically hit and roll again If the reroll hits, you multiply your damage by x2 or x3. The results and chance of a critical depend on the weapon you are using.

         The biggest complication is in "attacks of opportunity". Essentially, this is an extra attack which you get if someone tries to do certain actions (like normal movement or spellcasting) within 5 feet of you. There are 3 tables which list whether each of 95 different actions provokes an attack of opportunity. Many of the entries seem like common-sense, but others are seem odd (i.e. kicking someone incurs an attack, but tripping someone does not).

         The odd feature is that defensive skill is for the most part treated exactly the same as sheer body mass for resisting wounds. i.e. A skilled fighter has hit points identical to a giant, while being just as easy to hit as a low-level fighter. While workable in a play balance sense, this produces some counter-intuitive results. Two rules try to patch this: (1) you heal a number of hit points per day equal to your total level, and (2) you must make a Fortitude save or die if struck while unable to defend yourself. The first only partially fixes healing -- i.e. a mortally-wounded wizard still returns to full health twice as fast as a mortally-wounded fighter; and magical healing works *much* better on less skilled targets. The second really fails since Fortitude scales very closely with hit points: rising linearly with level, and more quickly for the combatant classes.

         Overall, though, it seems like a fairly solid system. The attacks of opportunity and other rules create some tactical maneuvering with positioning and movement. What is lacks is variety in attack, defense, or damage -- which limits the flavor, especially for one-on-one fights. It seems ideally suited for group fights, where it emphaizes positioning of the right character in the right spot. Learning the basics is quick but there are many non-optional detailed rules that will take some time to internalize.

Magic

         The magic system is based around a set of 540 individual spell descriptions, which take up over a third of the book (116 out of the 304 pages). The bulk of the magic rules are defining the terms which are used in spell descriptions rather than in general rules. Some spellcasters can have a specialized field: a required "domain" for clerics (based on their god), and an optional "school" for wizards. However, only around one-third of their prepared spells need be in this specialty -- so it is still the individual spells that distinguish a spellcaster more than their specialization.

         Spells are limited in the number that can be cast per day. Especially at lower levels, this limit is very small (i.e. 5 per day maximum for a starting wizard, say, 3 of which are very minor "cantrips"). This makes it very possible for a low-level spellcaster to run out and/or spend long periods in the day without any magic use. This creates an odd day-cycle to adventures in which spellcasters play a significant part.

         Another feature is that the power of magic goes up sharply with the caster's level. For example, a level-1 cleric can heal an average of 15 hit points per day, while level-8 cleric can heal 260 hp/day average (i.e. over 17 times as much). Wizards have a similar progression of damage they can do.

         Overall, the magic system is based on a hodge-podge of 540 spell descriptions rather than any general principles. This gives it a lot of variety in effects but is not so great at representing individualized casters or styles of magic.

Conclusion

         As a pure rules system, 3rd edition D&D is fairly solid. While not simple or beginner-friendly, the rules are well-written and appear to be thoroughly playtested. On the other hand, they are not particularly realistic, nor are they evocative of any fantasy works that I am familiar with. (Note that I have not read D&D-based novels.)

         The majority of the text is spent describing a distinctive set of races, classes, equipment, and spells which are for a nameless and fairly flavorless fantasy world. Due to the sheer volume of rules, adapting this to even a fairly similar fantasy world (such as Tolkien's Middle Earth) would require rewriting over 50% of the book.

         The character creation has some flexibility but is primarily oriented around choosing a class. It has a notable lack of any structure for social distinctions, or more generally for any sort of advantages/ disadvantages. This remains a major weak point compared to point-bought, skill-based systems which let you build a character more-or-less as you envision her.

         Still, I would certainly recommend this system to current AD&D players and perhaps Rolemaster players. The rules are an improvement over the prior AD&D editions, and are easier to use than Rolemaster. Indeed, since it lacks any introduction, description of setting and genre, or flavor text, I think the Players Handbook is targetted very narrowly at those who already play D&D or AD&D and have already defined these things for themselves.

         For those who are new to roleplaying games, or who are into RPGs but who are not used to the previous AD&D, I would not recommend it. While it has some advantages on the alternatives for the swords-and-sorcery genre, the weaknesses are more prominent. There are simpler games out there which provide setting, genre, flexibility, and easy learning in one book (albeit with fewer supplements available).


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Fri Apr 25 17:28:52 2003