A Retrospective Glance at D&D 3.5
by Michael Mills

I was invited recently to a 3.5 game of D&D. I hadn’t played the rules edition for about a year and a half, but my nostalgia was high, and after playing fourth edition for several months, I wanted to take a look back at yesteryear.

The game was on the lower end of the epic spectrum, being at level 12, and in contempt of the power gaming prestige class monstrosities in the party, I made a pure fighter. Here is where things get interesting, because after choosing the regular feats (Power Attack, Cleave), I went directly for the Improve Disarm, Improve Trip, and Improve Bullrush. Normally these are combat tricks you use once in a while because of the hefty page flipping and calculations you need to do to perform something that (without the proper feats) will probably fail. But these were first on my list.

Why did I choose them?

Because I pulled out index cards immediately after I choose my feats and got to work crunching the numbers on those abilities so that I can use them on the fly in combat. I got halfway through the first one when I realized I was playing fourth edition. And through thinking back to the fighter powers in 4e, I realized that I was preparing my fighter to play exactly the same as the class does in fourth edition.

So I get into playing later on, and as we go tromping through the dungeon, my fighter is continuously being called to make die checks for his spot. Right away I start to miss the passive perception stat, but I don’t complain. A few hours go by and while in combat I hear something that hasn’t been said around me in a long time, “I am out of spells.” Until then we have had a few small skirmishes, but now this player had to kick back and make conversation with the other magic user who had run dry. They were completely out of the game for about an hour, and I had forgotten just how much that sucked thanks to new spell system in fourth edition.

Those are some of the things that came up that made me appreciate fourth edition a little more. Before this, I was a 3.5 fanboy when fourth edition was releasing, and was for quite a while after it dropped, I actually owned the book for a year before I played it. But now that I am looking back instead of forward, that system was super clunky, and while fourth edition didn’t necessarily fix that, they streamlined it enough so that it was easier to do cool stuff. From now on, I am proud to say I am a 4e fanboy.

Comments (26)

Jayson ElliotDecember 4th, 2009 at 7:59 am

It’s strange to think of a magic user “out of the game” because he had run out of spells.

Imagine if you were reading a novel where a party was on an adventure, and their spellcaster used his last spell for the day – would he just “kick back?”

There’s so much that should be going on in a game that the ability to participate in combat with offensive spells ought to be only one of the things that can happen. Are there no strange markings on the wall, no items to investigate, no NPCs to interact with?

Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser weren’t bounding over the plains of Newhon, firing off feats and powers like Captain Marvel on a bender.

I appreciate the ability to “do cool stuff” in 4E, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that Dungeons & Dragons was originally designed as a game of fantasy and roleplaying, not a MegaLaser Awesometastic Shoot-Em-Up.

Seneca (AnalogKid)December 4th, 2009 at 10:24 am

First, exactly what Jason Elliot said.

Second, due to this and needing stacks of calculated notecards and a combat taking numbers of hours not minutes I’ve given up on either edition of D&D. I’d do 1st or 2nd. Primarily though I’m looking for an alternative. D&D to me is a feel and type of setting(fantasy) and it doesn’t require their system to play that style of game.

sbonnerDecember 4th, 2009 at 10:28 am

If nothing else, the wizard could have purchased a bow.

Yeah, sorry to be so negative, but I think this example says as much about the creativity and engagement of the players and DM as it does about systems.

Running out of spells means running out of superpowers, not running out of character. Nor running out of options. There’s more to it than superpowers – or at least there can be.

Jared KDecember 4th, 2009 at 10:40 am

I’d have to disagree with the current comment’s. The point is that in a combat situation (which is a big part of D&D) your player’s character needs to feel useful and FUN in the situations that are presented. If they are in a dungeon then I feel like they do need to be more useful and 4E makes that more aspect better than the previous additons. I’ll take note that obviously if they were in a town or interacting with NPC’s then the game hasn’t changed. What the comments reflect is a dislike of combat mechanics. In my case I like 4E way better as well. You can still roleplay just as well in 4E as you ever could in the previous additions.

Sometimes a dungeon crawl does take hours and that has nothing to do with the creativity of the DM or the players. Even a very creative player would be looked down on for leaving the party in the middle of an adventure and saying “well my part is done. I’ll see you guys later I’m going to do something that puts the center of attention back on me.”

terence65December 4th, 2009 at 10:51 am

Honestly I’m a little surprised FtB would post something like this. The 3.5 vs 4e debate is completely pointless. It’s comparing apples to oranges. This is just a matter of gamer preference. Neither system is superior, there is no correct choice between them and any such discussion serves no purpose. Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion but considering FtB’s usual care in avoiding such empty discussions it seems an odd step to post an opinion piece such as this.

DanDecember 4th, 2009 at 1:14 pm

@terence65 –

I agree with your basic point: it’s entirely a matter of preference. One edition might be superior for your group or game idea, but picking a “better” one is like picking the best color. I prefer 3.5 to 4, but that’s just me. I don’t think any less of people that prefer 4 or 2 or Pathfinder or whatever else.

To your other point, the purpose of this blog was to make sure a wide variety of views are expressed, including those that don’t normally get represented on our show. It’s a place for listeners to get their two cents into the debate. I won’t post anything that’s outright offensive, but I regularly let through articles where I disagree with some portion of what’s been said.

MicahDecember 4th, 2009 at 1:42 pm

“System is setting.”

If you are playing a game where all the rules are based around long involved combats and one-shot skill checks, then how do you expect the game to run?

I keep reading comments that “it isn’t just about combat, it’s about roleplaying! Running out of spells doesn’t make a character useless, I promise! Just look at all the other things he is capable of doing.” And then I glance at the Player’s Handbook. It is all about combat. OK, to be fair; it’s about combat, one-shot skill checks, combat, equipment, combat, how much stuff you can carry, combat, how long it takes you to carry stuff back to town, combat, and really really really long spell lists. Oh yeah, and 1 page about alignment which breaks down your roleplaying options into a few broad categories.

The Player’s Handbook (which, as far as I can tell is meant to be used as a guide) gives me no way to ‘investigate strange markings’ beyond rolling a d20. It gives me no way to influence the NPCs beyond rolling a single d20. What it does give me is a metric butt-ton of options regarding new and interesting ways to kill things. It tells me what spells I can use to conflagrate the baddies, or how many arrows I can shoot in a six-second period. It tells me how hard I can swing my sword, and in how many different ways I am able to swing it.

It also tells me how many spells I have per day. And tells me, to the smallest detail what hppens when I cast those spells. Investing strange marks gets a one column entry under the Decipher Script heading. (Or maybe it gets one column underneath the Read Magic spell description.) Setting things on fire with ‘superpowers’ gets 50+ pages.

How does this say ANYTHING to my personal ‘level’ of creativity? I’m playing within the Rules as Written. Heck, as far as I can tell, given the evidence that I have (the PH), I’m playing the Rules as Intended.

Buying a bow is boring. Shooting arrows when six seconds ago I was shooting MegaLasers is boring. No, it isn’t just boring, it makes me feel useless. There is no tension in the choices presented in 3.5. The choice in 3.5 comes down to feeling awesome now, or feeling awesome later. In 4e, the choice is how am I going to be awesome right now?

It’s a difference between “Should I have fun now, or later?” and “How should I have fun this time?”

When a wizard runs out of spells in 3.5, all of their other options are less interesting than the options they had a round before. When a wizard runs out of spellls in 4e…


NathanDecember 4th, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Ran out of spells?

I haven’t played much 4E but a wizard (or anyone) who runs out of Encounter or Daily powers and is solely relying on the powers you can use as much as you want are basically in the same boat as a wizard who busts out the wand of magic missile when he runs out of spells.

Micah makes some interesting points about feeling useful and being able to keep on doing cool things. 4E addresses this a little more than 3.5 but only in uncommon circumstances (most 12th level wizards won’t run out of spells in 3.5 and most 12th level wizards would have a wand or staff or whatever that has spells in it). To me 3.5 at least provided some explanation that fits into the world as to why your wizard cannot cast fireball or any other powerful spell as much as they want. 4E on the other hand doesn’t really provide a rational as to why a character can’t use their Encounter or Daily powers more than once (my ranger can’t shoot his arrows this way more than once a day) and this can make combat a little more jarring as it conflicts with the gaming world at large which strives to make some sense.

I had fun when I played 4E and would do so again (the system is the most important thing in a game in my mind) but I found it to be too much of World of Warcraft: Pen and Paper and segmented the character mechanics from the role-play even further than 3.5 D&D did.

Jayson ElliotDecember 4th, 2009 at 11:05 pm

I just wanted to say that I wasn’t making any comment about one edition vs. another. I play in both a 1E and a 4E game, and they’re both fun systems, but completely different games.

My point was merely to remind players that this isn’t Battletech, it’s Dungeons & Dragons.

Oh, and Seneca (AnalogKid) – there are some great ways to play the setting of 1st Edition, even if you don’t want to go back and buy the old books. You might check out Hackmaster, or OSRIC, or Swords & Wizardry. Or you could just use AD&D and houserule whatever you want.

If I may be a little self-promoting here, you might come check out our new 1st Edition AD&D podcast, Roll For Initiative – it’s at http://www.rfipodcast.com (hope that’s ok with the mods if I post that?)

EthanDecember 5th, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Having played both 3.5 and 4e (actually all editions of D&D, AD&D, etc) I can honestly say I enjoy them both.

Now, as to the wizard being out of spells and just having to sit back? Sorry, but that is either an over-simplification to make a point of your own preference or an unimaginative player in my opnion.

I’m no editions “fanboy.”

JoelDecember 6th, 2009 at 9:16 am

Mearls and team WotC have said all along that 4E was designed to ensure character, regarless of class, could make an impact.Regardless what version, DnD is a combat system first. Comments about a players lack of creativity are not facing the reality spellcasters encounter during a long combat sequence.And a wizard resorting to a ranged implement will likely have little impact(especially at higher levels) unless the player spent significant feat slots, skill points and ability scores points toward combat skills-sacrificing those needed to embelish their spell crafting abilities. And he/she will likely open him/herslf up to greater danger engaging in weapon combat-how many times have we had to protect our spellcasters?
Whether you like the system or not, you can’t argue 4E isn’t more equitable in providing opportunities round to round.That doesn’t make it a better system, just different with unique decisions for players to make.

EthanDecember 6th, 2009 at 2:37 pm

Claiming that D&D is a combat system first and judging all editions by that standard nets the result you want. D&D was in it’s earliest concpetion a tactical wargame. Later editions have attempted to move beyond that. 4E is more back to the roots but is a good mix with a strong focus on combat.

If you judge 3E and 3.5E on the premise that D&D is first and formost a combat system then what you said would be true. I simply reject that premise as it is incorrect in my mind.

Again, I’m no game systems fanboy, and I can barely stomach spin.

ImberCorvusDecember 6th, 2009 at 5:25 pm

I played 3.0 and 3.5 and now 4E and to be honest I’ve always enjoyed the game but I think the kind of game I want to play might have changed along with the editions…

Case in point;
I sat down to play Iron Kingdoms which is Privateer Press’ 3.5 D&D setting and I loved the world and the setting and created an Idrian Gunmage with a cool quirk and then when we sat down to play I felt very limited… It felt to me that the pulpy story that the setting pointed towards and the GM was running would have suited the style of 4E better.

So I enjoyed the night of gaming with my group but in the back of my mind I felt ineffective. It wasn’t a failing of the system it was a failing of my mindset in a lot of ways.

Different games for different kinds of stories.

EthanDecember 6th, 2009 at 10:01 pm

Players should play the game that suits their style, I agree! In the example cited int he article I’d say if you prefer a mage that can always have “spells” then 4E with it’s at will powers is right up your alley. That said, the example of the player running out of spells and not being able to do anything is just lack of imagination in my opinion. That or a player who chose the wrong system. Spell slot limitation in ealier editions of D&D are no surprise, and not being prepared to do something if you run out of them is not the systems fault.

I am currently running 3.5 and playing 4E. I like them both, for different reasons. I prefer 3.5 overall so far though. That said 4E is a heck of a lot easier to get new players into and has lots of awesome stuff. I’m having a lot of fun playing it!

JoelDecember 8th, 2009 at 4:17 pm

@ Ethan
And I reject the premise that 3.5 is more the roleplaying system than the other version.
No “spin” intended or implied.

EthanDecember 8th, 2009 at 7:40 pm

I don’t think it’s more of a roleplaying system either. Roleplaying exists in any game as much as the players intend. You can have just as much RP in 4E as 1E.

I’m not trying to be harsh, so if my tone comes off that way I’m sorry.

Yes, I would agree that as a system 4E is designed to balance PCs so that they are contributing constantly in the same general manner. For example wizrs wil always have their at wills to use.

My point is that in ealier editions you didn’t have that, so planning for what to do about it is part of playing the character.

That isn’t for everyone. Some people prefer the way 4E handles that situation. That’s fine too. I just don’t believe earlier editions prevent you from doing things when you are out of spells. The player prevents that, or maybe is playing the wrong game for them. Maybe they are used to other games that are different.

ElucidarianDecember 9th, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Long live Pathfinder, a glowing compromise.

EthanDecember 9th, 2009 at 9:19 pm

I like Pathfinder too. The truth is, there is no need for “edition wars.” You buy and play what you like. If you want to mod something, you do it. I was talking with a gaming buddy about D&D, and he was talking about the good old days of fun in 1st Edition AD&D. I mentioned that those memories are mostly notalgia. How many people played 1st Edition AD&D directly by the rules? Maybe lots, but I thought back at how much we left out or added and the additional problems those adds and subtractions caused with game and character balance. In the end though, we had fun. Then I had some fun with 2nd edition. Then one game of 3rd. Lots of 3.5, 1 in 4E so far. Plus GURPS, Ars Magic, VTM, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Dragonquest, Rolemaster, MERP, Marvel Super Heroes, Champions, Palldium FRP, Etc etc etc etc.

Jonathan LandrethDecember 10th, 2009 at 12:43 am

Excellent article, Michael. I’m pilfering this for this week’s show.

MichaelDecember 14th, 2009 at 5:36 pm


While I don’t agree with some of the responses to these comments in you show, I found them hilarious none the less. Thank you.

TimDecember 14th, 2009 at 9:52 pm

“Just as a casual observation, anyone who considers the presence of Vancian magic a dealbreaker is probably lost to us, and I’m ok with that.

“Personally, I view the pulp fantasy roots of the game as a feature and not a flaw, and I’m glad that there is an edition of the game for people who don’t, because that is not a version of the game I am very interested in publishing.”

–Erik Mona, Publisher, Paizo Publishing, speaking on where Pathfinder magic is rooted and why.


Jonathan’s comments on KitDB, IMHO, show the depth of his knowledge: shallow. And he drowns himself in it.

Jonathan proves this in his opening attack on Jayson: “…if you’re reading a novel, where the party was on an adventure, and their spell caster ran out of spells, I’d be, like, what kind of spellcaster is that?”

There are many systems for magic users, and some magic systems use fatigue, e.g., Shadowrun, and indeed that magic user might not be able to do anything “because he’s passing out.”

Jonathan then boldly states Jayson’s argument is “f’d” because “in a novel that wouldn’t happen.” Jonathan admits to not reading much of the catalog of Ed Greenwood, or R.A. Salvadore, et al., he dismisses both authors (and the catalog of work not just by them, but the worlds built by them and many other New York Time bestselling authors) and deflects any rebuttal with: “… and if it happens there, who the f’ cares.” Well, the people that care make those books NYT bestsellers.

Since Jonathan can’t even cite the attributed source of the magic system in OD&D (0e), AD&D 1e, 2e, 3e, and 3.5e, allow me to help: Hugo award winner Jack Vance. Hence “Vancian Magic.” The novel was /The Dying Earth/.

Jonathan, you like to mix it up. But did Chris sound, if for a moment, uncomfortable with the direction your conversation was taking (where those courtesy chuckles?). Though he did egg you on with a dash of “let’s go” pep.

Look, IMHO, Jonathan’s perspective is of a player that wants his RP games to feel like the /title du jour/ on game console x. I’m fine with that. Really. 4th edition is admittedly taking queues from WOW and others with the “at-will,” “encounter,” and “dailies” magic system. It’s all good Jonathan. But for the same reason that Erik Mona defends Vancian Magic, I defend the position of those that clearly have a deeper history with the RP, one that probably is older than you. I admittedly I’m not going to by WFRP 3rd Edition because I think it wants to ride coattails of D&D 4e and adds a board game element. Nothing was wrong with the 1st and 2nd editions. Why should I “evolve.” Jonathan, systems can get worse, really. D&D 5e may be the worse thing to rob you of $200 in 4 years.

Hey, I understand that the 4e magic and combat powers of all classes appeals to gamers that have a perspective influenced by video gaming, but damn, your arguments are shallow, comment bait. You win, because I bit.

Joe RqDecember 15th, 2009 at 2:09 am

If you look at Pathfinder a new 3.75 so they say. You find that they also have powers for wizards and other spell casters that dont run out. Now I’m not saying this is bad. Also 3.5 really pushed the combat mat and minis to or have people forgot that. This has been said befor by other people but and I totaly agree D&D inspired EverQuest, World of WarCraft, and other fantasy games. They have used tropes and stuff from the game for years. Why can’t D&D learn something from then and use it. I for one don’t really care about all this. If you like a game and are having fun then your doing it right and thats all that matters.

SteveDecember 20th, 2009 at 1:29 am

Whether it’s 1.0 (or earlier), or 3.5 — I own both — it comes down to tailoring the game to the players to make it exciting for them. Every group is different, so you adjust. The “rules” are guidelines. Don’t let them get in the way of spinning a good, collaborative story.

Many of my games are spun pick-up styled, and tailored to the individual likes and dislikes of the players, as I’ve gotten to know them. After all, this is a social game. So be sociable. :-)

EthanJanuary 4th, 2010 at 7:29 pm

I just wanted to pop back in here and say that my intial post ended with a very “dickish” tone. I apologize!

I’m fairly sick of the edition wars. As I said, I don’t come down on either side. I like both editions for different reasons.

Joe EdwardsMay 25th, 2010 at 9:26 pm

I have played D&D from the pink Basic Set forward. It astounds me that people get so worked up over a game…and yes, it is just a game. :) If someone doesn’t like a particular version of D&D then they simply should play the versions do like and not spend so much time complaining that someone moved their cheese.

The transition to the 3rd edition was tough for me, but I survived. I find that the 4th edition actually is so much more fun to play than the 2nd or 3rd editions. I do have a special place in my heart for the 1st Ed. and still have my original books after 30+ years:)! Nonetheless, I feel like a kid again playing 4th edition. Sure the game is a bit different, but we don’t have enough time on this Earth to waste complaining do we?

Long live D&D!!!

funwithmagesNovember 18th, 2010 at 8:20 am

Back in 3.5 I used to absolutely love playing a grapplemancer(wizard with octopus familiar) and a crapload of grappling feats and touch based attacks, so that even when i ran outta spells i could still be useful as i ran around pinning people down,and tossing potions to party members…….just because you play a caster doesnt mean your regulated to being a wallflower when you run outta spells you just gotta get creative!
((ps. a ring of portals and a bag of marbles is a fun way to still be useful!theres no such thing as terminal velocity in dnd))

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