Product Spotlight07/04/2003

D&D 3.5
Rich Baker, Andy Collins, Gwendolyn Kestrel, Kim Mohan, David Noonan,
Rich Redman, Ed Stark, Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, and Skip Williams

In this month's exclusive and all-encompassing interview, the entire crew -- designers, developers, managers, and editors -- of the updated Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual discuss the trials and tribulations of making the greatest roleplaying game on earth greater still.

Playing by the Rules

The Player's Handbook is the core of D&D for everyone involved in the game, and the team went to great lengths to strengthen this most useful of tools.

WIZARDS OF THE COAST: More feats, more spells, and new class features for six different classes. . . . How radical are the changes? Can you outline a couple that players might find pleasantly surprising?

Skip Williams: I think they range from the almost invisible (unless it affects your character directly) to the pretty radical. Almost invisible: Racial weapon proficiencies have now been tweaked so that not everyone gets a pile of proficiencies they'll never use, but racial exotic weapons are much easier to use. Pretty radical: Big changes to rangers and monks. Monk players will be pleasantly surprised, as will ranger players, I think.

Andy Collins: Well, I don't think I'd call any of the changes "radical." Even though some characters will undergo some significant changes, the aim is for the character to still feel like the same character, only with more interesting and balanced options. As Skip says, of all the changes, the revised ranger class probably contains the most dramatic changes, but anyone looking at the revised ranger will instantly recognize the class.

I think that players will be pleasantly surprised by how many more options are available for various character types. Specialist wizards will see more interesting choices; bards, monks, and rangers are more versatile; bards and druids have more magical options; fighters have more feats to choose from, and so forth.

Ed Stark: One change to the ranger class dovetails nicely with what Skip and Andy have already said. D&D is about options, and the updated ranger class now has more. Instead of being tied exclusively to a two-weapon fighting track, the player of the ranger can also devote class abilities to becoming a better archer. This goes along well with the ranger's increase in skill options and class abilities that better reflect the ranger's role as a hunter and tracker in the game. Players decide how their rangers finally respond when they track down their quarries.

WIZARDS: How did you collect the data you needed to decide where to focus revisions?

Andy: Data was "collected" through the experiences of R&D and the development team in their own games, through interactions with D&D players online, via email, and at conventions, and through playtesting.

Ed: I cannot overstate how much of an impact the RPGA membership had on the revision project. They are like a large group of continuous playtesters. They run events constantly and we received a lot of feedback through the RPGA's leadership. Their comments really helped us upgrade the game in such a way that anyone can play by the same rules, not relying on individual DMs to guess what the game designers were thinking.

WIZARDS: Was the temptation there to simply overhaul the whole thing?

Skip: The temptation to overhaul everything was huge, and it had to be fought every step of the way.

Andy: It's our job to write rules, so of course the temptation existed to "do more," but I don't think anybody ever seriously suggested overhauling the entire system. Not only was there no real business reason to do so, but even more than that it just didn't need it.

WIZARDS: How vital is it for players to use this revised version if they have the 2000 release?

Skip: Frankly, two players could sit down at the game table with different versions of the books and play for hours without knowing they weren't using the same rules.

Andy: I think the revised core rules represent the best version of D&D to date, so I guess anyone who's interested in the best D&D experience available should see these books as "vital" for their game. Obviously, following products will rely on these books as well, so players looking to enjoy such products to their fullest extent will want the revised rulebooks on their shelves.

WIZARDS: Given more time, would you have made more changes?

Kim Mohan: Well, sure. As they say in the game business, no game is ever finished; it's just published. If we had been allowed to keep the books in R&D indefinitely, we could always find more and more small ways to improve the game . . . but then the books would never get printed. I'm extremely happy with how clean and well organized these books are.

Andy: As Kim said, it's almost inevitable that more time would have equaled more changes. I've heard it said about writing books that a book's never done, it's just taken away from the writer. Designing RPGs is pretty similar -- at some point, they make you stop writing, and that means you're done.

Skip: Overall, I'm pretty happy with the level of change. There were a few ideas that weren't quite ripe, but you'll see some of those in Dragon magazine in time.

WIZARDS: Were there any cuts that were difficult to make?

Kim: Assuming that you started with a piece of text in which every word was necessary, any cut would be difficult to make. But in the Player's Handbook, to the best of my recollection, we didn't have to sacrifice any major body of information to make room for something else. Of the three books, the Player's Handbook is the most similar structurally to its predecessor, so we didn't have too many hard decisions to make about what information got in the book and what didn't.

Andy: The toughest cuts for me were two brand-new systems that I sketched up for addition to the Player's Handbook. One was a new metamagic system, and the second was a new item creation system. But since both of them represented pretty significant changes to those rule subsets, they would have required both more testing than we could provide and would have had a greater ripple effect on other books than we were really comfortable with. Rest assured, though, these systems aren't lost, and more than likely will find their way into publication sooner or later.

WIZARDS: What are the most functionally useful revisions for players?

Andy: Revisions to the Spells chapter. Whether you're the caster or merely the target, spells affect every character in the game, and the revisions to this chapter will thus impact a wide range of characters.

Mastering the Game

More than the other two books, the Dungeon Master's Guide underwent intense reorganization. After all, this is the book that makes the campaign world go round. Everything from encounter tables to the magic item creation rules and movement rules received detailed attention from the designers and editors.

WIZARDS: What's the most dramatic change that a long-time DM will immediately notice?

Rich Redman: I think the most immediate, obvious, and dramatic change is the reorganization. When the 3rd Edition books came out, the adventure game was supposed to teach you about D&D (including both playing and DMing) and the adventure path modules were supposed to help you learn more about DMing. That meant that the DMG could be, more or less, a catalogue or encyclopedia of rules information, a reference book for DMs. With the demise of the adventure game (which had stopped printing long before we started on 3.5), we needed to focus the 3.5 books much more on introducing the game to players. That meant reorganizing the DMG in particular. Several years of published books that referred to pages and chapters in the DMG meant we could only reorganize so much, but the copies I've seen stayed pretty close to the way I reorganized it.

Skip: That complete reorganization of the chapters is in keeping with the book's new mission as a DM's toolbox for handling the unusual (as we know the unusual occurs pretty often in the D&D game), rather than a general guide to DMing. It's much more like the first DMG for the AD&D game.

David Noonan: There's a bit of a learning curve for experienced players, but the book should be much easier on newer players, and organized to keep the at-the-table page flipping under control. Chapter 1 is "How to be a DM," and Chapter 2 covers all the rules stuff you need during the game -- everything from the first encounter to handing out experience. Chapters 3 to 5 are "away from the gaming table" chapters that cover adventure design, campaign management, and so on. And realistically, most players reference the DMG periodically, so Chapters 6 and 7 are for them. Then at the back we've got a big quick-reference section.

Nobody had to do more relearning than me. I was fond of quoting page numbers at my players: "The flight chart? DMG page 69. Grapple rules? Player's Handbook, page 137." They're all on different pages now, of course, and I have some memorizing ahead of me.

Gwendolyn Kestrel: DMs will find more useful details. We provide a lot more help for a beginning DM and many more options for an experienced one. For instance, the Dungeon Master's Guide now includes basic information on terrain, everything from different types of dungeon doors to details on marsh terrain; a primer on the planes; a wider representation of prestige classes; information on traps, how to price time and how to set their CR; and more guidelines on pricing magic items, including intelligent ones.

To me the biggest change was the continuation of the shift to three dimensions. The templates for spells, dungeon features, and space/reach all help make the game more vibrant.

Kim: And size does matter! The 3.5 DMG is 64 pages longer than its predecessor, and the new book has fewer illustrations than the previous one, which means this book has a lot of new information in it!

WIZARDS: Was this a front-to-back revision? Where do you even begin to revise something as massive as the DMG? And how much of this revision is based on player/customer feedback (versus, say, internal playtesting)?

Rich Redman: A lot of DMG revision was based on our experiences with the game, and please remember that we not only play this game, we play it with people besides each other. My regular D&D group has only two game designers in it. So, our experiences are broad, and reflect both internal and external feedback. I thought the two major areas for revision in the DMG were obvious: Magic items and organization. Skip, Andy, and I spent months going through the Magic Items chapter arguing (literally) over how items should be priced and how we could convey that to the DM.

Skip: Once the shift in focus was in place, the rest was fairly straightforward. Pretty much the entire revision effort (not just the DMG effort) was driven by player feedback.

David: It's a front-to-back revision in the sense that we revised pretty much everything in it. But we didn't do it in exact front-to-back order, and we shuffled the order around.

As for where we began, we started with the things we knew we wanted to leave intact. And first on that list was Monte Cook's vision of the DM as the person who's having the most fun at the gaming table. Monte, who wrote a lot of the 3.0 DMG, has a keen insight into both the concrete details of work behind the DM's screen and the larger notion of good Dungeon Mastering as something worth aspiring to. If that "DMing is the best gig in gaming" sense remains in the revised books, we've done our jobs.

Rich Redman did a lot of the original thinking about how to reorganize the book so it'd be easier to reference, and his "blueprint for the blue book" guided a lot of our later work. We had a long list of "things to check" based on our own campaigns, notes from our customer service department, feedback from the RPGA. And we learned from more unusual sources, like the people responsible for translating the DMG into other languages. When you have to translate technical rules text mixed with fanciful and sometimes made-up language, you tend to ask a lot of very astute questions. Obviously, translators have a strong appreciation for precise language.

Gwendolyn: We knew that we'd be adding many sections in response to customer feedback. Some of these would be condensed versions of material published in other books, others would be new. Rich Redman began the Herculean task of repricing magic items. David Noonan continued the fine work of heading up the DMG revision, including adding all the wonderful planar and terrain sections, and more than a few of the new prestige classes. Jennifer Clarke Wilkes tackled the bulk of the NPC chapter, updating the format to be more user-friendly and updating the statistics to be accurate. I pitched in with expanded text on cohorts, magic item pricing, magic item auras, and some work on the prestige classes.

Ed: When the game designers sat down and worked on "3E," the intention was to design the game holistically, rather than front-to-back. Unfortunately, books have to get written, and some elements of the game (one example being individual spell descriptions) received less attention than others. The game worked as a whole much better than it had in the past, but there could be confusion between books.

I hope that with version 3.5 we've cut down on the confusion between books substantially. The revisions were addressed as a whole. If something in the DMG had to change, we stepped up and looked over both the Player's Handbook, and the MM -- and quite a bit of our support product -- and examined the change for impact. Andy mentioned earlier that we chose not to make some changes because of time considerations; if we couldn't justify a change throughout the whole system, we did not make it in just one single place.

WIZARDS: One would imagine that the revisions to the DMG are the hardest to playtest, as they'd require precise circumstances in the game to try them out (as opposed to rolling a combat against an updated MM entry). So how do you know that you got them right?

Rich Redman: You generally don't playtest them, with the exception of the combat chapter, which you playtest with unrevised monsters to reduce variables and check to see if you create more strangeness than you reduce. Instead, you check your math. The DMG has a lot of math in it (treasure tables, for instance).

David: Exactly. And fortunately, a lot of the more rules-intensive parts of the book cover aspects of game design that we've hashed over many times before: magic items and prestige classes. We've got a decent sense of how the D&D economy works, and we've got good -- and fun -- playtesting techniques for prestige classes.

For more esoteric rules, we've really benefited from the three years everyone's been playing the game. Even with the smallest rules, we could look at a situation and say, "How have people been handling it?" Take a staircase, for example. Most adventurers run up and down them without a second thought. But what if the bad guys try to push you off the stairs? There's a balustrade there -- does it save you?

The answer is "It certainly helps," and you'll find that you get a bonus on the opposed bull rush check in such a case. We looked through a lot of adventures -- everything from our published adventures to fragmentary notes from last Thursday's game at home for situations like that. When we found a particularly good way of handling a given situation, we tried to find a place for it in the DMG if it was something that would occur in other people's games too. Then we tested. In the above case, we tested by repeatedly pushing Tordek off the stairs. (All our playtest characters put up with a great deal of abuse.)

Gwendolyn: Additionally, we strove to make the DMG user-friendly on many levels. How do I know it works? I see my DM smile more and frown less. For instance, I play in a campaign run by Julia Martin. Now, when a player casts detect magic or looks at something through a gem of seeing and asks the omnipresent questions, "Is it magic? What's the school and strength?", Julia doesn't have to juggle books and flip back and forth between the Player's Handbook and the DMG. She simply tells us the magic item's aura and strength without turning a page.

Ed: I also like to think the DMG had perhaps the most "pre-playtesting." Since there are a lot of individual elements in the DMG (particularly the magic items section), it was easy for our players and DMs to send us comments on 3.0 that we were able to examine and integrate into 3.5. If we received consistent feedback that a magic item was, oh, underpowered or overpriced, we could look at that specific item and make an evaluation based on a lot of peoples' experiences.

Skip: So basically, there's nothing in the DMG that hasn't been discussed, run through our local campaigns, and discussed again. I'd say we got it right.

Manhandling the Monsters

Random encounter, predetermined guardian, or summoned servant, the monsters of D&D make all those combat rules worth exploring. The revised Monster Manual presented the team with some of its greatest challenges simply by virtue of the astonishing number of monsters out there just waiting to be encountered.

WIZARDS: What was the hardest part about revising the Monster Manual?

Rich Baker: The hardest part of the job was probably the sheer volume of the work we needed to do. There are hundreds of monster entries, and each monster has a couple dozen data points to examine and check. We tried to look at each entry for each monster and ask ourselves, "Does this say the right thing? Is this the way it should work?"

Gwendolyn: The three core books are independent, but they're also one harmonious unit. We had to be very sensitive to and educated about the changes in both the Player's Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide. Consider how the revisions to spells in the Player's Handbook, changed spells and spell lists in the MM. Likewise, we had to envision how changes in the Monster Manual would impact the other books. Changes to the environment entries created changes to the random encounter tables. Changes to vermin poison had to be checked against the DMG poison entries and traps. In addition, Rich Baker unified the skill points and feats with how characters get them. A wonderful revision, but the changes affected every nearly every monster.

Jennifer Clarke Wilkes: For me, the hardest part, but also the most challenging and interesting, was retrofitting the animals and vermin (and assorted other critters) to the new skill and feat array. This often ended up producing more racial bonuses or special qualities.

WIZARDS: Did you feel compelled to tinker with power levels or attack damage to shore up or weaken a monster?

Rich Baker: We did choose to tinker with the power levels of a number of monsters, almost always to make them tougher. Many of the creatures in the 3rd Edition Monster Manual were more or less direct conversions from 2nd Edition. So, the 3rd Edition mummy was AC 17 because the 2nd Edition mummy had been AC 3. When we were building 3E, that was a perfectly reasonable starting point. But now that we have three years of observable results on how our 3E monsters play, we simply know more about where monsters ought to be pegged in terms of power level.

Skip: As a general rule, we started by looking at Challenge Ratings and finding mismatches. Then we decided to change the CR or change the creature depending on what felt right for the monster. We did some of each. We tended to avoid big changes in CRs, though.

Jennifer: I did some of the powered-up versions of various monsters. I'm happiest about the half-elf monk/shadowdancer elite vampire.

WIZARDS: What changes will players find the most noticeable?

Rich Baker: The organization is a significant one. We took many common definitions that occurred over and over again in our monster entries and moved them to a glossary. We broke up many of the "gang" entries that sometimes separated a monster description from its statistics block by several pages, so it should be easier to navigate. And we added high-powered versions of a number of favorite monsters to provide the DM with more high-CR opponents for his game.

Jennifer: I think putting the single attack, grapple, and full attack bonuses right out there in the stat blocks will make monsters much easier to run "straight out of the book."

WIZARDS: What feedback from players and DMs did you receive prior to beginning revision that helped you identify problem areas? Had much come up from internal playtesting or campaigns that gave you additional insight?

Skip: When you collect a dozen or so letters that ask, "Is this CR right?" you can be pretty sure there's a problem. Likewise, you look for "How does this work, really?" questions.

Rich Baker: We've accumulated three years of player observation (as well as incessant play experience in our own personal campaigns) on which monsters were on-target or off-target in terms of CR. Many of our organizational changes stem from player feedback. For example, every monster entry now includes a Base Attack/Grapple line that provides those numbers for the monster. That's information our players requested, because it was darned difficult to know just how much Power Attack a minotaur could really use, or what the die modifier is when your monk decides to grab the medusa and stuff her head in a sack.

Also, I should point out that we've got dozens of people here in the office who play the game all the time. Everybody in RPG R&D is in at least one weekly game, and some folks play/DM two or three. Plus, many of the folks from the "other side" of R&D, folks like Andrew Finch or Skaff Elias, play all the time too, and tell us when they find something weird or wrong.

WIZARDS: Where did you begin? How did you divide up the workload?

Skip: My personal task list went something like this:

(1) Review customer letters and internal comments and get to work fixing CRs and monster descriptions.

(2) Study the way people use the Monster Manual entries and look for ways to make them easier to use. (I led an internal focus group that put a lot of thought into this problem.)

(3) Write new material.

(4) Playtest new material.

(5) Track the changes to the other two books and bring the MM in line with them.

(6) Repeat as necessary.

Rich Baker: I worked on the project after Skip did. Skip took care of the Base Attack/Grapple line for every creature, he implemented our existing errata files (no small task, that!), and he worked to clarify awkward or imprecise language in a number of places. He also created a first draft of the How to Build a Monster chapter. The mandate I was given was to push the Monster Manual revisions more aggressively, so some of the tasks I worked on included chopping up the "gang" entries, building the glossary, creating the final chapter organization, and taking a number of monsters back to the drawing board (such as the new mummy we posted in our preview). Plus, I also pushed the decision to make monster skill point and feat acquisitions work like those of characters, and re-SPF'd (skill-pointed-and-feated, or "spiffed," as we called it) most of the monsters.

We involved a great number of people in the later stages of the book, so I didn't do all that by myself. Dave Eckelberry and Andrew Finch reworked the demons and devils extensively. Dave, Andrew, James Wyatt, and Mike Donais created most of the "advanced" versions of our monsters, such as the Nessian warhound and the aboleth mage. Editors Gwendolyn Kestrel and Jennifer Clarke Wilkes wound up taking on a significant amount of development work (such as SPF-ing and late format changes, like the new attack lines) and were absolutely instrumental in getting the project done on time. So, it was really a tremendous group effort.

Jennifer: In addition to doing some of the redesign and powered-up monsters, I backread material that had been edited to catch things that had changed since the original submission (there was a lot of design tinkering during the editorial phase) and to double-check the primary editor's work since she was developing at the same time as editing. It's easy for small details to fall through the cracks under the circumstances. (And there were plenty more to catch after my passes!)

Gwendolyn: Skip and Rich had done a tremendous amount of work before Jennifer and I began our development and editing tasks. One of the most time-consuming aspects of the revision was updating the skills (new ways of determining skill points and synergy bonuses) and feats. Almost every creature changed in some way. There was a great deal to do. Jennifer and I dug in with a will.

Ed: Mostly, I tried to stay out of the way and let the designers and editors do their work. Seriously, I tried to provide support and the occasional "extra voice" when discussions over potential changes needed to happen. We seldom, if ever, made any changes in a vacuum. We had several online discussions and (at the very least) weekly face-to-face evaluations of different parts of the MM and the revisions in general. I felt it was my job to make sure everyone had the support they needed, which included a forum to discuss issues and someone to help them put an issue to rest, and to provide the occasional "schedule perspective," keeping everyone on track with their deadlines.

WIZARDS: Which monster(s) received the most overhaul once you started digging in to the revisions?

Rick Baker: Demons and devils were reworked quite extensively, really reconcepted in some cases. In 3.0, these monsters tended to have "glass jaws." In many cases, the thing you wanted to do was get into melee fight with these guys, because they didn't have the hit points their CRs demanded. They definitely live up to their CRs now. There are a great number of relatively minor conceptual changes scattered throughout the book. For example, it used to be that characters killed by ghouls would rise as ghouls. That didn't seem to make much sense, since ghouls eat the people they kill, don't they? So we redesigned the ghoul's create spawn ability to become "ghoul fever," so that folks who were wounded by ghouls and survived would be at risk of transforming into ghouls by a disease-like mechanic. Finally, a significant number of creatures just got a little bit tougher through manipulation of AC or physical ability scores. The delver's AC in 3.0 was really low, when you consider that it's a high-CR rock monster. So we added a lot more natural armor to the delver, which makes it a more reasonable challenge at its CR and also makes logical sense, too.

Gwendolyn: Except for lavishing extra attention on the dragons, I don't recall spending significantly more time with any one creature over any other!

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