My frustration with Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition is well known among my role playing friends. It’s a system that I’ve come to actively hate, that provides such little support for its DMs that it’s borderline hostile to them. It’s not much better to its players, but most decent DMs transfer the impact of stupid rules onto themselves to keep the game fun. At least, that’s what I’ve always done.
Now’s not the time for a comprehensive rundown of what makes 3rd Edition (and its better but worse 3.5 patch) such a problem. But there’s a really nasty strand of system-within-a-system rules that need a swift kick to the crotch: Sundering, Tripping, Disarming and Grappling, I’m calling you out.
These rules represent a classic How Not To Build A System situation. They work not only off of a different set of combat statistics, they also work independently of each other. They all work in roughly the same way as each other, but they all use different feats and skills that do little or nothing to help the others. What’s that mean to an average player. It means if I, as a DM, build an NPC who’s really good at grappling, unless you’ve made your character good at it as well, I’m going to succeed. I.E. I can build an NPC good at nothing save screwing the party over. Whee!
Any of the skills above are really hard for a player to pull off at all without a special feat. Want to disarm? Well, someone’s getting a free attack on you for trying…unless you take a feat. Ok, if you stop there, things aren’t too bad. But then you can start taking feats to give bonuses to disarming checks. So now, when I try to disarm from you, not only has the in-game failsafe (that free attack) been removed, but you get bonuses to pull it off. Now, we’ve created a separate progression path to become good at Disarming, one where a mediocre fighter can be very, very good at something, even against a much better fighter. Put another way, D&D has given a cheap way for characters to be made more dangerous than people who should be better than them. Game balance, have a nice nap.
It gets worse.
The repercussions of all of these rules within rules are nasty and debilitating. If you disarm with a bare hand, winning a disarm check means you now hold your opponent’s weapon. And since you’ve put some skills into being better at this, there is now no effective way for the opponent to get his weapon back. Since most characters – PC and NPC – tend to have a favored weapon, one they’ve been built around using, the effect is more than just delaying or slightly weakening them. They’ve been effectively removed from the fight.
It’s even more of a mess when you start looking at things like tripping and grappling. Now only can you give bonus points to tripping and only to tripping, you can take feats that allow you to get extra, free attacks if you successfully trip. So a character built to trip not only has an easier time to tripping, but gets a bunch of free damage out of it too. All for the price of a handful of feats. Bonus: D&D inexplicably makes getting back up not only burn a valuable move action, but also provokes another free attack to anyone within range. So if you stat a character out for tripping, surround a target, then knock them down, you’ve set that character up to be the target of 5 or 6 free attacks. I know. I’ve used this technique myself. The same can be said of grappling, which prevents a character from doing much of anything without rolling a successful grapple check; a check that, once again, one character is likely statted out to win the majority of the time.
These rules are bad news no matter who uses them. I’ve used them as a DM and unfairly trashed people with them, and I’ve had players use them and unbalance otherwise well built encounters. There are creatures in the monster manual who are only difficult to fight because they engage in this kind of side-rule-system combat.
They’re rules that could be softened relatively easily, too. Why make getting up both take a move action and provoke free attacks? Why not give a tripped character the choice: get up fast but get hit, or get up slow and be safe? And with grappling, why not just have it immobilize a character and give a negative to their attacks instead of taking them out of the fight and subjecting them to free crushing damage? And why in Cthulu’s name would you give anyone a system that trivializes the breaking of powerful, magic weapons?
4th Edition has clarified and simplified a lot of these rules, which is good. A few weeks ago, when I was researching how grappling rules work, I found an article written by one of the game’s designers. The rules were so complicated that the designer of the system had to edit and strike-through at least a third of what he had written to correct it. If that’s not the mark of an insane rule system, I don’t know what is.