My RPG DNA: Part 3: The Oughts, D&D 3.X

Inspired by Rob Donaghue’s gaming DNA post, I decided to share my gaming history first with the early 80’s (with the 1st edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) and then with the bipolar crunchy/fluffy 90’s with GURPS.

Now let’s start the decade where one polyhedral was chosen to rule them all.

A New Era

Shortly after my 28th birthday party, I sat in my living room with the D&D 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook in my hands. After a decade away from Trolls, Drow, Mindflayers and other Gygaxian-branded  fantasy tropes, I felt the strong pull to return to the world of D&D.  However, remembering my attempt at re-reading the 2e Player’s Handbook back in 1998, I expected the book to be really bad…

…Instead I discovered one of the best written, most enticing role playing game book I had read in ages (surpassing my then favorites BESM and Gurps Wizard).  It wasn’t long before I purchased all core books.  My pleasure at reading the D&D 3.0 books only expanded from there and to this day, Monte Cook’s Dungeon Master Guide remains one of the RPG books I enjoyed reading the most (in fact, all but the 2e DMGs have a permanent space in my small gaming shelf).

D&D 3e fixed pretty much all the things that drove me away 10 years before. Gone were the subsystems, disparate XP charts and most of the annoyances I felt with AD&D 1e.

I was back baby!

I rapidly set out to create my first 3.0 campaign with my players of the time: Math, Yan, Nick (Babounne), JeeEff and Stef.  Franky joined us early on while playing The Sunless Citadel.  The campaign was a mix of homebrewed and published adventures that culminated in playing the first chapter of the adaptation of Gary Gygax’s Against the Giants where the players led 300 orcs to attack a host of giants and ogres.

I even made paper tokens for every damn participants in that fight! It.was.Epic!

The End of the Honeymoon

The game eventually crashed at around the 10th level when I realized that I had lost control of the power of magic items in the campaign, had no strong plot arcs and handed the campaign over to Nicolas who shocked us to the core by showing us what the system could do in the hands of a merciless (but, it pains me to admit, fair) DM.

Never again do I want to be hated by a whole city because of dopplegangers nor have to fight said shapeshifters in full darkness! Nicolas showed us the darker side of 3e and we didn’t like it at all.


At about the time that (my) Nico was born (early 2002), we started our longest ever campaign where we played through the entirety of Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of the Elemental Evil. While we enjoyed it immensely, it forevermore burnt some of us on long dungeon crawls (You spend 10 levels of experience in 4 different dungeons).

That campaign also saw us transition from D&D 3.0 to 3.5 right in the last third of that super adventure, where an innocuous Horned Devil became the campaign’s de facto uber-bad guy by getting boosted beyond the player’s ability to deal with it. He ended up being a cool recurring villain.

Eric  joined us during this campaign while Nick and Jee Eff moved out of town.  Nicolas went to Sweden (you’re still there right? he he he) while Jee moved to Quebec City.

You are not as good as you think you are

Shortly after the birth of my daughter Rory in 2003, I realized that up until now, I had been depending solely on my natural skills and experience as a DM to drive the game along with my friends’ good faith and enthusiasm. I had no grand ideas about player motivations yet, much less the 5 stages of a RPG group, Tropes or even the Rule of Cool .

At that time, about 25% of sessions bombed and I often found myself thinking about quitting RPGs right after a given night where we ended up arguing too much or where the whole thing fell flat. After some of my now trademarked over-analysis, I realized that I had reached that point in my DMing career where I thought I had learned everything there was to learn about the craft.

Turns out that like black belts in Judo, I had just dirtied my belt enough to start learning the true teachings of the art. I started observing more and actively sought to improve my DMing.  We worked out some form of social contract that made our lives easier and we had a great streak of awesome games.

In 2005 the Dungeon Master Guide II came out at exactly the right time and exploded into my brain, starting a chain reaction that eventually brought me here to this website today. To this day it remains one of the most influential GMing books I’ve read.

We played that second campaign until level 17 or so… where the game more or less collapsed due to overlong fights dominated by save or dies and inevitable intra-party pressures from such long campaigns with the same PCs.

The Up and Downs

After 2 full campaigns of vanilla D&D 3.X, we were looking for something new and exciting while staying within D&D’s sweet spot of lvl 5-12.  In August 2006 we started an Iron Heroes campaign that lasted about 6 months and included some incredibly cool The Truman Show tropes that blew my players brains out.

Iron Heroes was this high action, low magic d20 variant written by a certain Mike Mearls. It was loads of fun!  We played some awesome action-driven games such as a full dungeon crawl underwater, with silent PCs using sign language!

After that, with the publication of Monte Cook’s incredible Ptolus, I tried to merge Iron Heroes with new city setting, which failed miserably by painting myself in a corner with too many house rules to maintain a gaming world I could manage in my head.

We rebooted the campaign again and it finally managed to work after a false start, leading us one last time through D&D 3.5’s sweet spot and culminating  in the destruction of my 20 year old homebrewed game world.  During that time, Mike, the last member of our current group, joined us.

By then (summer of 2008), we were all ready to switch to 4e.  The idiosyncrasies of 3.5 weren’t compensated by any sense of newness brought by alternative settings/rule set or accessory book anymore (including the awesome Book of Nine Swords). We were ready for some fundamental changes and 4e was here to take us to the next experience.

The Sands of Time

Another change was brought about as the 1st decade of the new millennium came to an end.  The ought years saw most of us go from our mid-twenties to mid/late thirties (2 of us are over 40 now). Our relationship to the game changed progressively and so had our motivations.  Real life (i.e. mortgages, kids and pot-bellies) caught up with many of us and we’re still adjusting… with predictable impact on game attendances and expectations.

Philosophical aside: I often say that the 30s is that period of your life where you absolutely have to deal with crap from your past before it crashes into today’s crap so that you can have a fair chance at a crap-free future.

The feeling that a new crossroads in our gaming is nearing  looms strong in my mind.I don’t know if I’ll outright post about it, but it sure has started leaking on my Twitter account.

How about you?  How has the d20 years affected your gaming and personal life.  I know that the last 10 years have been a coming of age for many of the 1980 and 90’s geek kids. Tell us how your story went!


  1. Cool! For myself, the oughts were my introduction to RPGs wholesale. First freeform roleplaying on forums, and eventually I got to play a bit of D&D 4th Edition (well, and a session of 3.5). Moving on, I’ve also played World of Darkness, and found umpteen systems to research. Including Mouse Guard.

  2. Mostly the 3.x years were a bit difficult for me. I went into it alright but I’m more of a story person than a crunch nut, so there were whole layers of newly added goo that really didn’t do much for me. All it took was a very antagonistic DM in one of our early games to turn me off of the system (sorry Chatty – yours may have been tough but fair; mine was just tough). This I think led me to not really give the game as much of a chance as I would have otherwise and since the majority of the group was more into crunch than I was, i think it led some of them to think less of me. Which in the end caused the creativity in the games to dry up and the group to implode. Last I’d heard some of them still get together but they just play with Magic cards instead.

    By the time 4e came out I’d kind of hit a gaming dry spell that’s still going on. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs with the job market lately so fixing that hasn’t been my first priority but once I get a bit more settled I’ll have to look for a gaming group again. Hopefully I can find one with less drama than the last one. Although I have to admit I would probably be happier if they weren’t playing D&D. It just sounds like the authors were trying too hard to copy video games. The strengths of a pencil and paper game lie in different areas.

  3. Great post! I’m going to have a look at a lot of the links you’ve included.

    I’m having a kind of revival as well at the moment. I’m age-wise probably in the same bracket as you are now (almost 40, pot-belly but no kids yet), but I do have the advantage of working in a field where playing games is actively encouraged (computer games).

    I’ve role-played from the mid 80s, mostly (A)D&D with several groups I’ve now mostly lost contact with. The latest of these was only a couple of months ago, where I was DMming 4th edition and going through the published adventures. Sadly, I got quite disappointed in 4th ed., as I just couldn’t get both groups I was leading to get stuck into it. Whether it’s the system or my abilities to DM I’m not clear on yet.

    But a change in work (and location) now gives me a new opportunity! I’m starting a group at work (with something completely different: Trail of Cthulhu) and I’m testing the waters of the PBP community at, where I’m planning to start honing the other side of GamesMastery: creating from scratch (settings & adventures, not systems), which I must say I haven’t really delved in to at all recently.

    That’s me. Back to work…

  4. @Andy: Mouseguard is the best RPG I’ve read in the second part of the ought’s, it is masterfully written, witty and fun. It is, however hard to learn everything needed to play the game on the first read-through. That I’m kinda buddies with the game engine’s creator has absolutely no influence on my stance 🙂

    @Lanir: Hey man, glad to hear from you again! Sorry to see that the 3.5 years weren’t all that cool for you. If you still are very much into storytelling, I urge you to explore the crop of indie games that have come up in the last 10 years instead of looking at the big 5. There are a lot of rules light, high roleplaying games out there with mechanics that focus on roleplaying. Burning Wheel being just one of them.

    As for 4e, I think it was designed to snag new market shares at the cost of some of its original fan base… said base who might not have been bringing all that much cash anymore. But that’s a discussion for a Friday post for sure.

    Stay tuned for my 3:16 Carnage Among the Stars play report for an example.

    @Alex: Thanks for the feed back! RPG revivals are the best. And don’t feel constrained by a given system. Yes D&D often ends up being the default system to get a whole group playing together but there are now many completely supported versions available that will fit your DMing style.

    As for 4e, if you are willing to explore it further, I’d suggest you try your hand at home brewing it. If you are pressed for time and like adventure path-style gaming, Pathfinder’s chronicles and the associated game is also a great alternative.

    (Again, if only Paizo made printed 4e-patible Adventure Paths, I’d subscribe in a minute. I’m a D&Di subscriber but I don’t like looking at the PDFs magazine… )

  5. Like is apparent ftom my own RPG DNA, I never got into the d20 revolution AT ALL. I was too busy playing other games. If I had still been into sword & sorcery, I might have felt the need to convert to 3+, and from there, been launched towards other d20 products (Modern, Mutants & Masterminds, etc.) But I wasn’t, and I didn’t see anything there I couldn’t already do with my near-complete GURPS collection, or simpler multi-genre systems like Dream Park’s.

    So d20? No perceptible effect on yours truly.

  6. Prior to 3rd edition, we had pretty much fallen off of RPGs in favor of wargames. We were playing Warhammer regularly, and other tabletop games less often. One guy in our group had a 2nd edition campaign going, but it was lackluster. 3rd edition D&D changed the dynamic entirely. The first time we played it, we knew it was something special, and before long we had switched everything over and were playing D&D exclusively. During this time, I ran and played in several really epic campaigns, and the guys I played with then are still the core group of guys I game with today. I DMed our massive college campaign, which ran from 1st to 23rd level over the course of 2 years, before eventually collapsing of bloat.

    I then handed the DM job off to the others, but eventually came back and ran most of Paizo’s Savage Tide campaign for the group before we switched to 4e. I played some of my more memorable characters during this time, including Domial ul’Vorak, the Oracle of Wee Jas, and Stiff Ricky Chen, a monk with a bad attitude. I also got heavily into online play-by-post gaming at this point, and that’s actually how I do most of my gaming these days. I encourage anyone who’s interested to visit the forum at – we have an excellent group of guys over there and we run a lot of play-by-post.

    In the last few years, we’ve mostly switched to 4e, but we also have begun experimenting with Indie RPGs – Spirit of the Century is a big favorite of mine!

  7. I managed to play a little 3.x in about ’02 or so. Wasn’t much… only about enough playing time to level up a half-orc barbarian once or twice. I really liked it. The DM for those few sessions had an extremely short attention span however, so that game died quickly. Still, even though my half-orc barbarian, Tugg MeNuttz was only 2nd or 3rd level, he’s still one of my favorite characters and I would love to get into another game with him.

    It doesn’t really seem like it was that long ago, but around ’02-’03 I was taking a look at LUG’s Star Trek TNG RPG. It looked really interesting and I was eager to try it out, but I really wasn’t in contact with any like-minded players at that point.

    From Summer ’03 to Winter ’06, I moved four times. So, that really disrupted a lot of my free time to keep in contact with other RP gamers. Its only been in about the last year or two that I’ve been so bored with my free time that I’ve been wanting to get into a regular game again. The thoughts have been constantly there, but even more so recently.

  8. I am really enjoying these posts!

    I already have a similar, if less interesting and less detailed post on my own blog on my gaming roots so I won’t repeat here, but I wanted to say that these posts have inspired me to haul out some of my best memories of gaming over the years and post about them~

    I hope you and your readers will do the same; there is nothing quite like a gaming story told with all the polish of years and years of loving retelling. I am very curious to see what sort of scenes stick out in your mind as some of the best in your time as a gamer~


  9. @siskoid: A quick perusal of your 4 part series shows that you were indeed all over the scene in terms of RPGs and played quite a few cool games. I recall a friend trying to sell me on DC heroes while I had just purchased the Advanced version of the Marvel Supers game.

    In fact our multiple Super Heroes sessions weren’t mentioned in my series. Whenever we grew tired of Fantasy, Supers was a safe and enjoyable alternative.

    @pworthen: Ah yes, Spirit of the Century does come back in discussions of games I should try. How is it at the table… knowing full well it was written by the guy who inspired this series of blog posts 🙂

    @Tiorn:! Best of luck to get a new game going. Go out there and make things happen!

    @Runesligner: Thank you! The number of gaming DNA posts has gone Memetic in the last few days/weeks. Many RPG blogs have followed suit, making for awesome stories.

    Bloggers, don’t hesitate to leave links to your own stories here. I think that trackbacks have been turned off because of spamming.

  10. Supers has many things going for it:
    -Fun and wide open character creation process (you don’t suffer from 1st level fighters are all the same syndrome).
    -Easy to get the characters involved (core driving morality)
    -Clear objectives and endgames (once the villain is beat, the story is done, so easy to do one shots or shorter campaigns)

  11. @Chatty: Spirit of the Century is Awesome at the table. Even my group of jaded, combat-loving, “you can take my magic items when you can pry them from my cold, dead fingers” players were able to come up with amazing backgrounds and settle in for a little light fun with this game. We ended up with a memorable cast of characters and we’ve played a few adventures. I highly recommend it.

  12. I’ve loved this series of blog posts about your gaming history. As a very new gamer, I find it fascinating to watch the evolutionary stages, so to speak, of someone that has been gaming for a long, long time. There’s something a little surreal in reading this and contrasting it against my own “I want to try everything” because I’ve only tried one thing yet (D&D 4th ed) and I’m hooked.


  1. […] decision to dissolve his gaming group and his origins as a gamer (his gamer DNA, parts 1, 2, 3). He also gives advice to gamers with spouses, and encourages gamers to, put simply, […]