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Player's Handbook: Core Rulebook I
      Dungeon Master's Guide: Core Rulebook II
      Monster Manual: Core Rulebook III
Wizards of the Coast, 320 pages
      Wizards of the Coast, 320 pages
      Wizards of the Coast, 320 pages

Player's Handbook
Dungeon Master's Guide
Monster Manual
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Mike Thibault

The latest version of the Dungeons and Dragons game is in stores now and it has been received by the gaming community with mixed feelings. It is neither a fully new edition of the game, nor a minor tweak to smooth out the rough edges of the existing edition. It is somewhere in between and probably has something to disappoint everyone. Granted, there is probably something that will please everyone too, but a lot of people were pretty pleased with the 3rd edition as it stood. Thus it has been very easy to notice the steps "backward" in the three core rule books (Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual) rather than the advances.

So what are the advances, the achievements, of the revision? In a nutshell, the major flaws in the system have been smoothed over or eliminated, and the reviewer's jaundiced eye has been cast on all major aspects of the game: classes, spells, feats, skill and the combat system. This is not to say that the core system has been altered in any way; it hasn't. Almost every dice roll to determine success or failure requires a d20 roll, with modifiers added, which is compared to a target number. But this is a complex game and many of the details have been altered for the better.

The game-breaking spells (Harm, Heal and Haste) have all been toned down. The classes that were universally considered weak (although, not everyone agreed that they were in the wrong ball park) have been beefed up, and points of interest have been added to the higher levels. Many of the skills have been clarified and balanced. Game Masters will no longer have to guess what the difference is between the social skills (Bluff, Diplomacy and Intimidate) and the Knowledge skills give concrete, in-game benefits in addition to their softer "character-depth" benefits. Magic items have been repriced and, again, rebalanced for easier play, and finally, the monsters have been assigned more realistic challenge ratings and some powers have been altered slightly or changed.

There are really so many small, but significant, changes that there is a short tipping-point between drawing attention to the strengths and blandly listing the bulk of the rules. This is the source of consternation for some users. If you liked the unrevised system, reading the revised rulebooks can seem like a "death by one-thousand cuts." Whether you like the fact that Dwarves have been given a few extra powers, or that Whirlwind Attack is functional with long spears, it all seems rather difficult to get a handle on. Everything is fundamentally the same but different. This can be very frustrating for those who have spent three years becoming comfortable with the rules.

New players and Game Masters are presented with a generally clearer and better balanced system -- and the value of that should not be underestimated -- but those who are already playing the game will probably feel disappointed to one degree or another. Not so much in that a favourite ability, feat or spell is no longer as powerful as it once was, but that essentially the entire system must be reasserted (although, not relearned because the fundamentals are still the same) if you are to truly run a "core-rules campaign."

So is it worth picking up? I would have to say, that depends. If you have been away from the hobby for awhile and missed 3rd edition the first time around, then you will be an unqualified beneficiary of the revision. It is as good a system as it has always been and is better than the 3.0 system in more ways than it is worse. If you are already playing 3.0 D&D, and you don't rely on published adventures or source books in your game, then there is no urgency to switch over to v.3.5, but if you have the time and inclination to make the effort then it is worth it. Personally, I am planning on "kit-bashing" v.3.0 and v.3.5 together by taking the skills, feats and classes as written from 3.5, hand-picking a few notable spells, magic items and prestige classes from 3.5, and using the rest of the 3.0 system as is. At least until I (and my regular playing group) is at a level of mastery with the revision that we feel that the transition will be smooth. But, as they say, your mileage may vary.

Copyright © 2003 Mike Thibault

Michael Thibault is a librarian and archivist in Ottawa, Canada. Aside from gaming and the obligatory obsession with reading, he... er, well, he doesn't have any other hobbies.

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