Every once in a while, discussion online about Dungeons & Dragons erupts into so-called "edition wars." Edition wars come in many flavors, but the most prevalent over the last year or two have to do with the release of 4th edition, and therefore are between 3e (or 3.5e) and 4e. Every once in a while, I'll get involved in these discussions, but mostly I don't too much. I don't really have a horse in either race, and I don't feel passionately about editions. Not only that, these are the stereotypical unreasonable and unreasoning flamewars rather than actual good discussion, so what's the point? Occasionally it can be fun to virtually bite someone's head off for being an imbecile online, but by and large I find that an unsatisfying venture in which to involve myself.
What I hope to do with this post, however, is to provide my non-edition wars opinion on 3e vs. 4e. A chance to have that reasonable discussion, even if it's just me blogging at myself. If nothing else, it gives me a chance to write down my opinions and make sure that they hold out under the harsh light of scrutiny.
I'm a 3e guy. 3.5, I guess. Although I wasn't really thrilled with the kinda sorta change midway through, backwards compatibility between 3e and 3.5 was a breeze, requiring little (if any) work, and the "need" to re-buy stuff I already had was very low, so I just grumbled about it a little bit to myself and moved on, basically. However, this doesn't mean that I'm a huge 3e fan, or even necessarily that I think 3e is better than 4e. To be honest with you, I don't know that it is.
Rather, what happened to my taste has little to do with any intrinsic qualities of either edition, and is instead completely defined by a few externalities. Let me list and describe them real quick.
First, the easiest. Nobody in my gaming group was interested in transitioning to 4e. What's the point of buying a new game if everyone (mostly) that I'd potentially play it with has expressly stated that they're not interested? Would have been a complete waste of money.
Second, also easy. I have a lot of 3e material. I had dabbled in the rpg hobby for years, but I never really became a big spender until 2000, when 3e came out. Prior to that, I had several Werewolf splatbooks, a few Traveller editions, Top Secret S.I., MERP, and a handful of other games, but within the first year or two of d20, I bought more RPG books than I already owned across all product lines, and then I kept buying more. I've got a lot of 3e material. Much of it, I still haven't even used. Businessmen will tell you that sunk costs are sunk, and therefore shouldn't enter into decision making going forward, but in my case, I had absolutely no need to migrate. I had a game that I'm happy with, and I've got tons of material for it, and I'm still happily mentally amortizing the expense of that edition, and can see myself doing so for years to come. In fact, it feels really good to be nearing a completion stage. There's still a few sourcebooks here and there that I missed the first time around but actually do want to own, but not very many. Within half a dozen to a dozen more purchases, my need for new material will be almost completely nil, and I can just occasionally pick up a Pathfinder Chronicles or Companion setting book for fun. You know how nice it is to be out of the buying game? It's nice. It's kinda like paying for a car. If you lease one, you're always paying. But if you buy it, at some point, you've got it paid for. And then, you're no longer making payments. It's sooooo nice.
Third, I've come to the conclusion that I'm not that much of a systems person. Several years ago, when 3e was new, and there were also Wheel of Time and Star Wars variants of the d20 game engine, I was pretty happy with them, but unsure if the system was really robust enough to cover all my gaming needs. The book that sold me was the d20 Call of Cthulhu game. Here, the game engine was used for a game that has a very different tone and feel than D&D. And… it was a great game. At that point, I think I made the decision, partially subconsciously, that I was going to stop searching for the Holy Grail gaming system that does everything I want to perfectly. D20 was good enough that I could use it for anything with predictable and reasonably satisfying results. As more and more modular rules add-ons were developed for d20, often by third party publishers, this became even more true over time.
Fourth, and related to the third, most of the really innovative changes and improvements to mechanics have already been done. 4e, even if you accept that it's an improvement on 3.5, is only a marginal, incremental improvement, not a monumental improvement. In fact, what a lot of folks I've talked to like most about 4e was the changing paradigm moreso than the actual changing rules. The idea that you can simplify opponents stats down to just what you need to run a combat, and not everything else. The idea that you can generate those numbers on the fly, even, if you need to. The idea of minions, etc. However, for me, that wasn't a new paradigm. I was already running 3.5 that way. Granted, I don't think it was the designers' intentions that I do, but there wasn't any reason why I couldn't. I think it's kinda funny in a way that a lot of people never had the thought cross their mind to whack out rules elements that were time-intensive and tedious to use, when it was obvious (to me at least) that those rules elements weren't really necessary, and that if you didn't use them, nobody would actually be the wiser.
Fifth, and this is related to the fourth, I like having a robust ruleset, but also one where I can ignore portions of it that I'm not interested in without the system breaking down. D20 is pretty consistent, which means that I can (more or less) correctly extrapolate how it should work without having to actually look stuff up and make sure. If I can make a ruling on the fly and find out later that what I decided to do is pretty much the same as an "official" ruling would be, then that system wins a few points for being robust and consistent. I've found that d20 (of the 3e stripe) passes that test. This means that I can run d20 without much prep, and without even knowing all of the rules thoroughly, as long as I understand the concepts behind their design well enough to smoothly run the game. A robust and consistent system offers this benefit, and I find that 3e does this very well. For those who find that the system is too stifling or tedious to use, I say that it's not the system's fault; you're just doing it wrong. It doesn't have to be run that way, you just have the option of doing so if you want to.
Also related, sixth, is that I like a robust chargen system. Sometimes I really understand the character I'm making, but sometimes I don't. Sometimes I only have a vague idea of who he (or she) is going to be, and going through a detailed chargen helps me to quantify and figure out who this character really is. An overly simplistic chargen is OK when I have a solid mental handle on the character, but not when I need a system to help me get that solid mental handle. Not only that, I like the more exotic options. A more fully developed, robust ruleset allows me to strike out in new directions that a simple PHB would not. It's going to be a long time before 4e is really as robust in this regard as 3e, if indeed it ever is.
So, for me, my decision to stick with 3e instead of move to 4e wasn't really based on very many qualitative differences between the systems. Basically, 4e just wasn't (and probably couldn't ever have been) sufficiently improved over 3e to overcome my inertia and indifference to changing systems.