I think I’ll start my ‘Thing a Day’ series with a description of why and how I think D&D fails. This is likely to be a work in progress, the points below are more or less off the top of my head.
I’ve been playing RPGs for almost thirty years, a wide range of them, and D&D has always been my go-to game. Sometimes this was because it was the easiest to find players for, but for the last ten years or so it’s been because D&D 3e (and D&D 3.5 even more, after that) did the best job of modeling the kind of world I wanted to explore.
So, D&D has always been my preferred game to play, and I think D&D 3.5 is the best version of it I’ve played. However, it has some flaws and limitations in how it works and what it models.
Quadratic Growth vs. Linear Growth
Let’s start with perhaps the biggest offender, since it is related to (and in fact direct cause of) several of the following issues.
Mundane characters (that is, those without the ability to cast spells or use other supernatural abilities) grow in a more or less linear fashion. Ignoring the maximum hit points gained at first level, their hit points go up in a linear manner, their attack bonuses go up in a linear manner, and many of their special abilities, such as they are, have linear gains at linear cost (class levels or feat slots). When improving or gaining new abilities, they tend to either pay to keep an existing ability (nominally) at a level-appropriate grade, or pay full price to gain a new ability at low level.
Fantastic characters (those with the ability to cast spells or use other supernatural abilities) grow in a quadratic manner, if not exponential. At every other level, a primary caster gets new abilities (spells) that are at a level-appropriate grade. A ninth-level wizard doesn’t need to spend four feats to get access to teleport, nor does a ninth-level cleric need to spend feats to get access to raise dead (though it does have a cost to cast). The characters can simply choose to learn or prepare these spells as needed.
For this privilege their linear growth (Base Attack Bonus, hit points, etc.) may be limited compared to the mundane characters. Over the course of ten levels, the wizard’s Base Attack Bonus falls behind the fighter’s Base Attack Bonus by five whole points. For reference, this is almost the same as the difference between rolling Strength 10 and rolling Strength 18. The wizard can work around this a little bit, though. For instance, a wizard could cast spells that use touch attacks (which are roughly the same in effect as the brilliant energy weapon quality – a +4 weapon quality – in that they ignore armor) or saving throws (that can be almost impossible to avoid because of how the saving throw DC calculations work.
Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?
Multiclassing Doesn’t Work
On the face of it, 3e and 3.5 had the best multiclassing of all editions of D&D.
The earliest editions didn’t allow multiclassing at all. AD&D had two different types of multiclassing (‘actual’ multiclassing as done by demihumans, who were stuck with whatever selection of classes they made for their multiclassing, and ‘dual classing’ for humans where you could switch between classes but not back, and only as long as you followed certain rules about class abilities and had good enough ability scores). In short, as long as you could live without heavy armor and could find a DM willing to overlook the demihuman level caps (or played only at low level where they didn’t come up anyway) you wanted to have multiclass elves.
Starting with D&D 3e, you could freely and easily multiclass. Your fighter starts dabbling with magic? Give him a level of wizard and off he goes. If he later gets religion he might take a level of cleric, or if he’s larcenous, rogue (or maybe still cleric; we hear stories about some priests…). The linear bits still fit together more or less well – the oddity you get with ‘partial scores’ is easily corrected by tracking and applying the fractional values rather than the integers shown in the class progression tables.
However, this gets absolutely hosed by the linear vs. quadratic problem. Yes, a 12th-level fighter could decide to take his next two character levels as a wizard. He trades +1 Base Attack Bonus, a combat feat, +1 Fortitude (which is having trouble keeping up to save DCs already) and six hit points for the ability to cast magic missile for 1d4+1 points of damage a few times a day and +3 to his Will save.
Yay? He trades something that might be worth having (if it weren’t rendered irrelevant by his lack of spellcasting ability) for something that frankly isn’t worth having.
Let’s look at the other side of this. The fighter’s buddy, a 12th-level wizard, decides to get a little more butch and take a couple levels of fighter. He gains +1 Base Attack Bonus, +3 Fortitude, six hit points, and two combat feats. Mind you, it cost him only +1 Will base save bonus and… seventh-level spells?
Back that up, I think he’d rather be able to, say, travel to another plane (plane shift), safely teleport almost anywhere, or change the weather for miles around himself. He’d be trading something that certainly would be worth having for something he can easily do without.
Even when you don’t get gross disparities like this, many other classes multiclass poorly because the level-appropriate abilities they grant are based on class level. This means that in order to get what ‘good stuff’ the class offers you have to stay single class. The limitations put on the class abilities work okay when a character single-classes, but break when a character multiclasses.
Level Adjustments Don’t Work
If you want to play a cool race, something with some nifty racial abilities, you pay extra for the privilege. Specifically, you pick up a level adjustment that causes you to be treated as higher level than your Hit Dice indicate.
One reason this fails is that you often end up weaker than your ‘adjusted level’ indicates. You might have some shiny abilities in limited circumstances, but you lose some key durability and strength you should otherwise have for your level. A 2HD creature with a +4 level adjustment is not a sixth-level character. He’s simply too fragile to survive, and unless the special abilities gained directly apply to the situation may well be unable to act effectively at all.
This fails also because the ability you pay precious level adjustment for might be rendered meaningless as you gain levels. For instance, DR 20/magic sounds awfully impressive until you realize you probably can’t get it until a level such that most things you’re likely to fight have magic weapons or DR/magic themselves (either of which means your DR doesn’t help at all). Similarly, many racial abilities might be unusually effective in some limited circumstances when you first pay for them, but don’t scale well and become irrelevant.
Magic Trumps Mundane
This might be a personal peeve and it’s not actually a problem. It seems it’s very easy to find magic that makes actual skill use irrelevant. Whether it’s the knock spell, fly, invisibility, or fireball, it seems it is often possible for spellcasters to render other characters meaningless. The other characters can still be meatshields, of course, but this is not a very satisfying career.