Failures of D&D 3.x, Part 3

Down to the last set of failures, and can’t say that they are necessarily serious problems for everyone.

However, I have seen complaints about them a number of times, so I’ll do what I can to describe them.

These are things where reasonable applications of the rules lead to possibly undesirable results. I’m classifying these as ‘setting failures’, since the setting ends up with odd things that probably aren’t intended by the designers.


This is part of a broader problem with D&D economy, as I’ll illustrate below, but most people don’t seem to talk about the general problem. The most visibly problematic aspect of the D&D economy is the “Ye Olde MagicMart”.

This one comes up a lot in conversation. Reasonable application of the rules suggests that you should find in each town a store with magic items readily available for sale. According to the DMG you should “most likely” be able to find a full-charged wand of cure light wounds for sale in all small towns. To quote from the DMG 3.5,

“Every community has a gold piece limit based on its size and population. The gold piece limit [800gp for a small town –kjd] is an indicator of the most expensive item available in that community. Nothing that costs more than a community’s gp limit is available for purchase in that community. Anything having a price under that limit is mostly likely available, whether it be mundane or magical. While exceptions are certainly possible (a boomtown near a newly discovered mine, a farming community impoverished after a prolonged drought), these exceptions are temporary; all communities will conform to the norm over time.”

More than that, in even the smallest town (900 people) you should expect to be able to find four dozen of these wands.

“To determine the amount of ready case in a community, or the total value of any given item, multiply half the gp limit by 1/10 of the community’s population.”

In this case, (800gp/2)*(900/10) is 36,000gp, enough for 48 wands at 750gp each. You might even be able to talk them into rounding up to 50 wands as a bulk discount.

In a large town (3000 gp limit, minimum 2001 people) you should be able to equip a century (unit of one hundred soldiers) with +1 short swords. Because the limit is per item type, you could also give each one four wands of cure light wounds to cut down on your bandage costs. If you’re feeling even more militarily inclined and don’t mind skimping on your soldiers’ gear you could instead equip a light (950-man) legion with masterwork short swords and require them to share two fully-charged wands of cure light wounds between every five-man squad.

A good DM will recognize foolish requests like this, or at least make them take more time (such as being able to find a merchant who can take an order for that many and deliver them once they have been accumulated), but this sort of behavior is explicitly described as reasonable in the rules, though at a lower level. The example in the DMG is being able to put your hands on 30 longswords available for sale in a hamlet of 90 people.

Yeah, in a small hamlet (90 out of a maximum of 400) of peasants, you can expect that one in three has a longsword he is prepared to part with for some coin.

Zero to Hero, Just Like That

According to the DMG, characters are expected to level every 13.333… level-appropriate encounters, and be able to handle four such encounters per day before having to go recover.

Applied literally, this means that if you really applied yourself you could expect to level about twice a week.

To give this a little perspective, a 16-year old high school sophomore could go on summer vacation as a first-level character and return to school in the fall crowding twentieth level. If he’s a wizard he might have to wait until after junior year (15+2d6 years old at career start) before he can do this.

I can’t wait to read their “What I did on Summer Vacation” reports in English class, they must be impressive, if a little disjointed.

Comments and Consequences

I’ll admit that I haven’t seen this actually happen to the extent described above. However, I have played modules produced by Wizards of the Coast where we leveled within two days of landing in town, entirely by the rules and the encounters described in the adventure.

One of the consequences of this potentiality is that it can really, really screw with campaign time scales. If you commission a masterwork weapon in town you might find that by the time you get back you will no longer have use for the weapon because it is no longer level-appropriate equipment. You might even decide to pay off the crafter and give it the sword to one of your henchmen or keep it as a backup because you’ve already got something better, and the money it costs is less than you can earn through one day of constructive thuggery. Erm, I meant to say ‘adventuring’.

Related to this point and the MagicMart, it renders item creation feats more or less meaningless unless it means you can build items you would not be able to buy at all. By the time you can afford to buy a particular magic item, it’s more cost effective to go out and apply construc… adventure, sell off the loot and just buy the item you want. Unless you’ve got enforced downtime of some sort, you can’t make items faster than you would be able to earn the money and buy them.

To check: at third level you the expected treasure value per encounter is 900gp, you are expected to be able to handle four encounters per day with a four-member party, so you should expect to bring in about 900gp per day adventuring… and it goes up from there. If you manage to only apply half of that to new item purchases (the rest goes to replacing consumables, which is actually very much higher than I’ve ever seen) then by sixth level you should net about 1000gp per day. By sixth level you could have the Craft Magical Arms and Armor feat and make +2 weapons.

So, take the feat, pay 4000gp (+315gp for the masterwork longsword) and 240xp and spend eight days enchanting a +2 longsword? Or go pound heads for eight days, net about 9200gp (collecting about 15000xp, meaning you level twice in this fit of violence), then stop off in the big city (okay, small city, where you can find items worth up to 15,000gp) and buy the +2 long sword? Or actually, your choice of 450 such swords you could expect to find there?

10-Minute Adventuring Day

This point ties back to a point in my first article about the failures of D&D, that there is a huge disparity in power between spellcasting and non-spellcasting classes. With spellcasters especially, it can really pay to blow most or all of your immediate power in a very short time. Get the buffs up to maximize power and defense then rampage amongst the enemy until your temporary effects are going to run out and/or you are out of the big guns, then run away.

Actually, this point mitigates the second point above. Nova behavior by the PC spellcasters might limit the number of encounters possible each game day, since people are inclined to pack up once their buffs wear off and their big spells are gone. I’m not sure it’s really fair to consider these both at the same time, though I have seen both apply in play at different times.

Scry, Buff, Teleport

Scry, buff, teleport (SBT) is evidently a regrettably common tactic among those who can do it that is a wonderful illustration of the above principle. Find the target (scry), crank up your power and defenses as much as possible (buff), then drop in unexpectedly (teleport) and wreak as much damage, death, and destruction as possible. This is very often successful because it is very difficult to defend against, especially if you carefully select your time to act.

Yes, there are ways to work around this, but they tend to either depend on changing the rules (such as my change that scrying magic is not itself sufficient for targeting teleport, though it is sufficient to identify when the target is at a location already suitable for teleport), applying the existing rules in a possibly contrived manner (the scrying sensor gets noticed and acted on as a precursor to immediate invasion – which it is, since that’s how it gets used), or adding campaign elements that are usually massively expensive to apply regularly (walls mortared with cement containing gorgon’s blood, lead-lined rooms, and all sorts of temporary and permanent teleport interdiction spells).

All things considered, though, this is a specific problematic application of the ability to concentrate and crank up personal power for a short time to disastrous effect on the target.

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  1. tussock

    Just a minor point on buffs, the 3.5 change from 1 hour/level to 10 min/level made them very prone to nova strikes when they were used at all.

    OK, 3.5 had the “problem” that spellcasters spent all their lower level slots on buffs for everyone, and some high level slots on extended mass-buffs, but fixing it just made them take more nova appropriate spells and depowered the grunts over the rest of the day.

  2. So I recall.

    I remember the PCs lining up for their medicine each morning before we started our constructive thuggery for the morning. “/Bull’s Strength/ for *you*, /Cat’s Grace/ for *you*, you can do your own /Eagle’s Splendor/….”

  3. hadsil

    The wealth by level is not meant per adventuring day. It’s for the level. When you are 3rd level you are expected to have roughly 900gp worth of treasure already. The treasure you accumulate over the next several adventures is to get you what you should have at 4th level. Much of this treasure, at this low level at least, will be in consumables such as potions and scrolls. You are expected to be using them, so while 3rd level adventuring to 4th there will be occasions you’ll have less than 900gp treasure early on.

    Scry/Buff/Teleport is not a game over. Aside from the game mechanics ways to stop it, most of the time you don’t even know who you would want to be scrying upon. In your typical dungeon crawl there’s no one to scry upon. If you need to find who’s in charge of the evil cult, the point is you don’t know who it is so how could you scry? You could know the Evil Cult is in the Dungeon Of Doom, but you don’t know anyone specifically in it to scry upon.

    As for the 10-minute adventuring day, that is the players gaming the system. While the game rules allow it to happen, which is a legitimate complaint, this is mostly a meta-game issue. 4E can have this same problem with players using up their daily powers then resting to get them back. This may be an inherent flaw in D&D, but it is not something forced upon a playing group.

  4. Note that my very first sentence of this article was that these aren’t necessarily a problem for everyone. I’ve rarely run into them in practice. However, I have heard people complaining about them and can see how they can come about.

    Table 3-3 (DMG 3.5, pg 51), “Treasure Values per Encounter” says CR3 treasures are expected to average about 900gp. Divided by four characters, times four encounters per day, gives a total of 900gp per character per day.

    Table 5-1 (DMG 3.5, pg 135), “Character Wealthy by Level” expects a third-level PC to have 2700gp. You’re expected to have 900gp at second level.

    If you go by the tables, at least.

    I agree that SBT isn’t a game over situation most of the time, but once you can pull it off (have the abilities and knowledge needed) it tends to bring things to a close pretty quickly when applied. To be honest I consider it a symptom or example rather than the actual problem.

    As for the 10-minute day, of course it isn’t forced by the rules. However, the concentration of power for a short duration makes it profitable.

  5. Pingback: An Adventurer’s Day | …and the sky full of dust.

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