D&D 3.5: Shadows, Good Bards, and A Lot of Rules

Players: Helma and Tommi

DM: Sean (me)

After some play of older versions of D&D, specifically a AD&D2e inspired OS/R game (For Gold & Glory), there was some interest and talk about a) play more D&D and b) doing so for longer. I chose 3.5 because it gets lost in Pathfinder talk, which is fair, but I think that the two systems are not identical. Much like my feelings about 4e, my feelings about PF and DD3.5 have evolved over the years largely due to how both games were marketed. The constant introduction of new rules pushes against relationship between the player and GM and I think, makes it toxic. The GM becomes a service top or Daddy/ Mommy, creating content so players can unveil their new creation and play it. This is not play or looking back on it, it is rarely what we might consider coherent play. It becomes a fashion show.

So going to raw, just the Player’s Handbook 3.5 was my goal. I like the system but it does have a lot of gears that turn and that pushes players and DM’s towards optimizing character. I feel that Helma and Tommi asked great questions about their characters and seemed to find a good spot between what they wanted and what they got. I will let them speak to that if they wish. I do like their characters and I am enjoying both players inhabiting their space.


How to make this interesting? I spent many years (like 7 years) playing Living Greyhawk, using D&D 3.0 and 3.5 with the RPGA. I also ran home games to be sure but, for 7 years the RPGA sessions were our home game. There were tons of modules and adventures written, most of which cannot be gathered. I do know of some caches existing, but they are secret and likely on the DARK WEB. As I had just run a classic module, I decided to make my own prep in my wide-ranging world of the Middle Kingdoms. I took the idea of cauldrons from Welsh myth and laid the foundation of the game with the Cup of Nalak. Is it a chalice? Is it an actual cauldron? Nobody knows. Heck it might be nothing but a rumor. This was to give a mythical overtone to the setting and situation. I am not sure if it is working or not, but we are only two sessions into play.

I created a place to start and a region to play in and started the ball rolling and there are bards involved. I had this largely planned before the bard discussion on Adept Play happened and was reminded that I needed to give the bards a better look than what we might see of late. I am happy to say, so far, so good.


Play began on a foggy mourning in Ryeton, a village once known as Rye Town because of the crop they grew. The morning is silent, and the people are not in sight, save for a dwarven innkeeper. The innkeeper reveals that there is someone else in the inn and all investigate to find… a dead halfling. Because all good stories begin with murder, right? From there the players took some interest and were not shy about offering their services for gold, which I love. No one should pursue the bad guy for vague notions: its like when writers and musicians are offered gigs for “exposure”. No, give the characters gold, put their survival on the line, or throw some cosmic bullshit at them. And my NPCs understand this. I am still looking to make the content more personal and more engaging for both players, but having a bit of struggle there.

The end of session 1 had the characters fighting giant boars. Which they did, killing one while an NPC druid killed the other.

Session 2 was conversation and negotiation and time with some bards in an open air. I enjoyed it, but I keep wondering if I should have thrown more conflict in? I am doing my best not to lay tracks in front of the players, but I often worry that I bore players with my style. Constraints feel harder outside of the dungeon and 3.5 is still a D&D game: it likes dungeons where the players can show off their stuff. It ended with the characters planning to accompany a half-orc bard north to the large town of Wynder’s Gap in search of another bard who may or may not know something about the Cup or Cauldron of Ryeton. (Every human village or city has a largely ceremonial cauldron at its center. Other races have similar though not the same kind of thing.)

My struggle right now is that I hope this is interesting. No one has said that is not interesting, but it did come up if the incidents that the players ran into were the content and should they follow those? My answer always is “no, you can do anything” but that undermines social contract I think. Saying “yes” this is the interesting thing in the room, does not remove agency. And I might be fighting the system too much.

10 responses to “D&D 3.5: Shadows, Good Bards, and A Lot of Rules”

  1. Not advice, just musings.

    My struggle right now is that I hope this is interesting. No one has said that is not interesting, but it did come up if the incidents that the players ran into were the content and should they follow those? My answer always is “no, you can do anything” but that undermines social contract I think. Saying “yes” this is the interesting thing in the room, does not remove agency. And I might be fighting the system too much.


    My experience with 3.0/3.5 is, I'm afraid to say, quite extensive. It includes at least 5 long play campaigns as a player (the longer of which lasted over 4 years, 15 levels and 3 characters) and at least as many as a DM (including one that went from the release of 3.0 to a couple years past the release of 4.0, with characters reaching level 44 in the end). 

    This isn't boasting or anything like that, I'm just trying to say: I know your pain, in the tiniest details.

    My unorganized thoughts are the following:

    D&D3.X is probably the least "D&Dish" version of the game, to me. What I mean is, it's a ruleset that doesn't do the things that D&D is supposedly about particularly well. It is combat focused, yes, but combat isn't (as one could imagine) an happy medium between the very abstract, information-driven combat of previous editions and the carefully balanced tactical minigame of 4E. 
    It's big and bold and it has a grid but it cares very little about using it and even less about making the process fun.
    It's not particularly devoted to exploration either, o dungeoncrawling. 

    Honestly, my general impression of the design process behind 3E's tools is that the people writing it imagined everything someone at the play table could eventually attempt, then wrote rules for that activity that made sense, and at a later stage considered if all that put together was a game. 

    What this means is that I've never had particular success running the game as a dungeon crawl, or as combat-focused, or even as something "story driven" (in that modern acception that implies the idea of collective storytelling). In any such attempt (being it a general approach to that specific campaign or an instance within a larger scope game), the ruleset eventually didn't hold.
    What 3.X did however (and this may be lost or taken for granted for anyone who was familiar with other, less famous games or with how games look like today) was giving you this very wide fan of tools that allowed you to handle "anything that could happen" in that very mechanical but ultimately effective way as, say, GURPS or Savage World do.
    It also had a massive focus on character design: players had this giant, unfocused toolset of mechanical widgets and ideas to pick from to try and "build" their characters. The mechanical aspects are notorious but the inspirations are more interesting to me. There was a very loose sense of what a class or prestige class or ability would mean in general terms – sure, the Harper had a very clear context in the fiction – but eventually you had a player saying he wanted to be a Kensai or a Beastrider or a Mysthic Teurge and none of this had the type of solid, fictional justification that games with stronger settings have.
    And this to me made the characters very personal to the player. You had to fight to have them make sense within the DM's tailored scenarios, and this is where the game to to places. All that mess you where throwing in to get that +3 bonus to Constitution saving throws, if unabandoned, was storytelling potential.

    Our most successfull games was a mix between very storydriven scenarios and character development. Characters were the good bit, and no matter what happened, you had some mechanical element you could add a d20 roll to to see which side of the story you ended on.

    In the most enjoyable game we had, as a player, I think the experience was ultimately very similar to what I've experienced playing Undiscovered with Ron, even if the DM couldn't be more different in attitude and preparation. The similarities end up at every session starting the DM presenting a very solid, focused and defined situation (with very little "where were we" or "what do you want to do"), giving you an idea that you know where things are going or where the DM wants to take you, and then the game immediately becoming about character choices and free interactions within that scenario – with the almost immediate realization that once play started, it could go anywhere.

    I say that the DMs were different because with Undiscovered I felt this was the approach from the get-go, while in our game it was the product of our DM being very very lazy (he's a childhood friend of mine and we still play together weekly, but he's the quintessential DM who gets a very good idea, starts developing it, gets bored and thinks "I'll wing it at the table") and the very large cast of characters having so much inter-party tension and personality that we would basically not even need a DM most of the time. People would simply play and fight and argue and laugh using their characters as the motivation outside of the main "story". The cleric would lead us across the continent to chase his dreams, the rogue and ranger would fall in love, the elf would get kidnapped or jailed so many times out of his need to challenge authority, the barbarian would create trouble at every step. We had character leave the group, characters killing each other. It was one of the most character driven game we had.

    I would capitalize on this feature because it's only element that I can also find in the other game (the one ending on level 44 that I did run). This was a very different affair – I was the meticulous DM, who used every rule and made maps and dungeons and statted traps and printed artwork. 
    This was a much more straightforward game and while (unlike the other DM) I didn't have a "story" that I was following, I was preparing sessions and then invisibly or quite visibly forcing my willing victims to follow them. The game held together because the players were A) fewer and B) absolutely into this approach, and considered the content I created "quality" (in hindisight, I think we would all agree that that quality wasn't a satisfying surrogate for agency, but we were teens to twenty something and it was enough back then).

    However the good moments and the stuff that we still reminisce about were the same as above – the general character's personality (expecially in its emergent, character-sheet-based qualities) leading to explosive and unforseen interactions.

    So I guess my general advice is: embrace the weird stuff. We were using ALL the books. I think if we stuck to the core ones we would have lost interest almost immediately. Open up to the weird options, the super specific things that have no rhyme or reason and let players give them a meaning, in play. I think it's the most solid feature of the system, to the point that I've argued that character creation (and leveling up) is the most successfull phase of play. If you find a way to make that creative process enter play regularly, it will always be interesting even if the content is predictable or railroad-y.

  2. Some comments

    1. I like the Welsh mythology. I remember basically nothing about it, but it certainly is much more interesting than the usual elfdwarf stuff.

    2. In this kind of sandboxy situation, where we can go pretty much wherever we want, I (as a game master) would be giving the players a few explicit and different directions to choose from, with the understanding (also explicit) that they can also do something else. Right now we have about one, maybe two, things to choose from and no idea if there is anything of interest elsewhere. It is also a valid approach to let the players work for the discovery of the adventurous things, though maybe that is more suited for longer term play.

    3. I like how we are nominally searching for the bard, ask around, find that they are probably south, and then Fenja meets a hot bard and wants to go north. athes, not being too clever, is of course okay with this. As long as he gets out of the town. Damned towns.

    4. I am not sure this game benefits from tracking experience. Maybe ljust give evels when appropriate? (Milestones is the modern D&D word for this, I think.)

    5. I am not yet quite sure how to approach the game. Clearly not focused on life-and-death problem solving. I liked the parts of the world we saw during the first session, but the second was not quite as compelling (more D&D, less Welsh stuff, I guess is the reason). Maybe the solution would be to give this immersive play stuff a try? Dive deeper into the character's personality and culture and try to bring those forth.

    6. I am fine with the rules and still remember them surprisingly well. I do think this is a unique edition of D&Din the way Lorenzo mentioned: it gives a realistic framework (at first level) that makes sense, and the same rules work out quite okay for interactions up to the demigod level (level 20). So the first level character will jump reasonable distances and carry reasonable loads, while the twentieth level one can do quite a lot. Marred at high levels by the insistence to not give non-magical characters anything fun, but still, not a bad show. I do find the unorganic and fixed nature of the character development to be boring (and character optimization is really not to my taste), but since athes has a fairly straightforward development path (get archery feats and skills that make sense), I am fine. The character is far from optimized, though.

  3. “Interesting”

    Your prep section begins with the phrase, “How to make this interesting?”

    I will push that button: why ask such an irrelevant and unhelpful thing?

    Looking at your content, you describe two perfectly excellent things: the cauldron with its folkloric context, and a desire for bards worthy of attention. You describe them as well in terms of your desires and needs, which I think is understandable and sensible.

    I’m saying that so far, there was no need to ask yourself anything about “making” play “interesting” for anyone else.

    Continuing into your play section,

    I am still looking to make the content more personal and more engaging for both players, but having a bit of struggle there.

    That’s weird because you just finishing describing that the players were engaged and initiated the monetary arrangement with the NPCs themselves. Is there some other “personal” or “engaging” that you’re seeking? If so, what? And significantly, why? Again, no need for it is evident. The players aren’t moping around and acting weird; they’re playing their characters doing things. What are you moping about?

    This just keeps going!

    [re session 2] … I enjoyed it, but I keep wondering if I should have thrown more conflict in? I am doing my best not to lay tracks in front of the players, but I often worry that I bore players with my style.


    My struggle right now is that I hope this is interesting.

    I’m saying this is some serious performance anxiety, right here. I wouldn’t be so pushy and presumptuous if I hadn’t seen bits and pieces across a lot of your play sessions already, but I have. This time is more so because the players seem to be doing fine and you’re more anxious, not less.

    What do “interested” players look like, as you would hope for them to be? And is it even your place to harbor such a hope?

    In a game I played not too long ago, with a player-character, I was outright insulted by the GM describing, out of game, about how he prepared material in order to satisfy what he perceived as what we wanted. It’s a fundamentally dishonest act; such a GM is not a fellow participant but a manager of our participation, and thus I am forced to interact with them at second-remove. They are not “X” (themselves) but an interpreter of my “Y,” thus making any interaction I bring into something he examines as “Y meets Y,” with their X nowhere in sight.

    Instead, as player or GM, in every possible arrangement of the many components summarized by those terms, in any position within any of those arrangements, I trust a person to bring their own willingness to engage, to react and do things as they see fit, not present some moving target which I must engage like a guy trying to hit a target at a shooting gallery to win a prize.

    So – rude, yes, but food for thought, I hope.

    • These are good points and I

      These are good points and I think the anxiety is a hold over of performance GMing. Some poisons do take time to filter out of the system, especially when you realize what a hold they have on you. 

    • As with my discussions with

      As with my discussions with Santiago three years ago, I am following up on layers of obligations that one might perceive. I think these are three different kinds (whether nested, and how, seems variable).

      • Introducing someone "to role-playing," as an activity, at all. The primary anxiety here is that if they have a bad time or get bored, all of role-playing has lost a recruit or at least someone who might have spoken kindly about it. And that will be your fucking fault.
      • Introducing someone to a title they're not familiar with, perhaps in the context of a way to play that this title is supposed to display to them. The primary anxiety here is that they won't learn how and may overreact or might simply not like it, in which case, your mutual respect will be scarred and probably decreased.
      • Introducing someone to any particular edition or mode of playing D&D. The primary anxiety here is mult-faceted – it may be that you're showing them "see? it's not bad if you play it right," which is more like the second bullet above, or it maybe that you consider a D&D title to be a rather pure or introductory or emblematic "real" role-playing, which is more like the first bullet above. In either case, it's often uniquely charged because D&D.

      In all cases, the person in this position is also subject to the usual problem in teaching concerning explaining vs. instructing vs. referencing, and in which order, and about what for each.

      Anyway, I thought the comparison with Santiago's situation as discussed in FATE on the fly and linked content would be worth investigating. The contrast in your and his experience of play couldn't be greater, with you close to the maximum possible world-wide and him with a handful of partial sessions, but there's a lot of overlap in the topics being raised.

    • Santiago’s note was a good

      Santiago's note was a good read. I found myself nodding at parts, recognizing some of the same feelings.

      And I recognize there is some "Ignore the man behind the curtain" going on too. Being a GM is a power trip and just being a country doctor from Kansas with a hot air balloon who can help people recognize their worth is not as sexy as being a great and powerful wizard. (The Wizard of Oz for folks who do not get the allusion.)

      All of which is a struggle to overcome at times. It makes this mess harder than it needs to be. I can say however, that I just relaxed and enjoyed the most recent sessions and feel much less anxiety. The prep is good and the play is good.

  4. new places, new faces

    I feel I'm late to the party now, especially given the fact that I don't really plan to react to specific comments left before. Hope that does not cause to much confusion. In playing with Tommi and Sean I realise my very own quest of trying as many different “D&D” labeled games as possible, just for the fun of it. So far I've played a one shot of Holmes, that Tommi ran, a one shot of 2e that Sean did as well as a game of Gamma World before that, where Ross was DM (I count it, but am eager to play “proper” 4e too). I'm still feeling new and use to need a fair amount of time and help from everybody else around the table to start and feel somewhat at home in the games. These games are very different from most things I've played before and I have a tendency to be unnecessarily shy and insecure when I don't understand every detail I read. That said I had a lot of fun rolling up my character and it is astonishingly easy to get into the right mood for play if your dice get you a petite half orc barbarian (I'm serious here, she is only 1.58m) and you have no intention to follow any stereotypes (because no idea what they would be). So she is rather talkative and actually has a habit of trying her best to be nice and friendly when meeting new people. She is only 17, so guess what happens when you throw a gorgeous, beautyfully scarred half orc bard who plays the bagpipes in her way. I had a blast last session. Sean has a knack for giving his NPC just enough “real” to make engaging with them really really fun and neither me nor her miss dank and dark dungeons in the least right now. We are both easily distracted by new things/persons and as far as she is concerned, finding the guy Athes and her are supposed to find, is not necessary excluding having fun. Aside from that, bards do travel a lot and hear a lot, so travelling alongside him and being able to talk some more may give us (who are outsiders to the region) the possibility to figure out what we are getting ourselfs into. Fenja still thinks they could make it out and find ourselfs some nice, straight forward border skirmish more suited to our abilities instead of getting dragged into some magic power struggle which only can end bad. To be completely honest, she also hopes that Lark (the half orc bard) does not have a horse so they can walk, she has a horse to keep up with Athes, but does not really like riding. I really liked how different the two first sessions were and look forward to our next sessions.

    • Just a small peek behind the

      Just a small peek behind the curtain, but I always envisioned Lark as having a mount and riding down the road playing his tunes. Fenja can probably keep up with them on foot, however, as she is used to running swiftly overland. 

  5. As Ron Suggested

    I'm posting these questions here 🙂

    Hi Sean! If I hear you right, you prepped your dungeon like a flowchart: if players chose direction X, there’s encounter 1, if they choose Y, there’s encounter 2, kind of like an old-school module from back in the day. Is that right? If so, how well did it work for you? Did you prep this way because not was the most fun way to do it for you, or some other reason? While you were playing, when you were deciding what happened next, was that all determined by the player’s choice of direction and your prep, or did you find yourself doing something else as well?

    • I would say there was no

      I would say there was no "kind of", but full on like an older model of module / adventure. The sewers of this city run beneath it like a labrynth and there are parts of the sewers that are in fact part of the previous versions of the city. And they are large enough for people to move around in. 

      A couple of caveats:

      • There are tracks left by someone and the group is following those tracks. So their choice of direction has been based on that decision. It led to an encounter with a dead body and some creepy skeletal warriors.
      • There are symbols in the sewers made by various groups that use it for their own purposes. The characters were informed that their quarry would most likely be in one particular section. Again, their decisions were informed by this information.

      Dungeons are fun for me, yes. I am a believer in narrowing the physical and emotional space for characters. I think that those kinds of spaces (dungeons, small apartments, back alleys) help to raise tension at several levels. The characters had been in the wide open for the first few sessions and I wanted to put them in more confined, uncomfortable places. In the very first session I used fog to do a similar thing.

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