Or: Why D&D 3.5 is no fun.
I love my friend Russell like a brother, and I’ll gladly play any game that he wants to GM, but I’m so looking forward to him switching systems some time in the near future as he’s planning to do. As long as we’re not in combat, the game and setting are entertaining as all get-out, but as soon as we roll init…ugh. There’s just no part of “You rolled a 13, plus 11 for your Attack Bonus, plus 1 for the prayer, minus 5 for the Combat Expertise, minus 5 for it being your second attack is 15…you hit!” that’s exciting. It’s possible that if we played every week, instead of about once a month for half a year, that we’d get so used to the system–or learn to take notes that pre-figure all the standard options we usually choose in battle–that it would be mercifully quick. But it still wouldn’t be very exciting, in my opinion. It has all the panache and tension of doing SAT practice problems. Continue that sort of thing for a half-hour or more, and I’d honestly rather that we went system-less.
That’s not to say that my current favorite system, Savage Worlds, is without flaw in this regard. I think that on the whole modifiers are a bit less common and tend to be applied more homogeneously (e.g. the penalty for multiple actions in a round applies to every action in the round, so at least you only have to figure it once at the beginning), and there is an actual requirement that certain kinds of maneuvers (e.g. Tricks) get a description to justify them rather than a bare announcement of the attempt, but on the flip side the die-rolling has the possibility of being more complex with the open-ended rolls and I could see it falling into a similar if shallower rut of “let’s all do some arithmetic now!” At least in Savage Worlds, I think I see how to speed things along in combat and making the combat more dynamic and descriptive; with D&D 3e, I honestly think that the more dynamic the combat gets in terms of options for the players, terrain, facing, environmental conditions, spells, maneuvers and abilities, the worse it becomes in terms of arithmetic as the bonuses and penalties come and go and fewer things can be pre-calculated. I don’t really see much of a way to improve that without stripping player options; stacking mods on a roll of a d20 is pretty much the essence of the system.
The bottom line is that with 3e, I end up hoping that we don’t get into any combats, so that we can continue to have a fun time. That’s probably less than optimal for D&D.