And here we have a guest post from Editorial0…
I’m cynical about being an optimist. No, really!
I try to be optimistic. I kept trying desperately to persuade myself and others that The Last Airbender had potential as a movie (if you haven’t seen it… don’t). I tried to keep up hope that Duke Nukem Forever would finally be released. I was all in favor of new ideas in 3rd edition when it arrived.
Well, one out of three ain’t bad. I hear Duke Nukem Forever may actually come out pretty good.
But the other two… kinda sucked.
We already know why The Last Airbender failed: M. Night Shyamalan is a terrible writer who relies too heavily on visuals, knows nothing about dialogue, plot structure or characterization, and wasn’t very perceptive about his source material, to the point of dropping mystic Kung-Fu in favor of an awkward Macarena dance.
So today we answer the question, “Why did DnD3 fall down?” Why did it burn out in the way it did and take a good chunk of gaming with it?
First, the system was… clunky and overbuilt, kind of like an early 70’s American car. All the parts and pieces are there, but they often don’t fit together well, makes the car so weighty it merely turtles along, and the frame creaks under stress.
Much like the American auto of the 70’s, new lean competitors ate its lunch, while the overly-managed parent company blindly threw its weight around trying anything and everything except making a decent product. And much like the American auto of the 70’s, if you got under the hood and fiddled, you could have a great deal of fun and put together one amazing car, just how you liked – it had some brilliant ideas, but the execution came off sloppy.
I’m going to break things down piece by piece, chapter by chapter if necessary (it isn’t, so I don’t actually do this), and look at the issues involved.
Race didn’t change all that much, and it’s a bit of a shame. Not that I really complain here, but it might have been nice to focus races on certain roles more. Too many of them had a weird, widespread assortment of random minor benefits. This is partly a holdover from earlier editions, and it probably should have been changed. I don’t think anyone was terribly fond of Detect Secret Doors.
However, this is one area where third edition kept old ideas, was very clear and useful, and easily let you develop a character without too much fuss. If it wasn’t perfect, it hardly failed to work; the real issue is the nuisance of bookkeeping those small bonuses. I – and I’m hardly alone in this – skip most of the fantasy races in favor of plain humans because it means I can ignore the pesky and messy situational bonuses.
Probably the numero uno aspect of 3rd edition, the thing everyone liked until they didn’t, were classes. Even the basic classes caused a lot of trouble. With no unifying design principles, they were and are all over the place. Despite that, they are in many ways a big improvement. There are many new character creation options and design choices for players, so you’re not stuck in dull roll no matter what.
Sure, there’s the old Linear Warriors Quadratic Wizards problem. And the Geometric Priests problem. But the biggest issue was that there simply was no clear idea of what the classes were supposed to accomplish. Were they intended to have useful noncombat skills? How important were those abilities? Was it really worth it to play a Paladin, Ranger, or Fighter beyond the first few levels?
This is the real “balance” issue. Fighters were perfectly effective in battle, and often no less fun or efficient than a wizard. However, they couldn’t do anything else.
The classes came across as awkward hybrid creations. It seemed caught halfway between the old-school 2nd edition DnD ruleset, from a time when much looser and simpler rules were popular, and a more modern design with a more constructed environment. The result was a lot of unhappy middle-ground of ridiculously long rules or descriptions for simple concepts, and some obvious oversights.
Some of these concerns were partly mitigated later on in 3.5, although not always in a very coherent manner. That changed some of the expected roles around, and did clarify things and offer more long-term options for physical-combat classes to advance. As an example, Rangers went from being primary combatants – people who were tough and capable under any situation and able to survive on their own – to support characters about like Monks. The original was based off Aragorn and Robin Hood, and I’m honestly not sure where the new version comes from. More of a hybrid Rogue/Fighter, I suppose. I’m not saying it’s bad, but it is odd.
Worse, the 3.5 revision didn’t solve many of the problems, because front-loaded classes were still quite front-loaded and still didn’t have quite enough to keep them interesting. You got a few more options, but there simply wasn’t all that much reason to change your dirty cheatin’ multiclassin’ ways if you had been so inclined. Really, by the time 3.5 emerged, everyone was heading for Prestige Classes (and usually more than one) as soon as possible.
On the plus side, every class did have a major and explicit combat role. Not every game revolves around it, but your standard DnD usually features extensive combat. The differences between each class are clear and simple to understand. Most class abilities are easy to use, at least.
Multiclassing is a bit more of a pain, though more for the experience penalties. Getting around these has become something of a badge of honor, which means they’re mostly wasted effort. They should have been dropped as pointless. There’s a real question of why they’re in the game anyway – it’s not like multiclassing is so terribly effective compared to the plain-Jane Cleric and Druid. Presumably it’s to bring in some differences between races and characters, but as mentioned, there are so many ways to get around the problem it’s meaningless, and it doesn’t affect PrC’s. Along with weird build orders and strange race choices, these are the most obvious methods to get around multiclass penalties.
Prestige Classes per se aren’t a problem. Even the huge tidal wave of them isn’t precisely bad. The real issue is that PrC’s were random. They became a useless space-filler. Most weren’t very good or interesting, made little sense, and had no place in the game, much less a specific setting.
Let’s back up. First, the game never defined what a PrC is. Is is membership in an elite order with special training? Well, maybe. Is it a special skill you picked up? Well, maybe. Is it an inborn talent which you randomly possess? Well, maybe. Any of these could be defended, and it could easily differ by campaign setting. However, all of this got tossed into a blender.
There’s nothing to define what a PrC is or ought to be. The Dungeon Master’s Guide lists some ideas, but Wizards then ignored that in all of their own publications down the line. They had a vested interest in making sure everyone wanted access to the latest PrC’s, of course.
So, while a certain amount of Power Creep was inevitable, that’s not the real problem. The real issue is that there were no guidelines about where to start with them. In fact, there’s a distinct school of thought which runs towards saying, “PrC’s have specific requirements and they should be more powerful than normal.” That’s fine as long as their use remains consistent.
Trouble was that writers within the same company, series, or even book often held different opinions. Some might say instead, “PrC’s should be just as useful but more specialized.” Or even that “PrC’s should be distinct but no more powerful” and “PrC’s should be fun and damn the power level!” There’s something to be said for all of these. And any of them could work.
But not all of them together, at once.
What are all of these writers missing? First off, that PrC’s really only make sense in the context of a given campaign. For the most part, all the base classes are generic enough for most games and campaign settings. You can argue about most of them, and you might tweak some minor details, but they work. (The trio of Bard, Monk, and Paladin are the odd men out, and even then it’s only really the Monk which stands completely apart. The other two perhaps should have PrC’s, but they work.)
Most PrC’s make no sense in most game worlds, at least not without a lot of alterations. You might, in some cases, simply slap a new label on top, but usually writers did at least try to match abilities to a specific theme. And they didn’t neccessarily compare notes or think about what they were doing.
The following are a couple of examples from Forgotten Realms, but you can probably find your own just by grabbing any convenient splatbook.
Thus we have the Tomb Guardian of Evereska, which really brings to mind some questions about just how many tombs they’ve got. Are there really so many elf tombs that they need a special order to handle the undead from them? And if so, why does anybody bother to use them as opposed to cremation? How do the half-dozen (at most) people who have this PrC support it? Or are there lots of adventurers grabbing levels in it? How many nations need dedicated orders of people to guard tombs, and why is it limited only to elves, even in Forgotten Realms?
We’ve got several PrC’s for Loviatar, a minor goddess of torture. (Also kinky smut, which is surely the stronger growth industry.) How does her minor cult support this? Why do more powerful gods with more powerful churches have none? Is starting PrC’s easy but often pointless, so many don’t bother? Where is her small religious following getting all of these mid-to-high level adventurers?
Why did Wizards of the Coast fill many, many books with PrC’s, but then assume almost every other book that you didn’t use them? In fact, their base class books (Sword and Fist, etc.) had some interesting and useful ideas – far better in a great many ways than what came later. There was a clear idea of trade-offs among most, even if it was informal and sloppy. If you liked raw power, you could indeed get an extra percentage from the PrC’s there, but never ludicrous amounts. Some classes were obviously half-hearted or not well thought out (witness the umpteen “you become a magical creature” classes), but most had clear roles and iconic personalities.
But instead, Wizards dumped many more PrC’s into everything. A player character might easily have six different classes, depending on their build. NPC’s quite commonly had a PrC. All this together started me wondering whether you ever needed those classes or if people could and should simply grab what they wanted.
I could go on all day, but the point is that PrC’s were a giant mess. And we’ve just mentioned the official Wizards stuff, not even touching 3rd-party PrC’s. Those were even more insane, at least in books of Prestige Classes and not in special-made groups for use in a specific world of campaign.
I’m going to take the opportunity to challenge some conventional wisdom about PrC’s, since some people are still making and certainly using them – witness the popularity of Paizo’s Pathfinder.
First, they don’t need requirements. Don’t have a hard-and-fast requirement unless the PrC needs some specific ability to work right, or the class has some flavor which makes no sense otherwise. Let your characters take them if the character would take the class.
If it makes sense, then who cares if the PC has the Lightning Reflexes feat? If it *doesn’t* make sense… then who cares if the PC has the Lightning Reflexes feat? If the stealthy thief enjoys making hit-and-run attacks from surprise and playing tricks on his foes, then Shadowdancer probably works. If he prefers to brutally mug a foe, then it doesn’t, regardless of what feats or skills he has.
The Loremaster doesn’t really need any specific abilities. Heck, just let a PC take an appropriate arcane spellcasting progression straight off, even if they couldn’t fire a cantrip before. The character should have demonstrated interest in knowledge and information-gathering, probably represented by skills. At most, I’d demand one level in Bard or Wizard, since those are the classes which focus on “ancient lore and wisdom.” And even then, I’d be inclined to shrug if a Cleric or Druid wanted to take the class and substitute divine spellcasting.
The Assassin? Who cares about requirements there? The PrC *CLASS* Assassin doesn’t have any abilities which shout “evil”. They can use poisons without risk, get a few spells, and have a shot at instantly killing somebody. None of that requires evil, much less going out and killing someone to magically gain access to the class. Now, being an actual hired killer is another matter: that might well require evil alignment in a DnD world. But the Assassin abilities are merely specialized Rogue-type tricks, and anyone who learns how to sneak about and backstab people should be allowed to take the class. I’d require a +3d6 in Sneak Attack for this one, or perhaps +1d6 and some good sneaking skills. I might permit an appropriately-themed Fighter to try, although I’d expect anyone who wants to go for Assassin to plan on taking Rogue, Ranger, or Bard levels anyway.
The Blackguard? What about it? Any evil character should be allowed to take it. Yeah, you do pretty much need to be evil here: you are, after all, explicitly calling upon the “forces of darkness” to become a cheap and nasty version of the Paladin in order to fulfill your personal cruelties and reign of terror. But why should I care if you’re a Cleric, Druid, or Bard? Go nuts. Spellcasters presumably won’t want it the class, so I’m not too worried.
I’m sure you get the picture. Sure, many arcane-based classes probably should require some spellcasting. Many melee classes might require a specific feat or trick. But none of them really demand a specific set of abilities, particularly since authors often choose useless ones as requirements.
Next up, decide in advance if PrC’s require training, pick out which PrC’s already exist, and establish at least an informal way for players to make their own.
Why do this? Well, it keeps the campaign on track. You’ll know what people are doing, the players have a better idea of what’s available, and if they really want something different, they have a way to go about getting it. They can found that elite order of master martial artists. They can discover the ancient secrets of the Gate of K’Desh. Or whatever.
You also set down some specifics of the rules and setting. If PrC’s require special training in the Knightly Order of the Garter*, that’s what they have to do. This gives the characters special goals beyond levels and loot. Alternatively, they may have to quest for the Gate of K’Desh or the mystical pool at the base of the World Tree. Yup, it means they can’t get that special ability whenever they like. And that’s no bad thing.
After all, if you want to simply let people grab PrC’s from anywhere, then why are you bothering with classes anyway? Everything in the game should be some kind of emotional reward for the player. Yes, if they aren’t being rewarded for play, either they or the GM are doing something very wrong. However, a reward has to challenge the player; we devalue things we get without effort. It must demand part of us: our time, our money, our attention. When players can simply grab PrC’s, it minimizes the emotional rewards.
*That’s no joke. That was a real order and the Black Prince** of England belonged to it.
**That’s no joke, either. That guy was raiding France and slaughtering armies of thousands before he finished puberty. I wouldn’t give him any lip about the name of the order even if he has been dead for eight centuries.
Feats aren’t a terrible idea. They did, however, fall into an issue that plagues many MMORPG’s (or, as Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw puts it, mimorpiggers). Feats tend to fall into either the “fun” or the “powerful” categories, and sometimes the “neither-but-you-have-no-choice” category. Or sometimes the “this-makes-no-sense” category, or even the “barmy-to-the-spire” category.
Recently, World of Warcraft brought forth the Cataclysm, and in doing that re-built the Talent system, very similar to feats. Aside from a number of upgrades and simplifications, they made most “boring” basic-improvement feats more interesting with random effects and situational bonuses, and restricted themselves to having only so many weird, fun feats. They assume people will max out all the straight enhancements, and still had enough left over for fun choices. This is important, because DnD had a similar basic concept (freebies for fun stuff) and a similar early problem (fun stuff wasn’t always good).
Perhaps surprisingly, feats aren’t too unbalanced if you go in for that sort of thing. Some do come out overpriced, even by Wizard’s own material. You can witness the numerous variant feats which gave you a bit of skill boost in two skills. Sure, you can take Skill Focus, but even if you just wanted better skills there’s surely two or three combination feats you can take with no prerequisite and no downside. Still, when you’re dealing with a minor side ability or boost, you can’t send things too off-key. The exceptions are the few super-feats which granted access to whole abilities you normally couldn’t use, such as Spellfire. (and there’s a whole article just on that). But by and large, there’s a reasonable argument to be made to taking almost any feat in the game.
That doesn’t mean they all work very well. Let’s compare two feats: Cleave and Great Fortitude. Yes, there’s an argument for Great Fortitude. It’s not totally useless. But it isn’t really *fun*. It may be practical. But nobody ever sat down and said, “Man, I can’t wait to get marginally tougher at resisting poisons and death effects!” It’s a very passive ability, with no exciting elements to appeal to gamers. So while they work mathematically, those boring booster feats tend to get passed over.
Mechanically, they also tend to be pretty underwhelming, too. Most of the booster feats are also the overpriced ones, but tend to show up as requirements for other, more interesting feats and also PrC’s. While there’s nothing wrong with this mechanically, I dislike game designs which force players to “pay” for their fun – everything in the game should be fun! Whether you’re talking about character creation, romping through a dungeon, or attending the Queen’s Ball, everything should be fun for the players. If not, then the group or the game has an issue. And yes attending the Queen’s Masked Ball can be very fun if the party has a good reason to attend, useful goals, and some relevant abilities.
The odd part is that such designs remain remarkably common. MMO makers appear to feel that you ought to suffer for choosing certain classes, weapons, or options – often with no warning or explanation. In fact, I would state this is one huge reason World of Warcraft succeeds so well: no class is ever useless or crippled. Anyone can jump right in an enjoy themselves at any stage of the game. WoW ain’t perfect, but it does take some huge stride to get around this by helping new players learn and doling out new abilities a respectable but never overwhelming rate.
But alright, you’ve made you choice of fun or power, or decided to suffer through with neither so you can get a better choice later. But then you encounter a feat which gives you a pet dragon.
A-yup. You just get a friendly dragon. Huh. He shows up out of the ether one morning just because. In fact, you don’t even have to have met a dragon to take the feat.
Part of the problem is that it’s conceptually based off the Leadership ability. If you can attract followers, why not a dragon? And that’s fine, except that the Leadership feat kinda doesn’t make sense. It’s clearly based off the old followers that many older edition characters received. Fighters especially got a small army, while Rangers could get a smaller number of weird magical beats and things. And so what?
The issue is that you had to work for those once upon a time. You were a powerful character far beyond a mortal man. You were already a legend in your own right and people would come along and swear themselves to your cause just for being that awesome. That doesn’t entirely work in d20, which lacks the huge experience curve to higher levels. You can quite easily go from level 1 to 20 inside a few months of light work. High-level characters are more common and far less special.
So it does start to be a bit odd that you can attract them so easily, and with so little work. And getting yourself a pet dragon works even less. This points to a slight problem which started showing up as d20 went on: feats which weren’t needed. We can grandfather in Leadership for old time’s sake, but if you want a friendly dragon, go befriend one! You don’t need a special feat for that – just some bribes, kind words, and a good reason.
Finally, we have feats which went utterly insane. The Footspear technique. Feats which let you do things you already could accomplish before. (Where does it say you *can’t* you shoot arrows from a chariot, except for one specific feat which let’s you do just that?) The less said, the better.
Taken together, these last two categories tended to nail down the game more than the PrC’s. If you wanted to do something special, it wasn’t a matter of trying to figure out how your character could manage it. Instead, you just needed to comb through books for a feat. The character’s abilities became the player’s business, not the result of in-game adventure. And that’s sad.
Here is a problem I don’t want to stress too much, because I hardly expect the new designers to have fixed the problems the old designers never could. All the same, a solution is possible and should have appeared in the game. And it would save a lot of people a lot of arguments.
Alignment always causes issues. Somebody always doesn’t fit in to the system properly. Somebody always causes trouble with it. Alignment is oddly specific for a shorthand and awkward for iconic characters. The arguments over what alignment even famous, predictable characters fall into are themselves evidence the system just doesn’t work.
Let’s take Batman as an example, because he’s pretty much as iconic as heroes get – and because the example’s been floating around for some time. It’ s funny, simply because it’s true.
- Batman is Lawful Good. He works for the betterment of all and tries to support the government while serving mankind. He fights evil villains without hesitation, always aiming to save innocent lives.
- Batman is Neutral Good. He is a noble-hearted crusader for all that is good in the world, defending innocents from the darkness around. He doesn’t have much to do with the law, which hurts as much as it helps.
- Batman is Chaotic Good. He routinely defies or ignores the law and keeps his identity secret so that no one can arrest him for technically breaking the law. Fortunately, he fights for the common man and protects them.
- Batman is Lawful Neutral. He tries to support the beleaguered police from the chaos engulfing Gotham city, without taking too much power into his own hands – he doesn’t even trust himself, and would lay down the mantle if he could.
- Batman is True Neutral. He fights for his own personal reasons. His goals often intersect with those of good men, but he doesn’t fight on their behalf but to make sure no other child suffers as he did.
- Batman is Chaotic Neutral. He’s out of his own revenge regardless of what happens. He may stop criminals, but all the while he’s as responsible for Gotham’s chaos as the crooks he hurts.
- Batman is Lawful Evil. He decides what happens in Gotham city, even creating a persona as a crime lord himself to manipulate events. He works to brutally put down the wicked and creating a perfect order. (Yup, that’s right out of the comics).
- Batman is Neutral Evil. He lives to fight others, simply focusing his hatred on criminals and scum, unlike his enemies. Controlled by rage and paranoia, he distrusts other superheroes more than the villains.
- Batman is Chaotic Evil. He does what he pleases and that happens to be destroying villains. Meanwhile, he’s created half of them himself, while his vigilantism never changes the nature of Gotham’s crimerate.
You might claim some of these are stretches, but official comics have painted him as all of the above, even two conflicting concepts in the same comic. Yet Batman isn’t actually that complicated of a character.
What do we know of him?
- He’s burdened by guilt – irrational guilt – but guilt all the same. He wants revenge, but will not or cannot fill the need.
- He’s dedicated to using both brains and brawn to beat up criminals and supervillains.
- The law gets in his way, and he wishes it were better, but he does respect those who dedicate themselves to it.
- He often takes in orphans, and then trains them to become new Bat-crime fighters like himself.
These are not complicated ideas. You may never guess how Batman will accomplish his goals, but you have a pretty good idea what he aims for. Yet he can’t be easily characterized with alignment. And even more classic heroes are pretty vague. Is Beowulf True Neutral? Is Gandalf Lawful Good?
Heck, for that matter, is Neutral Evil more evil than the Lawful evil, or just less “flavorful?” What’s actually different about how two villains of different alignment behave?
We have no good answers, and that’s sad, because simple solutions are easy.
For starters, you need to define if Alignment is Relative, Static, or Dynamic in your campaign.
Relative alignment is just what it says: alignment is relative to the character and situation. Characters have a lot of leeway, and nobody’s really checking on them. If they can honestly believe themselves to be Lawful Good, they are. If they’re burning people alive to root out evil, so what? Morality in a relative world is simply a matter of utility and practicality. Expect that most people see themselves as good or at least neutral (if they’re elitists and find moralism a tedious philosophy). Evil people are probably criminals who revel in their persona, even if they aren’t that much worse than others. Various gods simply have their own interests. This is reasonably similar to DnD, which often features wars between good and evil but not a lot of actual difference in behavior between people. Neutral here is just another faction.
Static worlds feature a morality which simply IS. If you do “Good” actions, you are Good. It doesn’t matter why you do them. Good characters may save small children from harm, but they do that more or less because those are the rules. They won’t necessarily care about any individuals they save, any more than they care about the copper coins they looted from the dungeon ruin. This has the advantage of being easy to play, and it’s closest to classical DnD. Gods may have alignment, but you should decide ahead of time how much they care about it. And remember that in-universe morality need have nothing whatsoever in common with any actual, existing moral system.
It works, but it is shallower than you might expect.
Dynamic worlds are a bit more complicated, because you have you decide what principles each alignment follows. Lawful Good may truly support the concept of justice, and is all about Justice. Lawful Good characters are those who follow the ideal of justice, and try to build a world where everyone can live in safety, isn’t discriminated against, and meets each other as equals before the law.
My general schema for this is as follows.
- Law Neu. Chaos
- Good Justice Mercy Liberty
- Neu. Order Personal Freedom
- Evil Tyranny Power Madness
You could create a number of others or vary them to your campaign. Try substituting Charity or Peace for Mercy, or Purity for Justice, and you may have some very different actions stemming from the same alignment. or you can provide a short list of applicable principles for each alignment.
If anything contributed to d20 being a very mechanical system, it’s combat. Grids and hexes were always an optional part of DnD, but in 3rd edition, they became law. The problem is that not everything comes in neat grids, and I’ve seen fewer than half of gamers actually use the grids at all. Most preferred the time-tested method of using “imagination”.
More than that would take more time than I care to take right at the moment, though I might update this post with more down the line.
In one sense, we don’t have a lot to talk about d20 spells. They mostly come from 2nd edition, though 3.5 made some changes. No, the real problem is that the designers seemingly couldn’t quite decide what they wanted out of them, and tried to nail the utility of each spell to the floor.
One huge aspect of spell design (especially arcane) in d20 is simply how very limited it became. Every spell could do one thing and one thing only. We nearly crumbled under the huge pile of minor variants on combat spells, while Wizards slowly pushed noncombat effects out of the system. Eventually, you weren’t playing a wise magician but a living ballista.
Take Polymorph, for example. They slowly stripped out nearly all the fun of using it, until you almost all you were getting was a handful of better combat statistics. Meanwhile, Save-or-Die effects were weakened in 3.5. I don’t really have a problem with removing them entirely – but the changes suggested the design teams didn’t have a clear concept of what they wanted spellcasters to do or have. As the changes wound through, arcane spellcasters in particular became very little different from other ranged-combat characters, but weaker and with more area attacks, a trend 4th edition would sadly continue.
Clerics, ironically, fared much better. With the right domains and feats, they could cast almost everything a wizard could, while fighting better than the the warrior-types could. Still, they lost a lot of utility magic as well. In fact, they once had the best reversible spells – spells you could cast as negative (on the enemy) or positive (on your party) effects. This gave them a great deal of flexibility. Perhaps in a fit of hilarity, 3/3.5 handed them oodles of power instead of variety, and apparently the designers were somewhat surprised when people started favoring them (and druids) for boring-but-unstoppable power builds.
But looking at the spells themselves, we see a lot more limitations. Spells had very specific targets. They often couldn’t damage materials even if this made no sense. They had exactly specific areas and precise effects. Many spells differed only in look, and many of the most interesting variants (Skull Trap, for instance) or tricks vanished or fell prey to the nerf bat.
So Lightning Bolt, for example, no longer bounced. Yes, this could be used and abused. But it was also dangerous and required careful consideration – the extra complication was part of the fun. Spells like Haste no longer required anything extra from the party, and so they became mainstays of the game until they, too, fell prey to massive nerfing.
This all falls neatly in line with the design teams’ expectations that combat would be constant, encounters would be balanced, and that little or no preparation would be required or encouraged by any given side. In fact, the game’s design suggests that *all* encounters are essentially random encounters. Even looking at official products, nobody shouts down tunnels to warn their friends or get reinforcements. After all, it wouldn’t be “fair” for the entire enemy force to converge on the adventurers now, would it? Likewise, we can’t have the wizard undermining (literally) a room full of enemies so the floor crumbles and the party just walks on through. They’d either wind up ahead of the xp curve or behind in party resources or something.
But part of the nerfing comes from a different source. Spells once were a mite harder to cast and replenish. A high-level spell could demand a lot of time to replace, and might take so long to cast that the Fighter already cut the foe’s head off. Thus, even if a Magic-User was the most “powerful” (in an arbitrary definition), he couldn’t survive without constant protection, whereas the Fighting Man might well be able to make it on his own. However, all the casting speed rules fell out of 3rd edition. The result was that a fast spellcaster could easily dominate if he cranked his spells’ Difficulty Class (for saving throws) high enough.
Now beyond that, there’s still a lot of ground to cover, so I may expand on this later. But for now, we’ll let this this critical look at DnD stand.