Min-maxed 3.0 D&D was fucking weird.
I use the term 3.0 to talk about ‘third edition’ because there’s this weird way that people treat ‘3rd edition’ D&D as a single game, and not a period of time between the last release of 2nd edition and the first release of 4th edition. 3rd edition content is still being made and the game is still being played, even if I’d moved on from it. Important to this, though, is that ‘3rd edition’ is a term that I feel inappropriately ambiguates the two games made in 3rd edition.
When people are criticising 4th edition — hey maw he’s defending 4th edition gain — sometimes you get a ‘timeline’ argument; the idea that 4th edition, as a game that was only actively published and promoted for six years before the introduction of 5th edition. 5th edition has been going for 7 years since then (two of which were pandemic years), and 3rd edition went from 2000 to 2008, showing that 7 and 8 years are ‘good’ times for a game to exist, and 4th edition’s 6 years indicate that it was a ‘bad’ time. Thing is, 3rd edition D&D, the thing before 3.5, was only around for 3 years, and it was not the same game as 3.5. You couldn’t just pick up classes, creatures, or monsters and port them over. First party feats and classes were generally all weaker than 3.5, and spells were largely stronger.
4th edition never released a supplement that wasn’t compatible with all of 4th edition. By comparison, 3.0 lasted for 3 years, and 3.5 lasted for four – an immense rules patch apology.
And trust me, it was an immense rules patch.
Like, did you know in 3rd edition, in min-maxed groups, you basically never bothered building for physical stats if you were starting after level 3 or so?
Because in a min-maxed party, you very rarely were dealing with un-polymorphed characters.
The concern is the spell Polymorph Other. It’s a spell ostensibly designed as a ‘kill’ spell with some useful alternative options – you can turn enemies into useless things like bugs and rats, or you can turn an ally into something scary. It differs from a lot of spells of its level because it’s permanent – not a long duration spell, but permanent. This spell was available at level 4 for sorcerers and wizards, which meant a caster of 7th level could fire this sucker off. In the core rulebook of 3rd edition at launch, there was no limit on the thing you could turn into except for its size. The drawback was that any stressful situation, like combat, would result in a save that, if you failed it, would leave you at a -2 to all checks.
That meant that you could use it to turn into a troll, for example, with a strength score of 23, and a constitution socre of 19. That meant that your modifier for melee attacks was +6. If you failed your saving throw, that meant that attack bonus would be a +4. Along with that, you also got 7 points of natural armour, you were large (meaning you could wield really big weapons), and you had ten feet of reach. That’s a lot, and that’s assuming you fail your saving throw.
Okay, so what’s that cost? The formula is pretty simple. Spell level × Caster level × 10 gold pieces for a one-time casting. Which means 280 gp, which is extremely cheap – even for a 2nd level adventurer, and nothing’s going to give you the same return, and it stacks with everything else as you level up. This is also assuming you fail the saves – it’s still really good to be gigantic and have a high strength score.
When your default ability scores are likely to be spread like 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8, as a melee combatant like a Paladin or a Ranger (though, really, either are jokes in 3e), suddenly catapulting up to a 23 (or even a virtual 19) for so cheap an investment is a big deal.
When the first magic expansion, Tome And Blood came out, it ditched the will saving throw for disorientation (which wasn’t enough of a disincentive to stop people turning into trolls), and instead limited it to the lower of the caster’s hit dice or the target’s hit dice. Thus began a project amongst the min-maxers, of finding the best shapeshifted forms, per type, at each level. And the costs her really don’t scale meaningfully – you could still become a troll at level 6, you could become a legendary ape shortly after, and at level 13, you could even become a Firbolg with a strength of 36 (so, a +13 strength modifier).
And what’s wild about this is there’s no reason not to do this? There’s no reason to avoid it because it’s so cheap compared to other permanent magic buffs and magical items. You even get to customise the appearance of it, so you can be hot in whatever way appeals to you! A dispel magic, hypothetically, breaks the effect – but people aren’t going to be throwing those around in most situations unless the effect is deleritous, and ‘knocking out a bunch of transformations’ could have an impact, or it could do nothing. That means you need enemies smart enough to be able to cast dispel and smart enough to do it and so lacking in other abilities that are a better use of their time!
I never saw this in action. I brought it up, talked about it, and DMs vetoed it. There was no reason not to do it, and well, they don’t want that in their games.
3.5 killed this, by the way; the self-polymorphing spell that gave you shapeshift forms and abilities, while still strong, was a personal buff that lasted for hours at a time. That meant that it went from being something you’d get cast on you for an effect, and became instead something the wizard cast on themself for an advantage. Then, noticing that Polymorph was still a problem, in the last year or so of 3.5 D&D, the developers canned the spell for being uh, broken at any speed and encouraging bad play patterns.
But, if you were talking about 3.0 in terms of what optimal play was actually like, everyone – even the wizards and other melee characters – were walking around, wearing someone else’s face, because everyone shapeshifts.
Incidentally, researching this was an almighty pain in the ass. I don’t have my 3rd edition books any more, and all the 3rd edition SRD documentation is mostly gone from all but pockets of the web. I was going to provide a comprehensive list of examples of how you could chain from level to level getting better and better physical stats – because I know there was one – but thanks to the unavailability of the books, I couldn’t even buy PDFs of 3rd edition.
It is amazing the way that 3.5 has just quietly replaced 3rd edition – like, there’s no reason to get those books any more, they’re basically the same game, don’t investigate this any further at all!