I've hesitated to do this one, and I don't think anyone will blame me for why. It's been a very long time since I did my piece on 4e, and it was largely defensive. I couldn't approach this the same way; few people dislike 3.5e, so it would be pointless for me to defend it. Likewise, I enjoy it. There's no reason for me to attack it, either. Obviously the only remaining avenue is discussion, but how does one discuss something so deeply entrenched in the minds of an entire generation (or two, or three) of gamers? Should I criticize or praise? Should compromise, or just reminisce?

I don't have a good answer, so here's a little bit of everything.

Yay, Concise and Versatile!
My first experience with D&D was actually not with 3.5e, despite my assumption that most modern gamers started there. I was brought into the glory of tabletop gaming with the classic but extremely flawed AD&D, or "2e." I was too young to really understand what the numbers meant at that point - a wee lass of of probably eight years or so - but I could certainly notice a huge difference the first time I tried 3.5e. In comparisson to the AD&D I'd come to know, everything was so much simpler. Classes and races were unihibited, experience was uniform, and there were so many new toys to play with! It was like a golden dawn for gaming.

From the outset, it was so much easier to get things done. Rather than having to do minor algebra equations in order to figure out whether or not you'd hit something or not, you simply rolled a die, added a number, and compared results. Damage may have required different dice, but 90% of the game was conducted in the same format. 1d20 + your coolness factor. The fat had been trimmed from our sacred cow, and it looked so much more stunning as a result. Also, I'll never get over how women weren't inherently disadvantaged for no offset advantage during character creation.

Something I didn't realize until years later, when I had a gradual introduction to the larger world of 3.5e, was that you could play anything you bloody wanted. There was almost literally nothing beyond the scope of 3.5e's potential. Master spies and alchemist science-heroes were just the start of it. You could run a psychic pyromancing monk and call it a firebender, or create a paladin who was polymorphed into a minotaur and slew demons to sate the darkness in his monstrous heart. Your mage could draw power from beings long forgotten or the stuff of the very darkness. Your fighter could bash people into walls, or imbue her sword with the magic of her spirit, or engage in cinematic wushu duels against kung fu rakshasa and evil martial arts angels.

Those last bits are, once again, from Tome of Battle. I swear I'll do a piece on it someday.

3.5e allowed you infinitely more freedom than any D&D edition to date, and it gave you the perfect outlet to express your creativity in any relatively simple way that you wanted to. All it required was 1d20+how awesome you were. It was a glorious step forward for D&D, and as D&D frequently sets the standard for tabletop gaming in general, it ushered in a genre evolution. Hundreds of adaptations and outright ripoffs followed in the wake of 3.5e's simple yet flexible outline, and it was an utterly staggering success. As larval gamers we could hardly have asked for a more perfect tool to introduce us into the magic of tabletop gaming, but it wasn't all sunshine and roses.

Boo, Imbalance and Inconsistency!
The main complaint about 3.5e from anyone with even a basic understand of the rules is how blasted imbalanced it was. Yes, obviously some of the sourcebooks introduced extremely powerful (or completely useless) elements into the game, and they rightfully shoulder a lot of the blame for it. However, it was NOT a sourcebook-only issue. One needed not take a prestige class or use non-core spells and feats to be "overpowered" in the average 3.5e party. In fact, all one had to do was play a spellcaster.

Magic has always been difficult to balance, and absolutely nowhere is it more horrendous than in 3.5e D&D. It's hard to find the exact line wherein the characters who had the ability to reconstitute reality as they pleased overtook the characters who hit things with sharp sticks. The jury's out on whether it was level:

- 1: Sleep and color spray ending entire encounters in a single action.
- 5: Fireball and haste ending entire encounters in a single action.
- 7: The all-powerful polymorph, stone shape, and black tentacles ending encounters for the rest of the game. In a single action.
Regardless of which point magic overtook physical fighters, it happened. Hard. The amount of things a wizard or druid could do with their standard action was nigh-infinite, while fighters and rogues were left with "should I hit it this way, or that way?" Magic was a problem with 3.5e. Magic was THE problem with 3.5e, right? Just ban primary casters from the group. Problem solved, right?

Yeeeahno. Again, not moving outside core, we had the differential between a paladin, a rogue, a monk, a fighter, and a barbarian. And druids and clerics, who both fought as well as or better than any of the above classes. And wizards with polymorph. I could write an entire treatise on why monks don't even deserve a mention in the "warrior" category (or even the "class" category), but even without monks some warriors had clear advantages over others. With rage bonuses barbarians often did more damage than every other warrior type. Fighters were consistently useless when things didn't need to be hit, and rangers and paladins and rogues found themselves either running out of tricks or running out of enemies that they were useful against. A party full of warriors wouldn't be as glaringly obvious in its imbalance as mixed company, but it was hardly an even playing field.

What was worse was that when sourcebooks were introduced, they never followed the same guidelines...different from core, from each other, and often different from within the books themselves. People complain about psionics being difficult to understand (informing me that very few people have even tried), but until someone tries to run an artificer/binder or anything from Incarnum, they have not even scratched the surface of 3.5e's inconsistancies. Two characters of the same level might be not only different in effective power, but also wildly different in how they played the game, requiring the DM to memorize two completely separate sets of rules. It was pure, unadulterated chaos as soon as splatbooks were brought into the picture, the likes of which would make the Joker ask for a post-coital cigarette.

The Power of Nostalgia!
But really, is that a bad thing? We love 3.5e! I haven't met more than a handfull of D&D gamers who actively dislike it, and their paltry ranks are far and away outstripped by its ardent supporters. Fanatical, even. We can't get enough of 3.5e, with its imbalances and its complexities and its inconsistancies. We can't get enough of its versatility and its cleanliness and its classic feel. And at the core of it, that's what I think it's all about.

Other editions, Pathfinder and 4e and now 5e, can all attest to keeping the dream of D&D, the SOUL of D&D alive. Our newer, more carefully balanced editions can all rightfully claim that they are carrying on the tradition of games before them, that they carry the torch of ages past. Pathfinder, the direct successor. 4e, the mechanical perfection. 5e, the return to the roots. All forms of D&D after 3.5e can all very honestly and accurately say that they are embodying the spirit of the game, but that spirit stared somewhere. Did it start with AD&D's busted mechanics and polearm charts and strength cap for women? Did it start with classic D&D's elf being a class unto itself?

No, dear gamers. D&D's soul was forged in the fires of 3.x. Our standards, our values of what is and is not Dungeons and Dragons came from a brown cover with gold lettering, half-orcs as a playable race and gnomes that could do more than illusions. Other editions may be the successors, but 3.5e is the classic. It is the spirit of the game. The one that feels "right" no matter how incredibly wrong it is. Dungeons and Dragons 3.5e is our gold standard of tabletop, and I wouldn't have it any other way.