Why 3.5E gotta be like that?

So in the recent Slovenly Trulls episode,1 Lyssa & Shardae Slovenly Trulls # 39: The Devil’s in the Details (1 June 2024, Podcast) <slovenlytrulls.com> Shardae asks (screams really) “3.5 E why you gotta be like this!?” in regards to its strange love of adding terrible content that barely qualifies as “edgy” and just pushing it out there like it’s cool.

So, after 29 years of growth, why did Dungeons & Dragons (“D&D”) slip back into being a socially awkward, edgy teenager for 5 years in the way that only product owned by a mega corporation can? Why did Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Edition (“3.5E“) seem to do a complete 180 from its previous approach of trying to be horny yet accessible to everyone? What was Wizards of the Coast thinking?

Despite the mind-breaking, eldritch incomprehensibility of it we can solve this, we can make it make sense – but to do that we need to go on a journey. So, strap on your Armour of Protection from Evil and grab your Vomit Bag of Holding. It’s history time.


| A. In the Beginning
| B. The Satanic Panic Corporate Sterilization
| C. The White Wolf
| D. 90s Comics, Anime, Anita & George
| E. We can be evil and say demon again
| F. Social skills!?
| G. Genre Curious
| H. Steamlined
| I. Cinematic & Dramatic
| J. You fuck
| K. Conan: The Roleplaying Game
| L. The Book of Erotic Fantasy
| M. 3.5 Edition
| | 1. Listening to “the community”
| | 2. Apples and oranges
| | 3. A prison of their own making
| N. 4th Edition


In order to understand what a mess D&D had become from 2003 to 2008, we need to understand how it started and the influences that came not just from within, but also from the wider culture. We need to, set the scene.

Art does not exist in a vacuum and as much as Gary Gygax liked to talk about what he wasn’t influenced by, he and the rest of the people who worked on projects during and after his tenure as overlord of D&D were influenced by a lot.

A. In the Beginning

In the beginning, there was TSR Inc and the White Box which brought D&D to the world, and in that Garden of Eden all the way into 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – there were titties.2 By the way the Mermaid and the Succubus are the artwork of Darlene, who also created one of the major TSR Inc logos and currently has her own Patreon that you should check out.

There were sex workers, naked succubi and even orgies. It was explicitly a game which was originally targetting the wargame market, and in those days that meant primarily grown men who were into history. Mostly Napoleonic history but also Italian City states and, of course, Roman history. They liked the idea of a wild past full of sex and violence.

They were also people who were into the works of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft, not specifically for the racism per say but they definitely enjoyed the deterministic mindset that there was good, evil and the unknowable and also the idea of a fantasy world where you could just kill people who were rude to you then go have a threesome with their daughters on a giant pile of gold.

It also need not be elaborated on, but many of these people had entered adulthood just in time to enjoy the sixties and seventies. They might not have gone to Woodstock, ever dropped LSD, or any such thing but at bare minimum they’d read the urban myths about drug fuelled orgies.

For every nice, wholesome D&D experience that was published under an official banner, the same people in many groups would be running weird campaigns fully of gnarly shit that made well adjusted people uncomfortable. But don’t take my word for it:

I also heard another individual who is now a celebrated writer in comics, who I won’t name due to their tendency to be well intentioned but also develop foot-in-mouth disease, once talk about how the understanding in his sphere was that Charm Person was the “date rape spell” (but obviously you will never find that use mentioned or condoned in any records or anyone put their hand up to “I did that.”).

The next market to follow up after this was, of course, college kids who were perhaps even more immature than the previous generation. Particularly when they found out that the game came from a city which had a Playboy Club.

This is how we have a situation like now where orcs were a playable race with nuance and development in 1988,3 Bruce Heard The Orcs of Thar (1988, TSR Inc, Lake Geneva WI) and were capable of joining parties as henchmen by no less than Gary himself – but we have plenty of “old school” games screaming that they can’t be such in 2024 because it’s “wrong”.

B. The Satanic Panic Corporate Sterilization

As much as we like to blame the Satanic Panic for everything, the real driver for making D&D semi-family friendly was the usual ones, corporate greed and general intolerance.

Lorraine Williams is often talked about in that she took over a company which had made a big stumble, but had demonstrated the potential to bring in millions by expanding the audience. Gary had started the process with the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. What isn’t talked about, is that she was in there and pulling levers for two years before that.

So, TSR Inc would play the familiar game attempting to skirt the line of family friendly, same as the Marvel movies and cinema would do decades later. Clyde Caldwell would still be doing cover art, but we would be assured that nobody in that image had a boner. Ed Greenwood‘s sexy Forgotten Realms would not just remain, but get promoted to central setting – but sex would be something we alluded to, not expressly talked about. Dark Sun existed with everyone wearing fetish attire but sex workers always dying for their sins.

There would be a brothel in Planescape: Torment (1999)4 Chris Avellone, Black Isle Studio Planescape: Torment (10 December 1999, Interplay Entertainment, Los Angeles CA) but it would be one for “slaking intellectual lusts” run by a chaste succubus (who is one of the best characters ever created in this period).

The screenshot of Fall-from-Grace's profile in Planescape: Torment which says how she is a succubus so was made as the perfect instrument for temptation, and instead she runs the Brothel of Slaking Intellectual Lusts.
Fall-from-Grace defied the will of the multiverse and remade its laws to suit her, so she either defeat gods or she is a god in disguise, and a I do not care if there is a difference! Also Chris Avellone sucks, pass it on.

Also, it bares remembering that TSR Inc already had a very violence good, sex bad approach from some of their biggest creators. All the original authors of Dragonlance are mormons who injected their values and beliefs into the work. A subplot in the original trilogy is that premaritial sex is bad and ultimately is the kind of trait you find in traitors who are naturally punished with eternal damnation.

According to Eye of the Beholder (2019), even the unstoppable force of horny, Clyde, caved and put pants of Goldmoon after the original art made Laura Hickman cry.5 Kelley Slagle and Brian Stillman Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons (14 May 2019, Cavegirl Productions)

You could be as weird about pushing for conservative values and telling the kids not to have fun as you wanted, but you better not cross that line into “too sexy”.

And through all of this time, there was an element of leakage. People who met Ed Greenwood at conventions etc would listen to him talk about how he was pissed off that they’d edited out the sex and edited in climatic battle scenes into Spellfire.6 Ed Greenwood Forgotten Realms: Spellfire (July 1987, TSR Inc, Lake Geneva WA) Doubly so if they bought him a few drinks away from the convention and/or had some cleavage on display. There was an understanding that creatures had spicier ideas but were being held back by management and the moral majority.

One of my friends in this era had a thief/mage character who was, among many other character traits, both a devout follower of Sharess and an officially registered RPGA character. Obviously they toned it down in the presence of any youths, but when it was all adults at the table it was understood if a module presented an opportunity, there was a good chance her character would get up to debauched sexy times. According to my friend, she had once already gotten in character at an event by the time an umpire prepared stick-on name tags so when it was her turn she presented her butt for him to stick it onto. A good time was had by all.

But of course, on all RPGA official records – all of this is absent. So again there was an understanding among many people that there was spicy role-play, the people who were the biggest fans of the games had ideas for spicy role-play – but you just shouldn’t say it in the official channels.

C. The White Wolf

Throughout all this time there were precious few real competitors to D&D. Those that were competitors were mostly only so in the strictest legal sense, Traveller was a role-playing game yes – but it was one set in space. Champions was entirely about being a super-hero.

In the burgeoning genre of modern fantasy, there was not just a game but a company that dominated since it’s founding in 1990: White Wolf Publishing (“White Wolf”). A signature element of their games which led to countless nerd fights was that while D&D was generally about idealistic power fantasies, White Wolf games were about examining and externalizing inner darkness, finding cinematic ways to express philosophical ideals.

Also, more importantly, White Wolf games were full of characters who fucked. Most of their games occurred in a very messy, shared setting that contradicted itself but incorporated everything called World of Darkness.

The vampires in Vampire: The Masquerade? They were supposed to be sexless but you know, a great way to get blood is to exploit horny people, in fact, sex and other vices are a great way to control mortals.

The werewolves in Werewolf: The Apocalypse? Had to be careful about who they fucked or they’d produce a mutant creature.

The mages in Mage: The Ascension? There’s a faction of them who’s deal is that they seek wisdom through hedonistic overload – you can even have fucking being a focus.

Tradition book: Cult of Ecstasy (Revised) cover features numerous figures who... it's not clear what they're doing but they sure are being sexy.
These aren’t your nerd mages. These are hot sexy mages who FUCK. Art by Christopher Shy.

They also experimented with “Dark Ages” versions of the games which were technically “fantasy” but with a lot more historic accuracy. They were almost exclusively for history nerds.

It need also be remarked that while he is mostly known for his work on D&D and his own projects, Monte Cook, the original project lead for 3E, is a White Wolf nerd and he and some of the other leads wrote a D&D version of World of Darkness published by White Wolf, titled: Monte Cook’s World of Darkness.7 Monte Cooke, Luke Johnson and Sean K Reynold Monte Cook’s World of Darkness (2007, White Wolf Publishing, San Rafael CA)

D. 90s Comics, Anime, Anita & George

Also, importantly to our stories – role-playing games did not exist in a vacuum and those who would go on to write them had influences outside of the productions of Wizards of the Coast.

The 90s were the period of a massive comic book crash, fuelled in part by horny teenagers attempting to be speculators. Mainstream comics tried to get into it with Marvel Swimsuit Special and this all culminated in there being a trend of nude variants of other titles… and whatever this is.8 John Byrne and Glyis Olver The Sensational She-Hulk #40 (31 May 1992, Marvel Comics, New York NY)

Is this a bad time to raise that the TSR Code of Ethics was based on the Comic Code of Approval?9 RPG History: TSR’s Code of Ethics (D&D “Comics Code Authority” rules) (February 2018, Shane Plays) <https://shaneplays.com/rpg-history-tsr-code-of-ethics-dd-comics-code-authority-rules/>

Lots of independents titles stood out by being edgy, like Cry for Dawn by Joseph Lissner, Darkchylde by Randy Queen and Lady Death by Brian Pulido. For many people who would be entering the creative job market when 3.5E hit, their first profound adult reading experience was Poison Elves # 10: Sex and Violence,10 Drew Hayes Poison Elves # 10: Sex and Violence (1 January 1993, Mulehide Graphics) a comic which is exactly what it says on the cover in the “show don’t tell” style.

What they didn’t probably didn’t appreciate was that this was one of many factors that would lead to the 90s comic crash and the general feeling that independent comics were cringe for years afterwards. That companies were supporting racier and racier content because it was good, but because it was what got attention in an increasingly overcrowded and chaotic market. Just like “adult” games on the Steam platform and other game publishing platforms today.

On top of that, anime had been building up. A lot of it was innocent, such as the Sailor Moon animated show but after Yoshiaki Kawajiri convinced people that Wicked City (1987)11 Yoshiaki Kawajiri Wicked City (19 April 1987, Japan Home Video, Japan) was an arthouse film, and then did it again with Ninja Scroll (1993)12 Yoshiaki Kawajiri Ninja Scroll (5 June 1993, Tokyo Theatres Company, Japan) – that meant that hentai had come across with it. The limited access to Japanese language and actual culture also meant that people created their own narratives and interpretations.

But we didn’t just rely on comics and cartoons for our degeneracy. We had it in the written form to. Back then we didn’t have or need the Omegaverse, we had Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, which started as a modern fantasy crime noir approach but quickly slid into monster fucking (specifically all types of werebeasts) to a degree that was legendary at the time and long after.

There was also this guy, bit of a weird really – stayed on LiveJournal way after it was cool, who had released a few books that portrayed a real kind of edgy fantasy. They were popular among anti-social nerds, not just because one of the lead characters was a nerd, but because they had whores, sexual assault and incest in them. So taboo and exciting. The kind of thing that should never be made into a television show.

That’s right, while it’d take decades for normies to discover them, D&D nerds were already being extremely not normal about A Game of Thrones (1996)13 George R. R. Martin A Game of Thrones (1 August 1996, Bantam Books, USA) and the would continue to be not normal about the rest of the books in A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.

In short, there was a whole generation of creatives who had essentially watched the old standards for what was “acceptable” in media to be torn down by people who (at least appeared) to gain prestige and money. The older members of this generation, the ones who would be the ones with the strongest voices and most clout, were also the ones who’d been privy to the “D&D but with spice” conversations.

The story of many of these edgy creators is they had seen what you could “get away with” during the party, but had been called home by their parents too early to find out what the consequences are when the night manager for the hotel shows up with a pair of police officers in tow.


In 1997, Wizards of the Coast, then still under the control of founder and absolute nerd Peter Adkison, acquired TSR Inc and promised us a new edition. Copy involved promises that it wouldn’t require subtraction, monks were coming back, and we’d be going back to Greyhawk because notalgia. Then we were back in Forgotten Realms but everything was different in order to fit the new system (again).

Essentially Peter sought to make a version of D&D that would capture everything he remembered loving about the game but would also employ the same strategies of simplicity of “easy to learn, a lifetime to master, never stop iterating” that had made Magic: The Gathering a product which, more or less funded the ability to purchase D&D outright.

There were also some important factors that started down the dark path to 3.5E and ultimately to many of our scandals in the modern era – and I suspect, many scandals yet to come. So, these are the main ones from my observations then, and since.

E. We can be evil and say demon again

After a decade of Tanar’ri and Baa’tezu, we could save demon and evil again. Weirdly enough, this actually made a difference since the weird fantasy names sort of distanced them from our real world theologies – so now people were thinking about them in more relatable terms.

Also half-fiends were in the Monster Manual14 Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, and Skip Williams Monster Manual (1 October 2000, Wizards of the Coast, Seattle WA), at 215 so we knew they fucked.

Also the Dungeon Master’s Guide15 Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, Skip Williams Dungeon Master’s Guide (1 October 2000, Wizards of the Coast, Seattle WA) came with a prestige class that was evil only, Above at so we knew you could now explore your dark side rather than suffer through the modules where you could be a thief but didn’t steal.16 Above, at 9

This kickstarted a lot of enthusiasm among edgelord players, edgelord writers, etc that maybe D&D could go back to being about weird teenage fantasies – that they could revert to imagining shallow pleasures and convincing themselves it was harmless because no real person was suffering the worst things.

After all, they were already courting Powergamers so why not court the other insufferable demographic who were always “between groups right now”.

Seth understands.

Hence why Book of Vile Darkness (2002),17 Monte Cook Book of Vile Darkness (1 October 2002, Wizards of the Coast, Seattle WA) written by the project lead, was rolled out long before Book of Exalted Deeds18 James Wyatt, Darrin Drader and Christopher Perkins Book of Exalted Deeds (October 2003, Wizards of the Coast, Seattle WA) (written by regular staff). It also got it’s own special promotions etc where the goodie-goodie gook was just another release. Monte is on record saying his only concern was how much could he get away with.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Book of Vile Darkness and F.A.T.A.L. (2002)19 Byron Hall F.A.T.A.L. (2002, Fatal Games) were released in the same year. I think it was essentially the beginning of the tabletop role-playing games gritty 90s comics era, we brought the sickness with us and same conditions were going to let it become a plague.

(As a side note, Erik Mona who was a credited playtester on Book of Vile Darkness, was an editor for Dragon magazine during 3.5E is now at Paizo and was one of the loud voices against the ORC license having a morals clause so, there’s that.)

F. Social skills!?

For the first time in D&D, you had mechanics for social skills. Charisma was no longer specifically a quality of presence and/or martial leadership but rather it could mean you were cool, you were smooth, you were cool. You fucked.

Now, aside from the obvious issue of it meant that you could now sort out social challenges via a mechanic rather than one socially inept nerd arguing with another how persuasive they were – this meant you could start specializing in these things.

Previously, you could take etiquette as your singular proficiency, now you could have a rogue who was proficient and expert in lies. Groups now had tools to do intrigue and mysteries properly, not as a pick-a-path “when someone asks” or arbitrary puzzles way but in a way where you spot lies, lie, and play politics.

That meant you could talk people into doing the fuck with you, you could do murders and bluff your way out when the guard found you, you could steal from your party members and then bluff them out because the dice say so.

Yes a substantial portion of the people claiming to be D&D fans wanted to be in the creepy “But just just rolled a Nat 20…” (to seduce) comic unironically. Not to be confused with the good comic featuring a Nat 20. But most importantly, it meant there was a new avenue to try to enforce your character getting whatever they wanted without the burden of “was it evil to use Charm Person like that?”.

New and exciting avenues to be edgy.

G. Genre curious

So, when d20 started we also got this baffling idea… what if we could use these rules for other kinds of adventures in other places? Could they even… be used for adventures set in our modern day or science fiction?

On the surface, this didn’t seem too much of a big deal and a lot of it was allowing for licensed productions. The biggest of which was Star Wars, but there were things like the Stargate: SG-1 adaption for d20 Modern.

But of course, a certain number of them tried to do modern fantasy, and well, naturally started coming across people who explained to them that there was this company White Wolf who already did that way better and at that point, had hit peak content for a lot of their games.

And once you see, you can’t unsee. Players who discovered World of Darkness games via d20 Modern didn’t just compartmentalize and move on – they brought ideas back with them not just to their modern fantasy group, but to their straight up fantasy D&D group.

I cannot tell you how many times I saw people in chat or on forums talking about how they’d swapped out D&D vampires for Vampire: The Masquerade vampires in their homebrew game, or how many had to import the rules from Werewolf: The Apocalypse to make werebeasts not just a playable race, but a whole society.

And of course, they wanted the vampires and the werebeasts to fuck.


In July 2001, eight months after the release of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, White Wolf released Exalted, a high fantasy role-playing game where the players are literally divine beings who can never (permanently) die and who accumulate amazing power. Heavily influenced by comics and anime – this is a game about living out your wildest power fantasies in a world that is the anime version of if Ancient Greek Tragedy was a campaign setting where the world is in turmoil because their #1 Mommy Dommy has gone out to buy cigarettes and not come back.

While today Exalted has largely faded away, and we think of Pathfinder as the real competition with D&D but that didn’t happen until Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition (“4E“) alienated hundreds of players (including myself). Prior to that, the big competitor for fantasy adventures was Exalted and the go to for when you wanted something more relatable was World of Darkness.

The original World of Darkness (“oWod”) was coming to a close, but was quickly replaced by another campaign setting, World of Darkness (“nWoD“).

nWoD wasn’t as extreme in its darkness (in my opinion) but it was a lot more accessible to people, and instead of focusing on the philosophical deep end it more focused on “imagine if tomorrow you became a…”. Nerds like myself had a massive backlog of oWoD we could obsess over, so it was a smart move.

Above all though, Exalted appealed to a lot of players because it let you start as an anime protagonist level badass, and keep getting more powerful from there.

A "His power level is over 9000" Dragonball Z meme.

H. Streamlined

White Wolf games had always used a much simpler system based on general terms, with skill checks requiring less calculations but more dice rolls. These new games used a streamlined version of that.

On top of that, both these games didn’t come with any lore baggage. There was no expectation to read 40 source books, 140 novels and spend two semesters on cartography and geography for the fantasy world in order to keep going.

You could jump into these on Monday, and be as up to speed as everyone else by Friday. That made them immensely appealing to people who were burned out, disillusioned or just looking for anything that wasn’t D&D.

Complex math in it was not a thing, you did not need a notepad to work out what the outcome of your attacks was going to be and, this part is surprisingly important: The more powerful you were the more dice you got to roll.

For people who were tired of doing equations and then rolling a single d20, nothing was more satisfying than simply picking up a giant pile of d10s and then counting how many of them were 7 or above.

An AEW wrestler pouring a bag of dice out onto the ring, naturally he looks very dramatic.
This is what it was like to play Exalted after years of D&D

I. Cinematic & Dramatic

Traditionally D&D was for STEM nerds and White Wolf was for theatre kids. White Wolf was the LARP heavy and you often got a lot more mileage out of real world social skills. Their games operated on much looser, less technical statistics and mechanics and more focus on creativity. The most extreme versions of this were Mage: The Ascension which required a player to write their own theory of magic, and Changeling: The Dreaming where character limitations could include needing to speak only in lies.

One of the key functions that Exalted had which was considered objectively fun was that you could “stunt up”, which is to say there were rules that if you described your attacks in fun and cinematic manner you could get bonuses to your rolls. It also helped that it was a game where you were basically anime protagonists, so could do things like leap thirty feet in the air to do a single kick attack.

In oWoD you arch-types had traditionally been more complicated and would be linked to your Willpower. Willpower allowed you to invest more effort into a particular roll, and arch-types allowed you to regain it by playing into your flaws. (I was not allowed to take the Curmudgeon arch-type because I would have had effectively unlimited willpower).

nWoD did jump into the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Heavenly Virtues, so you could regain all your willpower by making some amazing sacrifice for virtue – or you could regain 1 willpower by indulging your vices in a way that was detrimental to you.

All of this just made it feel more dramatic, and put the pressure on D&D writers to try to find ways to make everything they did seem more dramatic and cinematic too. Which was part of why D&D characters started turning into anime protagonists and also part of why suddenly it was a race to the bottom in terms of shock value.

J. You fuck

As mentioned, in White Wolf, it was understood that these games existed in worlds that were not family friendly – they were world where characters would do lines off sex workers, blackmail politicians with sex tapes and have to choose between murdering family members or becoming blackmailed by their enemies.

When you have a mature game group, this allows for all sorts of interesting themes and explorations – and also generally allowed you to avoid moralizing them. In fact in their games, usually the Moral Majority were more likely to be the enemy because they would be hiding their darkness – where the mage who thinks group sex under the influence of LSD is a great icebreaker may be devoted to saving people.

After all a main theme of these games wasn’t “these things don’t have consequences” it was “have fun exploring the consequences”. Those ranged from the messy inter character interactions to the issue that if you picked sex as a focus for your Life magic, well every time you want to use it you got to get freaky – not exactly great if you’re trying to heal a friend and outrun a werewolf at the same time.

Of course, it would often lead to people taking the shitty approach of wanting to be edgelords, to the extent on the forums there would regularly be jokes about the various tropes of people who were clearly only there to be shitty. Often the books themselves would come with entire sections warning not to keep players who wanted to do x, y or z.

A screenshot of Jeanette, a vampire in a sexy schoolgirl fetish outfit, when you meet her in her nightclub, the dialog is the standard greeting she gives with the quirky lines "You smell new, little girl, like fabric softener dew on freshly mowed Astroturf." and the seduction response is available.
Jeanette Voerman, from oWoD’s Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines (2004) fucks, even though vampires aren’t supposed to and even the game tells you that.

But, it offered the potential to explore all kinds of ideas that D&D and other family friendly games simply were not built to explore, and while you might find a group that wants to engage in that type of exploration – your expectation setting up a group was that it’d be an adventuring power fantasy.

Also, important for this part – White Wolf were also testing the waters and pushing the envelopes in this time. In 2009 their April Fools joke was promising a supplement for freaky Exalted sex, and in the grand tradition of “Ha ha but what if?” actual released it,20 Conrad Hubbard, Jess Hartley and Priscilla Kim ExXxalted: Scroll of Swallowed Darkness (2 April 2009, White Wolf Publishing, Stone Mountain GA) with the authors using a porn name generator for the front-of-the-book credits.


As part of the release of 3E, came the early version of the Open Game License (“OGL”) – you would make your own games using the d20 system and even use the trademark.

The idea was that this would essentially take D&D‘s market advantage and magnify it one thousand-fold by having the the fans creating content that would not be quite as authentic or polished, but would still be engaging. After all, being a D&D expert would now be an avenue to becoming a well paid rich person creator right?

Well, obvious in the light of the OGL fiasco they probably have regrets about that long term, but in the short term there were two specific products that are widely believed to be the cause of them tweaking the arrangement to require no nudity or “adult” content.

K. Conan: The Roleplaying Game

Released by then newcomer Mongoose Publishing, this was probably the first d20 game that a lot of people I knew talked about as a favourable alternative to D&D. It was fantasy, it was tied to a precursor/inspiration for D&D and it presented a bunch of things that people felt were missing (it also doubled down on the biological determinism, sadly).

Combat specifically in Conan: The Roleplaying Game (2004)21 Ian Sturrock Conan: The Roleplaying Game (January 2004, Mongoose Publishing, Swindon UK) hit different than in 3E or 3.5E. It allowed for a world where level influenced everything from the effectiveness of armour to the chances of survival of major events.

Characterisation wise it created a default assumption that adventurers were not thrifty investors who hoarded gold, but actually included rules that they would spend their money on partying like rock stars unless they had a specific project they were working on instead.

And there were titties on every second page, like right in the border art, both editions. Titties, every time to you opened the book.

It was debauched in a way that D&D had not dared to be, and also carried with it a great sense of credibility. It felt like Conan, but also like how a lot of people remembered old school D&D feeling. There were legit discussions over whether it had done D&D better than D&D.

L. The Book of Erotic Fantasy

I tend to think of it as the first casualty of the unreasonable expectations the d20 licensing came with, it was published independently and the creators foolishly promised they’d make errata and expansions – not realizing how burned out they’d be after putting together their first major book. They also didn’t reckon with Wizards of the Coast going full Darth Vader.

Darth Vader from Empire Strikes back "I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further."

While The Book of Erotic Fantasy22 Gwendolyn F. M. Kestrel and Duncan Scott The Book of Erotic Fantasy (2003, Valar Project In, Seattle WA) never made it’s millions or became a product that people would talk about it and Wizards of the Coast 1. Noticed there was a demand for edgy content and 2. Banned that sick filth.

Between being ridiculed and harassed by their customers for “why haven’t we received more content for free” and the drama of Wizards of the Coast revoking their license, and reworking the OGL (thus inconveniencing their peers) the creators eventually offloaded it to none other than White Wolf.

There was a reprint in 2006, but ultimately the product just hasn’t seen the demand the hype suggested, and my personal theory is because it is not very good. Not because it’s sexy, just because well, they took a very generic approach to the majority of the content and it both isn’t really anything you can’t improvise at home, and isn’t what most people are interested in role-playing in front of their friends.


The thing about 3E that made it, unique among editions is the people who were in charge of it, the voices at the top were both nerds who admired the Gygax era and were also the people who made Magic: The Gathering into the behemoth that it was. Monte Cook left in 2001, but he kept making products in competition with them and

They were all about data and metrics and iteration. When they took over, we started getting told that they were tracking how often products were being mentioned on forums and the chats. They wanted to know what people were buying, what they wanted to buy and what would convince them to buy 2 copies instead of 1.

And it all went into overdrive again when Hasbro bought Wizards of the Coast, and now wanted to see mega-money flying out of their new purchase.

The Star Wars license ended in 2004, and didn’t come back until 2007, so for most of the 3.5E era they had 1. no interference or concerns from Lucasfilm and 2. a gaping hole where once there had been a cash cow.

D&D went from getting a new edition every ten years, to getting a major edition update in three years, a major setting change four years later and an endless stream of errata and updates. Sage Advice went into overdrive even though it was simply not possible for one person or even a small team to keep up with all the variables.

M. 3.5 Edition

Where 3E started very classic family friendly, attempting to recapture the magic of D&D of yore – 3.5E tried to ride all the trends, all the markets, to open every wrapper and uncover every golden ticket.

Spellplague rolled in and re-wrote the Forgotten Realms because that shit was old and busted, lots of people talked shit about how they hated Elminster and the status quo, so they needed to make it cooler than ever by trying to expunge… everything except Drizzt. Because R. A. Salvatore was so hot right now that we needed to make everything more like the stuff he was writing. Plus, it’s so shocking to kill off beloved characters (Salvatore was also later hired to execute Chewbacca.)23 R. A. Salvate The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime (5 October 1999, Del Ray Books, New York NY)

Anime was huge and Exalted was crimping their style, so increasingly the art and the inspirations seemed to come from anime and mange type inspirations. Suddenly reverse-grip was called Monkey Grip and it let you dual wield greatswords (I’ll let you try to imagine how that works).

Power gamers bought books, so supplements were marketed explicitly to powergamers with promises they’d have more ways to be overpowered.

Book of Vile Darkness had gotten the buzz and the overall goal was to expand the market and build the brand anywhere you could. After all, Monte was out there pushing his stuff and it turned out that when Wizards of the Coast made him a celebrity expert of 3E it meant people kept following him after he left!

`1. Listening to “the community”

Then VP Brand Manager of Wizards of the Coast, Ryan S. Dancey, prided himself on the claim that they listened to the community. That they paid attention and respond to the messages from the community. He said so in a letter on 16 March 2000.

Remember, this is early 2000s and old people don’t know how to Internet. The people on the forum and in the chat rooms are disproportionately those who lack life experience and hence are the ones who are most susceptible to being told edgelords are cool actually. This is the kind of person in the forums and the chat talking about it constantly, pushing the metrics up. The people who don’t like it are looking into other games and avoiding those forums. Also, a lot of the people who don’t like it just aren’t talking about it in the forums because it’s the

Coming into the chat or forum to post abuse at the host of Sage Advice because they’d made a mistake, or you’d found a contradiction in the rulings over the years, or you had figured out a way to exploit a recent ruling just kind of became a thing that happened and while the abusive person got banned – the metrics also got counted.

The role-playing chat room I was hired to be a moderator of was shut down in 2003 in part because none of the player characters in chat mentioned the names of the products relating to them. Thus it was assumed there was no value in keeping it open because as far as Wizards of the Coast were concerned, all those members were freeloaders who probably didn’t buy anything.

(And to be strictly fair, as one of the moderators for the d20 Modern setting chat room – I can absolutely tell you that most of the characters in there were not from d20 Modern system.)

Chats regarding Sage Advice were considered extremely valuable, because even though they frequently had a dozen friend collaboratively spamming the same abusive statements – if those statements mentioned a book, that counted to the metrics. You didn’t need to buy the book, just mentioning it taken as proof enough that you had done so and so were a valued customer.

A product having a fan base of forty nerds who don’t have groups to play in, who can’t even stand each other, talking about it non-stop in the forums via their main accounts and sock puppets, mentioning it in the chat over and over to justify why their character was cooler than yours – looked vastly more favourable in the metrics than one that had equal sales but was enjoyed primarily by people who were either too busy playing to be posting, or who had decided that they just didn’t want to be on the same forum as the edgelord who wouldn’t shut up about how this was the first edition that let his drow munchkin be super-evil by virtue of being simply more powerful than anyone else.

Keep in mind also, that the quality of moderation of these forums was such that the thread which was mean to herald in and celebrate Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress (2007)24 Shelly Mazzanoble Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress: A Girl’s Guide to the Dungeons & Dragons Game (September 2007, Wizards of the Coast, Seattle WA) was spammed constantly with ridiculous claims by Mens Rights weirdos that feminism shouldn’t exist because women control the markets and therefore the economy, and the moderator response was to periodically post “This thread is a safe space for women.”

2. Apples and oranges

The method engagement with “the community” had served Wizards of the Coast well with Magic: The Gathering because that was a competitive card game, where there were tournaments, objective rules to win and most importantly – the fluff was simply marketing material. You could use the metrics for it, because their “products” were specific cards and so the ones that generated the most discussion were the ones that warranted the most examination.

It was also a product that targetted the “power user”, the person who didn’t just buy a starter set and buy a pack every now and again when they visited the local comic shop to play with their friends – but the person who would show up every payday to drop the majority of their disposable income and will bid more than they can afford on a rare card at auction because it will improve their chances of winning in the next tournament by 1.4% (and yes, they’d done the calculations themself).

This kind of customer doesn’t exist in D&D, the products are not singular cards that are issued randomly from packs – not books. D&D has accessories, most famously dice but also miniatures, battle maps, card decks, etc. But none of these influence your chance of victory, they don’t get traded like stocks. There are dragons, but each hoard is unique and diverse.

It doesn’t get talked about much now, because of their spectacular implosion after a hack but ill fated crypto vendors Mt.Gox stands for Magic: The Gathering Online eXchange. During this time, being the middle man for card sales was extremely lucrative, but nobody was ever going to make a living trading D&D books and accessories.

Similarly, the heroes of the Magic: The Gathering world were people whose comments and guidance were genuinely helpful for the wider community. The top 5% of players are there because have not just the resources, but also the knowledge of how to get best value out of what you had, and thus compete better. Mt.Gox didn’t pivot because that market stopped being good, they pivoted because Bitcoin promised to be more lucrative and less work.

None of that transferred over to D&D, there were no tournaments and while there was a whole community of people who liked super-optimizing – that wasn’t about competition so much as enjoying the process and indulging in whimsical ideas. Pun-Pun was not a genuine demonstration of a great build every player should know about, it was a shitpost via logic and math.

3. A prison of their own making

D&D had always been a game that encouraged players to try their own hand at being creators. The RPGA had accepted submissions for official adventures for its entire lifetime and the Judges Guild started in 1976. But now, we have the Internet.

I don’t think that anyone could have quite anticipated how big the jump was going to be. Only a year in we already had the start of what would become the titan of online role-playing games sales DriveThruRPG set up. I also don’t think they could have anticipated the message that the Book of Vile Darkness would send.

Before The Book of Erotic Fantasy there had been attempts to make D&D sexy, but those were text files you mailed around, not hardcopy book with illustrations and professional formatting.

It allowed Conan: The Roleplaying Game to hit the ground running and generate buzz about it being a serious contender despite the lack of background, the lack of previous editions to support it. It wasn’t just a popular module, or a campaign setting, it was a game unto itself.

F.A.T.A.L. didn’t win any fans or communities over, and was almost entirely discussed in the sense of what a terrible mistake it was, but it was a thing that people talked about and that could indicate there was a market for shock material.

White Wolf didn’t recoil a the competition presented by d20 Modern, they infected and absorbed those who gained a taste for modern fantasy. They did what they did best, edgy content that could appeal to aspiring creatives, horror fans, monster fuckers and the “dark side curious but too meek to send back a bad meal” crowd.

Like most rapidly expanding markets, it didn’t grow in an orderly manner that held up the founders and send praise and (more importantly) money to the founder as tokens of respect. It became chaotic. The manifestation of every stray thought that gamers ever had, now repackaged and offered up on sale (or for exposure).

As the market expands, so does the competition and so does the anxiety of over everything outside your own market share. Every dollar someone else is getting is not just a dollar you missed out on, but a dollar that could fund a means for them to take more dollars in the future. To maintain market superiority, you need to maintain the market’s attention.

The desire to stand out in the chaotic market that they had created when they released the OGL, The Book of Vile Darkness and the non-stop attempts to reinvent and one-up the previous re-inventor meant that the decline into lazy reliance on shock value was inevitable and would eventually paint them into a corner.

After all, there’s only so much sludge you can crank out before your options are either to stop turning the crank, or drown. Wizards of the Coast, particularly after the Star Wars license came back, was not going to release an actual poles-in-holes porn role-play book – White Wolf was and so were the dozens of edgelords who fancied themselves as publishers.

N. 4th Edition

One of the most interesting things to me was, when Wizards of the Coast finally did seem to finish debasing themselves and experience their post-nut shame, they did clean themselves off but still wanted to do it all again – just maybe in a way that didn’t seem so obvious this time.

Like a teenager who’s learned to appreciate that maybe parties in abandoned buildings are not the pinnacle of culture, they decided to try to aim for the level of deniability but also see if there were other things that maybe people like about White Wolf games beyond sex, drugs and exploring taboos. It turns out some bars have good music and some people really do come for the food.

So the lore in 4E is transformative not just because they had to distance themselves from the standard, but because a lot of it was essentially lifted directly from White Wolf’s approach to fantasy (but without the taboo content).

Elves stopped being so Tolkien-esque and became beings who existed between worlds like OWoD changelings and werewolves. The Feywild suddenly seemed a lot like the same sort of realm in Exalted, and PCs suddenly had a mighty destiny as part of their character creation, just like Solars in Exalted.

And they also did this weird thing where they tried to essentially separate the role-playing aspects from the game aspects, and broaden things so that choosing a class was almost entirely about choosing “what do you want to do in the combat encounters”. Trying to get the best of both worlds between D&D as a war game, and D&D as a collaborative storytelling experience.

But there was still the temptation of horniness and debauchery. Not just with making tieflings a playable race. Though I am very confident that decision was fueled in no small part due to horniness – after all look at the values on display in this educational video supplied in the build up to 4E.

Tieflings: fuckable and thus PCs. Gnomes: unfuckable and thus monsters. Also poor Francis, they did nothing to deserve that act of pure, wanton evil.

In March 2010, The Escapist started hosting a show I Hit It With My Axe25 (Credits unclear, it’s a mess and nobody wants to talk about it) in which actual porn stars were playing D&D and interviewed about themselves. The crew played a hybrid 3.5E game with elements from 4E in it (Sasha Grey thought tieflings were hot, fun and the obvious choice for a PC) but somehow this got the attention of the powers that be at Wizards of the Coast.

At least two of the cast, Zak S and Satine Phoenix would go on to rise as stars before (justifiably, in my opinion) becoming persona non-grata in the role-playing community. Before he was (justifiably, in my opinion) cancelled Zak S had gained enough clout to be a consultant on Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition and even had people wearing shirts proclaiming he’d “saved D&D“.26 Charlie Hall Dungeons & Dragons publisher scrubs contributor from handbook amid abuse allegations (20 February 2019, Polygon) <https://www.polygon.com/2019/2/20/18232181/dungeons-dragons-zak-smith-sabbath-abuse-accusations-players-handbook>

Nobody says that anymore, and I don’t think anybody even really remembers why they said it back then. It was just the echoes of the edgelord era still trying to infect and control the state of D&D as it was. We killed the symptom, but the disease remained with us because it comes from the society we will live in.


Lyssa is 100% correct in her tired observation that most of the edgy culture is shit for shit’s sake, it has no depth, no nuance and no value because it’s just about getting your own way and fuck everyone else. Many of the loudest voices of the day were in fact, quite open that not only did they not care if other people liked it, they were actively pleased to see other people did not like it.

It was ultimately a combination of the people who’d felt they were unfairly repressed during the Lorraine Williams era mixing with people who had been heavily influenced by the wider culture of edgelordism – both the culture that had died in 90s comics, and the one that was arising in modern fantasy.

All of this was facilitated by a changing of the guard, allowing the people making the products to get away with pretty much anything provided that they could find a metric to back it or point to a competitor and say “See! This is what the market wants!” As long as it could make the lines went up, it was a sound business decision in the eyes of the people in charge.

If the lines didn’t go up, or you got burned out or just told that someone else was appealing to management more than you did – you could take your clout and convert it into cash by publishing the stuff “Wizards of the Coast wouldn’t let me!”

The whole thing was essentially letting the edgelords run loose while trusting the Internet to tell you if you’re doing the right thing. The belief, that somehow the guy whose only interest in D&D seems to be getting to dominate and abuse the characters of the other players in his group is somehow an ideal customer because that means he’s the winner. That his activity which influences in the metrics validates his status, unlike those people who don’t even bother to register an account on the forums because they’re just having fun with their group and enjoying the game.

It was the overall reason why 4E had to be so transformative – D&D as it was had been vandalized by fanboys and edgelords, most of whom would go off to then work on their own projects and brag they were better than D&D because it didn’t have problems they, or people like them, had put into D&D.

That’s not to say they were maliciously doing it, at least not all of them. Many of them were quite confident they weren’t doing anything wrong, that it was just “mature” fun and they’d know if they were doing anything that’d really hurt someone. Just pretend and fun and games – how could that really upset someone?

It’s tempting to look at this as an awkward stage in the past, but unfortunately many of the people who ushered this is are now influential voices in the industry, speaking in conversations that impact the hobby as a whole. It’s quite possible many of them have grown as people, but with a distinct lack of them ever owning up to accountability, or talking about that growth, or actively encouraging steps to prevent it happening again.

In 2015, Last Real Indians published a criticism of “The Strange” by Morning-Star Angeline.27 Morning-Star Angeline A Criticial Look at Native Appropriation in Monte Cook Games (23 March 2014, Last Real Indians) <https://lastrealindians.com/news/2015/3/23/mar-23-2015-a-critical-look-at-native-appropriation-in-monte-cook-games-by-morning-star-angeline> In it Morning-Star details how her criticisms were mocked by the principals on the project, who essentially assumed they were incapable of creating harmful content because they were just too conscientious and wouldn’t let themselves harbour harmful biases.

Eventually Monte Cook Games did release a free PDF to supplement28 Alina Pete and Anthony Pastores Ohunkakan: The Living Myths (2015, Monte Cook Games, Overland Park KS) the pages in The Strange.29 Bruce Cordell and Monte Cook The Strange (2014, Monte Cook Games, Overland Park KS) It turns out that despite all their grandstanding and claims they were upset that people could think they did something bad, it was in fact, something bad. But, weirdly, they still seem to not want to admit to that.

There is no explanation for why the product exists on the web page, nor in the product itself. No explanation given for why those pages of the original needed to be replaced. No credits given to Morning-Star or Last Real Indians. No admissions that this is anything but a generous gift from people who did nothing wrong. Also, Zak S was a fan of the product when it was first announced, and so were the people on the forum run by his fellow excommunicated former-D&D consultant. Morrus, the owner of the much less reactionary and actually quite liberal EN World, thought they “handled it perfectly” and his community seems to mostly agree.

The disease, the callousness and the hubris, is still there. The symptoms are suppressed by market forces, refusal to reflect and deliberate ignorance married with deniability. Another round of 3.5E edgelordism is just one major market disruption away because the hobby remains more concerned with nostalgia and hero-worship than it does with the overall progress and product.

  • 1
    Lyssa & Shardae Slovenly Trulls # 39: The Devil’s in the Details (1 June 2024, Podcast) <slovenlytrulls.com>
  • 2
    By the way the Mermaid and the Succubus are the artwork of Darlene, who also created one of the major TSR Inc logos and currently has her own Patreon that you should check out.
  • 3
    Bruce Heard The Orcs of Thar (1988, TSR Inc, Lake Geneva WI)
  • 4
    Chris Avellone, Black Isle Studio Planescape: Torment (10 December 1999, Interplay Entertainment, Los Angeles CA)
  • 5
    Kelley Slagle and Brian Stillman Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons (14 May 2019, Cavegirl Productions)
  • 6
    Ed Greenwood Forgotten Realms: Spellfire (July 1987, TSR Inc, Lake Geneva WA)
  • 7
    Monte Cooke, Luke Johnson and Sean K Reynold Monte Cook’s World of Darkness (2007, White Wolf Publishing, San Rafael CA)
  • 8
    John Byrne and Glyis Olver The Sensational She-Hulk #40 (31 May 1992, Marvel Comics, New York NY)
  • 9
    RPG History: TSR’s Code of Ethics (D&D “Comics Code Authority” rules) (February 2018, Shane Plays) <https://shaneplays.com/rpg-history-tsr-code-of-ethics-dd-comics-code-authority-rules/>
  • 10
    Drew Hayes Poison Elves # 10: Sex and Violence (1 January 1993, Mulehide Graphics)
  • 11
    Yoshiaki Kawajiri Wicked City (19 April 1987, Japan Home Video, Japan)
  • 12
    Yoshiaki Kawajiri Ninja Scroll (5 June 1993, Tokyo Theatres Company, Japan)
  • 13
    George R. R. Martin A Game of Thrones (1 August 1996, Bantam Books, USA)
  • 14
    Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, and Skip Williams Monster Manual (1 October 2000, Wizards of the Coast, Seattle WA), at 215
  • 15
    Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, Skip Williams Dungeon Master’s Guide (1 October 2000, Wizards of the Coast, Seattle WA)
  • 16
    Above, at 9
  • 17
    Monte Cook Book of Vile Darkness (1 October 2002, Wizards of the Coast, Seattle WA)
  • 18
    James Wyatt, Darrin Drader and Christopher Perkins Book of Exalted Deeds (October 2003, Wizards of the Coast, Seattle WA)
  • 19
    Byron Hall F.A.T.A.L. (2002, Fatal Games)
  • 20
    Conrad Hubbard, Jess Hartley and Priscilla Kim ExXxalted: Scroll of Swallowed Darkness (2 April 2009, White Wolf Publishing, Stone Mountain GA)
  • 21
    Ian Sturrock Conan: The Roleplaying Game (January 2004, Mongoose Publishing, Swindon UK)
  • 22
    Gwendolyn F. M. Kestrel and Duncan Scott The Book of Erotic Fantasy (2003, Valar Project In, Seattle WA)
  • 23
    R. A. Salvate The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime (5 October 1999, Del Ray Books, New York NY)
  • 24
    Shelly Mazzanoble Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress: A Girl’s Guide to the Dungeons & Dragons Game (September 2007, Wizards of the Coast, Seattle WA)
  • 25
    (Credits unclear, it’s a mess and nobody wants to talk about it)
  • 26
    Charlie Hall Dungeons & Dragons publisher scrubs contributor from handbook amid abuse allegations (20 February 2019, Polygon) <https://www.polygon.com/2019/2/20/18232181/dungeons-dragons-zak-smith-sabbath-abuse-accusations-players-handbook>
  • 27
    Morning-Star Angeline A Criticial Look at Native Appropriation in Monte Cook Games (23 March 2014, Last Real Indians) <https://lastrealindians.com/news/2015/3/23/mar-23-2015-a-critical-look-at-native-appropriation-in-monte-cook-games-by-morning-star-angeline>
  • 28
    Alina Pete and Anthony Pastores Ohunkakan: The Living Myths (2015, Monte Cook Games, Overland Park KS)
  • 29
    Bruce Cordell and Monte Cook The Strange (2014, Monte Cook Games, Overland Park KS)

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