Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #16 - D&D 3.x
One of the oddities in this list is variants of D&D will appear multiple times while games like Call of Cthulhu will appear once. However, I've found many of the editions of D&D are extremely different from one another. If you showed up at my Call of Cthulhu 7th edition game with a 1st edition character, we could probably convert on the fly. On the other hand, bringing a D&D 3.5 character to a 4th edition game would not work.
Additionally, there will be a few retro-clones on this list - primarily if they bring something very new to the gable.
While D&D 3.0 and D&D 3.5 do have some fair-sized differences, it is clear that 3.5 is an evolution from 3.0 as opposed to an entirely new game, as was done in 4e.
It was tough for me to figure out where D&D 3.x should rank. I want to point out that any game on this list is a game I've both played and enjoyed - and there are a few games not on the list that I've also enjoyed quite a bit.
The 3rd edition of D&D was a massive change to Dungeons & Dragons. While Advanced Dungeons & Dragons had introduced non-weapon proficiencies as early as its 1st edition, D&D 3rd edition introduced a fairly rigorous skills system, incorporating a number of special abilities such as what had once been ranger and thief abilities in previous editions of the game. Nothing technically stopped you from making a wizard good at picking pockets - it probably wasn't the best use of limited skill points and you'd never be as good as a rogue, but the ability to customize was nice. Similarly, the use of feats allowed for further customization - the crafting of magic items, mastery of two-weapon styles, access to weapons your class wouldn't normally have, etc. You could also multi-class quite easily, taking one level of rogue, then one of wizard, etc. Doing it too much would make your character spread too thin, but a bit of dabbling made for interesting characters. The game also introduced "prestige classes" to the game - special classes you could qualify for over time, giving you some interesting abilities. You could, for example, become an eldritch knight, advancing both in fighting and magical abilities at the same time. You'd lose some of the abilities you'd have gotten by staying in one class, but it was more beneficial than multi-classing.
The game also introduced a universal mechanic - roll a d20, add and subtract modifiers, and try to beat a difficulty. This was actually pretty revolutionary for the game. Previously, a saving throw vs. a minor spell effect was just as difficult as one for a major one. Similarly, the difficulty of picking a lock was solely dependent on the skill of the thief. Sure, most of us threw bonuses and penalties in as house rules, but it was nice to see it made official.
I found this version of D&D a ton of fun to play and to run. However, as I got experience with it I found things that bugged me. Perhaps the first of these is it was a game I found extremely difficult to house rule. In my experience, D&D 3.x was a very precise machine and modifications could have side-effects. For example, the game really assumed miniature use and if you didn't use them a number of feats became either useless or difficult to adjudicate. If you removed those feats then you'd have to address other feats that they were prerequisites for. It was like pulling a thread on a sweater.
I also found the game to be a bit too complex for my tastes, especially when it came to creating adventures. I found I still loved coming up with ideas for adventures but actually implementing them wasn't as fun, what with the need to finely balance encounters, give out the right amounts of treasure, etc. As a player, I also found it somewhat frustrating that you often needed to start planning for prestige classes at 1st level. Especially frustrating when a new book came out after you started play...
While you'll see some skill-less versions of D&D ranked better than 3.x in my list, it's worth noting that, in general, I prefer skill-based games. I've had a lot of fun in versions of AD&D relying on player skill to come up with clever plans but I do like having things like a characters's ability to sneak around spelled out. And I especially like the existence of social skills - just like most players aren't great warriors in real life, most aren't also masters of deceit or oratory. That said, I found D&D 3.x to be a bit too rigorous in its skill definition, particularly when combined with its expected use of miniatures.
In spite of those paragraphs of complaining, I did have quite a bit of fun with D&D 3.x. When you played the game the way it was expected, it played very well. Combats were rather fun as characters danced around the battlefield, tumbling past opponents or trying to flank a foe. If I were invited to play in a D&D 3.x game (or its successor, Pathfinder) and I had the time, I'd gladly do so. I occasionally join in a D&D Online game which is based on the 3.x rules. I would probably need to think hard about running such a game though.