I have more than six years of experience with Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons and I think it’s well past time for me to talk about it. I have plenty of friends who still prefer it over Fourth Edition but that’s probably because they haven’t played it.
Fourth Edition has given me a radically different perspective on how to address the various problems raised by Third Edition characters. I’ve long since decided how much I hate Skill Systems, starting mainly with Third Edition. Seriously, it’s a joke.
Characters in Third Edition have a couple important points to hit from both a design and play perspective. The first is ability scores, obviously. Your abilities mattered a little less in 3e than 4e, if only because everything mattered less in Third Edition. The systems were so broken and mismatched, you could just take your pick.
Once you got past ability scores, there was your character class. Your race would have some impact on the sorts of characters you could play, but usually it didn’t matter all that much. Your class pretty much decided whether you were going to suck or not when compared to your party members (as evidenced by the tier system).
Character class could be broken down into a couple key areas: first was your hit points of course. Those are important in deciding how many hits it would take to remove you from the fight (one, or two hits, basically). Third Edition characters are pretty fragile. There are a couple ways to branch out from hit points.
Your base attack bonus usually determined how well you were going to do in combat, and only really matters in weapon combat with only a few exceptions. To go along with Base Attack Bonus (BAB), you have your proficiency with various types of weapons and armor, which allow a limited amount of customization.
Relatively few effects revolve around weapon and armor types (expanded upon somewhat in Fourth Edition), with the main importance of armor being in how much of an armor bonus it grants you in exchange for how much it restricts your Dexterity bonus. If you’re a spellcaster, you might care about Arcane Spell Failure.
Tied for importance are Skill Selection and Saving Throws. Depending on how much magic your party faces, your saving throws could prove instrumental or utterly useless. If you’re going to be fighting ocs, skeletons, zombies, and goblins, your saves won’t count for much. Skills are of similar (mostly non-combat) importance.
Skill Selection can be broken down into a couple of sweeping ideas: if you’re a social class, you’ll have access to stuff like Bluff, Diplomacy, and Sense Motive (though not necessarily at the same time), and if you’re an intellectual character, you’ll have access to some of the crafts and knowledges. Woodsy types get woodsy skills.
Health, Attacks, Proficiency, Saves, and Skills aside, one of the big questions facing each character would be whether they got Spells or not. Sure, the source of the spells mattered a little (arcane or divine), and I guess some of the alternate sources like psionics or incarnum might matter, but not tremendously.
Class features tended to be such a grab bag that you were lucky if you got something good, but it wasn’t terrible if you didn’t. Some classes were only made worthwhile due to their class features, and those were the ones to watch out for. Mostly you wanted spells, and if you didn’t get spells, you wanted hit points, BAB, and/or Skills.