A friend of mine who I game with regularly recently made an observation about why he prefers 4e to 3.5. Third edition, he noted, was all about the next level. When people build 3.5 PCs, it is often with an eye toward a particular prestige class or feat combination that the PC won’t have for some time. Some people, when they create a PC, set out and create an entire 20-level plan. He claims this isn’t really the case with 4e due to the incremental change between levels.
In general, I agree with his observation. I find that when I am playing 3.5 at low level, I am sometimes frustrated because I am not yet playing the PC that I want to play. 3.5 is a game of options, and those options are pointless if you don’t get to use them. On the other hand, I do like mechanical rewards. I like it when my character gets a new ability that makes a dramatic difference.
Is it possible to get the best of both worlds with 3.5? Maybe.
Option 1: Run 3.5 starting at level 5 or so. This is when most PCs start coming into their own – they get signature abilities (Druidic wildshaping, Paladin’s warhorse, Wizard’s fireball…) and begin qualifying for prestige classes.
Option 2: Run 3.5 with fast leveling. Level up every game or so until you reach level 5ish. This can give players a taste of low-level play without getting stuck in it. The problem is that some people may not want to go through the leveling of their PCs each game – it can be a bit of work.
Option 3: Use a faster feat progression. Letting PCs take more feats can let them try out more of the options built into the game. There are some problems with this. It messes with CR – the PCs end up being more powerful than their level would indicate. It also doesn’t solve the actual problem – many feats that players will want won’t be available until the prerequisites are met at a higher level.
Option 4: Build the advancement scheme into the game’s backstory/plot/cosmology/whatever. This can work… and be interesting… but it requires a good bit of work on the part of the DM.
Option 5: (which can be related to option 4) Take away player choice. This should be done only if all the players know what they are getting into and are cool with it… but it would certainly be possible to run a 3.5 game where character advancement choices are taken out of the hands of the player running a PC. Perhaps all players vote based on a PC’s actions on what class that character’s next level should be in, what skills they should advance, what feats they take, etc.