Prodded by Vero, who pointed out that she hasn’t heard me say anything nice about Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 since around 2005.
1) The system isn’t terrible. I mean the basic resolution system, where you roll a d20 and add a bonus and compare the sum to a difficulty number. That’s an extremely solid core mechanic and you can do a lot bonuses and such. This may sound like damning with faint praise, but an awful lot of games have a shitty core mechanic that makes them hard to play, or like AD&D 2e, no particular core mechanic at all.
2) Low-level characters ramp up in power quickly. I’m comparing it most directly to 4e here: the jump from a first-level character to a fourth-level character, in a 3.5 game, is dramatic. In 4e, much less so, and you can run the same adventure for five 1st level 4e characters or for five 4th level 4e characters with only minor changes. That’s not feasible in 3.5.
3) The game slides in and out of combat seamlessly in 3.5, whereas in 4e it’s like you have a big car with a manual transmission which you can only park on a hill in a slightly small space. Combat starts, everyone hops in the car and you get started and you pull out of the space and drive around a while, fighting. Combat ends, it’s this whole thing where you pull up and change gears and back in and take a short rest and the leader uses healing word or whatever to conserve surges and you have to pull out and back in again, and the whole time you’re working the clutch. 3.5 is much more tolerant of situations where isn’t presumed the PCs don’t or can’t proceed at their own relaxed plenty-of-cigarette-breaks pace. And you can have a little quick two round fight without it being a whole big thing, while in 4e (in my experience) once you’re in the car, you’ll be doing a big ol’ fight regardless.
4) 3.5’s magic system — and I’m thinking here of out of combat uses for magic — attempts to be internally consistent in a way that 4e just throws up its hands and says I don’t know, do what you want. Magic items, likewise, are generally cooler in 3.5 than 4e. High-level spells like disintegrate in 3.5 are more dramatic and cool than their analogs in 4e.
5) 3.5 adventures aren’t presented as a series of tactical combats, which makes them a hell of a lot more fun to read.
6) Not exactly a “like more:” I’m torn on the way 4e characters get better at everything at a steady pace. On the one hand, the way the gap between a fighter’s best save and his worst save, in 3.5, changes from 2 or 3 points (ten to fifteen percent, in terms of likelihood of success) at first level to 6 or 8 (thirty to forty percent!) at 20th level is dopey. On the other hand, a 20th-level decrepit old wizard in 4e is better at cartwheels than a 1st-level rogue, which is also dopey.
7) All the elaborate rules lead to crazy emergent things. Often when I was running a 3.5 game, the party would come up with awesome out-of-the-box solutions to the problems I presented them with. More often than not I’d get unreasonably annoyed, because I spent a couple of hours constructing a situation they solved in ten seconds with the right spell, but I can appreciate the flexibility of the system as a good, even great, thing.
8) It’s possible to make a 3.5 character who’s good at mainly noncombat things, and have that be reflected in the rules.