Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Forgotten Innovations: Character Points

AD&D character points were the last in the line of extravagant excess that TSR unleashed before Wizards of the Coast took control of the game.

In my forced exile from gaming, I've been known to read a few forums now and then. I used to enjoy reading some of the speculationa about D&D Next, but now they mostly seem pretty similar. And a lot of people are requesting innovations that showed up much earlier in the life of the game.
One of these forgotten innovations is character points from 2nd Edition. Now, second edition is often maligned as the dark ages of D&D. TSR went broke, and the game suffered from an excess of options. This is particularly true with the Player's Option line (including the Dungeon Master's Option: High Level Campaigns).
Man, wouldn't it be sweet if feats were broken down according to usefulness and quality so that each one could just be bought with a pool of points?
Anonymous forum poster that I'm paraphrasing, you've stumbled upon one of the so-called excessive options of 2nd Edition. Each class and race had options that could be purchased with character points. Want to be able to get weapon specialization as a Ranger? Want to access some wizard spells as a cleric? Want a signature spell as a wizard? All of this (and more) was available with character points.
Now, this was probably somewhat broken because they can be combined in an astounding array of bad ways. This sort of imbalance could be alleviated now with a large playtest of dedicated nerds, the type of thing the internet currently allows and Wizards of the Coast is trying for. The modern CharOp boards would have a field day finding all the brokenness that character points allowed. Heck, I found some awesome combinations back in the day.

At any rate, I'm not sure a return to character points is the best thing for D&D. But that sort of character customization is that people will want in a new edition to some extent. From a few things I've read so far, innovations like backgrounds and themes will allow this (much like the kits of second edition). Customization is the key to having a smaller number of broad classes. Then sub-classes could be particular pre-built options, so the warrior is a super-customizeable class, with the paladin, berserker, captain, or samurai as pre-defined options, just like clerics, druids, mystics, or shamen are speficic instantiations of a generic priest super-class. The pre-built ones might even be slightly more powerful than a fully customizeable one, because buying options a la carte tends to result in more powerful combinations as more game elements get added.

One problem with this level of customization is why bother having classes in the first place? Once every type of class feature is module (Warrior combat training, weapon use, armor use, divine ordination for priestly spells, arcane study or pacts for magician spells, larceny skills, terrain-based exploration skills, inspirational powers, various social skills...), there is little point in maintaining distinct class systems. If games like D&D are to be class based, they need to abandon some of this modularity.

Perhaps, as I suggested above though, the more flexible options wouldn't quite add up to the predesigned class archetypes. If you build a class with a warrior's combat bonus and a wizard's spells, perhaps you wouldn't have many points, slots, or options left to choose a wide range of weapons and armor or lore-type skills? This is basically the option that 4e's hybrid class system took, and I think its a nice compromise for more advanced players who want to portray characters that straddle archetypes. This addresses some of the customization problem. You might also need class groups or for the multiclass classes to be drawn from the broad generic ones. Otherwise you might have fighter-paladins or cleric-druids. This could be good or bad depending on your point of view and how their features blend. If a wizard-warlock casts spells like a wizard but can learn spells through his fey pact, that's a good thing, though it needs a little to balance it out so that every player of a wizard doesn't feel like an idiot for not doing the warlock multiclass.

This level of customization, if done correctly, might also be applied to races (or backgrounds and themes as well) to help with role-filling. Elves, for example, might be able to pick up some of the ranger or druid exploration skills, while dwarves or gnomes might have a knack for disabling traps. I'll explore this idea more later on.

Hopefully new options like this will be a little more balanced, but the extravagant excess of character options that second edition offered is still a lair just waiting to be plundered for the new edition or a retro-clone. I hope the D&D Next designers (some of whom even worked at TSR durring those dark days) take note of some of these forgotten innovations.

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