Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thoughts on the D&D Next Playtest

After reading through the playtest materials (delayed because I couldn't get the stuff to download for days), I have to say I'm overall optimistic. It seems a little high-fantasy for my taste with hit dice and at-will attack cantrips, but I'll try to reserve judgment about some of that for now. Some of the explanations in this week's Legends and Lore column help to understand some of the playtest too.

I don't like how the ability scores are, once again, king. That is to say, everything happens based on your ability scores, but the math makes it look like starting with that 18 or 20 in your most relevant stat is going to be huge. Granted that'll make your other stats crap, but its a min-maxers paradise potentially. I've been contemplating a much flatter bonus system where an 18 is only +2, but I'm not sure that would work well yet. I love the Con modifier as minimum HP roll though. I had been contemplating something along the lines of half was the minimum roll, but basing it off Con is brilliant.

Advantage/disadvantage is, however, a pretty brilliant system. A re-roll is pretty important when you have a low bonus, so the math makes it more potent for your crap-stats instead of on your good rolls for a min-maxer. I'm not sure if that is a good or bad thing, but it potentially means min-maxing on your stats is going to be much better for some classes/skills, if you can get most of your important skills off with advantage via good descriptive roleplaying (Charisma and Intelligence?). I did notice that the prone condition still gives a -2 to attack rolls, which might be a typo since they said advantage is supposed to help eliminate some at-the-table math. I'm glad that they don't seem to have decided on the idea of using 1d4 or 1d6 for a bonus at least. Something like the thief's skill mastery might be doable with this mechanism as well. I'm also wondering what it would look like, mathematically, if the second die rolled were 1d12 instead of 1d20. You'd be more likely to "roll" a score in the 8-9 range probably, but still have the potential of catastrophic failure. Just less-so. Maybe that average roll isn't quite high enough to make a difference if you're not pretty maxed out though.

I though they were going to do more with silver pieces, so the equipment section's prices baffled me a bit.

Hit dice seem ok, but I might like a limit that one can only spend so many per short rest. For extended rests, it'd be interesting if one only recovered hit dice and not any HP perhaps. I'm still a little uncertain. Also the once/level thing seems a bit... low? Or low at first and high later on maybe.

I'm also a little unsure of some of the scaling math. The rogue seems to gain a die of sneak attack at every level, which is pretty potent.  I'll have to reserve judgment till we can see more than a 3-level playtest. Same as the class features, really. This playtest is about the basic mechanics.

I feel similar about themes. They seem... silly maybe. But if they're just granting feats, its just extra wording on my sheet. I don't mind if a fighter could take a feat and gain some minor spellcasting powers, that's pretty cool. But how that fits in with multiclassing and what annoying pages of fluff are going to be given to these feat-delivery packages remains to be seen. The backgrounds are nice, but I still think some classes or races should have innate skills as well.

Overall, I like the magic system except for the "minor" spells (cantrips/orisons). For example, I like how the grease spell states a bunch of different possible uses and its possible effects. The attack minor spells though seem... lackluster. They're generally a replacement for a weapon, and do damage just like a weapon. Ray of Frost might be a much more interesting spell if it did one thing, though I suppose it should since I could easily do this with the rules. So, one effect when targeting the ground (creating a slippery surface), another when targeting a small fire (extinguishing it), another when aimed at the target's eyes, etc. Maybe that's too much for one spell, but as a player I'd expect to potentially be able to do this. That makes the at-will spells really potent potentially. If the cantrips were once per encounter, I wouldn't mind this level of flexibility. If they're really at-will though, I think they should potentially do much less. Maybe the class or theme would let one cantrip be mastered completely, while the others are just per encounter? But really, the shocking grasp can no longer be used when attacking with metal weapons? Wizards can take Magic Missile to always be able to damage an enemy with no attack roll every turn? And eventually it grows stronger so you can make multiple attacks with it? Radiant Lance gives any cleric a "magic" crossbow? Meh. A bit too high-fantasy in my book, so hopefully the 'tone it down' options won't devastate the casting classes. Or maybe there'll just be alternative magician and votary classes?

A quick list of positives: Ritually casting spells, a reasonable movement system, skills in general, simplified turn mechanics, and hazards on skill checks. Also, just about everything else, really.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Religion and divine beings in D&D

D&D religion has a few different incarnations, but is essentially based on Christianity and western paganism. Perhaps because of the accusations that D&D was a satanic recruitment tool in the 80s, the game has steered away from real-life religious traditions and stuck with what it developed in terms of a fantastic paganism.

This situation leaves a number of non-western religious ideas on the wayside, though 4e has added some aspects of that back with the idea of primal spirits and the primal power source which complements the divine and arcane.

But what I think is still missing is, to some extent, that sense of wonder and mystery religion holds. When the gods are active in the world and granting their followers spells and tending their souls, only that certain kind of religion can be portrayed in the game. Mystery cults, Buddhist enlightenment, or mystical union seem to be a farce of some kind, and the system end up far from some of the Appendix N source material (Conan comes to mind immediately) where the truth of the gods is largely unknown.

Its that sense of cosmic truth that can help make D&D what it is: monsters are evil and must be slain so their treasures and lairs can be reclaimed for the sake of goodness. But that sense of cosmic truth can also break the game. Souls can always be resurrected or reincarnated, deities can be fought and killed, and there is at best one shade of grey in the moral landscape.

While I do like a game where the forces of law, chaos, good, evil, and balance are vying for supremacy, I wonder what we might gain by having some of these aspects of ultimate reality undefined. Is there an afterlife? Is there a soul for magic to affect?

Clearly laying out the outer planes and rules for deities or immortals takes away some mystery from the game. In a world where gods clearly exist (and they exist as antagonists for PCs to potentially slay), certain metaphysical real-world conundrums are suddenly solved in favor of some religious views over others (i.e. there is little place for a Buddhist notion of no-soul in a world with souls). In this respect, I slightly prefer the system of Immortals from the basic D&D game.

Some of the old settings like Dark Sun, Al-Qadim, and Planescape do a decent job of handling religion. In Dark Sun, the elements are the object of worship, and there are no clearly defined deities, though the immortal sorcerer-kings also grant spells. Al-Qadim gives us aloof and uncaring deities who represent virtues, all ruled over by fate itself. Religion there is surprisingly undefined for AD&D. Planescape goes the other direction, and defines things clearly but in a way so systematic that I think works well. For that setting, at least.

I'd like a little more mystery in D&D religion, and perhaps the whole of the magic system, class system, and cosmology needs to change a bit for that to happen. But a more-inclusive world with a heavenly over-deity, gods, Buddhas, immortals, devils, demons, and the like would be a refreshing change of pace. Perhaps a change too big for the generic D&D game though.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Wizards and Versatility in D&D

Last week's Legends and Lore column details some design goals of the new wizard class in D&D Next, and the D&D Next chat mentions at-will magic. I like some of what I see, but I'm a little concerned about other things. These items made me rethink a few things about wizards though which are worth noting.

What slightly disturbs me about the new wizard class design goals is the at-will cantrip types of powers and the lack of oodles of spells. Now, I've surely considered reducing the number/power of wizard spells before, but I think that takes away from some of the fun of playing a wizard: Sorcerers or warlocks should be able to blast their enemies all day long. Wizards, however, should probably be relying on more of their utility spells. Because that's what wizards have: oodles of various spells.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Psionics in D&D

Psionics in D&D has gotten a bit of a bad rap. Which is strange to me, not just because I like it. Psionics clearly wasn't implemented well in the original first-edition DMG, but there's no reason that D&D has to be purely tolkien fantasy, particularly when Gary Gygax included some of the Tolkien-ish elements to give the game a broader appeal. In that sense, why not allow psionics? Furthermore, ideas of mind-reading, sight-beyond-sight, and the like are all good fantasy tropes. They just tend to live more in the realm of pseudoscience than pure fantasy.

One major issue with psionics in D&D is whether or not it represents an additional type of magic, or an alternate system of magic. Thus far, only in the Dark Sun setting has psionics really been mainstreamed. If done well, psionics surely has as much of a place in the game as dwarves and dragons. As pcs, psionicists need their place in the world clarified, not just tacked on as an optional sub-system. This can be done well via the class system.
For using psionincs in the game, I see three solidclass archetypes:
  • Philosopher/Ardent
  • Monk
  • Ascetic/Psion

Monday, May 14, 2012

Race and Cognition in D&D

In D&D, races have always represented a combination of species and culture. I'll ignore any ideas of racism per se, here, but it is 100% conceivable that a non-human sentient race would have different mental, physical, and cultural characteristics when compared to humans.

So should elves have a bonus to using longswords or bows? Should dwarves all speak dwarven? Should all half-orcs be poor leaders? I'd like to argue that this is an option that one should consider.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Races for different flavors of fantasy

D&D has always emulated Tolkien's fantasy, for the most part. Elves (of many different sub-species), dwarves, hobbits halflings and men fight against goblins and orcs and trolls. Tolkien emulation isn't bad in and of itself: there's probably a reason that this stuff is so iconic.

But it does get tiring after a while. One can only reimagine elves so many times. So I'd like to see some early options for the new D&D, as a generic game, to fill more aspects of fantasy. Humans should still probably be the most commonly played races, but most fantasy settings these days have some diversity in terms of sentient species. In terms of races, having a broad variety that can accomodate many distinct fantasy worlds is going to require quite a few additions.

The Men of D&D 3.5.
Assume that the basic game has your standard selection of races:

Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half Elf, Halfling, Half Orc, and Human.

Add in a couple more that seem to have become basic races:
Dragonborn, Drow/Dark Elves, Eladrin/High Elves, Tieflings

Now we've got 11 races already and we still need more in order to satisfy returning D&D players! We need a number of races need to be added from some of the basic campaign settings that people might expect to be able to portray. I'll try to keep the list focused and assume that some reflavoring can be done so that Planescape Tieflings can be largely identical to the generic ones, just like Dark Sun elves can resemble regular elves.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Healing in D&D

While each edition has brought changes to hit points and healing, Fourth edition's changes have been the most radical. Theses primarily involve: off-action healing, non-clerical healing, healing surges, and self-healing.

From the beginning through 3.5, healing has consumed the cleric's turn (ok, except for the book of 9 swords Crusader, but that's a direct precursor to 4e). You made a conscious choice to spend your turn casting a healing spell instead of doing something else (like attacking or casting another spell).

While paladins have had the ability to lay on hands, and bards gained access to healing spells in third edition, the cleric (and druid or specialty priests as sub-types of cleric or divine casters) have held a monopoly on healing. This is less true in third edition where anyone could take the use magical device to use a wand of cure light wounds (its like 50 healing potions for a pretty low price!). So some other classes had access to healing, everyone knew that a bard, druid, dragon shaman, or whatever just wasn't as great at it. So there is a reason that someone always had to play a cleric, and this is is. 4e finally made it explicitly clear with roles: warlords, bards, shamen, ardents, artificers, runepriests, warpriests, sentinel druids could all fill this role.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Class features for interaction and exploration?

Mike Mearls has recently discussed the three pillars of the game: combat, exploration, and interaction. I've been thinking about what distinct classes bring to these different areas. Classes clearly come with built-in combat powers, no question.  Since its difficult to build a class that might have a clear role in each area of the game, I'm not sure its worth it to balance everything out. Its also probably not possible to divide each of these areas up, such that classes represent one (i.e. combat) while backgrounds, themes, races, kits, or whathaveyou represent another. But it wouldn't be a bad idea to call out what classes might bring to each situation.

Let's look at the traditional cleric and ranger.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Distinguishing spellcasting classes

The more I look over some D&D editions and their retroclones, the more I think about altering the magic mechanics to suit the game better. But why?

I think first and foremost that magic mechanics are one of the main ways that setting and rules need to be in sync. Second edition Dark Sun, for example, never really got the defiling mechanics right until Spells and Magic. Or, at least, the defiling mechanics didn't match the Prism Pentad novels, which I think were what the designers had in mind all along. Not only was it defiling magic that was somewhat out of sync, but even the templar, elemental priest, and druidic magic as well. Looking back on it, templar magic seems much more like the cleric or warlock type (4e might have gotten that right) but the part about memorizing spells doesn't seem quite right. Its not necessarily out of place per se. And it was about the only D&D magic mechanic at the time, so it didn't seem quite as odd back then.

Now that we have spellcasters who cast spells in different ways, it seems like the mechanics should reflect different play styles for that.

  1. Wizard - Arcane study. Its hard to keep all those spells in mind, so wizards are constantly refreshing their memories and preparing spells to be used.
  2. Sorcerer - Intuitive arcana. Sorcerers channel magic through their blood. They've got large reserves of power, but less variety.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On Collecting and customizablilty in D&D

A year or two ago, you probably could have heard me say the one of the only reasons I'd consider playing a D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder game was to play an abjurer. Its not just that the fourth edition doesn't have a great abjurer character (ok, maybe a shielding cleric or a hybrid artificer|swordmage of some kind) because neither 3.5 nor pathfinder really built an abjurer that I was most interested in playing (the late 3.5 Abjurant Champion as closer, but I mostly wanted a cloth caster with a bunch of swift defensive spells). One of the draws of an earlier edition for me was the ability to collect spells and to customize my character. 4e does a decent job with customization, but the options are so class specific it can be hard to find the right feats/powers/themes/classes to reflavor at times. Earlier editions of D&D tend to have an emphasis on collecting. Later editions focus more on customizeablilty. I'm torn, because I like both these elements.

I didn't really play much classic D&D or early AD&D. My D&D started in the early 1990s. But some of the fun with those basic games and even second edtion was the collecting aspect. Earlier edditions were all about collecting treasure and magic items. You went into dungeons and came back with treasure. That was, ultimately, the goal of adventuring. Of course, you could throw a lot of story onto it, but you gain XP by defeating monsters and collecting treasure. Pretty simple, right? This condinued into second edition where alternate XP rewards gained more traction in the rules, and the products were more about settings than adventures.

Third edition demolished treasure collection with wealth-by-level. In third edition, there were guidelines for how much treasure to give out for each level so that the math was on-track with the monster challenge rating system. It got worse in fourth edition. Treasure was parceled out in an even stricter wealth-by-level scheme. Players are encouraged to provide the DM with treasure "wishlists" that the DM can build treasure parcels out of. Sure, you might quest to obtain some holy relic or eldritch artifact, but the basic goal of finding treasure and collecting magic items became tied up with the math. Later in 4e we got inherent bonuses and random treasure tables, which were nice, but didn't do a lot of searching for the right swag.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What is a class

When discussing how many classes the new edition of D&D ought to have, I think its important to also consider what a class is. Because the two are interrelated. When you definition of class is broad, you tend to think you should have fewer classes, while a narrower definition leads to many classes. I think the traditional definition of class in D&D is the type that will give us a list of around 15-20 classes, but I'd like to focus here on what a class is.

Other than the very first sets of rules, where the game was still being worked out, we find four basic classes plus a few more. Fighter, Magic User, Thief, and Cleric are the basic four, but Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling were quickly added to that mix. So saying that there should only be four classes is really going back pretty far, and one could go further back to just fighting-man and magic user if you really wanted.