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.

Another aspect of earlier editions is spell collection. The late second edition campaign setting Jakandor does a good job of this, despite some failings.

Jackandor: Island of Destiny describes the Charonti, a fallen kingdom of mages who are being attacked by savage barbarians. The barbarians become the protagonists in the companion product, but I want to focus on the Charonti Necromancers. The setting seems a bit rushed and the production values low (evidenced by the reuse of lots of art). It also suffers becuase of the TSR stance agains the glamourization of evil: a decadent kingdom of necromancer-philosophers should be a little more interesting than what Jakandor gives us. Nonetheless, Jakandor does give us an interesting take on mages at the time. Each mage in Jakandor specialized in one school, and cannot learn other spells. Furthermore, because of the fallen state of the civilization, spells above second or third level are rare or lost. One key quest in the game is to recover ancient and forgotten magical lore.

That's awesome, because as mages, not only do you recover old timey spells, but you gain the ability to use them too. Simply scribe them into your spellbook. The much-maligned vancian casting system balances some of this flexibility by only allowing you to memorize/prepare so many spells per level. So having a lot more choices isn't overpowering since even your really good spells have limited uses. Third edition also introduced the Archivist class in Heroes of Horror, which rocked. The Archivist was a priest who used the basic Cleric spell list, but kept a spellbook like a wizard. And he could learn any divine spell from any spell list if he could find a scroll of it. So druid spells, shugenja spells, or arcane spells from specific domain lists were all open, if the DM let you find them. I'd be very tempted to play an Archivist in a 3.5 game if the DM woudl play nicely with me.

The point being, collecting things is fun. Fourth edition only has this aspect of spell-collecting in the ritual system, which is a little unsatisfying. Not only because it might cost a feat to get access to ritual casting, but the component costs don't quite seem to add up with the 4e math and there's a bit of a disconnect between ritual casting and utility powers.

What 3.5 and 4e give instead of collecting is character customizeability. Every level you get to make choices. Even in 3.5 where there were "dead levels" where opting to advance in your class provided nothing, they came up with some bonuses. A level-based system does feel a little unsatisfying if you don't get to collect something or make a meaningful choice with each level. So feats, paragon paths, epic destinies, and the plethora of power choices in 4e help make up for this. But they're finite. Limited. Non-collectible. Treasure is parceled out according to your wish list. You get what you want each level without questing for specific things, and you don't have the option to quest for something different because you have a limited number of "slots" for treasure and powers.

Other RPGs have similar problems. Even some of my favorites like Fading Suns, Vampire, or Reign suffer from a lack of clear advancement. Level and class advancement just feels more heroic. Sure you earn experince points and spend them in those other systems, but raising your stats a little isn't quite the same as hitting a milestone or a jackpot.

Can a game do both? Its possible. Some of the collectable aspects in classic D&D were housed in the magic user anyway, though treasure worked for all. I think one solution is to add story-requirements to more aspects of the game. I like the idea of early entry prestige classes, so you do the first 3 levels in a basic class and then you seek out training in what you want to do. Not just "X levels in spellcraft" requirements either, but the story-based ones where you save someone's life, earn the trust of a master of the order, or slay a particular enemy. Even feats might have these sorts of requirements. Then you have some story to aim for. Tie the customization to collectability, and but you need to be able to keep collecting things as well.

The second is a true return to wizarding spellbooks, and perhaps clerical spheres of influence. It might involve schools of martial training as well, like the maneuver system from the Tome of Battle. Finding training in these particular domains could broaden a character's options, but you might only be able to use so many options at a time. Then we'd see sorcerers (or multiclass sorcerers with wizard training?) who could seek out spells and have a chance of using them from an ancient tome, or warlords who study the tactics of great generals from ages past. Unearthing information becomes more useful. Collecting becomes an option again, and a fun one at that.

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