Monday, September 17, 2012

How many systems does a game like D&D need?

I've written before about unique class systems in D&D, but how many should there be? Clearly older editions, like Second Edition, had a bloat of independent systems. Third edition did wonders to try to unify many of these with the d20 mechanic (pick up a d20, roll high). Fourth edition rolled back some of these systems, or at least rolled them higher into the game's math. The early classes from the first two players' handbooks (and some from the third) followed the same template of at-will, encounter, and daily powers. But each class had its own unique (and often lengthy) list. Also, systems like feats and action points had every class participate, though feats might be restricted.

I think spells are one great system where powers can be shared. Even if there is a distinction between Arcane and Divine (And Primal? And Psionic?) magic, allowing classes like the sorcerer, warlock, and wizard to share spells means that no one class will get all the support (I'm looking at you, 4e Wizard/Mage/Witch/Sha`ir/Bladesinger especially compared to the artificer, swordmage, runepriest, and seeker). I think 4e discovered this in the essentials run, but it would have been great if there were more power-source based powers that all martial or arcane classes could share.

Another good system is what I'm calling stances, or fighting styles. This is what fighters might specialize in, and we can imagine them like broad martial arts schols focused on offense or defense (Or Striker, Defender, Leader and Controller if you please). Fighters get many of these, and there should be enough of each type that a fighter could focus on defending his allies by taking all three defensive stances, or killing his enemies by taking offensive ones. And my idea for these stances is to make them somewhat niche, so one defensice stance might let you retaliate if an enemy attacks your adjacent ally, while another might let you intervene and try to parry that blow. Fighters are versatile because they have many stances and might be able to use two stances at once eventually. Rangers, Warlords, Paladins, Cavaliers, and maybe some Rogues might learn a stance or two, but they might also be restricted (e.g. assassins only learn offensive stances?).

I've also been musing about action points as a system. While everyone might get an action point each day and be able to spend it on a heroic moment where you really need an attack to hit or gain a second wind, some classes like the Barbarian, Sorcerer, or Druid might gain more action points during the day and be able to spend them on different things (free attacks, spell slots, etc). Inspiring classes like the Bard or warlord might have a pool of points that they can give out, and offer the ability to let other classes spend them in additional ways (When the warlord directs the wizard to strike, even his usually inneffectual staff attack might topple an ogre).

Though I'm not seriously considering it at the moment, the channel divinity system from third edition and 4e, along with domains, is a similar idea. A number of divine classes could make use of them, though perhaps in different ways. But this would also be a nice system that ties together paladins and clerics (and invokers/prophets and avengers/inquisitors, etc). I'm not sure that a channel divinity system adds more to the game than just spells, but I can see room for domains or spheres of influence for divine classes, so that their particular miracles are distinct from generic "cleric" spells like bless, or cure light wounds. I'm just not quite sure that this sort of system is significantly distinct from spells to make it worthwhile. I mean, turning undead and laying on hands could easily be spells, and maybe classes like the cleric and paladin have easy access to these spells. In the paladin's case, maybe those are just about all the spells he gets.

Feats are, of course, another system that all characters get access to in recent edtions. Not equal access, but access. Fighters gained more feats (from a specific list) in 3.5, while 4e continued to have some feats restricted by race, class, and even class features. Its generally a decent system, though the bloat of feats makes it unweildly and its not clear what feats should really represent. I'm contemplating blending them back into something like skills, so they're more like 4e skill powers or even some of the very specific AD&D nonweapon proficiencies than 3.5 feats, so I'll consider them part of the skill system for now, though they could be distinct as well.

Skills would be another system, and I've also written about loosely tying them to classes as well. The initial D&D Next reports suggested that skills would be almost entirely divorced from class, but I'm pleased to note that the current playtest rules does give most classes a thematic skill or two. So wizards study magic and it shows, rogues might be sneaky and adept at thieving, rangers would have woodlands lore and tracking, and priests would know about their religion. Makes sense.

These systems--magic, fighting styles, action points, and skills--cover a lot of ground in D&D. Rather than instituting a set of fighter-only powers to match rogue-only powers and wizard-only powers, giving differential access to these systems can results in classes that "feel" different in play, but also don't require a bloat of class-specific options or steep class-specific learning curves.

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