Monday, February 11, 2013

Return to D&D Next

I've looked at the D&D Next playtest packets on and off over the past couple months since I returned to the US. Unfortunately, I haven't managed to play it yet. I was going to play some some friends, but moving and illness prevented it.

Overall, I like what I see, but I'm still a little unsatisfied with some aspects. There's magic and martial dice, but the big thing is the pathfinderization of class abilities.

First, magic. Its a hard line to walk between having awesome magic-using classes and lame ones. In older editions of D&D, the wizard (when unfettered) could outclass a fighter sometime shortly after fireball became available. Some mechanics like spell concentration still made wizards vulnerable, but with time and preparation they could appear and conquer their enemies with an astounding array of magical spells. At the highest levels, they could do this multiple times, completely outclassing fighters and thieves.

How do you fix this? D&D Next seems to be beefing up fighter and rogue damage to compensate. Fighters get martial damage dice that they can use for maneuvers, and also base damage boosts. Older edition fighters did get multiple attacks, so increasing damage is one way that they can improve their effectiveness, as well as increased accuracy.

I'm still not a fan of the martial dice, though I haven't managed to play yet. It seems very gamey to me, in sort of the same way that 4e became a tactical wargame with roleplaying in it because of the at-will, encounter, and daily powers. I think my solution of stances might be better, but I'm not 100% wedded to it.

The second thing I'm concerned about is the racial damage bonus. I agree that races may have weapons that are more thematic for them, but hard-wiring this as a damage bonus runs the risk of making the weapons overly specialized for the races, to the point that its sub-optimal to use anything else. For example, Elves might be better with rapiers than longswords because rapiers are finesse weapons. I like the idea of the damage bump and making it dice-based instead of a +1, but maybe some alternatives could be considered too. One example might be Elves being able to use longswords or spears as finesse weapons: this makes the longsword appealing to characters who don't just have a good strength, but also those with dexterity. I'm not sure if you could really let dwarves use hammers/axes as con-based weapons, but thinking beyond a damage boost might be really helpful to make these iconic weapons feasible for all, not just optimal for some. We did see this in recent editions, where some races could use their racial weapons as martial rather than exotic weapons, or others got free proficiency with a weapon (or later implement). A combination might be useful here, such as Elves gaining a choice in either a damage-boosting feat, a finesse feat, or other weapon specialization feat for the longsword and longbow.

Now, if these two things were my biggest beef with the D&D Next, that'd probably be pretty swell. The other problem I see is the pathfinderization of some of the classes. What I mean by this, is an explosion of sometimes redundant options. Take a look at the Pathfinder rogue and you'll see what I mean. Pathfinder rogues gain access to a slew of rogue talents, many of which duplicate what feats or spells do. The alternative rogue, the Ninja, gains a similar (yet different) pool of these talents. I think there's an elegance to shared systems, particularly in a tabletop RPG. Why does a necromancer specialist wizard gain a cleric's turn/command-undead power or some other random undead boost?

Isn't it enough that a Necromancer wizard would gain, say, a bonus cantrip or two plus more Necromancy spells (either known/memorized or slots to power those spells)? By using a few modular systems (i.e. 3rd edition feats and spells) you can give classes a lot of variability. Just as fighters have a list of fighter-feats, rogue talents could be a list of rogue feats. Sorcerer bloodlines and wizard specializations could simply grant bonus cantrips instead of a baffling arrange of powers usable 3 times per day (plus an intelligence or charisma modifier). In fact, using the already in-place modular spell/feat systems allows for a lot more variety in some ways. An illusionist who gains a bonus cantrip could select any appropriate cantrip (i.e. any illusion one), which frees those abilities to be used by other classes (or races, like gnomes, who might master a free illusion cantrip).

I can see the argument that each class could be made unique, and perhaps these very class-specific powers add something special and 'unstealable' to the class. But it runs the risk of making some options unappealing. The old Necromancer theme from an earlier packet did just that. By hard-wiring a necromancer as a soul/life-thief, it makes the undead-master or death-caster less viable. Do rogues loose much if a fighter could take a rogue feat? I don't think so, but rogue-feats could have class prerequisites or just ability pre-requisites that would make them difficult for non-rogues to obtain (e.g. Dex 15+ or Backstab class feature).

Class-specific abilities is really what turns me off to Pathfinder, particularly because Pathfinder tries to add something extra to everything in D&D 3.5. Whenever I look at the materials, I always find these hard-wired abilities problematic. They don't quite fit my vision of a necromancer or assassin or abjurer. And my a game that can accommodate my vision without too many problems is the point, right?

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