Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hidden rules in D&D Next

I am largely happy with the current D&D next rules, despite criticizing and critiquing them. They need more spells and races and classes and such, and the math needs to be fixed a bit, and things interact in strange ways. But one other problem I'm seeing is a strange set of "hidden rules" that require some reading between the lines, when things could be explicitly pointed out. Here's the main examples that come to mind right now:

  • Rogues sneak attack by giving up advantage, and each rogue scheme has a way to get advantage fairly easily. So the two features are really quite intertwined, but you need to read between the lines a bit to link them. This one is fairly obvious, but could be easily overlooked, especially when playing a pre-generated rogue.

  • Monks get a hidden "flurry of blows" power because martial arts lets them "dual wield" their unarmed attacks. This isn't really any different from other characters, but its there. Monks don't necessarily need a multiattacking power, but people playing a monk sort of expect that they'll be making lots of attacks and it takes some reading of the Martial Arts feat and weapon properties and such to put this together.

  • All rogues can open locks and disarm traps. This is hidden away in one line that says: Tool proficiency: thieves' tools. I can hardly believe it took me this long to figure out that proficiency in thieves' tools did this, and it made me much more likely to play a rogue since I didn't need to waste two feats to open locks and disarm traps.

  • On a similar note, Open Locks and Disarm Traps are secretly skills. To get them, you need to take the feat though, and you can only use them if you're proficient with thieves' tools. This presents one from taking skill focus or mastery for these non-skills. It would be nice to list this in the skills part, essentially saying that they're skills that can only be obtained with proficiency in thieves' tools and that they're not eligible for the skill-boosting feats.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

More fixes for the fighter: Backgrounds

I've posted before about giving the fighter fighting stances or styles, but one of the problems with the fighter is that he just fights. And he fights in a vacuum.

We see this in 3.5 and 4e where fighters get fewer skills than other classes. I can accept that rogues get more skills since skills are a rogue thing. Clerics are basically all priests (or monks, mendicants, friars, and very very rarely prophets or mystics or others not associated with the priesthood). Wizards, given how magic works in the game, are all intelligence-based and scholarly spellcasters. Both clerics and wizards end up with class features supporting their role as trained priests or scholars. There are alternate classes (sorcerer and warlock; invoker/favored soul) who are similar to clerics and wizards but their spellcasting and the origins of their powers are different and thus the classes are quite different in terns of ability scores used, skills, and class features. But where does a fighter's weapon training come from?

Monday, July 22, 2013

How much variety is enough?

Now that I've been playing some D&D next, I'm starting to rethink my ideal list of classes a bit. People have always been interested in new classes (and races) in D&D. The very first books and magazines expanded the list of character options beyond the few basics, but the basics have always been somewhat the standard, required classes.

Party roles were long ago based on fighters, thieves, clerics, and mages. The basics of exploring a dungeon seem to require someone that can do what each of these classes can do: taking out enemies, traps and scouting, and healing. Ok, the wizard seems more necessary because he's the kill-switch or emergency button. But one well-placed or well-times magic spell overcomes most obstacles. If the mage has the right one ready.

The problem is that each of those classes are basically the same, so that their roles can always be done. A wizard can cast any spell he finds. A cleric can always heal. A thief gets the same set of skills, and fighters are basically the same heavily-armored tank.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

There are no black lady miniatures in D&D

I know that D&D isn't usually the place to find images of racial equality for humans. I mean, elves, dwarves and halflings... sure. But D&D, and fantasy literature in general, is very white, male, and strait. Which is why I shouldn't have been disappointed that I couldn't find a nice black lady miniature. I didn't want an "African Lady" type, a caricature of some generic African culture
Reaper - Princess Nehanda
that may or may not fit a strange niche in Reaper's minis line. I didn't want a modern afro-lady with a handgun. I just wanted a regular figure of a fighter or cleric that happened to be black and happened to be a lady.

Doesn't look like you can even really find regular black fantasy dudes, and the lady selection is dismal as it is. Plenty of elves and dwarves and the rest of white fantasy though.

Now I know, I could just paint any figure with dark skin, but that's not really the point (the hair would be all wrong anyway). And I know its kinda odd for a suburban white fag to want to play a black lady in a D&D game. We're usually a lot more willing to let someone play a 3-foot tall forest gnome than play a character who's gender doesn't match the player's. I don't think every game is made more fun by adding real-world racial issues into it. But sometimes that's what you're thinking about and that's the story you want to explore, even if all you end up doing is say that in some fantasy world that six suburban white dudes will share, there was at least one black lady and her ass-kicking powers were on par with everyone else's.

I'm just a bit shocked, when I should know better, that there isn't a nice black lady fantasy figure or two for me to purchase. While I'm at it, the princess selection isn't great either, and you'd think there'd be half a dozen ladies in birthday hats and dresses to fit that role.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

D&D Next: Disappointing Skills and Saving Throws

 One of the things I thought was odd about D&D Next is the ability score-based saving throws. I couldn't quite formulate how I was dissatisfied with it till now though. Ability-based saves feel like they overlap with skills.

Now, this should be a problem in 3.5 and 4e too, right? Somehow it didn't feel like it. And I think it was because things like the 3.5 grease spell called for a balance check rather than a dexterity saving throw. In 4e, someone attacked your reflex defense, so it also didn't seem like much of an overlap.

Conceptually it might not seem like much of an overlap. If you were trying to balance on a wall, you'd roll a dexterity check plus your balance skill. If an evil wizard cast a fireball spell, you'd make a dexterity save. But your tumble skill, useful for things like rolling down a steep incline or running between the giant's legs doesn't help you dodge that fireball.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Roles for exploration and interaction

Last night's game got me really thinking about exploration and interaction roles. I'm running Against the Cult of the Reptile God as my summer D&D fling game, and the party began infiltrating the church.

Now, I'm sure the player of the fighter was just tired, but the party didn't get to much fighting in general last night. So the fighter seemed bored as well as tired. The party's good planning reduced the need for combat dramatically, so people probably only took a swing or two each at enemies before they went down.

But the problem is that with the skill system, the fighter really doesn't have much that he can do outside of combat.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Jakandor: A Forgotten Setting

I have to admit that I really have a raging nerd boner for an old little setting called Jakandor. Well, half of it at least. This was a second edition setting (weren't they all?) that focuses on the class of two cultures: the magical Charonti and the stupidly named generic Vikings/Indians called the Knorr. It wouldn't be so bad if that weren't a soup product.

Anyway, the Knorr stuff is just ok. Warrior culture, animal totems. Meh. The magical Charonti is where its at.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Ability Scores Matter?

One of the things touted by the D&D Next crew was that ability scores would matter in the new edition. Now, math-wise, I think they matter just a little too much and would prefer an 18 to just be a +3 bonus, but whatever. What I'm talking about here is how many classes are still just based on one stat and others are practically useless.

Let's take the fighter. He needs strength to attack, or maybe dexterity for a finesse weapon. Constitution does give the might HP bonus, so putting points into constitution is still pretty good. But intelligence only helps search and lore skills, wisdom is just spot and listen basically, and charisma is also just a skill or two that the fighter might take. What happened to the ideas from 4e where a fighter gets a Wisdom bonus to opportunity attacks? Or, given that the warlord seems to be being folded into the fighter, how about giving us a sweet sweet intelligence, wisdom, or charisma bonus with those expertise dice?

This isn't just the fighter's problem. The Wizard is almost solely intelligence-based (with a little con for HP and dexterity for AC). The Rogue is just dexterity plus maybe charisma or intelligence for skills, though he could attack with strength. The Cleric is wisdom plus maybe dexterity or strength for a weapon attack and constitution for HP.

I get not wanting classes to be overly reliant on multiple ability scores, but it feels like the game basically runs off of dexterity (AC, attacking with bows and finesse weapons) and constitution (Hit points). Strength gets a nod since it can be used for weapon attacks, intelligence gets a couple bonus languages which are just fluff, wisdom powers the pretty useful perception and anti-surprise skills, and only one party member needs charisma for the face-skills.

4e tried to make ability scores more useful with the non-AC defenses, but that ended up oddly pairing the stats so you could basically focus on only three instead of six. Third edition, oddly, made a lot of use for different ability scores. Charisma affected your leadership (if you took that feat), intelligence affected your skill points, and wisdom alone affected your will saves. Maybe not ideal, but it didn't feel like you were squandering points if you built a fighter with a high intelligence.

Now, I like the idea of the bounded-accuracy flatter math of D&D next, so I'm loathe to just start having characters throw a second ability modifier on rolls willy nilly. But there might be some class features that could be constructed, if not general everyone-features, which help make abilities more useful.

I'm not sure what, exactly, will help out here. But I suspect a few class features could be made more variable. Paladins, for example, could let wisdom fuel their divine grace as well as charisma, or some clerics might be charisma-based casters instead of wisdom. Some feats could go back to taking advantage of ability scores somehow (move 5' faster for a feat if you have a Dex of 14). Those sorts of feat requirements did impact 4e some, but they were often set at 12 or 13 and I think a 14 might be the thing to really restrict them (or reward a fighter for having intelligence). Finally, giving a bonus skill or two might from class might actually help encourage some other abilities. I liked how classes in previous packets got skills instead of advantage on skill checks that they might not have (i.e. wizard, cleric, druid).

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Daily Resources in D&D Next

One thing that the new D&D is still struggling with are daily powers and the 5-minute work day. Except now, I think they're making it potentially worse because monks and paladins are joining the ranks of the blast-and-rest group.

I wrote before about one simple fix, which is simply that all of your "daily" resources don't refresh when you rest. But now besides wizards, clerics, druids, rangers, and paladins having a daily amount of spell slots, most classes have additional daily powers:
  • channel divinity - clerics & paladins
  • wild shape - druids
  • ki - monks
  • rage - barbarians
So these classes can all suffer from out-of-resources syndrome. Then there's hit dice too, so even fighters and rogues can run out of those.

There are some attempts at fixing this though. Barbarians get another attack-type that they can use all day (get advantage by giving advantage) and wizards as well as druids who focus on spellcasting recover some low-level spell slots after short rests. At-will cantrips also give some options when spending daily resources seem excessive. But this doesn't change the fact that one rest basically replenishes everyone.

The hit die recovery mechanic for long rests is one way to help kill the five-minute work day. Currently you recover all your HP but only half your hit dice. I'm not sure that's the implementation that sings to me, but I like it. You don't get all your resources back. Now if they can apply this to spells and other daily features, that'd be great. Of course, there's really no reason that all of these things need to be different resources, they're all basically "spell slots". I'm not sure why wild shape can't be a set of druid spells (with wild-shape focused druids getting more of them and fewer other spells), or even turn undead could be a simple cleric/paladin spell.

Second Edition (and before?) had some version of this where, by the book, you needed a lot more time to memorize powerful spells. So you might have to really choose what to regain when you're resting during an adventure.

One objection to worrying about this is that the DM's responsibility is to ensure that games move along and to enforce plot-based reasons to avoid this problem entirely. I'm somewhat sympathetic to this point. I've rarely encountered this in games that I've played in or ran. However, a well-crafted game should ensure that most DMs won't find this well-known problem to be a problem.

Basically, resting should still be a reasonable option: you're trading time for some resources. The problem is when all your resources return with too little time spent. A simple mechanic would just be regain half your spent resources (round up).

That might be too simplistic though for the current set of rules. For spells, maybe you regain slots top-down so you do regain most of your big guns, but maybe not all the little ones (or go bottom-up so that you really have to think before using those big guns). But then with wild-shape, channel divinity, rage, and ki... you've got so little that it seems like maybe you should just regain one less than your maximum (minimum 1, I guess), so if you're 100% spent you still get most of your mojo back.

If I ran the show, I'd make all the daily points (spells, monk/psionic ki points, berserker rage, etc.) one system and then have a simple way for daily stuff to be recovered to around 75% capacity. Or, well, at least I'd heavily consider this, easier to apply an optional get-all-your-shit-back rule or grittier recover-slower rule and have the five-minute work day addressed in the base.

Friday, July 5, 2013

D&D Next: Putting it all together

Now that I've made a few characters with D&D Next, I'm struck by how the rules don't yet mesh well together. There are a few different systems in place that really need to be ironed out, and I'm a bit shocked because they've been playtesting this stuff for a while now. Examples:

A Forest Gnome (ok, I know its a new race, but still) Illusionist wizard has features that just plain overlap. Forest gnomes get the illusion cantrip and so do illusionists. This could be fixed if there's 2 cantrips from each school, but I'm not sure they want to give at-will invisibility as a cantrip and veiling/disguise is the other illusion option after creating illusions. Not only that, but Gnomes gain advantage on saves against magic (in general) which overlaps with Illusionists getting advantage on saves against illusion spells.

The Assassin scheme for the rogue gains the sneak skill, but also the hide in shadows feat, which grants the sneak skill (and 10' of dark vision). Though the Assassin seems tacked on in other ways, because they're the only scheme who doesn't get mostly specific expert feats. They need a poisoner feat which lets them brew and identify poisons.

Races grant weapon/armor proficiency, but it is incredibly hard to find a place to use these proficiencies. Elves are reasonable, because the long sword and longbow are solid weapons, but most weapon using classes will have them already. Its a little better for Mountain dwarves who gain proficiency with light and medium armor, but also a +1 bonus to AC when wearing medium or heavy armor. So something like elves being able to use long swords as finesse weapons might help a little. I liked the earlier version where these iconic weapons (or at least the simple versions of them) gained a damage die bump (i.e. Halflings with slings and such). Alternately, it might be nice to have that as a "cultural" option, so Elven Culture gives you proficiency with long and short swords (and ability to use them as finesse weapons) and long/short bows, or recall lore Magic or History or Natural.

Light/small weapons are overshadowed by other weapons. Daggers, for example, in earlier editions don't do much damage but they have an advantage in number of attacks or weapon speed. So these could be made more iconic with some additional properties (daggers and other small weapons, maybe could get a power where you get to make an attack of opportunity whenever someone tries to grapple you).

There is also a lot of ambiguity in how things stack (or don't). Mage Armor, for example, is worded such that it isn't clear if an Elven Monk could take Mage Armor and still gain his wisdom bonus. Or, frankly, if a Dwarven Wizard could use Mage Armor at the same time as other armor which he's proficient in. Third edition named every type of bonus, which wasn't an elegant system but you knew what could stack and what couldn't.

Anyway, none of this is entirely unexpected, except we're quite a ways out from the original playtests and these seem like some major issues to deal with. I expect there'll be a new packet in a month for GenCon and I hope it shows they're working on what types of bonuses races and classes should get and how to ensure they don't overlap to the point of uselessness.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Wizards in D&D Next

I made the mistake of trying to read up on D&D next wizards, only to find a 40 page rant on the WotC forums. There were a few kernels of goodness in it, mostly hidden by overheated arguments reflecting different playstyles.

I understand that some people are disappointed by "Vancian" magic system still, despite the fact that it is anything but now. Spells are not fire-and-forget, though they are still a daily resource. Wizards have fewer spell slots and fewer spells prepared. They also gain a few cantrips, which are at-will spells, some of which are at-will attack spells. Utility spells are listed as rituals, which can be cast without consuming spell slots (i.e. mana), allowing the wizard to memorize a small number of blasting spells and more utility spells. Arcane Recovery is also a mechanic where a wizard can recover a low-level spell slot during an adventure when the party rests.

One huge difference from earlier editions is the class balance. Things are not precisely (and boringly) balanced like 4e. And the wizard suffers few possibilities of losing spells being incredibly weak as in AD&D 2nd Edition. The designers also are keeping the 4e's goal of having only options, and few limitations. Thus there are no barred schools for the specialty wizards. Overall I think this works fairly well, though the wizard is currently lacking some of the oomph that the druid has. I'm not quite sure a bit more variety in spell selection outranks the Druid's Wild Shape, better hit points, and better weapons.

They might be able to add in a few tidbits to make Wizards more comparable to Druids. Perhaps a free Magical feat, or training in a lore skill. Or, since druids might be overpowered, taking them down a little in terms of spell slots.

I really like one aspect of the new spell design, which is spell flexibility. The Create Water spell is a great example, because it gives a few different options on how the spell might be cast or used, such as putting out fires or for drinking water. I wish they would expand that to the combat cantrips a bit, allowing Ray of Frost to target a foe's legs to reduce his speed, the ground to have a chance to knock him prone, or the face which might cause disadvantage on attack rolls or skill checks requiring one sense (eyes, ears, nose, mouth?).  If we could get Exterminate as a necromancy cantrip with applications for delousing, killing tiny creatures (no damage, just outright kill if less than half level + 1d4 hp?), and damaging swarms (1d12?) that would also rock. If each cantrip has a few different options, that means a wizard will have some nice "always on" options, but they'll be broader than just zapping people.

Another aspect of flexibility is the option to use higher level slots to power spells with a bonus to the effect. I think it would be cleaner to only have one kind of magic point and let spells get boosted directly by character level, but this works well too. We only need one Cure Wounds or Monster Summoning spell and staples like Magic Missile or Burning Hands can continue to be viable through the whole career. This is going to need more development to make sure that some spells aren't strictly better than others, but I suspect that the ability to power Magic Missile with any spell slot might be useful over just one use of Meteor Swarm.

One little regret is the philosophy of "no penalties" means that every wizard still has access to every wizard spell. I like the idea that Illusionists master illusions to such a degree that they can't master every other type of spell. On the other hand, I really hate just having one set of "master illusionist" powers that no one else could possibly access (a la 3.5 Psionic disciplines), so maybe this is something I could slightly live with. Though, for many of the specialists, being able to cast your specialty school spells as rituals for the low-low price of losing 3 other schools of magic might be worth it, or eventually learning a first, second, or third level spell as a cantrip maybe.

The design of this wizard class is something I could definitely live with. They need a few more spells on their list, and to work out the math kinks, but it seems fairly solid.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

D&D Next Playtest: Overview

I've begun playing and running with the current Next playtest rules. I'm moderately impressed.

First, I'm able to fairly seamlessly convert a first edition module that I've wanted to run for a while to the new rules. There's only one or two key monsters that aren't converted and stats for some human villains.

Second, it's refreshing to be running an adventure again, rather than a series of encounters. I really did enjoy 4e and had fun with it, but I never quite got the string-of-encounters thing quite down. I wanted it to be like the connected battles in Final Fantasy Tactics, but it just didn't turn out like that. I think it could, though. And I still like many of the 4e rules, but its nice to be free from the power cards.

Third, I'm digging some aspects of the new spell design. Playing a cleric, I like how some of the utility spells are either designated as rituals, so they clog your spells prepared, rather than compete for spell slots. Other utility spells are given more applications, like Create Water. I hope that type of flexibility extends to some of the combat cantrips, like Ray of Frost.

Overall, it makes the game feel a bit more like playing Second edition. Which is what I was mostly raised on, so I like the big picture thus far. There's some things I'm less fond of (half-elves, mechanically, aren't outcasts; druids still seem overpowered, with wizard-like spell casting and wild-shape; forest gnome illusion powers overlap with the illusionist class powers; many of the cleric deities are a bit forced into one archetype) but this edition will also be much more house-ruleable.

There are a few things which would make life a lot easier for playtesting too, that I hope they consider using in the next packet. For example: Lists of cleric, druid, paladin, and ranger spells by level would help, so I could just print out all the first and second level spells for my character.

I also wish they would explain some of the design intent a bit. I finally realized why the ritual caster was repeated in the Scholastic wizard tradition: its worded slightly different from the regular ritual caster feature, so that the generalist tradition can cast any ritual in their book! Given their plain-English style in other places, it is jarring that there's not a "Unlike most wizards..." and emphasis on spellbook. Ditto with the Rogue's sneak attack stuff. The rules seem pretty clear that rogues have a way to gain advantage, and can take disadvantage for additional damage, but you have to read between the lines to realize it.

So all of this, and Abjurers. They should add abjurers back into the game.