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.

Subclasses built on these basic classes, but calling them subclasses really didn't do much for the game (neither did the warrior, rogue, wizard, and priest groups of second edition). A paladin or ranger could basically fill in for a fighter, trading a little bit of combat prowess for their secondary stuff (healing/divine defense or exploration/wilderness magic). But a bard (second edition) couldn't really fill in for a thief, and a druid could cover some of the healing role of a cleric, nor a monk/assassin for a thief and fighter.

Keep going to third edition (ok, second edition with all the handbooks or Player's Option stuff even) and characters got so customizable that you can start building characters that no longer fulfill the role of the basic class at all. The weakness of the monk and bard in 3.5 was that they did the 5th party slot so well that they couldn't really fill in for any role. So essentially, despite having a bard or paladin, you still needed a cleric (or lots of wands of cure light wounds).

This brings us to 4e where characters had clearly labeled combat roles and each class could basically do that function. There was some different synergies (paladins and swordmages were better with parties who needed less defending, clerics were better at healing but warlords were better at enabling their allies, etc.), but the role was basically there. If you had no striker, everyone knew they could/should take some feats to increase their damage, for example.

So no not only was each cleric different (you at least had a few build options), but you could get by with a warlord, cleric, shaman, artificer, bard, or ardent. That's a lot of variety in character option. Though, at the beginning, there was only the cleric and warlord.

So I'm wondering how different each character class in 5e needs to be. Do we need enough feats and class and racial options to make every fighter who specializes in archery different? Or can we be satisfied that two bow-fighters will probably be pretty similar, because a bow ranger or bow cleric or bow rogue will be pretty different?

Despite growing up in an era of dozens of kits, and going through the Player's Option AD&D, 3.5, and 4e... I think that each class having one or two choice points might be enough. I think I can be happy if a fighter takes the tactical or inspirational "warlord" type powers (whether they're expertise dice, stances, or feats). Each illusionist wizard or assassin rogue could be fairly similar in powers.

When I feel uncomfortable about playing a true old school game, its because the options aren't quite there. Every druid is the same. Every magic-user. Every Cleric. If you have two fighters in the same party... well, they basically have the same abilities. Not so in D&D Next. Sure they'll be similar, but there's enough of a difference in my book that having two fighters (or most classes but the Barbarian right now) will give enough options that no two players will be essentially playing the same character.

At the same time, there's only a few decision points per class. I hope this keeps up in the new next packet. I'd still like a few more classes: bards feel missing still. I think the players deserve a shaman and possibly a philosopher-mystic. I think sorcerers and warlocks can be added in and I'm not sure you can just adapt the wizard to include those two as options.

The D&D Next rules are shaping up to give me enough variety, at least, where I'm interested in playing it. And that's a good thing.

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