Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A failure of 5e: Cleric and Druid spell lists

I was (perhaps foolishly) reading some forum posts about the new Elemental Evil materials for D&D. Besides the usual gripes which amount to wanting more material, I've been thinking about how the new spells affect clerics (not at all) and druids (uncertain).

See, what they did was provide about 40 new mostly-elemental spells. They provided lists saying which spells can be taken by which classes, and one of those is the druid (cleric and paladin were left out). But there's an interesting caveat:

"Your DM might add only a few of these spells to your druid’s spell list. For example, if your druid is from a coastal region, the druid might have access only to the new water-themed spells." (Elemental Evil, p12).

Now, what has historically happened is every new spell in the game is available to the proper class. But everyone other than Clerics and Druids has a mechanic for how they "know" that spell. Wizards have to get a copy in their book (now you get a couple free when you gain a level, otherwise you have to seek it out) and other classes simply gain a new spell at each level (or thereabouts). Clerics and druids know every spell on their list, so when their list is expanded the classes just get that much more versatile.

This, I think, is a problem. But is there a solution?

Obviously for Elemental Evil they say: its the DM's choice if your druid can use all or only some of these. A reasonable thing to do at this point. As a DM, I think I'd simply ask the player to suggest which of those spells she would want access to and remove a few from the druid list that seemed less appropriate (i.e. a coastal druid might gain more water spells and lose fire ones).

But this is ultimately a little unsatisfying big-picture-wise. What you want is a good mechanism to allow all clerics/druids to have a universal set of core spells, and then provide additional ones based on their domain/circle/what-have-you. They did this, to an extent, with the bonus domain/circle spells. So its easy to instead customise those bonus spells instead of the list as a whole. But then we've still kinda got two different lists of bonus spells.

I'm not sure what the solution is here. With at most 40 or so spells, a little customization isn't bad. If they add another 20-40 spells in 6 months though... and another 50-100 spells a year after that... the problem balloons into an outrageous bloated system.

It sounds like the Cleric/Druid need a slight redesign that they don't want to do. A cleric might "know" a number of spells at each level equal to his wisdom score, or perhaps 10 + wisdom modifier. You pick them from the Cleric list and you or the DM can select a few which are thematic but don't fit the general Cleric list. Fairly elegant, but shitty for new players (i.e. time-consuming and difficult).

My beloved 2nd edition wasn't necessarily better in this respect. Cleric spells were divided into spheres of influence, but still the more spells published the bigger your list got, though it was at least thematically coherent still (by and large).

A different, but not quite as elegant solution, would be to similarly divide the spells up into paths of power, a la the old Dragon Magazine article (#216). That divided up wizard spells into a number of paths, and wizards could only pursue a few thematic paths until they mastered them. I think, in theory, it meant high-level wizards were still crazy-potent, but it forced wizards to be thematic in their spells. I can see this being useful for both clerics/druids and sorcerers in particular, who ought to have maybe one or two thematic spells at each level but you don't want people to be making constant choices (i.e. choose once to get the Flame path and you've got a set spells with one flame spell at each level, rather than choosing from a large group of spells at each level to add or wholly customizing your spell list).

The problem with this "paths" approach is it doesn't jive with the current domains/circles, because both are mechanics to add new spells to the spell list. The classes still need a rewrite to prevent bloat in the long term.

Wizards are a bit of a concern as well, but the DM can (and should) limit which spells are available to some extent. So you don't have to let all the extra spells in as scrolls or through NPC spellbooks found as treasure. Sorcerers and Bards and Warlocks pick from the list, so even a bloated list isn't really increasing their power/utility unless bad spells are created for the game. But clerics and druids... I wonder if they'll actually do anything about this.

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