Sorcerers and Warlocks

This week’s Legends and Lore was all about the two new classes released at GenCon, the warlock and the sorcerer. They’re definitely the most interesting classes we’ve seen so far, and perhaps the biggest evolutions over prior versions of the class.

Sorcerer

The basic core of the class is familiar from 3E: you know fewer spells than a wizard, but you have spell points that you can spend to cast instead of preparing specific spells. The fictional basis for the class, however, has evolved. When I first read Mike’s post I was totally on board:

“A sorcerer’s power is a second soul trapped within the sorcerer’s body. It is a feral thing of arcane magic and strange instincts. Above all else, it is an intruder that seeks to escape.”

So when I make a sorcerer I get to have a second soul? The possibilities here are huge. First there’s bargaining and power-corruption stuff as in Ron Edward’s similarly named game,  Sorcerer. (I have to wonder if this was a deliberate nod, which would be cool.) Do I get to name my second soul, describe it, have the GM play it as an NPC? Can I argue with it, fight it for control, bend it to my will?

“As a sorcerer shapes and channels arcane energy, her willpower, the very sense of her own identity and existence, slowly decays. [...] A sorcerer forced to expend much of her will to channel magic undergoes a dramatic transformation as the entity within her surges to the surface.”

My spellcasting actually effects my relationship with the second soul!? Awesome! So spending that last spell point is a big decision: once it’s gone the second soul surges forward, and it sure sounds like a tradeoff.

“Most sorcerers quickly recover their own sense of themselves and return to normal. Others are not so lucky. The soul riven, as they are called, are forever changed by their use of magic. The arcane power that seethes within them devours a soul-riven creature’s personality, leaving behind a permanently transformed creature that is something else, something alien and unknowable.”

Wow, definitely a tradeoff. Letting the second soul run wild sounds a bit like being Bruce Banner and letting the Hulk out, but with possible long term effects. As if each time the Hulk came out there was a chance Bruce wouldn’t come back quite the same, or at all.

Then I went to read the writeup in the playtest packet. And all that second soul stuff? Never mentioned:

“The origin of this magical power is just as varied. Some trace it to an ancient draconic bloodline, while some pin it to the mischievous influence of the fey. Sometimes it’s the result of exposure to a powerful spell or planar phenomenon, and sometimes the result of a malign intrusion into the sorcerer’s mind.”

The basic cycle is still there: cast all your spells and the source of your power transforms you in some way. That’s cool and all, but it seems more like a game mechanic. With the second soul spellcasting and this transformation all seem fairly clearly based in the fiction: let the spirit out in too many spells and it eventually takes over until you can reassert yourself. Without the spirit idea it’s just kind of a fact: when you cast all your spells you get a different ability to replace them.

Reading the actual power descriptions just reinforced that felling that the whole second soul/heritage asserting itself is just a layer of fluff on a mechanical ability designed to get around the 5-minute adventuring day. The telling bit to me is in the way the Draconic Heritage is written up.

In the first full paragraph on page 13 it mentions that “when your willpower is depleted and your heritage transforms you, you might manifest the personality traits of a dragon [...]” The part of the class that was coolest to me becomes nearly a footnote that “might” happen.

The mechanical effects of the transformation, however, are listed in the Sorcerous Powers heading, which seems to be the bit you’d actually reference. In fact, you have good reason to reference that bit: the powers it gives you are mechanically interesting and create a great tension between saving spell points and burning them off.

Ultimately my reaction to the class is that it has a great fictional concept, and some wonderful mechanics, but for some reason they didn’t link the two as much as they could. Imagine if each “after you have spend X willpower” entry also told you what emotional or personality aspects of the heritage you take on? That way when I look up to see what my damage bonus for spending three willpower is, I also see that when I’ve spent three willpower I also take on dragon’s greed (for example). Maybe something like this:

When your current willpower is equal to or less than your maximum willpower-3, your hands become claw-like and your body grows more imposing, you gain a +2 bonus to the damage rolls of your melee attacks. You also start to feel the dragon’s greed: tell the DM what you most desire, you are filled with an all-consuming need to have it and horde it.

That’s just one approach. It could just easily let you choose from a list of dragon traits, or give you greed for a specific thing, or whatever. Maybe it even gives you disadvantage when you roll while ignoring an opportunity to sate your greed, though that might not fit with the D&D Next mold of powers being positives. The important bit is, the cool fictional stuff that makes the class an exciting thing to think about in the game is tied to the bits that make the class mechanically exciting. When I look up my damage bonus I also find that I’ve taken on some draconic aspects. Other draconic aspects, like the 4th level/10 willpower one, would have other effects (maybe you take on a dragon’s haughtiness, and maybe that means you can’t ignore a slight). 1 1. I also reworded slightly to remove the reference to “each day” and “long rest.” It doesn’t change the effect, since you recover willpower with a long rest and can only do one of those each day, but it does help decouple the concept. Now if there’s some magical effect that drains willpower (or whatever) it’s clear that the important aspect is the character’s current willpower, not concepts like long rests. I also kind of hate the categorization of rest, but that’s another thing entirely.

Warlock

Just like the sorcerer, the warlock sold me right out of the gate with stuff like this:

“The trades seem innocent enough. A warlock might deal his reflection in a mirror for an invocation, the color of his hair, or even his own name. Such baubles mean little in return for arcane power, or at least that is how the warlock justifies the bargain.”

The thing that really excites me here is the opportunities for questions between the DM and player. I immediately assumed these trades were based on the rules, the GM, and the player, like so:

The bargain required to gain this invocation involves your appearance. When you first gain access to this invocation the GM will ask you what your favorite aspect of your physical appearance is (it could be your hair color, perfect skin, or piercing eyes, for example). The cost of learning this invocation is that physical aspect: your hair might change to a dull grey, your skin might become blotchy and blemished, your piercing eyes could go dull, the GM will tell you exactly what becomes of you.
The bargain required to gain this invocation involves a relationship to friends or family. When you first gain access to this invocation the GM will ask you who you trust the most, then name a memory related to that person. The cost of learning this invocation is that memory.

Of course this was jumping to conclusions on my part. As it turns out the costs of invocations are specified by the invocation and the examples so far are mostly rather dull:

  • Careful enunciation
  • Sometimes irritable in sunlight
  • Frequent nightmares of ghosts
  • Often compelled to fidget with small objects
  • Fascination with reflection

A few of those, like the nightmares, are interesting, mostly because they provide a chance for interesting exchanges between the DM and players. The GM can ask who’s ghosts appear, maybe throw in some dreams about dead enemies, etc. It’s great!

For the most part they’re pretty flat though. Weaselly words like “often” and “sometimes” are just an excuse to make them not matter. On top of that most of them are unlikely to lead to interesting questions between the GM and player. “What are you fidgeting with?” “Oh, a rock or something, whatever, let’s move on.”

The effects of the fey pact are similar. Apparently Verenestra always first steals your beauty with a small wart on the face. Leaving some aspect of that to the DM and players with a leading question could be quite memorable, maybe like this:

When you gain this boon a wart of unusual color and shape appears somewhere hard to conceal. The DM will ask you some questions about your appearance and tell you where the wart grows, it’s shape, and color. Verenstra is tricky, so the location is usually annoying and the color and shape are often a joke on you in particular: your insecurities and pride.

That doesn’t change much except turning a statement into a very leading question. When the wart’s location is specified by the pact it’s unlikely the player will write it down or even remember it for long, but when it’s something that’s tailored to them it’s distinctive and interesting.

The trend continues with the distribution of favors. Favors are, basically, a way of creating per-encounter powers and still allowing flexibility in which powers you use. You get favors during a short rest and spend them on invocations.

“When you take a short or a long rest, you regain your favors. During the rest, you must be able to perform a simple rite to contact your patron, beseeching that entity for more power.”

The underlying concept of being in constant contact (and sometimes bargaining) with your patron is fantastic. The phrasing, however, turns it into a requirement, not something that actually happens. I think the intent is to make it so you don’t have to act out every plea, but the effect is to just say “this has to be possible” not “something cool happens.”

Just like the others, I think the fix is pretty simple, and something they may end up doing:

When you have a few moments of safety and silence to mentally reach out to your patron they will contact you and restore you to your full 2 favors. Usually this contact will be brief and casual, but sometimes your patron may give you certain tasks, pass on valuable information, or whatever pleases their whims—the DM will play it out as your patron.

The phrasing is still a little rough, but the important part to me is that it establishes some key facts that can make for interesting play:

  • Your patron is in regular contact, even if most of the contact is mundane
  • Your patron has plots and goals of their own, and you’re likely part of them
It doesn’t turn every short rest into a lengthy in-character session. Unless the DM says something you can just assume the contact was boring, take your favors, and move on. But it plants the seed in your head (and the DM’s) that this patron is a tool for the DM to work with, something interesting that can make the game more awesome.

Both the sorcerer and the warlock are really close to being exciting classes. They both have exciting mechanics and exciting fiction, but the link between them is weaker than it could be. We’re still very early in the playtest (WotC recently mentioned 2014 as the release target) so hopefully they’ll take the chance to improve.

It almost seems like WotC is being self-defeating here. The party line at this point seems to be that nothing interesting comes from the rules, so the rules seem to be built to reinforce that. They’re passing up obvious opportunities to make interesting fiction key to the interesting mechanics, thereby making the rules seem like just a necessary evil so you can play your cool game. With a few tweaks instead the rules could be a contributor to your game like everyone else at the table: prompting cool ideas, springboarding other peoples’ ideas, and not taking over anyone else.

As it is many of the coolest fictional aspects of the classes are left in the background. Experienced roleplayers will see opportunities like playing out the draconic-aspects when the dragon heritage asserts itself, but the text could just as easily make it simple for new roleplayers to do that same.