Magic Systems in D&D Next
How do you handle all the traditional and not-so-traditional magic systems in D&D in one edition? This is the issue that Mike deals with in his Legends & Lore post on magic systems.
The plethora of magic systems they’re considering is, at least partially, a problem of their own making. Their goal is explicitly to include a variety of magic systems, not to find the best magic system for the game they’re trying to make. That means that even if they have one thing that works well there has to be more.
I’m not really a fan of where this leads. Mike’s post came off like a big passing on of responsibility to me: the design team has committed to having multiple magic systems, but they can’t figure out a way to make them fit, so they’ll just throw them out there and let the DMs deal with it.
I’m hoping they steer around that and actually make picking from all these magic systems simple and clear. As a DM, for this to be useful to me, I need to know why these systems exist (to give me more choices isn’t an answer) and what inputs I might use to choose between them. Mike starts to touch on this towards the end of his post:
I’m really curious about the “world background” that they mention here, as that seems to be what killed the Sorcerer and Warlock classes. There was a pretty definite shift in what a class is between the four original playtest classes (Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, Rogue) and the two later additions. The starting classes were mostly about what abilities you have at your disposal: the Fighter has expertise dice, who cares how they got them. The Cleric and Wizard came the closest to stating something about who your character is, but even then it was pretty general. Then the Sorcerer and Warlock come along and make some pretty solid statements about who you are not just what you do. The Sorcerer has two souls! That’s an important fact established by the class, and a shift from the ability-oriented original classes.
It sounds like, from WotC’s polling, the Warlock and Sorcerer didn’t do too well. I wonder if what people were reacting to was the disconnect between the concept of what a class means in these different classes. The Fighter and Rogue say that a class is the set of abilities you have, the Warlock and Sorcerer say that a class is who you are.
Both of these are completely workable, but side-by-side they are incongruous. That leads to a negative reaction to building a class around each magic system, and to the “solution” of just letting the DM make sense of them.
The up-side to this is that it’s by far the most clear modular system we’ve seen yet. They’ve designed a clear interface: the class provides a list of spells and abilities, the magic system tells you how those spells are cast. Having a clear interface like that allows for clean swapping—I could write my own Wizard-based class that can still use all the same magic systems by creating a new spell list, or new spell-related abilities. So long as my class defines a spell list (plus HP, class abilities, etc.) I can plug it into any of these magic systems.
For that wonderful interoperability to be useful I need some framework to decide between magic systems in, and that’s the weakest part of what Mike proposes. Compare this DM-based magic selection with the multiple magic systems in Shadow of Yesterday or Burning Wheel.
Both of those games have multiple magic systems with different mechanics. The differences in mechanics, though, are fundamentally tied to what the magic systems are supposed to be. Faith in Burning Wheel isn’t just a skill-based magic system, it’s a system that reflects a certain view of a relationship to the divine which is best translated into mechanics by a skill system.
If the multiple D&D magic systems are constructed with the same care they’ll be great. Having a real reason for existence elevates them from features to be listed on the back of the book to actual useful tools for the DM.