This Week in D&D
In this week’s Legends & Lore Mike covers a variety of things the design team is working on.
The first section deals with the classes, in particular the ones we’ve been hearing about for a few weeks now: Wizard, Sorcerer, Rogue, and Cleric. Here’s a quick rundown of the changes Mike mentions, let’s take a a quick look at each:
- Casting mechanics rest at the system level, not the class level
- Possible class categories
- Sorcerer isn’t a sorcerer, may be renamed
- Wizard traditions
- Cleric deities
- Rogues have emphasis on skills without auto-success
The system vs. class distinction for casting mechanics is an interesting thing. It took me a few times to even parse out what we’re getting at here, but I think it boils down to this: magic presented in it’s own chapter vs. magic presented as part of a class.
The usage of the term “system” is what really threw me, as it seems like classes are part of the system. The entire collection of documents they’re distributing are what I’d call system, but I can also see the value of referring to the class-specific rules as opposed to the class-general rules. As always, RPGs are a field fraught with iffy definitions.
When it comes to placing the magic system there are plenty of games that take either approach. Classless games, obviously, tend to make magic a thing described in-and-of itself. There’s also the Mortal Coil approach, where magic is defined by rules written during play, like “dwarves cannot resist the allure of gold.” All of these are entirely functional, depending on the game. Making magic it’s own topic tends to work best when magic itself is evocative of something. Magic as a class ability works better when magic is a tool for making certain classes worthwhile.
The placement of the magic system is an interesting way to reflect what magic means in the game. It sounds like fans want magic itself to mean something, not just be a way for a class to function. This may be one of those times where the feedback you get from playtesting points to a non-obvious solution—maybe the real issue isn’t where magic presented, but making magic a real part of the world as opposed to a tool to class functionality.
Class categories may be the best idea I’ve heard from the D&D design team in a while. It’s a great way to leverage the classic D&D classes along with diversifying in the way that modern D&D players expect. Mike only mentions the “magic user” as a category but it’s easy to see that expanding out to the four classic classes. What if all classes fell into one or more categories: divine, arcane, skill, or combat.1 1. I’ve gone with these names instead of classic class names mostly to avoid confusion with the Cleric class and Thief in all it’s various meanings, but you get the idea.
The advantage here is that it allows later classes to plug in to earlier content. It’s one of those interfaces I meandered on about in my early imaginings of how a modular D&D could look.
The power here is that non-class abilities, like backgrounds and specialties (and prestige classes, however they end up looking) can build on the basic concept of the class, not the exact implementation. An ability meant to represent the favors of the gods, for example, can be tied to any divine class.
It’s a bit like 4E’s roles and power sources, but more clearly tied to the core of D&D. Making them categories also implies overlapping: a class could fall into both the combat and arcane categories, for example.
Speaking of arcane + combat, Mike’s take on the sorcerer’s fate is interesting. On the one hand, of course a class should be held to a core vision. If the sorcerer doesn’t meet that vision, it should be changed.
On the other hand, the idea that every class has to be clearly and cleanly tied to earlier versions is a bit chilling, especially in the possibilities for future designs. This apparent requirement for semi-backwards compatibility is scary—as a software developer, “backwards compatible” almost always means new features that should be there were cut.
Overall that leaves my feelings on the sorcerer split. I don’t have a huge investment in what a sorcerer was, so I’m not the kind of person who’s going to complain. I can see why meeting audience expectations for the sorcerer are important, but I wonder how this kind of design requirement might affect future designs.
Wizard traditions are nothing too surprising. They’re pretty similar to the familiar ideas of schools of wizardry. The actual implementation is something we haven’t seen before: a tradition grants a spell the can be cast every 5 minutes.
I’m not a huge fan of the actual mechanic. It seems, like many wizard abilities, to be a patch over some basic bugs/features of Vancian spells. 5 minutes seems arbitrary and a pain to track as well, and it’s vulnerable to the same kind of weird situations that 4E wizards could get into. If this 5-minute spell can, for example, convert a small amount of stone to mud the wizard is now a one-man excavation team that can outpace anything out there. Any time I seen “5 minutes” it seems like a patch over “once per combat.” Fine idea, troublesome execution.
The number of mechanics for reflecting magical focus is legion: increased difficulty to resist, increased ability to cast, less consequences on failure, more benefits on success. Some combination of these can be found in all kinds of games: Burning Wheel, Shadow of Yesterday, How We Came to Live Here, and so on.
Like traditions, the cleric is getting special abilities based on deities. The implementation here is again interesting: instead of a specific deity list we’re getting deity archetypes. So you could be a cleric of the trickster deity who could be anybody from Loki to Olidammara.
That’s an interesting approach. On the one hand, it allows for core D&D to work with many pantheon’s right out of the box. On the other hand, it means reducing every pantheon to a set of archetypes, reducing any real benefit to using a different pantheon. It also removes any common touchstone—right out of the box in many editions of D&D we’ve had some common deities that create something shared between most games. I can talk about how the Raven Queen died in my game, and you can talk about how she was an ongoing villain in yours.
It actually feels like a step back from 3E’s domains. At least a combination of domains allowed each deity to be crafted out of common parts. Archetypes mean that each deity is only one part, so many of them are the same.
And that leaves us with rogues, who as often happens are problematic because the skill system is problematic.
The current skill system, by default, only has one thing that can change on any given roll: how likely you are to succeed. That means that all “skill mastery” can really mean is a more successes, which is really pretty boring.
If, on the other hand, skills had consequences for failure (which they optionally do in Next) or degrees of success (again, optional) the rogue would have more to work with. Maybe a rogue gets to take lesser consequences on failure, or gets to move up a success category, or gets to choose from two types of failure—all of those are interesting things. When a skill in a binary roll (where one outcome usually means “nothing happens”) making skill mastery interesting is going to be tough.
Having a diversity of outcomes (and real consequences) allows skill mastery to feel more rewarding in other games. Apocalypse World is an interesting indirect example, as it doesn’t have what most people would call a skill system. Instead, if you attempt a task that doesn’t trigger the rules, the GM just says what happens (based on the fictional world). So, if you don’t have an ability for picking locks or some reason to believe you can pick locks, when you try to pick a lock the GM will say “you can’t get it open.” Having some skill it lockpicking would make that action trigger a move: now you have a mechanical chance of success, so long as it’s a lock you can pick, but you can still fail or get a partial success. Having some specific mechanical ability for lockpicking might give you more ability to control the outcomes of your roll, or allow you to turn a partial success into a full success, or have extra say over your success.
Backgrounds and specialties are the other area of focus. The news on backgrounds is great: skills are back to being a bonus and not coming from a list, meaning that they can say much more about a character. As Mike notes, this puts an onus on the design team to make sure the basic skill list is good (and hopefully provide concrete guidance on how to make more), but I think the payoff is entirely worth it.
Specialties are also improved purely by helping to define what they are. Specialties, backgrounds, and classes were all kind of hazily defined before, it was hard to say what category a character idea like “magic user” should fall into—is that the wizard class, the apprentice background, or the magic-user specialty. By making specialties clearly a type of training it helps define what ideas fall where: background is who you were before adventuring, class is like your major in college, and specialty is your minor or field of specialization, depending on how it relates to your class.
Actually, that breakdown opens up some interesting character creation possibilities. I’m not sure this is a good idea for D&D as a whole, but imagine this:
When you sit down to make a character you start with the question “who were you before you embarked on a life of adventure?” You answer that by choosing from a list of backgrounds (hopefully a reduced list, to avoid analysis paralysis). Then you’re asked “what abilities do you bring to the party?” which defines your class. Finally, you’re asked “Did you focus within your abilities, or branch out? If you worked within your abilities, choose from these specialties, otherwise choose from these.”
Basically, with those three areas clearly defined, character creation can be a smoother process by default. It’s actually a little like the character generation in Mouse Guard, which works entirely by answering questions about your character. The beauty of this kind of character creation is that it allows you to make choices without knowledge of how the game works, a real boon for new players.
The D&D team is definitely refining their core ideas and the game is starting to build up in interesting ways. I’m still hoping for something revolutionary, not just evolutionary, but after the challenges of 4E the team seems to be focusing on the safe approach.