We’re back to talking about classes in this week’s Legends & Lore post. The focus this time is on spelling out the goals for class design, what the design team is trying to do. As usual, whenever we get a look at the goals of D&D Next, is pretty interesting.
Mike calls out four points:
- Use what we have
- Bridge gaps as needed
- Keep options open
The fourth point isn’t all that interesting (I already talked quite a bit about the user testing process) and Mike doesn’t say that much about it, so I’m not going to devote many pixels to it. The first two points are where the bulk of Mike’s post lies, and for good reason.
Mike’s first point, “use what we have,” leaves me a little cols. Not because I don’t like leveraging the long history of D&D—that’s a great idea—but because the examples he gives have so many assumptions. Speaking on the bard he lists some sample things that people might get from bard history:
- The bard has always had access to spells.
- The bard has always used music in some form.
- The bard has always had some sort of ability to recall lore.
- The bard has always had access to pretty good weapons and armor.
- The bard is pretty good with skills.
Those are all entirely accurate, so far as I care to check (i.e. off the top of my head). The unspoken assumption is in how these things are embodied: this isn’t about the bard as something that makes sense for a fantasy adventure, but the bard as something that makes sense for a game.
The two certainly aren’t mutually exclusive. Games like Monsterhearts blend the mechanics and fiction of classes so perfectly that was the class is and what it does are inseparable. But, in this case, those points mostly speak to the bard as a set of abilities that fit within a very defined framework. Let’s take a step back and try to describe the same things about the bard but without making so many assumptions:
- The bard is musical
- The bard’s music is more than music: it’s magic
- The bard has broad knowledge befitting a traveling artist: places, history, tales, courtesy
- The bard is well-able to defend themselves when it comes to a fight
- The bard is a jack-of-all-trades, as able to spin a tale or cook a meal as they are to fire a bow or craft a spell
I’d say that those are as true to what the bard has been in various editions of D&D without presuming how these things are reflected in the world of the game. There’s no reference to skill, armor proficiencies, or spells.
The benefit to thinking of the bard’s history this way is that now the bard can be implemented in many different forms. In a 3E-style system being a jack-of-all-trades means skills, but in Next it could mean something like “if no skill applies to one of your non-combat rolls you get +1 to it.” Those aren’t precisely equivalent, but they do express similar things about the class.
This directly plays into Mike’s next step, “bridge gaps as needed.” Those gaps disappear when the class concept is moved back a step. The given example was perhaps using warlock invocations for bardic magic—that’s a great idea, but it still presumes fitting the bard into an existing mold. If the bard just needs to craft music into magic there’s a lot more room to explore and experiment (going to Mike’s last point).
Keeping options open is the most exciting part of the plan. The idea that the default wizard is designed with space for other wizard archetypes in mind is a huge opportunity, especially if the space for other options is as clearly explained to the customer as it is to the designer. The easier it is to establish new flavors of ranger, wizard, or whatever, the better. To have that be reasonable the game needs to be clear about these points of extensibility—how do you design for them? What do they need to do? What can go wrong?
Overall the directions of classes sound promising. The “gaps” that Mike speaks of are actually opportunities, the desire to experiment and leave blanks is exciting. My only remaining worry is that the D&D design process may be too hidebound by past visions and implementations of the classes. Just as the current sorcerer was scrapped to make room for what people expect, the bard appears to be bound to be the exact thing people expect. The stated desire to experiment and “fill in the gaps” though gives some hope the what we’ll see will be clear-eyed reinterpretations of classic classes.