Wednesday, January 25, 2012

My Dungeons and Dragons Edition

Time to put up my list of things I'd like to see in Dungeons and Dragons Next.  A few notes on my D&D background: My 2nd ed. experience is limited to extensive play of the Balder's Gate computer games. I jumped in with both feet on day 1 of 3rd edition during my freshman year of college and played it avidly up until the release of 4th edition.  I played 4th edition from day 1 as well, and still do.  Pathfinder never interested me in the least.  I've also spent a good amount of time playing Mutants and Masterminds 2nd Ed, Iron Heroes, and Star Wars Saga edition.

I know these are all my opinions.  By all means, disagree!

Section 1: Things 4ed does well, I'd like see to maintained.
  • Teams:  In 3rd edition I rarely had to pay much attention to what my teammates were doing to be super-effective.  In 4th edition, the better I know my team, the better we are because so many of our powers and abilities synergize.  Keep this a design principle.  Tell the people who trot this out and scream, "MMO!" to sit down, shut up, and appreciate solid game design.
  • Defined Team Roles: I want to know, at a glance, what to expect from each member of my team.  I'm fine with certain character classes being able to fill, depending on build, certain roles, but I want to be able to know who should be doing what.  Classes should be as balanced as possible against other classes of their type.
  • Easy and Intuitive DM Prep:  I love creating monsters/npc combatants in 4ed.  It is easy.  In 3rd ed, it was a pain in the rear.  Heck, in SW: Saga, Iron Heroes, and Mutants and Masterminds, it was a pain in the rear.  4th ed is the only system I've ever seen where it is fast, plain easy, and still results in fascinating and memorable encounters.  This is the #1 thing that has turned me from a player and reluctant DM to a dedicated DM.  This is the #1 thing I do NOT want to see changed in D&D.
  • An Emphasis on Movement and Terrain: A good 4th ed fight is memorable and dynamic.  First of all, because of the monsters, but second of all, because of all the interesting ways the powers can interact with terrain, movement, and obstacles.  I don't want this to go away.
  • Constant Updates and Erratum: I want a game that is being looked at and revised from time to time.  Up until the introduction of the web-only character builder, I LOVED the fact that my game had gaming professionals offering me constant support that was easily referenced for my character.  That said, I didn't love the handful of times they decided to go in a completely different direction with certain design principles (Magic Items, Tiefling racial power, and Magic Missile!).  With this slow development involving open and dedicated play-testing, I hope the designers will be able to come up design paradigms and stick with them. 
Section 2: Things 4ed almost did.  D&D next has an opportunity!
  • Defined and Unified Power-Source Mechanics: Having a variety of ways to play DnD is awesome. 3rd ed did this pretty well (though the balance side of things was wonky), and 4ed figured this out to some small degree with Psionics and Essentials.  When I heard that 4ed was doing explicit power sources I was excited.  The fact that, in PHB1, all power sources looked essentially the same was a HUGE let down for me.  I want martial classes that work like the Essentials martial classes: an emphasis on at-will abilities augmented with per-encounter utility, damage-add, and special-effect abilities.  I want arcane classes with modified Vancian magic, able to add spells to their repertoire, their bread-and-butter in their daily abilities.  I want Divine classes tied to the gods they serve with powers reflecting their Patron's portfolio, dictating or modifying their power choices.  Your power source should MEAN something to HOW you play the game.  This is the #1 thing I wish 4ed had done differently.
  • Non-combat Abilities: Skills are a good way for characters to be able to do things out of combat, and skill powers were a neat step in the right direction for allowing some encounter application to skill training, but I don't think they went far enough.  I feel like maybe most Utility powers should have been tied to either your Power Source or your Trained Skills, leaving your class itself out of the equation.
  • Skill Challenges: I love the idea that there is a formalized framework in which to dictate success and failures in complicated non-combat situations.  If you read this blog, you can probably tell.  They should have taken this basic idea and provided expanded rules to use them in lots of ways: running a kingdom, commanding armies in mass-combat, crafting, or whatever seems like a cool thing for a PC to do in an adventure.
  • Key Words: They were used.  They should have been used better.  I want to see Monsters, first and foremost, have keywords associated with more of their powers.  I want the relationship between damage and keyword to be clear.  I want there to be more powers and effects that trigger off of a larger variety of keywords.  Make what each PC (and each monster) can do special.  Give it as many good descriptors as you can so it can interact with things in a special way.
  • Rituals: I love the idea of divorcing out-of-combat utility magic from combat magic.  The way it was done was a little bit less than perfect and pretty much punished PCs for wanting to use rituals, creatively or otherwise.  I want to find rituals a home somewhere between the abuses of 3ed and the worthlessness (Cost-benefit ratio) of so many 4ed rituals.  
Section 3: Things 4th Edition didn't even try to do, but a new edition should.
  • "Advanced" and "Basic" Options: 3rd edition had Core material and everything else.  4th edition has an everything is core mentality.  Core vs. Splat made everything not in the PHB seem optional, which is a very bad business proposition.  Everything Core made it hard for a DM (or players, for that matter) to customize the level of complexity they wanted in their games.  Other games I've seen have their core rules, but frequently have a section for "advanced" combat rules or even advanced overall rules.  I think, if the game wants to make differentiation in levels of product, this is the divide to create. D&D's wealthy, younger cousin, M:tG does it.  D&D once did it too (though, not exactly in the way I am suggesting, as I understand it-before my time.)  Basic-only games could be great for Encounters sessions, tournament play, or for lightweight dungeon crawl campaigns for beginners in the hobby.  Advanced games would be for veteran groups that need something to spice-up a previously basic game or for those epic home campaigns that last for years, have lots of character, and that keep you coming back to the hobby.  This, and all of the ideas below I have related to this, is the #1 thing I feel like D&D Next could do to bring players back to the table.
  • "Needless" Symmetry in Design:  I LIKE symmetry.  I think 4ed could have BENEFITED from some symmetry early on.  The 4ed designers called it needless, but I call it elegant.  Having a symmetrical and rigid framework in which to produce classes would have prevented such mis-steps as creating classes that received almost no support because the design space to support them was filled with existing classes (I am looking at YOU Seeker and Runepriest.)  Would it have been so bad to have the Ranger as a Martial Controller (which Essentials did-very well), disabling his opponents with trick shots and precise slashes of his whirling blades?  Could the Druid and Ranger have not just beaten up the Seeker and taken his stuff?  Why wasn't the Runepriest a Cleric build?  Maybe the Arcane classes benefited from redundancy (Warlock+Sorcerer and Bard+Artificer being the big argument in favor) but I still think using a rigid framework to motivate design is a solid idea.
  • Obviously Open Combat Options: Even if it's just as a list of "Advanced" options in combat.  "Basic" combat rules say I can move, second wind, shift, or make a basic attack on my turn.  If we are playing with "Advanced" rules, the list can expand to charge, grab, disarm, trip, whatever.  Now, this shouldn't discount powers being able to do these things TOO, the same way you can grab or charge in 4ed, but you can ALSO grab or charge with a myriad of specialized powers that have better reliability, more damage, and more flair. I say give people a chance at doing cool stuff if they really want to go for it.  I feel like this would solve many of the problems people had with 4ed being too "restrictive."
  • Optional, Expanded, Modular Rule Sets: These could be marketed as Advanced Options that might not have a home in all D&D campaigns, but could make D&D the default for any conceivable fantasy RP campaign.  Give us modular rule-sets for Kingdom Building, Mass Combat, Naval Warfare, Running a business, Crafting, whatever!  For bonus points, do it within whichever Skill Challenge structure you've already created to introduce ease of learning to players who want to drop these elements into their campaigns.  Can't make money off of these books?  Put them all into the same book with different chapters.  Market it as a DMG.  Still won't work?  Put it in the magazines!  This is the sort of content e-Dungeon should give DMs along with a few modules a month.
There might be other things I don't even realize I love and would be heart-broken if they changed.  There are things from previous editions I would be very put off by going back to that I don't even think of any more.  This list may grow as I think on it, but it's a pretty comprehensive start.  

What do you want in D&D Next?  


  1. I'd be interested to see some more detailed analysis on how 4e pushes team-centric play and previous editions do not. I have my own thoughts on this, but would like to hear yours.

    As you know, I agree with a lot of what you say here. I hope to see skill usage integrated into the flow and resolution mechanic of the game in ways that have not been tried to date - the key here is scaling skill values to be comparable to attack values against a given defense. I think that this would open up some remarkably useful design space for them, in terms of letting players solve a problem however they want to solve a problem (with a countervailing mechanic to keep players from putting all their eggs in one basket).

    Solid commentary - keep it coming!

  2. On teams:
    The biggest thing I can point to are what has been done with Defenders. Before, in concept, the point of playing a Fighter or some other tough class was to deal damage and protect your allies. Dealing damage was doable-though often damage was outstripped by most others, which was frustrating, or pointless through save-or-suck spells, which was more frustrating. Keeping a determined enemy on you when they wanted to kill your caster buddies? Next to impossible short of a handful of very specific builds or a dm-introduced taunt mechanic/logic. Now the defender knows that dealing damage is in fact a secondary character goal-the striker can do it. Now doing good damage is a bonus and a surprise, not an expectation. Now a defender has tools to draw the taunt and keep his allies safe.

    I guess my point is, that by establishing base-line expectations of role, it reduces frustration (and increases fun and balance awareness). If I had known Gaheris was a Defender, I would never have compared his spellcasting effectiveness to Viola or his damage output to Dreygar or Nathan. There were times I regretted my build choices because of things the "purer" builds were doing around me. I can look back at times I was frustrated by playing him and realize that I was comparing him by what the other PCs were good at-because I had no true concept that certain D&D PCs were supposed to be good at a certain body of things. (That said, Gaheris's counterspelling turned out to be one of those only reliable ways to actually keep allies from dying--so in retrospect, I see Gaheris as a very effective PC defender.)

  3. I would agree that Gaheris was a defender in his actual build, and I think your point about counterspelling is on the mark. Because of the spellsword PrC's oddities, though, I think Gaheris suffered significant in his ability to absorb damage, turning him into a sort of niche build: perfect for some situations (seriously, it's incredibly hard to tank against casters as a pure fighter), but probably suboptimal over the whole span of encounters faced. I also think that he (and therefore the group) benefited, on the whole, from picking up the ability to contribute in a wider variety of situations.