The bad news: As people moved away from D&D if you want to get them back, you should offer much more than your competitors to make us leave our current favorite game. A "bit more than 4E" won't cut it. Here is a loong list of what could change my mind and go to D&D camp
- Instead of current cycle of: "Facing an encounter, overcoming it, getting reward, advanced on your path defined by system" type cycle and "flow" mental state please focus on a different cycle described in detail at end of the document.
- In combat round too: Player should be able to think in character which requires freedom instead of standardized actions (options, etc). Such writen down action should be examples and following them should be optional.
Characters should be able to "specialize" not only in weapons, but in practiced combat maneuvers (feats) which could give them an advantage over a less trained character who just improvises same action. These bonuses should be in with other specialization bonuses. This way you could keep the advantages of feat system and advantages of previous freedom in same game.
- Advancedment path for: xp, story advancement, wealth, political power, fulfilling personal goal should be fully indepent. I don't want to see a 3rd level beggar richer than a 1st level emperor because wealth comes for level type junk again.
- Racial limitations (maximums, inability to wield some kind of magic) would add a good element back to the game. It can be a good optional rule included in core book. (If you let players customize races a bit for characters with odd heritage, I would be even happier.) On the other hand racial "advantages" should also make sense. If elves are described as graceful they should have more dex than a clumsy dwarf or a human. Racial maximums and modifiers should actually match what you should see In Character.
- Character design should make sense from in character perspective. When your character has IC reasons to learn something it should be learnable (if they have enough points). And the Players should be able to create their own background stories, etc.
- I would suggest that there shoud be class customization, as noone learns all class features. A good class customization can let PCs to adapt to new things by learning new "skills and powers" without multiclassing. See old 2e Skills and Powers, and Spells and Magic books for ideas, but less contradicting rules and bugs pls.
- Sell content, not power: No pay to win type pricing with costs we can't foresee (how many stronger books come out this way?)
- Miniatures shouldn't be required
- For a new player to try the game the costs should be minimal, and they should be able to progress forward. Some fully compatible yet cheap quick start is recommended. Its price should be affordable for students at very least everywhere in USA and EU. But I encourage to let players from Brazil, etc. afford it easily. If 3 core books make Next too expensive for many, I am gone.
- If you aim to offer enough depth too, we need more setting focused accessory, not multiple volumes of PHB, keep them coming.
- I know you don't want to bring back Dragon, Dungeon to printed form, but I would prefer full actual magazines and not only subscriber only articles on page. For Dungeon, some adventures would be good. It can be fan made content too.
- When you design new classes, etc. please tie them with setting, and so for a game in a given region, core books + setting books (no more than 3) + regional books (no more than 3) + adventure should be more than enough.
- PDF issue: Sadly doctors said me I shouldn't carry a lot of weight. Once I went to a convention, the amount of AD&D books was so much, that my sports bag gave up. It didn't do much good for my health. As I can't bring much rulebooks with me, I would insist on bringing my notebook. For me, electronic versions of books accessible offline, as we can run games where there is no WiFi, etc. are essential. I know there are other people with various levels of disabilities, so PDFs must be supported. Such people will either buy PDF or scan, or can't play. I was in this scenario for years, and it wasn't fun. I would prefer if purchase of a hardcopy book would allow downloading the PDF without paying twice. (Maybe using a serial number in book to even register it!)
- As I see how you had important features you used as "selling points" stay in development for years, how can we count on your announced features then? How should we decide if Insider will work or not? I dont want to be deceived again.
- Trust in dev process and support: Some of your employees reduced the trust by their actions and making it hard for the feedback to reach developers. I would appreciate if they would be replaced by better team. I know that demanding the heads of some people isn't nice, but they earned this the hard way. I hope I don't have to repeat this part at Hasbro AGM. Players who don't like 4E, etc. should be respected, and when people jump on them, they should be protected from insults. Such threads should be actively looken into by developers to make sure we can believe you listen to us.
Details about suggested game structure
The game is defined by long term goals, of both individual characters, the party, and some factions the party has ties with. To reach these goals the charaters should follow "storylines", where each and every storyline is built from adventures with different hooks.
In a campaign instead of only focusing one storyline, it should be somewhat common to focus on differnt parts of storyline. See goals of Raistlin, the love of Riverwind, etc. being part of Dragonlance sage. So different storylines are connected.
More focus on the personal goals of the character can be used to create story balance or to reward a player. (Right now Encounter design shouldn't move like this)
As the characters have freedom to move wherever they want encounter balance should be optional. (Sandbox gameplay should be supported)
As we seen in Dragonlance, we seen a "powerful wizard" and some inexperienced waitress in the story, parties where characters are different level should be supported. It should include master-student relationship, where the master (high level PC) can intentionally use some encounters as "safe" challenges for the lower level PC.
Advancing in level, wealth, other kind of power and any kind of story advancement should be fully independent, and should support cases when PCs use their freedom a lot (if sandbox gameplay creates side adventures).
When players experience something, their in character reaction should be respected. So if a meele fighter wants to learn archery because swordplay didn't work, he should be able to do so as soon as he learns something new. (At some cost, perhaps with class customization, wizards should be able to learn some weapons as well)
Leveling up should require experience, learning (from master), practice (time), refining abilities actively. So at least optional rules should be present that limit rate of leveling up based on these factors. If you do this, people won't try to maximize XP, and would focus more on roleplaying (hopefully).
Here I wouldn't change much. Except I would recommend each and every published adventure should have some mini encounters as hooks. Some of these hooks should be ran before the adventure (while players focus on previous one) and some of them should be run after main adventure so players can experience consequences. (Including their fame)
In current game you try to keep encounters challenging and offer a reward for finishing them. We should play the game for fun and not for xp. For this gameplay should be varied. Having combat and skill challenges isn't enough, and not all encounters should be challenging. While I think I could list hundreds of desired encounter types I think, here is a short list with more general categories of encounters.
- Moral choice
- Choice between different goals
- Personal sacrifice (lose something, gain spotlight, recognition)
- Consequences: getting cold, because you didn't prepare
- Experience: Meeting someone or something unusual
- Vista: Seeing something nice
- Discussion: Letting PCs discuss their values and refine their view on the world
- Contests (competitive skill challenges)
- "Moments of Glory and achievement": Where something that was once hard became trivial and they are celebrated for it.
- Competitive scenes, where 2 or more players want the same thing, but only one would get it. The DM might know who will (for balance, etc) but players can roleplay. Also when the rogue and the cleric wants to "chase" the same girl (too bad she is taken already)
- Managing existing properties of players (if they have earned land and title, or opened a shop)
- Being recoginized: When PCs are recognized, they might have to deal with unwanted followers (In a peaceful way)
- Riddles, puzles, that aren't skill based
- Anything that foreshadows a later encounter or adventure. They should be able to react to it.
- Dejavu / flashback: Anything that makes them remember to an earlier encounter or adventure and react to the memory.
As these encounters aren't always rewarding or challenging, the current encounter design rules, etc. should be changed.
The other key aspect to encounters is immersion.
For this an Encounter should have several phases.
- Description: The DM describes what the PCs see, etc.
- First reaction: Both the PCs and the other group has its first reaction. It can be influenced by dice roll, see old encounter reaction roll mechanic. There can be plenty of modifiers.
- Interaction: How players interact with the encounter. What they want, how they keep reacting, etc.
- Conclusion: When you actually "overcome" the reaction and seen where it will lead. In combat you will fight in this part, etc.
As you see while challenge is possible (even tactical combat) in this structure, it is just more flexible. Players can even run the current type of encounters with this system if they want, but gain far more flexibility.
The issue with current combat is: It looks like if characters would stop to play chess. How to make combat more cinamatic? Here is the structure of revised combat round:
- Initiative: Initiative is rolled either before the combat and only changes in special circumstances
- Description: As first step the DM describes what the characters can see, etc. also he can represent it on map (optional)
- Announcement: Characters from worst initiative to best describe what they want to do. So anyone who reacts quicker has a tactical advantage. No need to announce delaying, interrupting when you want to act, etc. They describe things in terms of setting and only tell relevant powers (for modifiers) in terms of system after. To reflect fast paced nature of combat, the players shouldn't stop to think, they should announce their plans immediately. If they wait, they would "skip" turn. (They should think in advance)
- Ruling: The DM assigns modifiers for actions, and rules out any action that would be impossible. (Catching a much faster foe). He can announce it by saying it, or by use tokens, written modifiers, etc. he can prepare while others describe their actions.
- Resolution: The characters can roll their dice as soon as the DM told them their modifiers. They don't wait for modifiers for others. So dice rolls and calculating results can happen the same time as Ruling phase. When the DM stoped speaking, characters from fastest to highest should tell the results of roll. If a such roll could make a later action impossible or a contest fail, the player who "failed" to act can quickly say "next".
- Conclusion: The DM describes what happened in terms of setting, etc. the description can continue with next rounds description phase uninterrupted. Players be prepared to react quickly.
If you give freedom in describing their actions to characters it is pretty cinematic. The DM and party can use examples, guidelines, etc. just as much as they can new feats and options now. And if optional rules can limit player choice to written down options (or worse yet: Cards, if you want a CCG based expansion to the game as optional rule) it can simulate current tactical options and feats well.
While I hate card based thing I have to note: The card based solution can work with player owned or DM assigned cards. If the cards aren't collectible, but DM assigned and represent the situation, announcement and ruling part can be lightning fast. So numerous playing styles can be supported.