I've been thinking seriously about what the "core" of D&D is mechanically, and how that will go on and further influence the design. As something of a 4th Edition Grognard at the minute, but with high hopes for 5th Edition to do something a little different, I thought I might share my thoughts on what the "core" of D&D is, and what that might mean for the approach to design.
What is D&D at its core?
D&D, at its core, is a roleplaying game based on the following
- 4 core classes - A martial Fighter, a skill 'n' sneak Rogue, an Arcane Wizard, and a Divine Caster / Warrior - 6 core ability scores - Str, Dex, Con, Wis, Int, and Cha which influence conflict resolution - A mechanic to represent physical well being, luck, and avoidance in the combat strand of conflict resolution - Equipment that provides a supplementary bonus to conflict resolution - Guidance to the GM on how to tell a story and how to arbitrate conflict resolution fairly - NPCs as opposition in conflict situations, with health and core ability scores
Conflict resolution is the generic term I'm going to use for combat, social interactions, and exploration
- Conflict resolution is performed by the rolling of a D20 and the addition of modifiers, coming from each character's own statistics and circumstantial modifiers added by situation, as arbitrated by the Dungeon Master to hit a specific number (Skill check, DC, AC, whatever you want to call it) to cause an action to occur (Climb a wall, Detect Magic, hit something with a sword), or varying degrees of success (I hit him with my sword *realllly* hard) - the GM describes the result and arbitrates on the consequences (i.e. you sneak past the guard, he doesn't notice you as he remains snoozing like a baby)
And really... that was it.
Skills - why are they not core?
Skills are an arbitrary representation of the knowledge of your character, his or her's background and training. Arguably they are not a core mechanic, as the base scores plus an appropriate circumstantial modifier arbitrated by the GM could be provided to resolve the conflict
Spells - why are they not core?
This is the more debateable area - but, there needn't be a core "way" of casting spells, or really any core spells at all in a magical setting. Arguably, the DM could set an appropriate static "to hit" roll a Wizard / Cleric would have to achieve to "cast" a spell - the effect could be agreed i.e. As a Wizard, I choose to cause damage using a fire ball against X target - the scale of the fireball, effect, and so on could be decided by GM arbitration and the effect plotted afterwards
What this would do is drive the game to a kind of abstract zenith, because everything relies on trust with the GM, a shared view of the world, and willingness to tell a story. To me that would then infer that everything after that becomes a module that you tack onto the core game.
This would include, but would not be limited to
- Gritty injury systems versus slightly more abstract Health points versus Surges and HP - Skills, to varying levels of complexity - Character creation, including more classes, more concepts, and varying levels of complexity (from simplistic characters with defined progression, character creation reliant on a core concept supplemented by feats, caster creation based on Vancian casting, AEDU character creation + roles) - Feats - Magic items - Tactical combat like 4th Edition
What happens to Balance?
At it's core, D&D has never been balanced with 4th Edition demonstrating that mechanical balance was not possible without some significant concessions being made, that people who are fans of previous editions would not accept. Therefore, there must be an acceptance from all parts of the community that mechanical balance is NOT part of Core.
This does mean, as part of that compromise, that Core be stripped back to the bare bones mechanically and everything after added by the DM who can agree with their players which modules are in, and which are out.
The areas you would add modules would include
- Spells (of all kinds - Rituals, Combat Spells, Utility spells, all broken as modules) - Skills - Character Creation including roles - Conflict Resolution, as Realism (defined as consistent with the world in which you are in) versus Narrative (People do cool stuff 24/7, GM arbitrates) - Setting (FR, Eberron, Ravenloft, Custard Pie Dimension etc)
These would be rated 1 - 5 for mechanical balance, narrative versusi similation content, and the GM could therefore temper the modules to construct their game.
Character Creation Balance
Balancing the conflict resolution "output" of each class is difficult but I would argue not impossible. GMs would need guidance here from Wizards to state which of the character creation options is simple versus complex, and which provides balance from a damage, skills, etc perspective.
Do I think 5th Edition will provide this?
No, and the reason I say this is because I don't think there will be an emphasis on mechanical purity, and instead there will be a focus on flavor purity. This is, for me, the wrong approach, as this will mean anything that the modules are built upon will inherently not satisfy everyone.
I think you missed a key point in your premise and it throws off some of your conclusions.
Changes in bold - Conflict resolution is performed by the rolling of a D20 and the addition of modifiers, coming from each character's own statistics and circumstantial modifiers added by situation, as arbitrated by the Dungeon Master to hit a specific fixed number (Skill check, DC, AC, whatever you want to call it) to cause an action to occur (Climb a wall, Detect Magic, hit something with a sword). Damage is rolled using a combination of dice specified by the effect.
To the best of my knowledge, the DM having to invent a DC on the spot, rather than apply modifiers to an existing/similar DC list in the core rules, has never been the default in D&D. Whether it is armor class, skill DC, or spell DC, the DM has always had a default value to guide him and the player had that same value to inform his calculation of risk/reward (the primary form of decision made during play). As one of the dev articles put it, it is the difference between saying "The DM may set the temperature to whatever he chooses" or "The daytime temperature is 70, the DM may change this up or down as he chooses." One of these is considerably more helpful, particulary when playing a game mostly lacking a visual feed for information. The less times a player must ask "What are my chances if I try this?" before making an informed decision, the faster his turn goes.
Resolving magic any magic that has a chance of failure (offensive magic) must be made against a set DC just like any other check for success. This means that spells/powers/or even a subset of rules for dynamic spellcasting must exist in core to create that common understanding of the possible scope of success and the factors that modify it. Spells are thus core.
All conflict resolution requiring a D20 roll (and not directly related to combat) is essentially a skill check. Core includes set DCs for attempting various activities. Circumstances modifiers that always apply to a given type of check made by a given character based on character background/training are essentially skills. While this may take the form of additional options (skill tricks), scaling bonuses (ranks), or a "trained" bonus, these are all skill systems. Skills are thus core.
To parapharase, "You can please some of the people all of the time and you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time." Nothing they do will please everyone. I think it safe to say however, that a ruleset smaller than the instructions to most card games will please no one. A good DM can make all the content himself regardless. He pays for the books because that is the implicit contract with the players, specifically that their chance of success (and thus the value of their decisions) is determined primarily by a neutral party (the rulebook). Core does and indeed must, cover all the types of challenges (exploration, combat, social) and common means to deal with said challenges (attack role, damage roll, spell DC, skill DC).
Out of curiosity, if you're going to strip D&D of it's flavor, why a fantasy setting?
You're basically describing a game like GURPs. Why not drop the fantasy aspect altogether?
I know I would love a version of GURPs with levels instead of character points (it might exist now, I haven't played GURPs in years), but not instead of D&D. If they label it "Universal d20 System", sure why not. I'm not a kid anymore though, I can't play GURPs anymore because filling the little details of the campaign setting takes too much time.
Traditionnally, D&D was not a game for people with a vivid imagination. It was for the "common folk" that liked cliché fantasy settings. It's the RPG version of a chick flick or a movie with Jason Statham. It's basic, mass market entertainment. Before 4th edition (and to some extend, 3rd edition), it was also a lexicon including words like fireball, power word stun, meteor swarm, or paladin. A good Jason Statham movie is one that reuses the same old clichés and vocabulary over and over again. A good version of D&D is exactly the same. That's my opinion anyways. If you've grown tired of it, then it's probably because you've matured enough and it's time to try some of the more creative games out there.
I also think you have a flawed conception of balance. Nobody wants a game where Class A deals on average 20 damage per round and Class B deals 60, can fly, teleport and instant kill his enemies. If D&D Next is like that, it will make it straight to the water closet. As toilet paper. How much fantasy do you want in your D&D world? Not that's an interesting question with no right or wrong answer. What can rituals do for instance? Is a ritual only something long and random like in a very low magic earth-like world? Are rituals more like in 4th edition? Or are rituals spells such as Invisibility Sphere, Fly, or Spider Climb? Is any of this "unbalanced"? Certainly not. It's only flavor.
How much control should your controllers have? That's not a balance issue, that's a flavor issue. Some powers could have limited or no control effects but do high damage, others could have very high control properties and do zero damage (like power word stun or wall of stone). I'm pretty sure that a lot of 4th edition players think that Legion's Hold is near broken. I'm a 2nd edition fan and I wouldn't want that thing in my games for instance. Directly related is how many major control spells should your controllers have per encounter? Is one big control spell like in 4th edition enough? What if you could cast 2 less damaging ones in an encounter? This again is not balance related, it's flavor.
About the tactical encounters. You assume that 4th edition tactical combat should be in the game. Why? No fight ever felt the same since I started using a grid. Combats became more like Bloodbowl and less like some cinematic moment in the story. I like Bloodbowl almost as much as I like D&D, so you can guess which one I like the most. But it's not for every fan.
Cheers for the thoughtful responses guys. Appreciate it.
I think firstly, perhaps my intent wasn't clear - I was thinking about core mechanics, not necessarily what will be in the core books. Indeed, I agree with Gnarl for example, that things should be flavoured fantasy. I also agree with Journeyman that there should be some clearly defined DCs / ACs / whatever that help out the GM - I do argue, though, that they shouldn't be part of the core.
I guess what I am striving for is, first and foremost, a pure mechanical core onto which you build modules, and then how does that Core influence the modules that come there-after.
To address some specific points
@ Journeyman - I'm going to challenge you on Skills, more than Spells, because if I am realistic having to arbitrate spells as a free form thing would be exceptionally difficult for a GM.
Why couldn't you have just ability scores influencing Skills? If you define a DC for a lock, add Dex, add a modifier for Lock Picking Tools as a tool, then have a result, you have effectively the same mechanical effect.
For flavour, and indeed, for the sanity of players and GMs everywhere, a Skills system is a good thing.
I could envisage a core ruleset, along with suggest modules for setting up a basic game - but always with the key point in mind that everything over a core set, would be modular.
@Gnarl, I understand what you're saying, but the modules would give the game the flavour and of course be included in the core product. DMG, PHB, and MM, would include enough modules to get gamers of all kinds going - what I guess I am going for is mechanical purity, what is the Core of D&D mechanically, how does it work and then what do you do from there in terms of modular design to allow for games from ultra simulationist through to ultra narrativist.
On the specific point on the tactical combat - purely a module. If you find combat on a map without grid good for you, do it and part of the combat modular system would support (I envisage combat modules running from mind's eye theatre, and support for GM and players there through to 4th Ed grid)
I only have a minute, so I'll get back to you on skills later.
I think you hit the point of confusion pretty clearly though. Here on the boards "Core" is generally understood to mean PHB, MM1, and DMG. Anything between those three covers is "Core". In contrast, "Modules" seem to refer to splatbooks that will come out (both simultanous to and following the release of PHB, MM1, DMG). If you're using the word to refer to chapters in the PHB/DMG just having a "This is optional" header, then we aren't meaning quite the same thing.
Without sounding pretentious, or least without trying to sound pretentious, my intention is to transcend that definition of Core, because I don't think it has any value in the context of discussion about core mechanics.
What is content in the core books is irrelevant for the purposes of discussion on mechanics.
What I wanted to discuss was - what are the core mechanics - what makes the game tick, when stripped back to basics, and from there, what does that tell you about how you would design the modules to stack upon that core.
Check on learning: Your intended topic is specifically the absolute minimum mechanics necessary to run the game. Not necessarily those mechanics considered part of the "Core concept" of D&D (such as vancian spellcasting), but those mechanics that would completely halt the game were they not present?
That presents a difficult scale of comparison without knowing the level of detail desired. If you intend to exclude any content that merely modifies a base mechanic or could have its usual input to the system included directly in the base mechanic... then Race is not a core mechanic since it only modifies the attribute range and provides inputs to the skills/feats/abilities modules. Whether class is a core mechanic would depend on the effect of levels. Under a 3e leveling mechanic, class determines HD, BAB, Base Saves, all critical inputs to the conflict resolution and leveling mechanics. Under 4e, level itself determines most of that with class only modifying the numbers slightly. The only input class provides then that is essential would be the HP per level, a number easily incorporated into the HP system itself (all characters could be assumed to gain x hp per level in a classless system, whereas the class module would simply modify this number up or down). Equipment would not be a core mechanic either, a set damage per size (light-1d4, 1h-1d8, 2h-1d12) could simply be incorporated directly into the combat mechanic.
Minus those inputs, the Core Mechanics are just:
Attributes (meaning, effect, methods of generation) Health (HP, recovery rates/methods, alternate forms of damage) Conflict Resolution (base attribute(s) for various actions, appropriate target numbers, special conditions/circumstances) Leveling (xp awards, amount required, benefits gained)
The DM would probably also require rules for creating challenges (traps, exploration/social DC modifiers, and NPCs if they use a system other than PCs)
Seems like everything else can be done without just by adding a default value to the leveling mechanic in place of the usual inputs (Hp mostly). That leaves you with no direct customization by the player besides attribute allocation and attempts to qualify for circumstance modifers (mostly reference to past training/experiences and use of "appropriate tool"). Is that the point you wish to start from in discussion of module design?
Core D&D is all the features that are available to D&D since the first box was released all the way up to 4E. To create a game, all these rule sets must be considered for the sake of balance. 4E was on the right track to create a unified rule set that was modular. With that in place it made it easy to add complexity to the game. Now if some of the rules in the past were contensious, then make it an optional rule for the core, for example level draining, or save or die.
If the focus is just a limited core for D&D Next, then it is harder to make the game modular, and the more sub-systems that are added, like psionics for example, that were not considered in part of the intitial design, start to make the system unwieldy.
Yes, it is, and thanks for doing a better job than I on that!
The reason I wanted to start from that point is because I believe that should be the point the Core mechanics get to. Everything else, you then modularise and layer on top.
The reason I believe this would be my approach is because you get the unifying element in the center - the Core mechanics - and from there, so long as the math works or approximately works, for each class according to the PHB and the different styles of making a class, the DM and group could mutually agree on what is in and out of the game.
Players get ownership of creating a cool character *they* want to create, in the style they want to create
The GM gets to tell the story they want to tell, using the tools and techniques they want to tell.
That, for me, is the essence of what D&D next *should* be about.
The first step is agreeing a unified Core mechanic. I think you have done a great job at grabbing that essence of the mechanic.
@Uchawi - I disagree that "everything, ever" is core because there are rules and methods of conflict resolution that vary from edition to edition. The core mechanic for initiative couldn't be, say, one player rolls static for the whole fight, the rest of the party rolls per turn, the GM decides whenever the heck he likes .... could it? I think arguably not for the sanity of all concerned. Hence, my concern is to get to the core of D&D mechanics, and then work from there to understand the varying modules you could add.
Because, for me, and for the success of D&D Next, that is possibly what it needs to look like.
I really don't want to launch another skirmish in the edition wars but in what way do you think 4e was on the right track for a modular unified system? It didn't unify any of the existing core systems, it dropped most of them completely. The only preexisting material with any resemblance at all the AEDU mechanic was found in ToM and ToB, both books that were specifically intended to be optional material. Many of the elements that previously defined classes (attack bonus, saves, HD, skill points, bonus feats) were removed entirely or minimized drastically. Even feats and magic items were nerfed into pale shadows of their former significance. This does not indicate to me a valid direction for attempting to support even 3e mechanics, much less any other edition.
There are two approaches available to designers in balancing complexity. One is to balance at the most complex level and then simplify. The other is to start as simple as possible and increase complexity from there. 4e attempted the latter. If the board is any indication, they failed. Attempts to scale up in complexity become progressively more difficult to control because the interaction of simple systems is itself complex when large amounts of content are included. It is setting yourself up to fail. Starting at the most complex level offers the best vantage to see this complexity of interaction and compensate accordingly as you gradually scale down to the minimum ruleset. This requires much more work up front, but since they are aiming less to try something totally new and more to unify existing material... they already have a known top end of complexity to balance with.
If it meets the stated goal, 5e will support the playstyle (if not the specific mechanics of every rule subset of feat, skill, combat manuever, spell (vancian, spontaneous, point), stance, skill tricks, combat advantage, incarnum, psionic focus, soul binding, truenaming, AEDU, point-expenditure, charges, ect). I don't see how balancing something that lacks all of that can possibly guarantee balance once all that is added in every possible combination and permutation. Better to support each system at the start and just expand the content within the systems later.