GHA!! And I just started a new 4e campaign too. Just! Like last Saturday. We didn't even really play, just make characters and write backstories.
So has everyone seen the news today? Holy POO! If not check out the main site: here. And much more over at ENWorld here and here. Go. Check it out and sign-up. I’ll wait. Okay, everyone caught up to speed: we have a “new iteration” of the D&D coming.
The announcement is rather timely for my blog: in the comments of my last entry, I had promised Kalontas a more upbeat take on the State of the Game. And I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a “what I want from 5e” blog for a while now.
The use of “iteration” caught my eye: the announcement is careful not to say “edition” so we’re not sure if it will be 5e, 4e revised, a return to the “Basic” or “Advanced” label, or a 30th Anniversary Edition.
A new “iteration” might not be a bad idea, keeping 4e active but less supported would engender trust. The division between 3e and 4e has shown you cannot make people change editions and you cannot gain an audience by ceasing to support a product line. Not with the OGL. You have to make the game appealing enough that people WANT to switch. With that in mind, I hope WotC is smart enough not to cancel the character builder or immediately change it to 5e, and definitely not deleting characters.
Anyhoo, let’s talk about what I think 5e needs. I’m using “5e” because it’s simpler. The “#dndNext” hastag works on Twitter, but “5e” is just easier to type and flows better in the blog. And let's face it, unless the game is officially named "Basic D&D 2nd Edition" it will be considered "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition".
What 5e Needs
In one word: diversity. 4e is the best at what it does, but what it does isn’t pretty diverse. 4e is designed for you to play a fantasy action hero going through a dungeon with tactical combat encounters. It’s absolutely fantastic at cinematic fights, but gets a little tricky when you try and play a gritty low-magic game or a low-combat espionage game or a noble-heavy political game. You’re just not given any tools to work with or any mechanics to use.
The motto of late 3e (and probably all of 4e) was “return to the dungeon”. 5e really needs the mission statement “the dungeon and beyond!”
The complaint I always hear when I discuss how D&D should be customizable and flexible is how earlier editions and games have tried that and failed. Which is loser talk! Just because something was tried before and failed doesn’t mean you never try again. Especially when earlier efforts rarely had “variable play styles” as the goal and never had the solid math of 4e as a foundation.
Which is the next point: keep the math. It can be modified and tightened, but after five years of really working the numbers you shouldn’t start from square one. Use the lessons of the prior edition and what amounts to seven years of crunching the numbers (including the edition’s development time). You cannot beat half a decade of crowd sourcing and players seeing what works and what does not.
Which leads into the next point: playtest. Which they’re doing. Yay. But this is only half the issue. This cannot be a half-hearted semi-playtest like the miniature playtest or earlier 4e playtests, which amounted to previews. If we get the full rules in early spring (like April) but the edition is launching at this GenCon and needs to be at the printers three months early (May) there’s simply not enough time to scratch the surface of the edition.
For example, during the previews of 4e at DDXP in 2008 they quickly found problems with the paladin’s mark, which they barely had time to slap a quick fix on for the actual June printing. And look at the other similar problems that had to be fixed within weeks, like the skill challenge DCs from the DMG. And then there’s the massive changes to all the PHB1 classes in the Class Compendium book/articles.
Quite simply, we need longer. Much longer. I’m praying the book is scheduled for next year (GenCon-ish 2013), so we have a full year of playtesting to really work out the kinks of the edition.
That all said, let’s get to specifics:
I like 4e’s roles. These got a lot of heat, but they really helped define each character’s role in combat and aided in building a party. But 5e should go a step farther and define the other roles needed in a party: the social roles.
What is your character’s role outside of combat? Who handles the social skills? Who handles the knowledge checks? These have been around since 3e but, like the combat roles, were never clearly defined. Every character needs a role for that aspect of play, and the game should codify that. And these should be unrelated to class and combat role. You should be able to make a sociable fighter or a knowledgeable cleric or an intimidating wizard. Think of it like picking good cop, bad cop, informative cop, and lying cop.
Combat roles should also be tweaked. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume classes should be able to have different roles. Fighters should be able to pick between defender, leader, and striker (after all, what’s a warlord but a fighter using leader build?).
I think the “striker” role needs tweaking as everyone wants and should be able to do damage. Damage is not a role in and of itself. Instead, everyone should have a damage focus that varies. Controllers should be focused on damage to groups (as well as crowd control), switching to straight damage against single targets (to avoid stun-locking solos). Leaders should be focused on granting extra damage to everyone else. Defenders should be focused on dealing damage when their friends are attacked or they’re ignored. Which means strikers should be about precision damage: targeting specific creatures. So striker classes/builds should be about getting to that creature the party wants hit or using ranged attacks to single out that one monster to squish.
I’d also like to see something related to the third aspect of D&D: exploration. This hasn’t seen a lot of love in a couple editions. It’s tricky as it requires some DM finesse. I’d overlap exploration with travel, survival, overcoming obstacles, and the like. If the combat aspect of the game is man versus man, this would be man versus the environment. This is the purview of the physical skills (Athletics, Acrobatics, Climb, Endurance, Swim, Jump, etc) and, if I were designing the edition, I’d handle this through themes.
I love me some themes. These really add something to the game and I really hope we see them in an important role in 5e. It’s the third pillar of character creation: race, class, and themes, and it should be Core and important. As class determines combat role, and skills seem the easy way to pick your social role, I’d rely on themes to determine your exploration role. All three pillars (race, class, and theme) might unlock skills which can be used to pick or augment your social role.
Differentiating or changing what a “skill” is should help, because right now the definition is a bit broad: it’s what you do, it’s what you know, and it’s how you act. Removing some aspects from skills (the physical aspects and some of the knowledge aspects relating to the world) and applying them to the exploration sphere and themes adds some ignorable flexibility and customization to the game. For those unwilling to play with themes, there should be defaults or suggestions (such as associating the “thief” theme – which enables lockpicking and trapfinding – with rogues), which should also help new players.
Regardless of their relation to exploration or other aspects of the game, I love me some themes and I’ll be very disappointed if there’s nothing similar in 5e be it backgrounds or kits or traits.
There’s also something inherently mundane about themes. In that they’re universal and general. They’re very low-level. At high levels, characters tend to have done so much more and be so much more that they defy the simple labelling of themes. In that respect, themes are what separate Heroic tier characters, and after that something else takes over, something Paragonesque…
I like tiers as an interesting narrative device more than a mechanical tool. Like roles, these were in earlier editions but not explicit or named. There was a good essay on 3e that broke that edition into four tiers: gritty fantasy, heroic fantasy, wuxia, and epic fantasy. 4e covered three of these, ignoring gritty fantasy.
I like the tiers as a narrative device: instead of having a full 1-30 campaign you can plan a Paragon Tier campaign or an Epic Tier campaign. Each can have their own beginning, middle, and end. This should be emphasised in 5e, with advice for starting at each tier and summaries of character creation at levels beyond one.
While 20 levels is classic, I like the idea of 30 levels better. If I were designing 5e, I’d stick a 5 level everyman or “gritty fantasy” tier at the beginning. So it’s there for people who want fragile heroes and low magic, but there’s advice and rules for skipping those levels and starting at a heroic 6th level.
Likewise, I’d end with a smaller 5 level Epic Tier. There’s only so much you can do with an Epic game, only so many monsters and encounters before things get silly, before the party ends up fighting dozens of Paragon Tier elites that have become Epic minions and mooks. As has been asked by Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea, what is an “Epic mook” anyway? But instead of level 30 being the end, it might be nice if things were left open ended, for the occasional reunion session, perhaps with an alternate level-less advancement.
That leaves Heroic and Paragon, which are fine. Mostly.
Sadly, Paragon isn’t particularly special. It’s really the Heroic Tier plus. You’re doing much of the same things, but on a slightly larger scale. But, as mentioned above, themes are very low-level so adding a high-level equivalent, a replacement for Paragon Paths, might help focus and define the upper tiers. Combining these high-level themes with Epic Destinies might be satisfying.
Off the top of my head, I’m calling this element “Legends”. Instead of reflecting a character’s combat role, background role, and the like, it reflects the character’s reputation: what they’ve done not what they do. Instead of being chosen, they’re awarded or players have to work towards them. Is the player renowned as a slayer of monsters, a champion of a god, or protector of the people? That’s defined by their Legend (or, rather, their Legend is defined by that). This also helps define the Paragon Tier (read: Legendary Tier): this is where the PCs should be performing deeds worthy of myth and lore, where they become capital-N Names in the world, players in the world stage. The Tier is measured by Legendary Deeds, akin to the twelve tasks of Hercules. This is opposed to the Epic tier, where they PCs do things so impossible that they’re dismissed as myth or where their actions are just beyond the mortal realm and go unnoticed by lesser beings.
The focus of D&D has always been classes. It gets a little tricky even thinking about redesigning classes. I’d like to see a flexible system where power source, class, and build all offer powers.
Power sources are a fun idea, but don’t do much in 4e. They’re just there. They should grant some powers and bonuses. Some classes (arcane classes mostly) should have class dependant powers while other classes (martial, primal) might have their powers determined by their power source, while others (divine) might be a mix. A rogue, ranger, and fighter might all pull from the same pool of abilities, while wizards, artificers, and swordmages do some very different things.
Classes need to be more flexible. And not just modular, which we have. There needs to be simple and small ways of changing classes. Essentials does some this, with class features which alter powers to suit individual builds. Which is great, as it becomes easier to present alternate builds without having to write-up 25 unique powers. Shorter builds that take-up less space are key to a flexible, customizable edition. Focusing on modifying powers instead of adding new powers also emphasises iconic abilities, tying builds of a class together. All fighters might "Power Attack" but some might do more damage while other slow an enemy and other still induce Combat Advantage.
There should be a reduction of classes, down to the base iconic classes with the usual exceptions. This is standard; editions add classes and the next edition strips them back. Instead of new classes, the old classes should fill multiple roles. If a class is not flexible and broad enough to fill multiple roles, it just should not be a class. Goodbye to the grid-filling classes: the avenger becomes a paladin build, the invoker a cleric build, the warlord a fighter build, the shaman a druid build (with a spirit as their animal companion) and so on. Some are interesting enough to stay, such as the swordmage, which could conceivably work nicely as a striker as well as a defender. (While I love the warlord, it really is just a fighter in the leader role as it’s hard to imagine a warlord defender or striker being different than a fighter.) Paladins and rangers get grandfathered into remaining, and artificers and sorcerers *might* get the same privilege.
I’d love to see flexible builds, where every few levels you could choose to pick a striker power of defender feature. This would help uneven groups, where players could compensate for a missing role. Obviously, the power should identify which role each ability is designed for and sample builds should be optimized, but it would be nice to give a tank fighter some DPS powers because there’s no striker in the party.
Not much to say here. I like most of 4e's monster design, although monster powers often need some flavour. Although,the descriptions and fluff text could handle that. I think we need another monster type: the mook, but probably with a better name (Wrecan had one I really liked but cannot remember). Mooks should really be the standard, tough but not requiring three or four hits to kill. Most fights should be small incidental things that threaten PCs by attrition. There should be a range of combat types: small incidental fights, quick mook fights, longer tactical fights, mini-boss fights, and boss fights. Each have different needs which should have provided advice and guidelines.
Monsters also need to threaten in other ways. If there are other spheres added to the game (social, and exploratory/environmental) some monsters might be threats in those aspects of the game. Some monsters are more of an environmental hazard than a straight fight. Some monsters might require thought to by-pass rather than hitting. Some monsters are more social encounters and should have related statblocks.
I’d like a dash more logic in monsters. By which I mean NO burning fire elementals, tripping blobs, frightening beholders, shifting swarms, dominating zombies, and pushing colossal dragons. Not every power should work on every creature, there should always be exceptions. Mind you, the exceptions should be rare and reasonably obvious. Not always being 100% effective is the price for specialization and it’s up to the DM to accommodate uber-focused players not the game.
I’d also like to see an end to Warcraft-named monsters. The monsters with crazy names because there needs to be three or four to build an encounter and each has a unique name: the fights with four Orc Adjective-Nouns and the Ogre Verb-er. There’s no limit on disc space in an TRPG: we don’t need monsters that are recoloured sprites. There should be fewer crazy unique monsters, and instead more alternate powers you can add to existing monsters to mix-and-match while levelling the monster up or down. And we need far fewer humanoids. Instead, we should have roles and types humanoid (warriors, berserkers, raiders, shamans, etc) and each humanoid race should instead have a unique power or two added atop the type. So you add the orc racial powers to the berserker type to make an orc berserker. As long as the racial powers are simple it should be easy enough to run from a book, and an online monster builder should make that even easier. Of course, some iconics should be provided (kobold wyrmpriest, orc eye of Gruumsh , etc) but we don't need eighty orcs of levels 1-27.
Now, here’s the rub: nothing I’ve mentioned above is dependent on a new edition. All of it could be handled with the same math and same base rules through an alternate PHB. It’s the kind of tweaks and changes you might have seen in a 3PP in the days of 3e, but don’t see anymore because of the GSL’s restriction on changing rules.
Funny thing, there’s very few mechanical changes in the core rules between 3e and 4e. Not compared to the changes between 2e and 3e. Most the changes between editions were classes, races, and skills.
So what potential mechanical changes would I like to see for 5e?
First, there needs to be some kind of avoidance mechanic. Static things making attacks on characters is silly. Pit traps should not be making attacks.
Second, skills need to be reworked. The “hard math” of 4e needs to be applied equally out of combat. And more time and options need to be added to Skill Challenges, especially on the player’s side of the equation.
Third... you know what, I'm tapped out here. There's only so much my brain can take and think in one day. I'm excited and worried. It's so soon for a new edition. But I like what I'm hearing so far, I like it a lot. But I liked 4e right up until I cracked open my Core rules boxed set.
Part of me wants to dismiss this edition and say that my heart belongs to Paizo know. My current campaign will wrap-up in the spring and I was planning on running a Pathfinder game in the Ravenloft world (I'm already working on the Player's Guide). But if WotC has a playtest document available with enough content and flexibility to really kitbash into a 'Loft game, that might be tempting. Or it might be fun to grab the playtest and attempt an Epic Tier game and try and break the system.
While I argued before that it was too early for a new edition, if this is being created as an "Ultimate Edition" (D&D Unlimited?) them it might draw in enough of an audience to be worth the risk...