In a recent interview with Matt Miller of gameinformer, Mike Mearls made the following intriguing (to me) statement about D&D Next:
DMs have ... optional rules to flesh out their campaigns. Those options can range from creating a unique list of races or classes for a setting, to adding in special rules for things like managing a kingdom or waging a war.
I very much like what I am hearing about the Dungeon Mastering side of the game. It appears that what was, to me, 4e's greatest strength -- the ease with which DMs can customize their campaigns and generate NPCs and adventures -- will be continued into the next "iteration".
Of course, key to the success of the DM side of the Next equation is what modules can be added onto the game. What areas should DMs be able to opt into (and thus, opt out of)? Reviewing the discussions on this commuity and others, it seems to be there are certain areas where there is a great divide between substantial numbers of fans, and they may never agree. This is a location where DM-oriented modules are ideal.
So following are thirteen supplements that I believe should be excluded from the core rules engine, but made available to play groups through DM-oriented expansions. In addition, I have assigned a campaign setting to each expansion that I think captures the essence of that expansion.
A World Aligned: Alignment gets a lot of criticism and praise, and for good reasons on both sides. On the plus side, it is a fairly intuitive way to conceive of a fantasy character's personality. For the last 30 years, players have had fun deciding whether such-and-such character is chaotic or lawful, good or evil (or netural). On the down side, once mechanics get tied to alignment, the game opens itelf up to disagreements amongst DMs and Players whether a character is playing in accord with alignment and whether it should gain the benefits of that alignment, or be punished for changing alignment. Mechanical options for alignment, such as the iconic know alignment, protection from alignment, (un)holy word, and consecrate effects are ideal for a DM-oriented module. Associated Campaign: Greyhawk.
A World Antagonistic: There is a divide between those who want NPCs to be generated by different rules than PCs (heterogenous) and those who want NPCs (particularly humanoid ones) to be generated using the same rules as PCs (homogenous). The benefit of heterogenous NPC generation is that character generation is quick and painless. NPCs can be customized for the encounter. The benefit of homogenous NPC generation is that players feel that the world is governed by a uniform set of rules, and can use the knowledge of their own characters to anticipate the tactics of their foes, adding a fun strategic element. I think a supplement giving guidance on homogenous NPC generation would be a good supplement for DMs. Associated Campaign: Eberron.
A World Bellicose: Mass combat is one of the holy grails of D&D design. In 3e, Heroes of Battle tried, with limited success, to include this in that edition. In 4e, one can pause the RPG to play a little Conquest of Nerath. Mearls specifically cited this expansion as an example of a DM-oriented module, and that makes me happy. I am excited to see how they do it. Associated Campaign: Nerath.
A World Designed: DMs love to tinker. With 3e and the OGL, DMs were given free reign to make up their own settings, classes, races, and mechanics. But they were given little guidance. It appears Mearls is planning not only to encourage DM tinkering, but also to give them a supplement to do so and maintain balance. Good luck with that! Associated Campaign: Patronage. (Yeah, that's a plug. What of it!)
A World Duplicitous: Espionage and social maneuvering has never been well supported in D&D in any edition. A social encounter expansion can give us rules and more complex guidelines for social encounters that don't rely entirely on Charisma and Charismatic Skills, that offer ideas for "social combat" and for campaigns of espionage and double-crosses. Associated Campaign: Planescape.
A World Ennobled: In every edition except 3e, there have been rules for managing empires. In 1e, you gained retinues and armies at "name level". In 2e, the Birthright campaign setting gave rules for running kingdoms. In 4e, pluisjen gave us Your Kingdom Awaits, a fantastic group of house rules for running kingdoms as characters. Happily, Mearls specifically cited this as an example of a DM-oriented module. I'm putting that on my "must have" list. Associated Campaign: Birthright.
A World Graphic: There is a big divide between those who wish to play combat with a gridded battlemat (or tiles or other strict visual representations) and those who want, at most, a vague sketch of the area. Even though the game has always presumed play on a battlemat of some sort, many DMs always winged it, and I think the game needs to recognize that. I think the core rules should allow for gridless play, with an optional supplement providing complex rules for gridded play. Associated Campaign: Underdark.
A World Gruesome: There is a desire for a "hardcore" version of D&D. Lair Assault and Fourthcore are evidence of that. In the central game, I think, death should be rare, and resurrection should be hard to come by. But in a more hardcore game, death can be frequent and, thus, resurrection spells more necessary. A hardcore supplement with guidance on how to make your game deadlier, with tougher traps, monsters, and cursed items, random character generation, and options to ameliorate that deadliness, I think, would be popular. Associated Campaign: Dark Sun.
A World Macabre: The popularity of gore and sensationalistic excess has been immortalized in the supplements called Book of Vile Darkness. While not my cup of tea, I recognize that there is a segment of the gaming population that revels in an exploration of flaunting cultural norms and exploring the violation of societal taboos. There is a place for a DM-oriented supplement for such a campaign. Associated Campaign: Ravenloft.
A World Modern: d20 Modern was a Third Edition-related game in which you could play a character in the modern age plagued with supernatural threats. It was sort of D&D's answer to the World of Darkness, except you could pretty much only play a mortal. In 4e, we got an update ot Gamma World, with ray guns and mutants. I also provided some advice on Teching up your game with my Dungeontech series of articles. I think adding a modernization supplement would be popular and useful. At a minimum, every DM wants rules for flintlocks and muskets! Associated Campaign: Modern and/or Gamma World.
A World Spontaneous. Fourth edition, hopefully, cemented the desire to keep the core rules of the game well-balanced. But there is a large segment who misses the open-ended spells and effects that relied almost entirely on the DM to maintain control. Charm person, phantsmal force, fabricate, and wish were all spells known to have unbalancing consequences in the game, but it simply doesn't feel like D&D without them. A supplement allowing players the options to have such open-ended improvisational spells available would be very well-received. Associated Campaign: Al Qadim.
A World Unbounded: Three dimensional combat has always been complex. Every game has offered guidelines for them, but DMs always tend to improvise the scenario. But you cannot run an aquatic, aerial, or astral campaign without them. Three-dimensional combat, with all the bells and whistles of vehicles, flying creatures, aquatic races, and the like, would be a fun module. Associated Campaign: Spelljammer.
A World Undiscovered: Exploration has always been a central part of the D&D experience. Pushing levers, sticking your ten-foot pole in odd holes, drinking a foul-smelling potion and hoping for the best, pits player ingenuity over character skills. While the main rules should emhasize character skills as the primary means of resolving conflict, a set of optional rules for a more open-ended improvisational style of play would be welcome to many gaming tables. Associated Campaign: Mystara.