Thursday, November 1, 2012

Even More Thoughts on D&D Next

Wizards of the Coast (WotC) recently sent out their latest round of playtest materials for the upcoming edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and since I've already had a chance to look at it, I figured I'd take some time to give you some of my thoughts.
  • The new system is beautifully modular. As I've said before, it's reminiscent of the 2e Classes and Kits system, but one could also make the argument that it's also got elements that are similar the 4th Edition as well.  Like Next, 4e relies on picking Classes and then sub-class builds in order to provide a level of base differentiation between different types of characters of a given class. For example, a Fighter is and always has been a guy who succeeds primarily via melee attacks with weapons, using his physical prowess. A Wizard, meanwhile, is and always has been a guy who succeeds by casting spells. But within each of those basic descriptions, there's a lot of room for differentiation. Our Fighter might fight with a two-handed greatsword, a sword and a shield, or even with two swords, one in each hand. A Wizard might specialize in elemental magic or battle magic or even casting illusions.

    Back in the day, these differences weren't well expressed in D&D, but starting with the idea of Kits at some point in 2e, the rules began allowing Players to reflect the individual preference via changes to character mechanics. However, the idea didn't really reach its peak until 4e, where you not only chose a race, class, and build, you even chose specific attack and utility powers to further reflect how your individual character fought. That was cool, but it bogged down the game in practice, especially at the higher levels—by which point most characters had amassed a staggering number of different powers, many of which could be used on an "interrupt" basis.

    The new system jettisons most but not all of that differentiation of powers. To me, its very reminiscent of the Essentials version of 4e, but it's simpler, especially for the martial classes.
These pictures are courtesy of WotC's fansite materials.
  • Coming back to the idea of modularity, in the current playtest you choose a race, class, class specialty (build), background, and general specialty. As has been true for other editions of D&D, your race and class are the basic building blocks of your character, with some races giving many smaller, specific advantages while others give fewer total advantages, but they give those advantages in wholesale chunks. Still, there is less general thought to balance overall, I think, which is okay.

    Regardless, it's a surety that there are some races and classes that are more complicated than others. For example, I built an Elf Princess Cleric for my daughter using the Elf race, Cleric class, Lightbringer build, Noble background, and Divine Magic Specialty, and the whole thing took about an hour to put together. The resulting character could fight with a mace, cast a variety of cleric and wizard spells, ride a horse, recite heraldry, and intimidate commoners through the sheer power of her haughty demeanor. But she wasn't much of a specialist in any of that stuff; I just thought that was the stuff that Hannah would like. Anyway, while I feel like I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams in building a character to reflect who my daughter would like to be if she lived in a fantasy realm, the fact is that the build itself is remarkably complicated, and that's not necessarily a good thing. Compared to the Halfling Rogue Acrobat that I built for Emma, Hannah's character requires a much higher degree of mastery of the rules to play.

  • While we're talking about character creation, WotC has literally doubled down on the idea of Expertise Dice. Expertise Dice were developed for Fighters as an expression of the things that they could do with a weapon. For example, you can spend your Expertise Dice to deal more damage, protect allies with your shield, make a more exacting strike, etc.

    The same is now true for Rogues. Rogues now use Expertise Dice as well to do things like deal Sneak Attack damage, Tumble, Hide in Shadows, etc. Overall, it's not a bad mechanic, though, and I'm not complaining about it. I will say, however, that I started wondering if Expertise Dice were going to become an expression of prowess for the Martial power source in general, and if that's true, then it'll be interesting to see if WotC can develop a similar methodology for classes like the Warlord and the Ranger. Certainly the potential is there.

  • My last thought on this is that in 4e, first level characters started as serious heroes, albeit on a small scale. That was a pretty sharp break with the past, however, since back in the day, first level heroes abounded, but only the strong survived. With D&D Next, first level is again very much the apprentice's level, and I'd say that plenty of first level characters are going to die.

    As with some of the other reversions to type in the playtest, this isn't a bad thing. I mean, yeah, it was cool that you got a full expression of your class at first level in 4e, but the unintended consequence of that was extreme power creep by the middle of the Paragon Tier. With the new system, you start off much weaker, but you have serious room to grow. That doesn't suck at all.

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