I was having a chat with Friend Ian and Friend Zak about Dungeons & Dragons today. Mostly, we were looking at how to make a better D&D, which seems like a pretty difficult thing to do. See, they made a pretty great D&D when they put together Third Edition. While it wasn’t elegant and seemed to lack focus, the game was well loved for its incredible flexibility, it’s adherence to the game’s roots, the much streamlined system (when compared to Second Edition), and a community-first approach (the OGL in specific) that really made the game shine.
One of the things I’ve been talking about a lot lately is tech constriction. Basically, it works like this: when White Wolf created Vampire: The Masquerade, they had a really cool goal – “Make a story-based horror role-playing game” – but they didn’t have the technology they needed to make that goal a reality. You see this a lot in early attempts at narrative-heavy role-playing games, with my favourite example being Skyrealms of Jorune. They did the best they could with what they had, and what they managed to squeeze from the systems of the time was pretty spectacular. It didn’t really lend itself to story-telling horror, but it did provide a cool avenue for Awesomer than Thou “superheroes with fangs” role-playing, and a lot of people really dug on that.
When a bunch of years passed, and it was time to look at relaunching the game, the technology available to the designers was significantly advanced to be able to handle more narrative games. But, rather than build a game that leveraged that new tech, they built a game that was a lot like the first version with some streamlining and some clever twists.
No one liked it.
Now, I personally prefer the New World of Darkness to the Old World of Darkness. But I don’t look at a game with the same eyes that most folk do. I look at games with the eyes of a designer and a retailer, and I can really appreciate the direction they were attempting to drive their line. But it didn’t work for most of the fans of the original game because it was “too different.” Imagine the shitstorm that would have come if they’d actually scrapped their whole system and designed one that was actually well-built for telling stories of personal horror.
This is tech constriction. When you publish a popular role-playing game, there is an expectation that future editions of the game are going to be very similar to that game. And that’s fine, it’s an understandable expectation to have, but it really ties designers hands when building a new edition of a game. If you don’t innovate, the game becomes stagnant and no one appreciates the new edition. If you innovate too much, it doesn’t “feel” like the previous editions of the game, and people get upset at having their expectations dashed.
Fourth Edition D&D suffered from innovating too much. The game took a new and unexpected direction, moving from comfortable simulation-heavy role-playing into a much more game-centric focus, and that move was jarring to a lot of people. I thought it was a brilliant move myself, because Wizards of the Coast has already exemplified simulation-centric play with Third Edition, and indie games have filled the niche for narrative games to the brim. Still, it wasn’t enough like previous editions of the game, and people railed against that.
So what’s the answer? How do you build a better edition of Dungeons & Dragons? How do you build a version of D&D that holds true to everything D&D is about, how do you utilize new technology without alienating your core audience?
In Friend Ian’s opinion, the solution is to exemplify the old tech, to give players a reason to love the old busted tech. The comparison he made is that, right now, D&D is a clunky jalopy held together with tape and hope, but what it needs to be is the shiny, perfectly restored classic custom. The 1967 Cadillac Eldorado. The 1971 Barracuda. Shine the old rules up, make them really count, and focus on those things that make D&D what it is.
LevelsMost modern role-playing games aren’t using levels as an advancement system. The vast, overwhelming majority of games designed in the past ten years are designed with point-allocation systems, or a system by which use directly affects advancement. Some games, notably Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, use parallel advancement, by which I mean the character does not become statistically better, but instead grows in personality and that new personality changes how the player will play their character. (If you haven’t read Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, I suggest you go buy it immediately, because it’s incredible).
Levels are archaic and they tend to make about as much sense as Save vs. Magic Wand. Why does gaining X amount of experience make me universally better at everything I’m good at? Wouldn’t the skills I’m not using fall behind those I’m exercising constantly?
But that’s part of this exercise, right? Making all that is old new again. How do you make levels matter more? The team at D&D next have flattened the curve, making each level less statistically important while opening new choices and options for your character. We’re still not really sure what that looks like, exactly, but it’s probably a strong step in the right direction. I need a reason to want to be level 13 as opposed to level 12. So give me those reasons. Give me something at every level that makes me go “What? Really? Really?” Give my fighter a castle at level 10. Let my warlord field armies at level 6. If my mage can’t lift an island out of the sea and build a tower on it at level 12, there’s no reason to be a 12th level wizard.
Now, these are obviously just spitballing, but seriously, if you have to do levels, and each level is supposed to be an achievement, you need to make every level a really big deal, and make them something I want to work towards. And that doesn’t just mean cool new attack powers. You need to build systems that are going to make those levels sweet. Like I said, let the warlord field an army, because at level 6 that’s something you seriously need to consider occasionally. Don’t get me wrong, that should definitely cost something. You shouldn’t be able to field an army just because these 13 orcs are kind of fucking with your day without it costing you a small fortune. But we’ll get to wealth in a minute.
Hit PointsHit Points, even as the abstraction they’re made out to be, are sort of dumb. Like many of the weirdest mechanics in role-playing, hit points are a holdover from their wargaming roots, and in a larger-scale combat scenario, they make a fine abstraction of a unit’s ability to take damage and continue to function. A few people die, but it’s not enough to hinder performance. A whole bunch of people die, and the unit dissolves into a scattered rag-tag barely capable of hindering a healthy military force. Even in this case, I think it’s something of a stretch, but if you’re talking large-scale, unless a general dies, your armies should keep ticking away without too much difficulty if they take some casualties.
As a measure of an individual’s health, hit points are utterly ridiculous. Let me illustrate with an example. When you’re slicing something that you’re about to cook, and you cut yourself, what’s the first thing you do? If you’re not acting like a huge tough-person, your reaction is very likely “stop everything you’re doing, cover the wound, swear a lot.” This is a normal reflex, and everyone does it (unless they’ve been trained not to, and even then, if you’re not in a scenario where the training fits, you’re still probably going to jump, cover and grumble). This is a shock reflex. In small amounts, shock will keep you alive. In a rough situation, it can kill you.
Another illustration! I was watching a great video of a Krav Maga instructor talking about self-defence. I don’t remember much of the video, but there was one thing that really stuck out for me. “No matter how well trained you are, no matter how many martial arts you learn, a fifteen year old with a knife can kill you.” This is a paraphrase, of course, and I have no idea who the original instructor was, but it’s a really interesting point when talking about how much damage a human body can take before it dies.
A lot. And not much at all.
You’d be surprised what you can live through, and you’d be equally surprised what can kill you. People have survived falling a thousand feet without a parachute. People have survived being shot a dozen times. People have survived horrifying animal attacks and stabbings and hangings and getting hit by lightning three times. And a fifteen year old with a knife can kill you.
So how do you make hit points cool? How do you make hit points jump out at me and scream that they need to be a part of a game’s design? Well, D&D Fourth Edition did some things very right with hit points, but didn’t quite hit the mark. First of all, Fourth Edition gave you a lot of hit points compared to other games, because you’re supposed to be a badass. Second, the minion rule was a brilliant stroke that told a very simple story: minions are unimportant; they are mooks that you don’t need to worry about, and shouldn’t feel bad killing; and by extension, the player characters are goddamned heroes because they take a beating and don’t die like normal people.
Hit points have been sold, typically, as an abstraction for health, and I think that’s the wrong track. They’re not an abstraction for health, they’re not an abstraction for ducking and dodging and defending yourself and getting worn down (because if that were the case, they would have an affect on your abilities as they depleted). They should be an abstraction of how badass you are. When you take a hit point of damage, you get a wicked Bruce Willis cut on your chin. A single stream of blood runs across your forehead. Your armour dents, your sword chips, you get that single line of red cut across your cheek that is a dire insult to your honour and must be addressed.
If you want to make hit points matter, it’s imperative to make them an important part of the game by utilizing them in both flavour and mechanics. Wizards came close to this with the idea of marking a “bloodied” value, a mechanical middle-point to your hit points. Where I think they failed in this endeavour is making the bloodied value really mean something. As it currently sits, being bloodied is something you complain about to your healer and your healer zaps you with some healing. Being damaged is, at current, universally bad. This leads to a proliferation of healers and the horrible “five minute work week” that Game Masters have to constantly struggle against.
I want fighters to be rewarded for getting damaged. I want to see paladins and warlords at the hottest when they’re cut up and bruised. I want to see player characters getting pushed to the line and then coming back in a big way. Incentivize getting hurt. Make me want to jump into the fray and get bashed around a little, because I’m at my strongest when I’ve been tossed around a little. Add another tier of damage (Broken, 1/4 total hit points) that unlocks the big moves, the big bonuses, and huge damage.
And reverse that for wizards and sorcerers and warlocks and the like. They don’t want to get hurt, they’re not jumping into frays, they need to be protected while they’re slinging their spells or those spells are going to be less effective at Bloodied and catastrophically weak at Broken. It’s not easy to concentrate when you’re bleeding out. We’ll talk more about that when we get to classes.
Gold and WealthOnce upon a time, you got an experience point for every single gold piece you acquired. Seriously. It was a big deal to find a dragon’s hoard, because that meant you were probably going to hit your next level (not that levels really meant anything beyond an achievement unlocking; see above). Gold mattered to the mechanics of the game in a very real way, and that meant that adding up all of your gold pieces was actually sort of fun.
Most modern role-playing games have done away with recording every penny on your character sheet.
More popular in the current stretch of games is an abstracted “resources” or “wealth” stat that you can use to purchase items you want or need. A few games still keep track of individual credits (Shadowrun, for instance), but if your character sheet has a “resources” score on it, the game is probably new school.
Greed is huge in D&D. The First Edition cover is famously a pair of adventurers prying a gem from the eye of a statue they probably shouldn’t be fucking with. Adventurers are in the game for the gold and the experience. But more recent editions of D&D have turned wealth into a way to get that magic item you want than an ends unto itself.
I say, bring back the gold/experience track. Make people crave gold itself because it makes you rich and helps you out mechanically at the same time. Add your current gold pieces (not your silver, not your copper, not your electrum, but your GOLD pieces) to your experience. Keep a separate track for experience from gold and experience from adventuring, and add them up at the end of each session.
Perhaps more importantly, change the economy of magic items. In specific, take the gold piece cost off of them, because magic items should be damned near priceless. No more the +1 sword, because that shit be whack, yo. More on that when we discuss “equipment.” But, seriously, make it impossible to walk into Ye Olde Magick Shoppe to buy a +2 dagger of slaying. Make buying magic items difficult and incredibly expensive. Make buying potions difficult and incredibly expensive. Make it clear that a peasant could never, with a thousand years of toil and saving, afford a simple +1 ring of protection, because players will think twice about dropping their experience count to buy one, and we want that tension in the game.
Then make it matter in the flavour. I live in Canada, so I think I have a better understanding of this problem than some of my southern compatriots. We have yellow dollar coins in Canada. We call them loonies, because we’re funny that way. The picture to the right is a stack of loonies. That’s $17, which isn’t a ton of dough. Each coin is about an inch across. What you’re looking at is a literal handful of money. You could fit seventeen dollars more-or-less comfortably in a single hand. Now, for the sake of our discussion, let’s say you and your crew take down a juvenile red dragon. Looking at the D&D 3.5 stats, a juvenile red dragon is a CR 7 creature, and it usually has three times the treasure of a normal creature of the same level. A normal treasure at seventh level would be 1d12x100gp. I’m going to roll a d12 now. Came up ten. A normal encounter would have 1000gp sitting here, but this is a dragon, so it’s triple that at 3000 gold pieces.
That is 176 handfuls of coins. That’s actually more coins than I can imagine with any sort of accuracy. And you’re going to stuff that into some sacks and drag it home? Man, I’ve had a pocket full of loonies before, and it’s not comfortable. Trying to drag home my share of thousands would make me a grumpy dude.
Moreover, where the hell are you going to keep all of this money? You can’t just carry it around, because it’s thousands of fucking gold pieces. You have to keep it somewhere, and if a young dragon couldn’t guard it from four asshats like your party, how are you going to make sure that the money stays yours?
AlignmentI love the words “alignment system,” when applied to D&D, mostly because it doesn’t really exist. Early on, it seemed like a good way to figure out whose team everyone was on. Are you part of the chaos team or the order team? Good or evil? I have a spell to find out for sure.
Later, it became a flavour point. A good character acts in different ways than an evil character at least some of the time, and the guidelines set out in the books tell you what sorts of things people in each alignment do. But boiling complex ethical questions down to a nine point grid is always going to be problematic. Moral relativism is entirely ignored for absolutism, which in itself is problematic because the D&D morality system assumes that the absolutes can be found in North American cultural values.
Democracy and personal freedom are not “good” in a society that values adherence to a strict code of conduct and absolute loyalty to one’s liege lord. Indeed, encouraging democratic rebellion eschews the divine right to rule entirely and in such a society would be a heinously evil act of treason. But, because we largely live in mostly democratic nations, we assume that democracy is good and tyranny is evil.
Still, it’s a hallmark of the game, and one of its most clearly recognizable symbols. There have been internet memes built around it. People like it. With Fourth Edition D&D, it was made to matter even less than in Third, with spells no longer affecting specific alignments and alignment restrictions being removed from even the clearest example of them (a paladin can only be Lawful Good). Fourth Edition also stripped the system of Chaotic Good and Lawful Evil, assuming that Evil is the Lawful version and Good is of the Chaotic sort unless otherwise specified. Where once there were some minor systematic overlaps in alignment, there are almost none, now.
To make alignment important, to make it a focal point of the game’s system, will require something of an overhaul of the way we look at alignments in general. While I desperately hope we never see alignment restrictions ever again (I mean, a paladin is just a warrior for the cause of a god, yeah? There are evil gods. You don’t need a separate class for that.), I think that bringing back alignment-specific effects would be a solid step in the right direction. This should be especially true of the “holy” classes like clerics and paladins, who should deal damage typed to their alignment. Demons should be forced to occasionally take 10 points of “good damage,” while angels should eat “evil damage” for dinner once in a while. In fact, the more closely related you are to a specific alignment, the more damage you should take from its opposite. Make a whole bunch of creatures that are vulnerable to Good Damage. Keep radiant and necrotic damage, because both of those are awesome, but don’t use them in place of
Alignment specific bonuses should be applied to gear, as well. Magic the Gathering has this shit locked down, because card colour is basically alignment. One of the cycles from the newest core set gives a creature a strength and toughness bonus for being the right alignment, and also provides an ability typical to that colour’s effects. That’s cool business, and could easily the be ported over to role-playing games.
For the record, Neutral shouldn’t get a damage type. It’s also the stupidest of the alignments, and one of the few areas in which I agree with Kevin Siembieda is that “selfish” is a much better description of that alignment set.
Vancian MagicThere are two things I hate about Vancian Magic. The first is the forgetting of spells at inconvenient times (like right after I’ve cast the damned thing). The second is the idea that the level of the spell is not the level of the person casting it. Both of those problems got fixed in Fourth Edition, and it’s one of the things people complain about the most readily. “My wizard is too effective. He should be way more horrible than this,” say the grognards.
A lot of people have talked at length about Vancian Magic and why it’s good and why it’s horrible. I’m not going to retrace over that conversation. Instead, I’m going to try and find a way to make Vancian Magic the best magic it can be.
First of all, going back to levels a bit, if I’m going to lose my abilities after I use them, those abilities are going to need to be really cool. And they’re going to need to be way cooler at every new level. Now, when I say that a spell needs to be cool, I’m not suggesting that it needs to do way more damage or whatever, it just needs to do something that is awesomely flavourful and also useful. Some damage-dealing spells are great, and you can’t build a Vancian magic system without staples like Magic Missile or Fireball. But I need a reason to cast spells that isn’t combat. Or if it is in combat, it shouldn’t be roughly as effective as the ranger’s arrows. A mage’s spells need to do something weird and cool. At first level, it’s not enough to just throw some force at a guy and have him get knocked back a square. I want to throw a mystical orb of glowing green power at him and have his face covered in three fighting squid for a turn. At tenth level, I should be able to turn a castle into a peach that I can carry around in my pocket for a day. At fifteenth level, I should be able to rearrange continents into shapes that please me, and damn the ecological considerations. At twentieth level, I should be able to carve my own face into the moon, where I will smile upon those who make me happy and scowl angrily at those who’ve wronged me. And my scowl should cause your genitals to turn into sea anemones that whistle annoying songs all the time.
Seriously, the whole concept of magic in D&D needs an overhaul. Magic shouldn’t be a tool, it should be fucking weird. It should do weird things more often than it does Magic Missile. If you have to have fireballs, have those fire balls carve the runes of my future into the bodies of my enemies, easily readable by wise bison and children, but not by me. If you have to do rope trick, have the portal cut a hole in the meat of the world where we will be warm and safe, but marked forever by our crime (thank you to 7th Sea for that one).
This is what magic is, it’s filled with strange flavour and weird concepts that can’t possibly be replicated by current technology.
And it’s really time that wizards, sorcerers, warlocks et al get different flavours of magic. When a wizard casts a spell, it’s refined, perfect, as pristine in form as it is in function. It’s focused, simple, elegant, but lacks power, flair, or pizazz. When a sorcerer casts a spell, it’s wild, weird, doesn’t really know what it wants to be until it’s finished, and might not go off properly at all. When a warlock or a cleric casts a spell, it’s not a spell of his or her choosing. No, the choice is left to his or her benefactor, which makes a warlock’s spellcasting effectively political.
Make magic cool and weird again. And build the powers of the people who use it with some thought to what sort of magic they wield.
ClassesI like the freedom of a point-buy system, and I love the flavour that comes pouring out of a lifepaths system like Burning Wheel. I absolutely adore the Aspects of FATE and the similar traits of Dogs in the Vineyard. I don’t really dig on classes all that much, because they restrict the focus of my character to whatever settings were determined best by the folk who wrote the class. They certainly have their uses, and they increase grokability in a big way, but what they gain in recognition from the players is lost in a lack of flexibility and real customization.
Classes in D&D need to be rethought from the ground up, I feel. Each class needs to find a unique way to interact with each facet of the game. Fighters need to fight, but they should also get better at fighting the more beat up they get and they should get better at their skills while they’re in combat and their equipment should be at its peak in the middle of a brawl. A wizard casts spells, which is neat, but they’re not well suited to combat and should do their best to stay away when the swords swing. They are, however, incredibly useful in a library and their skills get much more relevant when they have a rich pool of knowledge from which to draw. Their equipment works best in universities and labs and their feats give them all sorts of bonuses to knowing stuff. Thieves steal stuff, and sometimes that means getting your hands a little dirty, but the less you’re noticed the better. They get better at fighting when the chips are down, but they look their best when everything is going their way. Their skills work best in silence and darkness; they don’t perform well under bright lights, or when anyone has noticed them. They are incredibly useful in cities and do their best work in dark alleys. These are simple things to talk about, but making them matter in the course of play can be a lot more challenging. Situational bonuses should be built into characters to exemplify what it is they do, where they do it best, and how they get it done.
Make fighters better at what they do when they’ve had the crap kicked out of them.
Make wizards better at what they do when they have some time to think and a cup of tea,
Make thieves better at what they do when they’re on the rooftops and in the alleys.
Make clerics better at what they do when they’re facing down the enemies of their church.
Give people a situation in which they are better at doing the things they do, and encourage players to work to those strengths. Reward your players for doing things outside of combat that their characters are good at (except fighters, because fighters excel at combat, hence the name). Build role-playing hooks into your characters from the get-go. Build abilities that encourage non-combat situations and enhance exploration. Instead of looking for four basic ideas of what player characters do, look at what each class does, find a way for them to excel at that thing in different circumstances, and build the class around that. Let’s take a look at the fighter and the ranger, for instance.
The fighter fights. Fighters are at their best in combat. The fighter gets better at things the more damage he or she has taken. The fighter’s skills get better when in a fight. The fighter’s equipment thrives on combat and combat situations. Fighters look their best when they’ve been beaten up.
The ranger hunts. Rangers are at their best in the forest. The ranger gets better at things as he or she fells enemies. The ranger’s skills get better after a fight. The ranger’s equipment thrives in the wilderness. Rangers look their best when they’re travelling.These are very different character builds for two martial style characters. Neither is magical, both of them “fight,” but these are two completely different sorts of characters who excel at very different things. The fighter doesn’t care if he or she’s in a forest or a cave; he’s going to fight and fight well. The ranger cares about where he or she is, but only cares about fights after the fact. Building classes this way provides a lot of avenues for archetypes that haven’t been explored a lot, and can help in finding the specific niches between similar characters (wizards and sorcerers for instance).
The wizard casts spells. Wizards are at their best surrounded by books. The wizard gets better at things as his or her resources improve. The wizard’s skills get better while preparing to cast a spell. The wizard’s equipment thrives in places of learning and knowledge. Wizards look their best when well-rested.
The sorcerer casts spells. Sorcerers are at their best when celebrating. The sorcerer gets better at things as his or her emotional investment gets more intense. The sorcerer’s skills get better when surrounded by strangers. The sorcerer’s equipment thrives on new experiences. Sorcerers look their best at parties.Obviously these are just examples, but they build character classes in a direction that creates cool and interesting niches and ties characters to the situations in which they find themselves, which I think is much more important than making sure the party’s meat shield is sticky enough to pull aggro.
Kill all of the classes in D&D. Build them up from scratch. Look at what they’re good at, look at where and how they want to be good at it, and find ways to represent those preferences mechanically, and you’ll end up with characters that are much, much cooler in the long run.
Obvioulsy, all of this is just my opinion (and, to some extent, Friend Ian’s). But by sanding the rust off the chassis and rebuilding the transmission, D&D might have a lot of life left in her. Rather than looking at ways we can redesign the Mustang, why don’t we see if we can make this one pretty again?