You Say You Want a New Edition

Okay, so I’m probably the last to weigh in even though I woke up just as the news broke and followed the story all day today. And if you’re getting the news from me, you seriously need to expand your blog reading. Anyway, yesterday, Wizards of the Coast announced a “new iteration” of Dungeons and Dragons was in development and that they planned an open playtest. Despite all the “news” coming out, this is pretty much the only information there is. Everything else is speculation or extrapolation from obfuscating quotes from designers.

So here’s what I’d like to see in a new edition of D&D:

  • No Vancian magic. For you newbies out there, this was the old magic system used in Dungeons and Dragons up until 4th Edition, where spellcasters prepared their spells every day after resting and once a spell was cast, it was “burned” from their memory. Based on the novels of Jack Vance, this magic system isn’t a lot of fun and ruins anything approaching flexibility for spellcasters, something desperately wanted if the number of class features and feats that allow Wizards and Clerics to change their prepared spells. I’m just not a fan. Also, I always hated it when the wizard was sitting in the back firing a crossbow because they cast their one spell for the day and had nothing to do until the rest of the group rests – both as a player and as a DM.
  • Keep class balance. If Vancian magic is kept out of the game, this will do a lot to help as one of the big problems was that, as a caster class levels, it gets more spells and more powerful ones. Meanwhile, fighters are stuck with “I hit it with my pointy stick.” This Linear Warriors/Quadratic Wizards problem has its own page on TV Tropes (which I will not link to save your ability to be productive for the next week). One of 4e’s strengths is that no class is really much more complicated than any other to learn for a player, and no one ever feels like they’re left behind.
  • Make magic magical again. There’s two ways this is a problem in 4e, one of which I’ve talked about before. The first is that magic items no longer feel magical when they’re expected. As part of the character advancement in 4e, a PC is expected to get a full “set” of magic items (weapon/implement, armor, and amulet) and it’s part of the game balance. It takes a lot of the fun and mystery out of magic items when they’re treated this way. The other way to bring back the magic is to bring back the more utilitarian nature of spellcasting. In previous editions, only a handful of spells did direct damage to enemies, such as the classics Fireball, Lightning Bolt, and Magic Missile. The rest were less obvious direct attacks, with spells like Web, Sleep, and various illusion spells. This in turn helped…
  • Encourage player creativity. Since the casters couldn’t do as much direct damage, they had to think outside the box and use their abilities in ways the DM didn’t plan for. I can’t tell you how many times seemingly pointless spells like Create Water foiled very (at least in my opinion) ingenious traps. But it was more than that in previous editions. Exploration held a lot of weight in the game, with players fiddling with everything in a room to find secret doors and traps. Sometimes I’d throw things at my players with no specific idea in mind as to how they’d accomplish the task just to see how they’d do it. Players can be devious little buggers, and I like it when they’re playing their characters more and their power card list less.
  • No save-or-die effects or squishy first level characters. When I ran 3rd Edition games and, to a lesser extent, when I run Pathfinder games, it was an effort on my part as DM to keep the players alive in combat for the first couple of levels. Casters had no punch to them and dropped if you breathed on them funny (I once lost a wizard to a friggin’ housecat as a player), and even heavily-armored fighters would drop with one good hit from an orc. This and the save-or-die effects bothered me as a DM because it boils down to the same thing: PCs dying because of a single die roll that wasn’t in their favor. 4e fixed both of these problems brilliantly by making 1st level characters able to take a couple of hits before dropping as well as removing any save-or-die effects (the worst offenders still giving players three saving throws before killing them instantly). While it adds to the lethality of the game and thus the excitement, it’s no fun having to sit out half of a session because the DM happened to crit on the first attack and killed you outright. It encouraged players to not get attached to their characters as they could die at any moment, and made any sort of long-term storytelling difficult at best.
  • Fix the 5 Minute Workday problem. This is another previous edition problem that was fixed in 4e (but that caused others, see below) where, especially at lower levels, players would explore around, get into a fight, blow all their biggest spells to end the encounter quickly, and immediately camp and rest for the day to get all their spells back. The At-Will/Encounter/Daily power structure prevented this problem because players got most of their powerful attacks back at the end of the encounter and just saved their Dailies for the “big boss”.
  • Fix the Encounter-Heavy design.When 4e fixed the 5 Minute Workday problem, they shifted almost all of the resource management of the party to an encounter-basis rather than a daily-basis. This means that, between encounters, players can spend healing surges to get themselves back to full HP and recover almost all of their powers they used except Daily Powers. What this means is that, as a DM, each and every encounter has to be unique, interesting, and dangerous. In previous editions, you could have one or two goblins lurking in the tunnels taking potshots at the characters to whittle down their HP, but in 4e that just isn’t possible because they’d just kill the goblin in question with an encounter power and be done with it. This also makes traps ineffective because what’s the point of fiddling around with a bunch of skill checks when you can just walk into the trap, take the damage, spend a healing surge, and move on? The way 4e is set up makes it challenging for me as a DM to create an interesting adventure and encourages burnout because I have to constantly come up with new and creative encounters for the players.
  • Keep the ease of encounter design from 4e. Yes, I know that’s kind of the opposite of what I said above, but starting a Pathfinder game this week really made me appreciate how simple it is to design an adventure for 4e. The most challenging part is just coming up with something fun and new, while in previous editions up to and including Pathfinder, the bulk of the time is spent generating monsters/NPCs. Since monsters in previous editions could take class levels and you only had one stat block for any one monster, any variation between say Random Orc Grunt #5 and Grand Clanmaster Oog was that the latter had class levels, which meant you had to make a friggin’ character for every important NPC including feat choices, attributes, skills, etc. Sure, it wasn’t as big of a headache as making a PC because you could bend the rules, give an extra feat or boost an attribute if you want. But it’s still time consuming. It takes in my estimation twice as long for me to design a Pathfinder session than a 4e one, even though 4e has more combat and thus more monsters. Because everything in 4e is balanced, I can just thumb through the Monster Manual/Vault books and drop in whatever I need. Aside from writing the story, I spend probably 80% of my prep time as a DM in 4e tweaking encounters, terrain, and maps so that each encounter is interesting and only 20% of the time futzing with picking monsters and fiddling with their stats. In Pathfinder and 3rd Edition, flip those. What this means is that in previous editions, the NPCs may have been more well-developed, but encounters were boring because I just didn’t have the time or energy to make them more interesting after having to fiddle with pretty much every single creature in the game so that there was a bit of variety in the enemies.
  • Keep Minions. I’m trying to figure out a way to use minions in Pathfinder, but it’s just not working for me (I don’t have the math skills to do deep game design like that). But I friggin’ love minions. Players love them because they get to mow through bad guys and it makes them feel powerful. I love them because I get to put a crapload of minis on the board and cackle without actually risking a TPK in every encounter, and it’s a crapload of creatures on the board where I as DM don’t have to keep track of a damn thing. No HP, no damage rolls, no nothing. They’re hit, they’re dead. They hit, they do X damage and we move on to the next one. Brilliant and simple. I love them and want more of them. Don’t get rid of minions!
  • Backwards compatibility. One of the rumors floating around based on a quote from one of the designers is that you’ll be able to use products from every edition of D&D with the “new iteration”. While 1st and 2nd Editions weren’t too different from each other, 3rd Edition was a big leap in design philosophy. I know this first-hand because I’m currently bastardizing a bunch of old 1st Edition modules for Pathfinder since direct conversions just aren’t possible. And if 2nd to 3rd was a leap, then 3.5 to 4th was a three-stage rocket. I just can’t see how I’ll be able to use material from each edition. I’d love to be able to pull out Keep on the Borderlands or the old GDQ modules and run them as-is with a new and updated version of the rules yet still keep all the push/pull/slide effects that make 4e combat so much fun.

So were a lot of my desires contradictory? Of course they were! So are most of everyone else’s, to be honest. I believe that @TheAngryDM summed it up best yesterday on Twitter: “Feedback says players want: simple games with tactical combat and a high degree of customization but not too many choices…”

Published in: on January 10, 2012 at 10:15 AM  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting. This is a fantastic list of wants for 5E!

    I haven’t played Pathfinder, but if you need some math for Minions, just let me know. I’m sure we can figure something out. 🙂

    • There’s a lot of rules out there for minions in Pathfinder, but none of them “feel” right to me. If you want to take a crack at it, Pathfinder’s licensed under OGL and the SRDt’s at

  2. […] Abtruse  (link) […]

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