Beginning: Comments On 5E
Race, Class, Theme, Background
Well, since a lot of my writing time (i.e, time when code is compiling, tests are running, etc) is being taken up with occasional rants on the 5e boards, it seems to me that I could kill two birds with one stone (I took Weapons Focus (Sling), Weapon Specialization (Sling), Improved Critical (Sling), Manyshot, Avian Hunter, Improved Avian Hunter, and have a +2 Birdbane Sling and Bracers of Archery…er…Slingery…Slinging…whatever) and copy and paste some of them here, thus adding to illusion that this site has “updates” and “content”, which, in turn, helps create the illusion there are also “readers”. I feel a lot like Jeremy in Yellow Submarine, creating my own world for my own consumption. Solipsists of the world, unite!
OK, Background on Backgrounds
First, you need to read this post. (http://community.wizards.com/dndnext/blog/2012/04/06/beyond_class_and_race )Really. Nothing below is going to make sense without you doing so. “Who’s Pete?” you’ll ask. “Who’s Laura?”
So, having read that, here’s my initial reply to, as copied when I wrote it, meaning, even more typos than usual. (Hm… if over 50% of my posts are prefaced with “more typos than usual”, and it sometimes seems as if they are, doesn’t that de facto make them contain “the usual number of typos”, and my “edited” posts have “fewer typos than usual”?)
So… basically, all you’re doing is providing a set of pre-chosen selections of skills/feats/powers from a larger set, and calling them “themes” and “backgrounds”? The reason this couldn’t be done in 3e, 3.5, and 4e was… ? (Hell, it WAS done, in all of them, it just didn’t get beyond first level in most cases.)
I am not seeing a whole lot of advantage here. Someone who picks a “theme” still had to read through all the feat descriptions to learn what they do, comparing one theme to another theme and so on. As characters level up, they’re going to discover they don’t like the way some part of their background/theme works and want to change it, so, really, you’re basically saying, “Here, pick this pre-defined list of stuff that goes to 20th level, except that, by third level, you’ll be ignoring it completely.”
The only reason “Pick race, pick class, boom, done” worked in the pre-3e days was that there were no other options; people who wanted detailed characters who changed as they grew played Rolemaster, GURPS, Hero, etc. If you have a game that has enough feats and options to satisfy the “Lauras” of the world, “Pete” is going to realize he’s getting the shaft. He won’t be happy with the boredom of not having any choices to make as he levels up, because the designer made them for him. On the other hand, if themes/backgrounds are the only way to get certain options (“You can’t have Thieves’ Cant unless you take the Thief theme, period.”), then people will be rightfully pissed, because that basically makes it impossible to mix-and-match, so you’re left waiting for WOTC to release the “Sort of a fighter but he can speak Thieves’ Cant” theme.
Try to remember that the 1980s didn’t happen in a vacuum, that everything occurs in a context. Just because people paid 400.00 for a machine that only played “Pong” in 1975, and it was a lot of fun THEN, doesn’t mean you can market that same machine today and say “Hey! It was fun in 1975, right? So it’s still going to be fun now!”
3e finally caught D&D up to the rest of the gaming world. 4e had some genuine innovations and actually advanced the state of the art in many ways. Both had strengths and weaknesses that are well documented. Build on their strengths and correct their weaknesses. Prior to 3e, though, D&D hobbled through the 1980s and 1990s with a design philosophy stuck in 1975. 5e needs to be a game for 2012, 2013, and beyond, not a nostalgia trip.
In Which We Explain Further
So. Here’s a longer explanation. Basically, I think what WOTC wants is for D&D to be a beer& pretzels pick up game. They envision this:
Bob: Hey, gang! We’ve got about three hours. Do we want to play Settlers of Cataan or D&D?
Bob: Great! Everyone, pick a race card, a class card, a theme card, and a background card, and fill in your character’s name. All done? Great! Here’s the adventure, “The Cryptic Crypt Of The Crypt King”. The box set comes with 10 adventures, and there’s lots more for sale for only 5.99! I’ll be the DM!
Gang: Whee! Let’s play!
And, I ought to be clear: This isn’t a bad concept for a game. Indeed, it’s a good concept. So good, it’s been done by lots of successful games: Heroquest, for example. Talisman. Heroscape, to some extent. Dungeon. Descent. Loads I probably haven’t heard of.
It’s probably a great idea to use iconic D&D characters, monsters, settings, and terms, too. There’s tremendous value tied up in the D&D IP. Games of this type have a large market and pursuing that market is something any smart company should do, if they think they have a niche and it won’t be seen as a “me too” product hastily rushed to market (cough Spellfire cough).
But it’s not D&D the RPG, and 5e is supposed to be the “unite the tribes” edition of D&D.
So, What’s Wrong With Themes, Etc?
Absolutely nothing. I love them in 4e; they should have been part of the core. I love Pathfinders “archetypes”, which serve a similar role, changing aspects of how the character acts, removing some abilities and granting others. Backgrounds, which help better shape a character’s origin, and give them greater ties to the world and/or minor skills from their upbringing which either enhance their primary role or give them useful tricks you might not expect, are also good. On the surface, making these things core in 5e is undeniably a good thing.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that WOTC seems to see think that the main problem with D&D is that it takes too long to make a character, that there’s too many choices, and that if you could just “start playing”, it would be great. What’s wrong with that?
First, you don’t have an awful lot of choices at first level, even in modern editions, unless a DM stupidly hands someone every supplement ever made and says “Pick a class”. For a first timer, the core classes and races ought to be enough.
Second, if one of the goals of “themes” is to collect useful choices that work together well into a bundle, this has been done since 3e; there’s always been “starting packages”.
Third, and this is really the issue here, D&D isn’t about making a character to start the game. It’s about advancing a character. It’s about playing his journey from “zero to hero”. It’s about taking him in unexpected directions as the game unfolds, both in terms of personality and game mechanics. Each level up is a chance to learn some new skills, choose new powers or spells, pick a feat, swap out old abilities, and so on, reflecting what’s happened to the character in the past couple of games.
Saying “Here’s your race, here’s your class, here’s your theme, boom, done!” works if you want a pickup game and just want to jump in. However, it’s contrary to the absolute heart of D&D, and that is the character’s ongoing story. D&D’s revolutionary idea, the concept that created the entire genre of role playing games, wasn’t “one figure equals one man”, or the integration of magic and monsters into tabletop wargaming, it was the idea of a continuing character who exists from one game to the next, growing in power and ability, trailing a story behind him. (And, importantly, not following a story laid out in front of him!)
Rules concepts like background (social skills, job skills, training, initial position in the world, cultural traits, minor bonuses and penalties from one’s upbringing and schooling and childhood and family), and themes (specializations, unique abilities, variant talents, unusual paths, esoteric powers) are great. They add tremendously to the class-based system, and help avoid the problem of drawing all character options from a single resource pool. However, and this is crucial, they must be bolt-ons to a core class system that is itself extremely flexible and capable of expressing a wide variety of character concepts and ideas within a single class. The game design, as a whole, needs to be centered around the campaign, around the ongoing adventures of the characters and their growth and progression — not on isolated adventures designed to be begun and finished in a single evening, with no continuity from one to the next, and no character growth.
But That’s Not What They’re Saying!
At this point, someone’s getting ready to point out that WOTC isn’t saying “No more campaigns” and that they’re talking about long term play, with themes offering pre-selected choices at each level, yadda yadda. Ah, but here’s the thing. The only time “too many choices” ever matter is at the moment of character creation, and then, only for very new players. If a player is intrigued enough to stay beyond a game or two, he’ll learn the rules, and want to make his own choices. The utility value of a theme, as a means of simplifying the game, diminishes rapidly with level. (This is not the same as the utility value of a theme as something which offers “out of the box” abilities or unique specializations or skills.) So, there’s a problem here. The “theme” player, if he just lets the theme run its course, is less involved in his character, and in the game, than the player who actively selects their abilities each level. He is disenfranchised, cut off from most of the game’s options, and each mechanic that allows him to ignore a theme pick and choose a non-theme pick undercuts the concept of the theme itself. Why bother with 20 level theme, if no one’s going to pay too much attention to it past fifth level? Of course, there’s nothing that says a theme has to make every choice; a theme could only come into play every four levels, or whatever, but, again, this goes against the idea of “simplifying” choices.
Of course, we’re at a very early design stage in 5e. It’s hard to say what the final form of “themes” or “backgrounds” will be. WOTC is doing 5e right, in the sense that we (the customers) are being shown the design in progress, along with the reasoning for it, instead of being told “Our professional funologists have determined that you’re not having fun. Our new game increases your fun by 78.6%. Play our new game. Have fun, Citizens. Serve the Computer. The Computer is your friend, unless you’re a commie mutant traitor.”, which was basically the 4e marketing pitch. The main test balloon WOTC is floating now, across several different columns/blogs, is “We’re thinking D&D ought to be a casual pickup game, not a long-term campaign game.” It’s time to start tossing some +5 flaming keen javelins at that balloon.
I disagree that “the absolute heart of D&D … is the character’s ongoing story.”
Perhaps it’s a generational thing (or an edition-ational thing), but to my mind the absolute heart of D&D (if it can be said to have one, or just one) is exploration and overcoming adversity. Through that exploration, the individual characters can grow, but story implies plot, and characters don’t have plot. It’s not my job as DM to provide an “ongoing story” for the players; it’s to provide a campaign setting where the characters can indulge in such story-making or not, as is their choice, while in the context of exploring the world I’ve created and overcoming the obstacles I have placed before them. I dangle a dozen plot threads in front of them, and if they choose to pull one, fine. If not, fine. They can always go into the nearby megadungeon and spend their evening trying to outwit the kobolds on level 1.
Can 5E accommodate both your philosophy of the game and mine at the same time? I have no idea, but I’m looking forward to seeing their attempt.
Hence my comment that characters “trail a story behind them”, and emphasized “NOT laid out in front of him”. The “story” is only known in retrospect; it’s the consequence of the characters’ interactions with the world, with the adversity they overcome, not the path they’re following forward. The DM creates a situation, not a story; the players interact with the situation, usually in unexpected ways, and the “story” can only be told after the fact.
So I think we’re in agreement, here.
See, this is a great post… (okay, you make fun of yourself for building it from forum replies but I’m happy you put it up).
It’s interesting to me though primarily because I think it highlights one of the significant problems with D&DNext while also addressing that problem.
The problem being — I couldn’t disagree with you more about what I want out of a Next D&D. (Okay, there were a few things I do also agree with you about but, eh, details).
You say, “the only time too many choices ever matter is at character creation and then only for new players.” I’d argue that point. Too many choices is a problem throughout character lifespan when you are playing a game with hundreds of powers, thousands of feats, and then heaping uniquely odd choices like skill powers, variant classes, archetypes, and other stuff up on top of that… many players — not just new players — feel overwhelmed by the amount of options and a great deal of time can be wasted sifting these options (or being told by the four other people at your table to stop wasting your time looking, there are only one or two feats that are the “best” anyway — at which point why have all those options?).
Beyond choice though, I have to say that I find your thought that Old School style D&D is somehow to be likened to a computer that plays PONG to be a little out of whack. I’d argue (and have written about this previously) that one of the greatest strengths of tabletop RPGs is that they don’t really become “dated” in the normal sense. You can play old school D&D right now, with new players, old players, anyone, and have just as much of a good time as you did in 1975. That game is a solid game that works very well and even though it is not my preferred way of playing, it really remains a great game. D&D doesn’t need to be “modernized” it needs to pick a specific direction and commit itself to that direction and own it, make it great, and be awesome in its own space, not try to be everything to everyone.
And that’s the point. Your post, and my reaction to it, continues to fuel my suspicion that WotC will not be able to make a D&D for Everybody. We want too many different, conflicting, things from the game.
Which is one of the two things I really agree with you about…
1. That D&D should take the good things about 3.5 and 4E and work to make them a better game — not wander all over the map trying to create the great gaming compromise and…
2. I completely agree that D&D should be designed with the Campaign in mind, not the short term play experience.
Otherwise, what we want out of the game is very different.
Well, there’s a couple of quick points I can make:
First, if the god damned telephone doesn’t stop ringing, I will invent a time machine and go strangle A.G. Bell in his crib. This has nothing to do with your post. I just get annoyed at telephones and they keep going off.
Second: You may be right, but, I have a hard time thinking anyone interested enough in the game to keep playing level after level will be happy with having their choices pre-selected for them. Generally, those who are like that are just as happy to have a fellow player who has memorized the rules just tell them what to pick, and while the degree of freedom is the same, that fellow player is going to be much more in tune with what the first person wants or needs than a remote game designer. It’s hard, from these early glimpses, to tell if “themes” will contain unique rules features not contained elsewhere (akin to Archetypes in Pathfinder, where you get powers/modifiers/whatever that you can’t get from a feat or multiclass or the like), of if they’ll just be pre-constructed collections of existing game mechanics, or, possibly, both. Games evolve a lot over time, and mechanics sometimes change in purpose. (Prestige Classes in 3e were supposed to be for world-specific unique constructs, tools for a DM to create special orders and organizations in his world; then they became a way to cover every possible specialization and function and blended class imaginable. Then Pathfinder, without ever saying “No more PrCs!”, invented the Archetype concept and, with other mechanics, dramatically increased the flexibility of single-class builds, undercutting broken multiclassing and bloated PrC lists.)
Third: As you say, if you want to play D&D 0E, there’s nothing stopping you — not even a dearth of new material, as there’s plenty of 3rd party support for AD&D 1e style games (OSRIC), and early Red Box/Blue Box games. I do, however, disagree that it’s a solid game — it is a game that is played 99% outside of the actual written rules (0E, more than 1e or BECMI style). I’ve ranted on this before and don’t like to repeat myself more than a hundred times. 🙂 It is worth noting, and I think this is important, that the great surge of fan material (in Strategic Review, in The Dragon, in A&E, in Arduin, in Judges Guild, in a million other places) were new rules, new rules, new rules. The idea that there was once this golden era when no one wanted rules until the Greedy Corporations FORCED rules on the world is simply false, and this is a matter of historic record, of what was in the pro, semi-pro, and “my sixty seven three ring binders full of notes” publications of the time, of 1975 and onwards, as soon as the game got past the immediate friends and family of Gary Gygax. I am not saying this as an academic looking back, but as someone who was there and playing at the time — started in 1978, four years after D&D was published, and the pattern of demanding more rules, and more detailed rules, and more complex subsystems, was already well established. A lot of them were unnecessary, tedious, broken, and focused on the random fetishes of whoever wrote them (“I majored in Medieval Pottery, so here’s my 45 pages of rules for making pots.” (Later expanded into a 256 page GURPS supplement.)), but that’s secondary to the fact that what people wanted was rules, and telling them “You don’t NEED rules” isn’t the issue. People WANTED them, not NEEDED them. Also, I do think rules become dated — not in the sense that they stop “working”, per se, but in the sense that as we learn more about games, about human psychology, about what works and what doesn’t, we find there are better ways to do some things, and that some things shouldn’t be done at all. (Stat modifiers for gender, for example, or balancing by rarity (Paladins are overpowered, but, you have to roll really well to be one.))
Fourth: I would like a “D&D For Everybody”, but the current design goals seems to be “A D&D For People Who Want A Rules-Lite Party Game” (See: https://www.wizards.com/DnD/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4ll/20120409#79739, I need to write my own reply to that one, too.) Players who want a deeper game will have to wait for the “rules modules” to be written, or write them themselves. By this logic, you don’t need to print a book of monsters, just a few paragraphs on monster design, and let players write their own. (Not that I am in any way opposed to player creativity — this site ought to be evidence I love making up my own stuff, from worlds to monsters to items to entire rules subsystems. However, this should be something players do for the joy of creativity itself, not because the designers want to be lazy and provide material in the first place.)
First — It’s alright… I hate the phone too. I sympathize.
Second — I’m confused by this point… it seems to me that your earlier point was that it sounded like Themes were a lot like old school classes. That is, your choices for each level are already made for you. But here you say that someone invested enough in the game to keep playing level after level will not be happy having their choices made for them… but a lot of people did play this way and still play this way and seem perfectly happy doing so. I mean, I love Warhammer Fantasy rpg 2E, and the choices are almost all laid out for you in that game as you advance with a minimum of choice points/choices and I’m totally happy with that (as are many of my players who don’t want to play an encyclopedic RPG like Pathfinder).
Third — you make a fair point that many people houserule old school D&D. You make a fair point that a lot of people wrote Dragon (and other) places with new rules. But it seems to me that this is not a one-sided point. I mean, really, it seems to me that Gygax argued often (and persuasively) that more rules/more specific rules did not equal better. Even ignoring that, there are plenty of modern games (the aforementioned WHFRPG, Barbarians of Lemuria, Adventurer Conqueror King System) that are intentionally rules light (to one degree or another) and modern that are popular and “good” games. If you want to compare modern games to D&D and talk about evolution of game design, I’d also want to mention the whole rules-light story games like say, Blood and Honor. A lot of the other games that have evolved through many editions — like say GURPS, for example — have changed much more subtly. I mean, I have a first edition GURPS Fantasy and the newest version of GURPS Banestorm, and even though there are changes, I can read the new book with my knowledge of old GURPS and it makes perfect sense… a far cry from the relation between 1st Ed D&D and 4E D&D…
Also, what makes a game more modern? More rules? More character creation choices? Narrative Control mechanics? The point is, I think your points are all valid but they are about playstyle — not an objective assessment of one game is better than another.
Fourth: based on reading that link you posted, I think you’re right about D&D Next and it doesn’t sound like a game I’m really interested in.
I’m not trying to be difficult… I think your post was really interesting and I enjoy thinking about this… I think ultimately that we’d probably agree more than disagree speaking in person and about D&D Next. I just don’t tend to agree that Modern means one thing or that a wealth of character build bits equal better.
Getting late, so I just want to clarify one thing, since it looks like I’m contradicting myself: In a single game which MIXES “Here’s your class, deal with it” and “Here’s 10,000 feats, skills, powers, options, and so on”, especially for the same class or core concept, the guy who starts with the pre-selected list is going to feel a little shafted, most likely as soon as he understands the game well enough to see the breadth of choices available to him. You can have a tight system with minimal choices for everyone, or you can have a broad system with a lot of choice points for everyone, but you can’t really mix them. Pre-3e D&D pretty much had your path set from the instant you picked your class, with the limited exception of which spells your MU added to his book and some other small areas. 3e D&D gave everyone feats and skill points, and as the game expanded, things like multiclassing, PrCs, “replacement levels”, and so on, gave all classes a plethora of options (some would argue, too many). 4e tried to unify not just how many options a class got, but made every class get more-or-less the same decision points at the same time, instead of “Fighters get lots of feats, rogues get lots of skill points, wizards get spells”. They then tried to fiddle with this a bit in Essentials, which sort-of worked, but the fact development on 5e started quite literally as soon as Essentials hit the shelves kind of says a lot, too. 5e wants to be a floor wax AND a desert topping, to somehow give the guy who doesn’t want to mess with a lot of options at the same table as the guy who runs a spreadsheet each level to optimize his character, and not make either feel they’re somehow getting a raw deal. If they can pull it off… well, fine, I’ll be impressed. But I think it’s going to end up going either of two ways: Either the “detailed rules” will be promised for a “later supplement”, and the players who want them (which includes most of the audience WOTC has lost to Paizo, which is considerable, and a big chunk of the current 4e audience as well) will keep drifting away while they wait for the new rules, OR, the game will be more complete at launch, supporting all playstyles… but then the “simple rules” folks will be asking, “Why did I buy a 400 page hardcover book full of rules, when I only use about 40 pages of them and don’t need or want the rest?”
I can think of one actually workable solution: Bring back the OGL, or a license a lot closer to the OGL than the 4e license is, and work with the big names in the industry to make sure that when 5e launches, there’s a smegload of “modules” produced by third parties that will cover the stuff NOT in the core rulebook. The rules-light people get a solid core of rules that they can build on if they wish. The rules-heavy people get that core, and then cherry-pick the “advanced” or “complex” rules from the third party offerings.
To dreeeam…. the impossssible dreeeaammm…..
Hopefully this post pops up, that was the most complicated CAPTCHA I’ve seen in a bit. Sorta like an adventure unto itself…is that a 1 or a z?
Anyhow in regards to Themes and Backgrounds, I assume they will find themselves in the core rules of D&D Next. They have to be, they’re not going to do a Starter Set after the core rules are released again, ala 4e. (Meaning the Themes and Backgrounds will be for those who want to jump into a game or don’t care to customize.) But for those who want to pick and choose their own, feats, powers, skills, (whatever options 5e allows), etc., there’s no reason to worry. As the developers of 5e said, I think it was Crawford but don’t quote me, you will still have the option to skip pre-set Themes and Backgrounds and choose your own options. The questions is will customization be in the core rules along with the pre-set Themes/Backgrounds or will WotC make you spend some more $ to get them, a module.
If I select a Theme/Background type of character am I going to be shafted? Not likely, I mean, someone is going to min/max a tricksy character but the options given a Theme/Background character are going to come right from the lists the customizing player chooses from. So even if someone creates a character with an edge it’s not going to swamp the game. (I hope)
I see Themes/Backgrounds being in a starter set, and (maybe) in the core rules but the core rules will have both the pre-set character options and the choose-your-own way option. I think advanced character options will appear in additional modules, something like a prestige class ( I know, obviously, duh).
So Themes/backgrounds will be like Basic D&D and the choose your own options will be like AD&D. You can keep your basic character in games with players who chose their own, advanced, options or graduate to the big boy rules and choose your own options. Heck, maybe you’ll be able to drop out of the pre-set character status and at the next level be able to choose your own options from then on out.
That would be pretty nice.
edit – got that damn CAPTCHA wrong!
Oddly, I’m having no problem with the capchas (yes, I have to do them, too, if I post from the site and not the dashboard… between that and akismet, I’ve managed to keep this blog mostly spam-free, and it’s worth it), and I often do, due to poor color vision (the same thing that makes many White Wolf games unreadable blurs of artsy-fartsy layout overkill to me).
Anyway, I think you may be echoing my poorly-made point: After a few levels, if there’s options, people will veer away from the themes (as described, which makes them different from 4e Backgrounds and closer to PF archetypes). This makes me wonder, in turn, how this is much different from the “suggested builds” associated we got in 3e and 4e, which pre-selected options and equipment for first level characters. (Mongoose, it might be noted, published a few books with 20-level builds for various archetypes, and, for that matter, this was also a feature of some of the WOTC Star Wars books, showing how to blend classes to meet a specific archetype.)
It is certainly possible that I am projecting my own preferences a bit; to me, one of the best parts about leveling up is having lots of choices to make. “You gained a level, gain 6 hit points, the power noted for that level, and +1 to attack” is boring to me; “You gained a level, pick a feat, choose a new power or retrain an old power, and spend 6 skill points, or possibly choose a level in another class” is much, much, more interesting.
I guess, to me, I’d like something like this:
Core Class/Classes: This is the bulk of the mechanics for your character, and consists of a wide variety of options (powers, feats, skills, talents, whatever you call them), with at least one meaningful choice to make per level.
Race: These are traits basically locked, the most primal and genetic features of your character, more inbuilt than cultural or learned. Sub-races (High Elves, Deep Halflings, whatever) would be found in supplements. Race might also unlock some feats/powers/options that represent focusing on/enhancing your native gifts. (i.e, all Elves get +2 Perception, and if you’re an Elf, you can take “Keen Ears” that gives you another +2, only for listening.)
Background: This is your culture/upbringing. Not all races have all backgrounds; some are race specific, some are limited to a few races. This can be things like Noble, Merchant, Orphan, etc.
Training: This is what you did before adventuring, or your “0 level” time, when you learned some of what you know at first level: Mercenary, Street Thief, Apprentice, Acolyte, and so on. These may not be directly related to your class; this is a good way to have a fighter who used to be a wizard’s apprentice and still knows one or two spells.
(Background and Training can blur; one way to deal with this is to do something like “You can pick 3 options from any combination of Background and Training the DM approves of.”, with each item (Background and Training) providing 2-4 options apiece to pick from. All 3 from one, or one from 3, or whatever.)
Class Focus: You may have a special focus or tweak to your class, that grants some abilities unique to that focus, at the cost of some of the ‘core’ class abilities. Specialist wizard, archer fighter, trapmaster rogue, etc.
Just found this blog and I have to say that I am sympathetic to just about everything I’ve read so thanks for that.
Re: this post and your wish list at the end of it: haven’t you just described 4e? I’m not trying to be snarky, and I’m an unabashed 4e fan, but really: if that’s what you want, it seems you already have that. (And that’s why I’m not interested at all in 5e).