Wizards Watch: DnD Next

Wizards Watch LogoWell, the blogosphere is awash with comments about DnD Next, and some real information is starting to come out from Wizards: from the seminars held at D&D XP; the Community Site; and from some of the recent Rule-of-Three and Legends and Lore columns on the website.

So let’s have a look at some of the stuff we’ve heard. Realistically I think it’s way too early to depend on any of this information, as there is little point shaping up for a major play-testing initiative if you’ve made all the decisions already, but the snippets do give a pointer as to the way the design team are thinking. Anyway, we all like to speculate, don’t we … 🙂

The Design Team

So it’s been announced that the main initial design team consists of Monte Cook, Bruce Cordell and Rob Schwalb. Certainly a strong team, and I am glad that Rob is part of it. He’s built a reputation as one of the strongest (and most prolific) 4E designers, and I think it’s important to have that experience on board. Monte has iconic status in the game, and for good reason, but I don’t think he has had much 4E involvement, and obviously was the driving force behind 3rd Edition. If you’re going to take on the difficult task of ‘uniting the versions’, a good balance in the design team is important!

Powers are good

There was an interesting paragraph in the recent Rule-of-Three column that I was very pleased to see: “Powers do a lot of things right. By and large, their function is to serve as a discrete, packaged action that doesn’t overlap with other actions. An action doesn’t need to worry about stacking with other actions (unless they have some kind of ongoing effect), so when using or designing a power you know that you have everything you need to resolve that action. In the end, powers are just a method of formatting discrete actions. I would argue that powers have always been in D&D, they were just called spells and limited to magical effects. Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords took that and applied it to non-spell elements, and then 4E spread it across all classes.”

There was a lot more about simplifying some aspects (e.g. keywords), but that is largely details. To me, the powers concept is one of the strongest components of 4E, even though so many have ridiculed it as an MMO concept. But if the designers are serious about providing the ability for multiple styles of play, IMO the Powers concept is a great way to achieve it. For example, if you want to play an AD&D fighter, you effectively only have 1 power – Melee Basic Attack (modified of course by Level, Strength and Weapon stats); if you want to play a 4E fighter, you have a different range of options. To my mind, the class progression structure, and the choices you can make at levelling-up time, are largely irrelevant to the game – your character is defined by the set of powers he/she has at any one time and how they operate mechanically (this is why I can never understand the Essentials/Non-Essentials debate…). As the long as the rules define reasonably the frequency at which powers can be used (e.g. 1 standard action per turn), really the only difference between a 1E and 4E fighter is how many ‘things to do’ you have to choose from each turn!

Vancian Magic

Monte Cook made it pretty clear that he regarded Vancian Magic as a core and iconic part of D&D. I’m cool with that. However, I also want my D&D rules to be able to cope with all the other archetypes of magic and sorcery in fantasy – sorcerers, warlocks, witches, you name it. It certainly sounds from the D&D XP Seminar transcripts that the designers are thinking along similar lines. Again, using powers in the right way seems the right way to achieve this: e.g. a Vancian wizard has powers which relate to the spells he has in his spell book – but he has to choose at the start of each day which he has memorised, and obviously has constraints on how many of each level he can choose. Effectively, each spell is a daily power – once he’s used it thats it until the next extended rest and the chance to re-memorise. A sorcereress however, knows her spells innately, and can cast them as long as she has the willpower and strength left to do so i.e. her powers at more At-Will or Encounter types, depending on their potency. Obviously there’s a balance issue to be addressed here if you want to mix both types of spell caster in the same campaign, but I think the concept is very workable!

Skills

The designers’ view seems to be that there is no ‘iconic’ skill system in D&D, as each edition pretty much re-invented the concepts. Therefore, they seem comfortable that they can take a ‘best-of-breed’ approach and come up with an entirely new system. So far the main theme looks like skills being more closely tied to ability scores. I’m pretty relaxed about this – I don’t have too many strong views mechanically on this aspect of the game, although I do think a solid skill system is important. I remember writing my own adventures back in AD&D, and coming up with all sorts of percentage tables for potential outcomes of non-combat ‘scenes’. Good fun, but pretty time consuming, and I’ve enjoyed the simplicity and flexibility of 4E skill checks.

Looks like Skill Challenges may be on the way out as well, based on the comments of Rob Schwalb. Similarly to Rob, I like the concept of skill challenges, but have often felt they interrupt the story, and impose forced outcomes. Most of my skill challenges become skills-based roleplaying scenes – where the skill checks are used as the mechanical structure for deciding various outcomes, and driving the direction of the scene, rather than a formal ‘4 success before 3 failures’ meta-gaming type encounter.

Am I feeling good …?

I think so far I’m feeling cautiously optimistic – the designers don’t seem to be taking a ‘4E was a failure, so lets ditch its concepts’ approach, which was one of my key concerns. Rather the vibe is one of ‘lets explore all the good bits across all the editions and look for the synergies.’

I still think its a pretty tall order, but its hard to argue with the approach – and hey, that’s why they’re professional game designers and I’m not! 🙂

Looking forward to the play-testing when it gets underway!

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