I’ve been writing quite a few Wizards Watch articles lately discussing what I’ve been reading in the articles and blogs written by the designers of D&D Next. It’s been pointed out to me that most of my articles have come from a negative perspective, and that my tone is pessimistic rather than hopeful. Honestly looking back, my tone has been less that positive, but that’s because what I’ve been reading about the WotC designers’ priorities and design paradigms for D&D Next seems unlikely to produce a game that I’m looking to play.
So I thought that, to be fair, I should take the time to write down what I would want to see from the Next Edition of D&D. This is sort of my wishlist for the Next Edition, consisting of the design elements that I think should be important in the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons – in essence a discussion of positives, rather than negatives. And please note that I plan to give D&D Next a fair try-out, even if it does not have any of elements from my wishlist, and see if it is something that works for myself, and my gaming groups.
It almost goes without saying, of course, that the more stuff that D&D Next has in it that I want, the more likely that I’ll want to buy it and run it for the long haul…
My D&D Next Wishlist
Pushing The Current Deign To A New Level
I’d like to see D&D 4E’s combat engine tuned up, and turned into a more powerful driving force behind D&D Next. Much in the way that elements of AD&D’s combat system were innovated upon to make it work leaner and meaner in subsequent edition – like the way the old To Hit Tables moved to THAC0 and then further on to BAB – I’d like to see 4E’s combat system given on overhaul and made even better. Further, I’d like to see Character Classes get some tweaks to make them mesh nicely with an upgraded 4E engine as long as you…
Keep Balanced Classes Balanced & Heroic Characters Heroic!
One of my favorite design elements from 4E that I would like to see in D&D Next is the idea that characters feel Heroic right from the outset of the game, regardless of what class they play. Even at 1st Level, D&D 4E characters felt tough and vital, and could take a few hits before going down. The 4E characters dished out punishment using a range of interesting powers, and any type of class had the chance to grab some time in the spotlight during a battle. While identical class structure helped to balance the classes in 4E, Essentials proved that that structure was not necessary to maintain equality among the characters, and I hope that idea carries on into the Next Edition. But equally important is that the updated character classes…
Use “Old School” Stuff That Worked Great!
One of the problems I experienced that made D&D 4E hard to sell to players of older editions was that only a portion of the great material and game mechanics that existed in previous editions were re-used in this edition. While admittedly, not everything from previous editions can be used when you design a new engine to run D&D with, like 4E, but giving more of a nod to that older material would have definitely made the game more recognizable to the “old school” gamers. I’d like to see D&D Next take up those things we lost and put them back in D&D again, because they add a lot to the game and cost little in added complexity.
For example, 4E’s skill system was a step backward, in my opinion, from the amazing d20 SRD system that finally evolved after many years. Even I have to admit that simplifying the skills the way 4E did was sort of a “dumbed down” approach after the detailed elegance of d20. Then again, we got Skill Challenges out of the bargain, which was definitely an amazing innovation. But then again, a more advanced skill system could work just as well as a simplified one in almost any Skill Challenge.
Other simple elements like the more expansive armors and weapons lists could be brought back as well, giving players of older editions something they can relate to, because with a game system as old as D&D…
Recognition Is A Vital Key!
Mike Mearls and other D&D Next designers have noted that “getting back to basics” is a major focus, and I could not agree more. But for me, getting back to basics means recapturing those game elements of older edition, including their names and their natures, and making sure they are represented in the Next Edition.
If I were to move 4E into a new Edition, I’d go back and “data-mine” key character elements, and make sure they have a place in the new game system, particularly with powers, spells, and feats. In some respects, I think that’s where 4E got it wrong, and I theorize it’s what alienated many of the older D&D fans. Sure, Wizards have Fireballs in 4E, but they also have a number of powers/spells which have no basis in previous editions. And so many of the melee characters attack powers could have been drawn from the names of 3.5 class powers and feat lists, which would have had instant name recognition with old school gamers.
Even Vancian Magic – which I have never liked – could have had a place in 4E without losing too much class balance. For instance, Wizards and Cleric could have been offered a Vancian Option, and their Encounter Powers could have had an additional effect line, making them more powerful if they used them as a Daily instead.
But beyond the name and effect recognition of class powers and spells in the Next Edition, the designers still have to be careful about doing too much innovating on game elements, because…
You Don’t Always Have To Improve On A “Classic”!
As much as I am huge fan of D&D 4E, I felt that the early designers took a few liberties with classic monsters. There are several iconic D&D monsters which had their natures changed quite a bit under 4E, and they differed quite a bit from their incarnations in previous editions. The ghoul is a good example here, which has always been a fairly sneaky haunter of graveyards. For whatever reason, the 4E designers decided to make the ghoul into a Soldier, when it was really more of a Lurker. Its paralysis effects were changed to immobilize and stun to fit into the new system, but the whole flavor of the monster changed. And several low-level monsters were altered into higher level forms, such as the classic orc. From Original D&D onward, the Orc has been the staple foe of first level parties, and pretty much an even fight to neophyte adventurers – but not so in D&D 4E. If I were to see 4E advance into Next, I’d hope that monster like the ghoul, the orc, and other critters, would be considered in their “historical” context, and appear more like their classical formats. Sure innovating new powers for monsters is fun, but it can cause a disjunction between editions, and consequently, for gamers as well.
Magic items also suffered from a bit too much innovation in 4E, although the recent release of Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium was a great stride toward bringing more classic magic items back into the game. Personally, I think that is something that should have been in there from the very beginning, and I would hope that the Next Edition starts out on the right foot, and keeps the classic stuff classic wherever possible.
All too often, I think it’s possible for designers to get so focused on the combat engine, character classes, and monsters that they don’t…
Remember The Cool Little Details!
Not everything about D&D happens on a battlefield, in a dungeon crawl, or in the Underdark, and there are plenty of campaign details that should be included as rules, or as optional rules, when running a game. A lot of those little details never made it into 4E, and while many of those things seem trivial, or sometimes annoying, I think they help to immerse characters more into the world and get them thinking about what to do with their time when they aren’t hunting monsters.
For instance, the first few editions of D&D had rules about training your character for the next level. And training was one of those things heroes did between adventures, and it also produced a well-needed “money sink” in earlier editions. While some might argue that training and training costs are useless bookwork, I always found that training provided opportunities for role-play and the chances to drop an adventure hook into the campaign. Moreover, it allowed a “down-time” to occur where the rest of the game world could catch up to – or react to – what the heroes had been doing, opening more possibilities for adventure and storytelling.
And other downtime activities such as enchanting magic items, potion making, spell research, building keeps and temples, recruiting hirelings and followers, taming lands and becoming feudal lords, were all part of the older editions of D&D but have been rather absent from 4E. Sure, some of the stuff like Hirelings and building costs were put back in with Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium again, but there so many more cool little details that could come back in a big way in the Next Edition.
Much of the cool “downtime” stuff was left up to be designed by individual DMs under 4E. But it’s not easy being a DM, and while it’s important to make the players happy, it’s technically almost more important to keep the guy or gal who actually runs the campaign happy, and give them…
Lots Of Help Running the Game!
A buddy of mine just recently got into DMing D&D 4E and was shocked at how little resources there were for creating encounters. Sure he had access to DDI, which includes Monster Builder and the Compendium, but was flummoxed that there were no way to slap templates onto monsters, design traps and hazards, and generally bring all those parts together into an Encounter Builder of some kind.
My response was a shrug. After all, I’ve been DMing for over three decades, and honestly, it was way harder to build encounters and adventures in the older versions than in was in D&D 4E!
But I did have to agree with my friend in that if WotC wants to propagate D&D Next to the largest possible audience, they need to consider how to empower DMs with way more than just a database of monsters and some ideas in sourcebooks and campaign setting. WotC needs to make sure that their DMs are on board and stoked about playing D&D Next – because without a Dungeon Master, the players are just sitting around a table with bags of Cheetos and cans of Coke, bored out of their skulls.
There needs to be more online tools available for DMs to make the campaign work, and a DDI account should offer a lot more than just a Character Builder and a Compendium. An Encounter Builder and Adventure Planner should be key elements available at launch of D&D Next, right alongside an app for making characters.
Further, the online tools need to be far less restrictive than they have been to date, and allow players and DMs the option to use more homerule and Third Party Publisher options in their games. OGL was a great success when it came to new D&D material into gamers’ hands and into their games. But on the other hand, GSL was so restrictive that Third Party Publishers were left with very little they could do to offer more D&D material to the 4E system. Character classes, races, powers, feats, themes, backgrounds, and magic items were nearly impossible to add to Character Builder, which meant that material could not be developed by anyone except for WotC. I would hope that any online tools D&D Next has would be more welcoming to Third Party content, and be able to have houseruled material added easily to a character sheet or a DM adventure.
Previous editions were far more open to adding outside content to D&D, and I would hope that the new license will speak to that in D&D Next. And it’s also important for that license to allow for 3PP programmers to make apps and programs to assist DMs and players. Just because D&D started as a pen-and-paper game does not mean it must be that way forever!
D&D Great Expectations
So that’s my wishlist for D&D Next, and what I hope we will see in a new edition of the game. Of course, other gamers may have quite different wishlists for Next than I do, and I hope this blog sparks some lively discussion on the positive things we would like to see in the Next iteration of the game.
But if nothing from this list ends up in D&D Next, I’m willing to give it a try. Like any previous edition of a game as complex as Dungeons & Dragons, the Next Edition will doubtless have strengths and weaknesses, and if it is not to my liking, I can always fall back on 4E to enjoy…
…but here’s hoping I won’t have to!
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!
Image : AD&D DM’s Screen by David Trampier, 1980