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Wizards Watch: Save or Die Spells, Clerics-in-a-Tincan & One-Hour D&D… Really?

For me, reading the official articles and blogs from WotC about D&D Next is like being Dazed (Save Ends) and never rolling a save.  Every time I read a design blog or the Legends & Lore Archive, I end up sitting there in front of my laptop slack-jawed and eyes agog, trying to puzzle out just what the D&D Next developers think they are trying to create.  And more importantly, which D&D audience they are trying to please with this new iteration.
worst thing to dnd
The last three articles that really have me shaking my head in a dazéd sort of way were Mike Mearls’ Save or Die II: Die and Die Again!, Bruce Cordell’s Iconic D&D Clerics, and today’s Legend & Lore article The One-Hour D&D GameWhile some of the concepts put forth in the articles are sometimes baffling in how the development team is trying to define what is and is not “Classic D&D”, more often I’m finding the comments section filled with the most extreme points of view on what D&D should and should not be.

More and more after reading the comments section of these articles, I am reminded of the Penny Arcade comic from January entitled The Way Forward which featured a WotC rep talking to a group of D&D fans.  I remembering chucking at the webcomic a few months ago, but as we get deeper and deeper into to development of D&D Next, the ideas purveyed by Jerry and Mike are not quite so funny anymore.  Every gaming group seems to have a completely different and unique perspective on what is the quintessential  Dungeons & Dragons experience, and every gaming group is assured that their way of playing D&D is the “right” way.

Really…what’s so fun about Save or Die?

I have to applaud Mike Mearls for this blog, even if there were tons of comments to the article which baffled me.  I definitely agree with his assessment that no one effect should kill a character outright, and using the 4E model of multiple saving throws and using the “hit point threshold” provides not only a better gaming experience, but is actually better storytelling as well.

However, there were plenty of comments to the contrary, claiming that SoD (Save or Die) is the only way to go in order to make encounters and individual monsters threatening.  I can only assume that this style of play which would crave SoD powers and spells are the same group of gamers that want every encounter to be life or death, and who enjoy a good TPK once in a while.

As I mentioned in my own comment on Mike’s blog, all SoD does is make it such that low level players are forced to lose characters frequently, and have to bring in new ones, or forces high level players to yank out raise dead and resurrection spells after every other combat.  For low level play, it makes players less attached to their characters, especially after the third or fourth one has to be brough in because they didn’t roll a high enough save – which in most editions of D&D, the saves of SoD was set at anywhere from 13-16, representing only a 25% to 35% success rate!  For high level play, raise dead, resurrection, and wish spells all become cheap and meaningless under SoD, and all it accomplishes is making a hero take a time out for a combat until the party has time to bring them back once the fighting is done.

Frankly, I see that sort of save or die business being more desirable in Toon or Paranoia.  It certainly doesn’t promote campaign continuity or the sort of epic death one would want to see happen in a fantasy role-playing game with a long term story arc.

The Heavily-Armored Divine Whipping Boy

Clerics have never seemed to have gotten the “lovin” they deserved under older D&D rules, and as much as I’ve enjoyed playing Clerics in the past, I really felt they finally got it together in 4E.  Clerics are healing powerhouses now, and what’s more, they can deal decent damage while still throwing around temporary hit points… and buffs… and heals!

Sadly, the Vancian Magic system which Monte wants to force into D&D Next will take us back to a cleric that must choose to be either a heal-bot or a sub-par fighter with a little healing option here or there.   The difference between a paladin and a cleric in older editions came down to only a few minor differences, and from a play feel, there was little difference between them.  Certainly, the 3.5 Domains and Domain powers, as well as additional weapon choices from deity selection really helped to make the cleric play style more unique, but the limited spell slots per day still limited the actions of the class to either healing or fighting.

I like that Bruce brought up the Priest class in his blog, which came from the Second Edition Skills and Powers books.  While still limited to the Vancian Magic spell slots, it would be interesting to see how that class might be developed in the new edition as a different option to the mace-and-platemail heal-a-bot that the old cleric used to be.

Frankly, I cannot for the life of me recall a single example of the “iconic cleric” from fantasy literature – and I’m not talking about any novel that references a D&D setting, thank you.  Healers in almost every fantasy novel I’ve ever picked up have reminded me more of a wizard than a cleric, and quite often, the healers in those novels ARE wizards or sorcerers.  That sort of healing comes from years of training, or alchemy, or herbology, or magic – or a combination of any or all of these.

So while the Iconic Cleric is a part of “Classic D&D”, maybe it’s time to be retired in favor of a new type of healer that is more like a subclass of Wizard than a pseudo-fighter with cure spells?  I know it’s radical, but there are probably more fantasy fiction fans and RP gamers out there that can identify with Elrond, Polgara, and Master Herbal than a healer-in-a-tincan.

First Speed-Dating… now Speed D&D?

Hey, I know that all our lives are busy, and we want mobile devices to get us news, movies, and social media at the touch of a button.  But exactly when did we, as a D&D gaming community, decide we wanted to play D&D in only an hour?!  Today’s Legend & Lore article strikes me as both baffling, and shows a complete detachment for what D&D gamers really want from their game.

Oh sure, I know there has been some concern about the length of combats in D&D 4E, and there are length of blogs out there with great advice about how to make them shorter using minions and other tricks.  And frankly, it’s not just a problem with 4E, because I recall plenty of encounters under OGL/3.5 could last an entire night.  But I don’t think that I, or any of my gaming buddies, have ever said, “Hey, we got an hour, let’s roll up characters and run a complete D&D adventure!”

D&D is not a board game, it’s a role-playing game.  It has never been about how much you get done in a session, but rather it’s about the characters, the story, the mystery, and the danger of being an adventurer.  It’s about how the heroes solve their problems, work their way to the end of a mystery, and triumph in the end – whether it is by cunning and wits or by swords and sorcery.

While simplified character creation and rules are well and good, they should not be a priority just to get things done fast.  When I go visit my friends for my campaigns on a weekly basis, I’m looking to spend an evening entertaining them with my adventure, spinning a tale of combat and intrigue that will transport them away for a time from the mundane world to a world where they are powerful wizards and heroic warriors and cunning rogues.  If we only have an hour to play, we pull out a beer & pretzel game, but we sure don’t want to play D&D.  Trying to pack an adventure in an hour would cheapen the experience, not enhance it.

As to what you can get done in a heroic campaign, and in a short time, well D&D 4E works just fine for me.  In my last session this weekend, I ran two encounters, role-played, and ran a skill challenge, all in three-and-a-half hours.  And that included the time my gamers and I all sat down to dinner together, caught up on current events, and took a break for dessert.  Sounds like a full evening to me, and it got them two-thirds of the way through a sidetrek adventure they stumbled upon as they were fleeing from the country as enemies of the state!

I daresay that the only folks that want to play an adventure in an hour are the promoters of D&D Encounters.  But let’s try and remember what Encounters is supposed to be – a way to get gamers into the brick-and-mortar stores, and to get them educated and interested in D&D 4E.  Adding an expectation of one-hour D&D adventuring into D&D Next, and making that concept part of the design paradigm goes wildly against what “classic” D&D has always been: a role-playing game where it takes as long as it takes to get through an adventure and a campaign!


So again, why are we, the gaming community and a group of Wizards of the Coast designers, going through this exercise of trying to create the “perfect” D&D gaming system, when the no two groups of gamers can ever reach consensus on what D&D is all about?  Isn’t this project more likely to create a game system that no one will like, either lacking in or presenting  features, which one gaming group or another will consider to be “Not D&D” to them?!

Even in my own 4E D&D game, I have a couple players that love my game, show up at every session, but still claim that D&D 4E isn’t “really” Dungeons & Dragons.  While they don’t really care much for the 4E system, they still show up for the camaraderie of gaming with good friends, and to enjoy the role-playing in my campaign – which I take as compliment to my DMing skills.  They don’t consider what we are doing “real” D&D, however, and to them my game is more like a time in years past when I ran a fantasy role-playing game using the HeroSystem.   Sure, the setting was pure D&D (i.e. Greyhawk), but the system wasn’t the real deal, even if it was a fun diversion for a while.

Personally, I can’t see anything but trouble ahead for D&D Next.  I cannot imagine who this new version of D&D will be marketed to, and I’d love to see what data WotC used to decide that there was a market out there for a Frankenstein’s Monster of a game system, slapped together from the odd body parts of every previous edition of Dungeons & Dragons.  I’m sure that there is someone who might see past this mess to love the monster despite its appearance, but really isn’t it more likely that there will be a mob of D&D gamers, armed with metaphorical pitchforks and torches, once again pounding on the castle walls of WotC for creating another abomination that’s “Not D&D”?

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


17 Responses to “Wizards Watch: Save or Die Spells, Clerics-in-a-Tincan & One-Hour D&D… Really?”

  1. Bob says:

    You think #dndnext is the worst thing so far? Did you miss 3e and 4e?

    Sorry but stepping away from 4e is a good thing for the D&D game because to almost anyone I spoke to it’s not even D&D. It’s a decent “new” game but it’s not D&D.

    My hope is they do step back to the previous versions and I hope past 3e because it’s only slightly better than 4e and I never liked it either.

  2. Hunterian7 says:

    Im also not sure what the hell Mike, Monte and WotC are up to. If they are aiming to unite all D&D fans under one banner- this is not the route to go! My gut instinct is that they need to hit a high sale rate or they will end up in serious trouble with Hasbro. I’d like to see them either do one of two things- have D&D Next be a continuation of 4th edition or to scrap 4th and advance the 3.5 ruleset into a direction away from 4th.

    I’m just really annoyed with D&D Next. Resources from 4th are being siphoned to the development of a new edition 3 years after the release of 4th! (Mike Mearls said they started looking into a new edition in late 2011). BS is what I say! I wish Meals was gone from WotC- he’s destroying D&D!

  3. Doc Ryder says:

    Damn you for beating me to the punch! :-)

    What you’ve said here echos my thoughts on this entire process. I predicted a new edition of D&D when Mearls started up the Legends and Lore column, and I was saddened to be right this January. If that “leak” that’s wandering around out there is in anyway real (and I’ve heard it called a fake, but only WotC is saying that for certain, and at this point, I doubt they’d be honest), then this system is going to fail, hideously. And if it’s fake, somebody went to a lot of trouble to make so much of it match what WotC has announced at the D&DXP seminars.

    But it seems Mearls is going to create what he wants, and once this mess is published, it will fail, and Hasbro will shelve D&D for 5 years. I’d rather that doesn’t happen, but I think the writing is on the wall.

    Like Hunterian7, I think that if 4e wasn’t working for them, they should have gone back to 3.5 (even though I came to hate it in the end), and tacked on Cook’s “Book of Experimental Might.” They’d have a better product if they had. But Mearls wants to create a retro clone that doesn’t give the retro fans what they want (or need), or the Pathfinder fans anything they’ll be interested in (or need), and he’ll have lost the 4e fans, too. He’ll reunite the community in their hatred of him.

    I guess we can sit back and watch the train wreck…

  4. Aoi says:

    I agree with some of your points, but I disagree with your characterization of today’s L&L article. They aren’t saying that the core D&D experience will be one-hour adventures. What they did say was that D&D needs to run such that a complete adventure (or, more realistically, a complete story – with beginning, middle, and end and a mix of encounter types along the way) can, if so desired, be completed in an hour. Think of it more like a TV episode. I, for one, strongly dislike the feel of Encounters (I, like you I’m guessing, favor of longer, more intricate story arcs) but could easily imagine a situation (such as introducing new players to the game) where the goal is to arrive at a complete story rather than a super intricate and involved one. I want that tool in my toolbox as well as those that allow me to build super long adventures with lots of plot threads, a number of encounters, etc.

    The meat of today’s L&L article from a design standpoint, in my reading, was that the focus will go from encounters (little “e”) as the core unit of design to adventures as the core unit of design. I.e., you’d have an XP budget for a complete adventure, and could distribute it among as many fights (or, of course, other sorts of challenges) as you see fit. There’s of course a number of potential pitfalls – i.e., loading all that xp into a single very VERY difficult combat) and that’s where good adventure editing and good DM judgment would be required. But, as a DM who prefers storytelling, I think there’s some good potential there for giving me the flexibility to build the story that my players and I want to build.

    So, maybe there’s the possibility that optimists like myself are not completely off base. But of course, because I have not seen the actual rules, I could be totally wrong and they could be complete insane and, worse, un-fun. But, after seeing the past work of the people who are designing this game and how generally good to awesome it is, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt until they give me a concrete reason not to.

  5. Matt says:

    Honestly, compared to a lot of things, I didn’t have too many problems with what the articles were suggesting.

    Save or Die? Yeah, they’re gone for good, and players won’t ever be happy to let them back in. It’s simple enough for a DM to remove the “safety” from these sorts of magic, to make it more like it was in the TSR days… but it has to happen at a table where a monster or a spell that “can kill you with a stare” is considered fun. These tables do exist, but perhaps with less frequency than they should.

    Kill the Cleric? They’re entertaining the idea. I was a long-time fan of the idea that there should only be 2 classes: mages and fighters. I don’t think they will be able to remove options from players… and whichever way they end up going, a supplement will come along to soon include the other. The days of endless 300-page supplements are not over.

    One Hour D&D? Here I disagree with you wholeheartedly. Only playing for D&D for a short time, or at a fast pace simply for time sake, isn’t always desired… but as a long time 3e DM I found that the intense amount of preparation and tactical play was simply boring. Guiding new players through character creation in 3e or Pathfinder takes hours. If a character dies, a new one often can’t be quickly inserted. Complexity is good if you want it, but quicker creation and quicker resolution means DMs can prepare more, characters can get in the game quickly, and more of the game’s world can be explored… and I can’t twist these notions into a drawback.

  6. Par says:

    Regarding the one hour adventure business, here is what I have: Pre-3e (A)D&D + about fifteen combatants + low-level = a ten-minute combat. In my 4e experience, a fight like that would take at least an hour, probably two. That’s who the game’s “quick mode” will be marketed towards: gamers who want to get through a good number of fights in a short session…

  7. Aaron says:

    Well yeah remember all of those things 4th got wrong? I don’t know about you guys, but I sure loved having to have (be) a heal-bot or a character with a scroll/wand case full of a dinky healing item to tap the big fighter character to their feet. And I still don’t see why they even tried to get rid of my vancian magic system, I mean it was fair because I was stronger than everyone for like, an encounter! We didn’t have to take a rest after every encounter if our GM had written a better adventure. And oh man, remember templates! I love being a half vampire, dragon drow! Most original character ever!

    The Vancian system, Save or Die effects, the Five-Minute workday, crazy multiclassing a required healer, the game breaking past level 12 and templates being used by players were probably my biggest beefs with 3.5finder. After running 4th since launch, my problems with the system are mostly the skill list, rituals, required items (fixed by alternative advancement) and feat bloat. I am not saying Next can’t be a fun game, but it is beginning to resemble 3.5finder too much and I am loosing interest.

    Anyway, my two cents.

  8. Dave Wainio says:

    As to the question of who D&D Next is targeted at,my guess would be all the Pathfinder players. What little information regarding sales that reaches the general public indicates that Pathfinder folks are buying more stuff than 4E D&D folks. Hasbro wants those sales and seems to have decided that the problem is not writing 4E books that gamers want and need but to redesign D&D to capture the Pathfinder people (while making them want to buy all new books I presume). Oh, and keep the faithful that stayed with D&D past 3.5 if possible as an afterthought.

    All those little multiple choice questionaires are what worries me. If they are to be used as the marketing research to build around then what happens if the winning choice of item A does not mechanically work with the winning choice of item B ?

    Oddly enough, 4E could be scaled back and reskinned to look like something a 3.5 OGLer/Pathfinder player would likely ‘recognize’ as “real D&D.”. Just stick a chart for fighters, rogues and such that grants them new abilities every odd level or so and have some of the 4E powers be those abilities. Arcane and divine powers can be written as spells and a chart fo how many by level you can use whipped out. Bang, the unified theory D&D. Hey, does that mean Hasbro will pay me for designing their game for them,… :) Oh – and if you want quick combat then have fewer hit points for everything. Like the old Arduin or Realms of Wor rule sets where constitution plus size (or something like that) was the only hit points you’d ever have. Around 18 to 26 regardless of if you were a newbe with your first sword or a veteran of 100 dungeons. Ogres had many 30is.Dragons almost never more than 100. With damage averages close to 10 per hit combat rarely lasted more than six or seven rounds.

    What we are witnessing is the classic case of designing to fit what one guesses the public wants rather than making a good product and then convincing the public to try it. Works for headphones and tea kettles I suppose, not so sure about pen and paper role play games.

  9. Dave Wainio says:

    Oh yeah, almost forgot. The ‘iconic cleric’ in armor with a mace bit. If I recall an interview I read with Gary Gygax way back in the day he said that the medevil church of the crusades and stories like the Song of Roland were the main inspiration for D&D clerics. Mr. Gygax had a catholic upbringing. Quite a number of biblical references can be found in the D&D and AD&D work that he was involed with.

  10. @Bob – Well until you’ve tried 4E, I don’t think it’s fair for you to judge it so harshly… try it at least once before you agree with the random nay-sayers. As to your dislike of 3.x/OGL, I understand that everyone “likes what they like”, but the financial success of 3.0, 3.5, Pathfinder, and other games that use d20 as their engine, tends to suggest there are plenty of role-players out there that would disagree with your assessment… myself included.

    @Hunterian7 – I don’t know as I’d say that Mearls is out to destroy D&D, but I do question what market research they scrapped up to allow them to disavow 4E so early, and to try and recreate old edition D&D as the Next best thing in gaming. A buddy of mine suggested that perhaps we’re seeing the market research happening right now, and that the “playtesters” are actually “focus groups” to determine what they should be designing. Based upon the questionaires attached to every blog they post, it might not be such a far stretch there.

    @Doc Ryder – Yes, I don’t feel that 4E was given a fair shake, and all indications are that it’s being mothballed way before it’s time. I’m with you in predicting that there will be 4E fans galore angry over what’s due to come out, if the blogs are any indication, and I’ll be right at the forefront, leading the angry mob!

    @Aoi & @Par – Hate to disagree, but encounter design, adventure design, and the speed of advancement is one of the myriad things that 4E got right! Knowing your XP budget, and that you will have 8-10 encounters per level makes it SO much easier to plan an entire adventure of a given level, whether you want to have 2, 3, 4, or all 8-10 encounters in any given adventure. Any expectation of a single adventure taking an hour is ludicrous, because heroes tend to do what they want, unless you plan to make adventures linear affairs and lead your players by the nose. And like I said in my blog, roleplaying is about the big picture and the continuing storyline, not about what you can cram into a single play session.

    @Aaron – I know… I just can’t wait to roll up my Next fighter that gets to swing once per round for the first 5 levels while the wizard blows stuff up with his spells. Man, I really miss those rounds of waiting to make my single attack roll with my weapon, cause that’s all I do is hit things, and then miss, so I can go off and watch TV on the couch until something actually HAPPENS! Who needs complexity for a fighter like 4E thinks is cool when I can just spend my time between attack rolls watching Lost Girl on SyFy… woot!

  11. froth says:

    Dnd next is out now, its called labyrinth lord

  12. [...] I think is what Michael over at Neuroglyph completely missed when he posted his article about a few D&D Next Legends and Lore topics(You’ll have to scroll down to find the section on the One Hour D&D article). With all due [...]

  13. Aaron says:

    Anyone see the leak on SA? Here let me link:

    If this is legit, than it is worth a read for a laugh. But again take it with a grain of salt.

  14. Alphastream says:

    Neuroglyph, I read a lot of frustration in your words. There is a lot here that could probably be said a different way and actually end up ahead for being more constructive. Much of what you write is really fantastic, but the valleys are so dark and low! More peaks, more peaks!

    Do I hear things about D&D Next that worry me? Of course. I can’t imagine there are too many people that don’t get that feeling. That’s a playtest for you, however. The first versions of adventures organized play sends out for playtest are often severely flawed. If people judged the work I do by the playtests, I would never be allowed to produce any D&D work. Nor would many of our top bloggers, authors, designers, and developers. There is a reason expertise is useful in this industry – it is hard work and takes iterations to get right. We as customers do the game a disservice if we let our frustration blind us to the potential.

    When we react to things we don’t like with anger and frustration, that’s what we further: we get more anger and frustration. While storming Wizards with pitchforks sounds cool (and would produce fabulous loot) it isn’t going to make for a good D&D Next. The conversation needs to be constructive.

    I have tons of great games. I have 4E. I have 7 or so editions of D&D and many more of other games. And yet, I’m willing to bet I’ll love D&D Next. And the one after that too. The best way to make all these games great is to share what we love, to bring energy to the process, and to be passionate while being constructive and respectful.

    I wrote about my own approach to this issue here.

  15. Dave Wainio says:

    Yikes, if that link to the SA leaked 5E info is real and not a fake, I am somewhat terrified about what 5E will end up being like. Not terribly surprised, but like facing a beholder and an ancient red dragon armed with a +1 dagger worries…..

  16. Anaxetogrind says:

    I agree with this sentiment personally.
    Anything I can do in an hour is enhanced with 4 and for the base of a modular system has to be quick to allow added complexity

  17. @Axetogrind – Oh I agree the system should be quick, but complexity will slow it down every time. What I’m not willing to sacrifice is complexity, however, and I discussed my concerns about making the base game too overly simplified in my blog on the D&D Community site – WHY I HATE THE GOAL OF “ONE-HOUR D&D”

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