Dungeons & Dragons Next: Classes, Magic, Items, and Dragons

25 Oct 2012

While the Legends & Lore articles over at the official Dungeons & Dragons website don't pertain to CRPGs, the content contained within certainly might in the not-too-distant future. As such, I thought I'd point you to some very informative articles covering class design, magic systems, magic items, and dragons and the changes to expect from each in what will likely be the tabletop system's 5th Edition. Some generous quoting below:
For some classes, we can make a list and implement what's on it. For other classes, we need to figure out if everything on the list is important, or if other parts of the system can handle it. For instance, a ranger might lack any specific mechanics for archery or two-weapon fighting. Instead, a player can choose to take the appropriate specialty or venture into a different one. The feat system and the ranger's standard attack improvement shoulder the load here.

In some cases, this step affords us the chance to try something new. Take the bard as an example. Music and performance are always highlighted as keys to the class, but the bardic music ability lags behind spells. We could look at combining the two, treating the bard's special music abilities as the class's key expression of magic. Mechanically, the warlock's invocation mechanics might be a better match than spell slots, with a bard infusing magic into songs when appropriate to control emotions, inspire heroics, and so forth.

For something such as animal companions, we might take a step back and look at how they fit into the game as a whole. Giving a class a companion is tricky. Some players like the class but don't want the complexity. Balancing it against other characters is difficult. If the companion is too weak, why bother? If it's too strong, have we given one player two characters' worth of power?

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While we were working on the classes, the concept of using different styles of casting in one class remained in the background. You might have noticed that the wizard hasn’t changed too much between the different packets, since the arcane traditions we wanted to add to the class have taken some time to coalesce. Then, at one point, we decided to try using the traditions to embrace different casting mechanics. I actually went as far as to write up a tradition that used spell points and another that used the 3E sorcerer’s mechanic. That approach proved to be a dead end, since once again we were left with a class that had sprawling mechanics that could prove problematic in play.

It seemed like we had an intractable problem on our hands. How could we possibly present multiple spellcasting options for one class without turning the class into a Frankenstein’s monster? The answer actually proved fairly simple, but it required a change of perspective.

Rather than put multiple casting mechanics into a class for a player to choose, we could simply move those mechanics to the DM’s side of things. After all, a magic system is big. It defines part of a fantasy world, and building the world is mostly (in many groups, entirely) the DM’s job. Why not let the DM pick and choose, and then make those options available to the players? A player who wants to use a specific system could just ask the DM, in much the same way a player might ask to play a lizardfolk wizard or a warforged character in the Greyhawk setting.

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The D&D Next magic item rules introduce the concept of attunement to the game. Attunement represents a magic item entangling its power with its wielder's essence, bonding to the wielder and allowing him or her to unlock the item's true potential. Until you attune to an item, you might get the sense that it has a secret lurking within it. It might flash with arcane power, or perhaps you hear a vague whispering in your mind each time you handle it.

Of course, attunement carries some risk. Perhaps the item is cursed to grant a terrible bloodlust to whoever wields it, which is a legacy of the berserk warrior who died wielding it. Maybe the item was crafted for an order of paladins, and straying from the path of justice causes it to compel you to undertake a quest of atonement. Perhaps the item has a slumbering purpose. It might allow you to call down gouts of flame to blast your enemies, but when you next battle a white dragon, the item roars to life with new powers and an insatiable desire to destroy the wyrm. Not every item that requires attunement has such wrinkles and hazards, but the chance that it might makes using any item a risk.

If an item is well designed, it brings with it a sense of history and purpose combined with a unique identity.

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Since you've read my pet peeves, it should come as no surprise that I'm all about making dragons look cool and badass. Toss a dragon into a movie, and you've suddenly got me on the edge of my seat. I'll check it out. I'll weigh it. Judge it. Critique it. In other words, I'll do what I do every day at work when I'm looking at art work. Dragons get another pass in my book, though. Nothing will drive me crazy faster than a weak rendition of a dragon (except maybe a badly illustrated horse).

Now here's a bit of personal history for more perspective. I had the honor of working with Todd Lockwood and Sam Wood as they did a concept pass on the dragons in the early development of 3rd Edition. While I've had some folks snag me and tell me they aren't big fans of the 3E dragons, it has been a pretty small group of folks. Most folks like the fact that each of the dragons has an individual look, not just a generic look with a change of color like many of the earlier dragons in D&D history. Now, you might have things that you'd like to nitpick about certain dragons, and that is cool. Heck, I've got my own list of nitpicks, but they are just that—nitpicks.

It probably doesn't come as a big surprise that when R&D raised the idea of concepting the dragons for D&D Next, I wasn't a huge fan of sweeping changes. Thankfully, neither were they. I had the concept artists play with a few designs, but they really didn't go anywhere for the most part. As part of the conversation, I did ask for one thing. I wanted to see a slight rework of a dragon where an artist played with my concept of a dragon—make it buff, tough, and threatening. We snagged Todd Lockwood's version of the classic D&D red dragon and ran it through the buff machine. The instructions I gave the artists were simple: Leave the basic creature design alone. Just give it a shot of growth hormones and a trip to the gym. Don't go crazy. Don't try to recreate the wheel. I liked the more feral feel to Big Red. It had more of that brutal feel that I like in my dragons.