5th Edition Musings: From Concept to Character

Note: There is no official information about 5th Edition, here. This is merely some thoughts on the direction I would like to see WotC take.

With a new edition of D&D coming out, one of the things I am largely concerned about is what characters will ultimately end up looking like. While I am not worried that they will be reduced to the handful of cookie-cutter classes that were introduced in OD&D, I am legitimately worried that we will see character diversity and class flexibility shored up to be more inline with 3rd Edition's often rigid class structure.

I sometimes wonder if D&D should get rid of levels. On one hand, I like classes and levels because they make it very quick and easy for a player to figure out what the class is good at, as well as generally how tough they are. As a DM this makes things extremely easy to design and challenge my players. However, the level and class systems as executed lack the granularity of other games, namely Dresden Files and Exalted. As a player it makes it easier to figure out if my bonuses or whatever are average, good, or the best of the best.

To compare, in Dungeons & Dragons if you make a fighter, then you can wear heavy armor, use most weapons (and use them pretty fucking well), and are pretty damned tough. 4th Edition even went so far as to provide mechanics that made weapon categories matter more and give them a way to actually keep monsters from mauling her allies to death. In Exalted you do not have classes. You choose a caste, which basically just lets you know which things are easier to learn and improve. For example, the Dawn caste are your archetypal melee warriors, and can learn skills like Melee and War faster than castes.

The drawback as I see it is that it is more difficult to accurately peg challenges for your party, and probably even harder to make challenges in which everyone can meaningfully contribute. I ran into this problem in 3rd Edition when designing monsters; things that were hard for the warblade to hit were basically impossible for the cleric, bard, and rogue, and if I made stuff that they could hit about half the time, the warblade was basically guaranteed to fuck it up. Same with monster attacks and saves; the cleric and warblade's Will saves were so far apart that the warblade could not hope to make without rolling a nat 20.

The benefit is that if you want a fighter to have a knack for magic that you can have greater control over how much. In 4th Edition you could multiclass into wizard and pick up a spell--which makes more sense than spontanously blossoming into every cantrip and a bushel of 1st-level spells--or find some way to hybrid a fighter and wizard into a functional character (especially with an understanding DM). A system similar to Exalted would let you adjust the dial and probably very easily make a fighter/wizard that requires less houseruling and optimization just to "make work".

Even better, as your character advances you could advance the character in a direction that makes sense, picking up a bit more magic or improving her martial skills organically. Hell, you might even find yourself branching into something else entirely. Mind you, I do not want to return to 3rd Edition's wonky multiclassing that unfairly hinders spellcasting classes, but I think a more flexible system is in order. I don't want it to be FATE or Exalted, because then I might as well just play those games. Ideally I would like it to be some kind of modular class system where you could, I dunno, drag and drop a power source, role, and shuffle some other bits around to basically build your own class that best evokes a concept you have in mind.

Of course, I have no fucking clue how, or if, this system would work. I think that done properly we could avoid having classes like the swordmage, which by the way I am not knocking: I just think that it kind of sucks for people who want to play a fighter/wizard and have to end up waiting for WotC to invent a class that lets them do that from the start. That will be one of my barometers for 5E: can I play a fighter/wizard type at the start of the game, which having to fallback to houserules or stretch my character too thin.


  1. IMHO you can keep levels without calling them levels: Decipher's LotR (bad rules but sticking to the setting better than MERP) did it, with the concept of Character Advancement.

    In few words, each time you achieve a given amount of XP (in the game it was always fixed at 1000) you have a limited number of points to buy ranks in Saving Throws, Skills, Combat, or other stuff (with a different cost).

    Not so different from Rolemaster, from a certain point of view.

  2. My question to you is this: you have asked "can I play a fighter/wizard type at the start of the game". Do you think that the character you mention should be as good at being a fighter as the fighter and as good at being a wizard as the wizard? If so, how do you justify that, and why would anyone want to play either core classes when they can play the one that does both equally as well?

  3. Ah. I should have clarified. I do NOT want characters to be able to make characters that are good at two or more classes as another character is at one class. This is one of the reasons I like 4th Edition so much: there is a range of competence (which is why people want you to have an attack stat of 16 or up, giving a starting range generally of 16-20).

    Another thing is that because every class has a number of powers that they can use a fighter wizard could basically be a guy that has their exploits and spells split up. With a 4th Edition character with some work I can make a fighter with a Strength and Intelligence of 16 (presumably after modifiers), which still falls into the competent category. I am not as good as the fighter-only guy with his Strength of 18 (and likely good enough secondary mod to benefit from them), but I can still defend and take hits.

    Compare to, say, a 3rd Edition fighter/wizard. The more fighter levels the character takes, the quicker they fall behind the curve of spell levels (and also their spells are easier to resist seeing as the DCs are set by spell level). The more wizard levels they take, the slower their attack bonus and hit points progress, and it delays their ability to take fighter-only feats. Also, it is hard for them to armor up without risking their spells not even going off.

    In other words, I do not want to eclipse characters with one class (otherwise, yeah, what is the point?), but I still want to fall somewhere in that range of competent, and in my experience without strongly adhering to a build (which often wouldn't come into fruition for several levels at the least), you ended up with a character that was jealous of the bard.

  4. As much as D&D 4e gets pegged as a "Tabletop MMO," there might be room for what you're talking about to be influenced by games like Skyrim. What you can do is wholly based on your skills, which are improved through use and training, and you earn XP by increasing your skills. A character who goes from level 20 to 25 in all 18 skills of the game will be the same level as a one-trick pony who has a 70 in one skill and 20s in the rest.

    That said, there are only a few things that exist in all D&D editions: the six abilities, classes, and hit points. Armor classes and Saving Throws have changed too much as concepts to really say that they have existed in the same form, but those three have only changed slightly among editions. Removing classes completely would be, for me, too much of a change. If I want a classless fantasy RPG, I've already got Warhammer FRPG or RuneQuest.

    Now, the class could influence your starting scores in the skills and affect how hard it is to advance in them. That might work.

  5. The MMO thing always bothers me because people never seem to be able to articulate why it is bad, or even how it resembles one. Regardless I think that they should definitely look at lots of games for ideas, and while playing Skyrim I did think that a RPG where everything you do is skill-based could work. I would also like to see them try rules where the better your attack roll, the more damage you deal.

  6. I'm not saying that a skill-based RPG won't work. Call of Cthulhu is probably my second favorite game, right after D&D. It's just that if it's D&D, it's got to have levels.

  7. I dunno...I would like to see them at least attempt a point-based game just to see how it plays and feels, if for nothing else than an experiment. Levels, points, dots, I do not care how it works, I just want it to be easy and flexible enough for a player to try out a variety of things without having to rely on lots of homebrew content and houserules, while ALSO making it easy for a DM to accurately peg how tough the characters are when designing challenges.

  8. The fighter/mage issue has much more to do with the limitations of the D&D magic system than it does the multiclassing system. There are a dozen good alternative magic systems in 3PP out there that run on spell points or Spellcraft checks. The primary advantage to them is that the power of the spellcaster is not primarily measured by the highest-level spell she can cast.

    Personally, I don't think there's any way we'll see a point-based system. It just wouldn't be D&D. And, more importantly, it would violate the declared design goal of compatibility with all current editions of D&D. If you want to experiment with a point-based system, there are several out there (most notably GURPS and HERO). There are also a number of pseudo-point-based systems, such as 7th Sea, Exalted, and World of Darkness. Those games are each awesome in their own way. Asking D&D to turn into them defeats the point of there being different games in the first place.

    I just want D&D Next to be D&D.


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