Dungeons & Delvers: Customization & Complexity

Over five years ago I wrote a blog post, where I criticized how classes are designed in Dungeons & Dragons. It was mostly directed at 5th Edition, back when it was called Next, but I also included barbarians from some other editions just to compare them.

Quick summary: the issues were that you don't get to choose much to customize the class (3rd Edition's feats), you make one choice that locks in every possible choice down the road (5th Edition), or you get front loaded with a bunch of choices and abilities right from the start (4th Edition).

Now that we've published our own Dungeons & Dragons hack, I wanted to revisit that blog post, put my money where my mouth is, and show how we did things differently to address those issues.

Our design goal with Dungeons & Delvers was to not only allow customization, but when possible make it so that you could more or less control how complex things got (something I also addressed in another blog post).

Take for example, the wizard class: you start out with Detect Magic and Magic Missile, and choose three spell talents. If you want to keep things simple, you can focus on the Evoker tree. If you want to get a bit more complicated, you can try out Enchanter or Illusionist. You can even mix and match, or focus on one at first, and then pick up the others later. Whatever makes sense for you.

Fighters start out with a static bonus to hit and damage, and as you level up you can pick up other static bonus talents, be better at certain actions (such as Defend or Charge), or pick up various special attacks. You can even start out with passive stuff and then snag some exploits later: you never pick one thing that makes it so that you must keep choosing certain types of talents, or prevents you from choosing other types of talents if you later change your mind.

But what about barbarians? For starters, here's what the Dungeons & Delvers: Appendix D barbarian (ie, the most recent publicly available version) gets at 1st-level:
  • Attack Bonus: You get +1 to hit with all weapons you know how to use. Bonus scales with level automatically.
  • Damage Bonus: You deal +1 damage with all weapons. Bonus scales with level automatically.
  • Fortitude Bonus: You get a +1 bonus to all Fortitude saves. Bonus scales with level automatically.
  • Thick-Skinned: If you're wearing armor up to a mail shirt, your base AC is 11 + either your Dexterity or Constitution, whichever is better, and you gain +1 Damage Resistance. Both the base AC and DR bonus scales as you level, so barbarians can get away with little to no armor (though make a talent that gives you a slight bonus without any armor at all, though).
  • Reckless Assault: You can roll twice and use the higher result when making a melee attack: you deal +1 damage, but you're -2 to AC until the start of your next turn. The damage bonus also scales as you level, making it gradually better and better.

Like fighters, barbarians by default don't get a lot of talents: only three over a 10-level spread, and they don't get their first until 2nd-level. It may not seem like a lot, but in our years of playtesting fighters absolutely fuck shit up: we actually had to nerf them a few times and give everyone else a slight boost.

But, for players that really want to get a talent choice sooner than later, but also don't want to play a human (since they get a bonus talent at the start), whenever you would gain a Damage Bonus you can swap it out for a talent, even at 1st-level. You'll still gain other Damage Bonuses later, you'll just be one behind (or more if you continue to swap them out).

The benefits of the talents vary in complexity. If you just want to smash shit, Slayer (+1 damage with two-handed weapons), Sundering Strikes (+1 armor piercing with a two-handed weapon), and Devastating Critical (crit on 19-20 instead of just a nat 20) will have you covered without having to remember much: just note it on your attack line.

For more situational stuff you can also go with Rising Fury (double your Reckless Assault damage after an enemy damages you), Smell Blood (+1 damage against anything bleeding), and Rampage (Swift Action attack after killing something).

Beyond that there are also the Bear and Wolf Totems (skill bonus and some other benefit, like climbing Speed), each with a talent that builds on them, Charger (no penalties when charging), Ignore Pain (gain +1 DR after using Reckless Assault), Press the Attack (+1 to hit a target you attacked on your previous turn), and Superstitious (+1 on all saves made to resist spells).

So, good deal of customization, even if you swap out your Damage Bonuses for another two or so talents, and that's just for the level 1-10 barbarian. Red Book barbarian goes up to 20, and has way more going on. You can also control to a point how complex the class gets. Curious what other think: do we do a good enough job? Have suggestions on how it could have been done better? Do you even like this sort of thing?

You can now get a physical copy of Dungeons & Delvers: Black Book in whatever format you want! We've also released the first big supplement for it, Appendix D, so pick that up if you want more of everything.

If you want more adventures, we just released Escape From the Flesh Catacombs: a bunch of 0-level characters need to escape from the catacomb-lair of a gorgon that was slain, causing everything she's petrified to revert to flesh and rise as undead.

Our latest Dungeon World class, The Ranger, is now available.

Dwarven Vault is our sixth 10+ Treasures volume. If you're interested in thirty dwarven magic items (including an eye that lets you shoot lasers) and nearly a dozen new bits of dungeon gear, check it out!

By fan demand, we've mashed all of our 10+ Treasure volumes into one big magic item book, making it cheaper and more convenient to buy in print (which you can now do).


  1. I really like the ability to swap out damage bonuses for talents. It gives a good, always useful default, but lets you really customize the character to play how you want. I'm prone to breaking down the parts of the class and rebuilding them anyway, so having it built into the rules is fantastic. I wish that level of customization was available in a lot more games.

    1. @Svafa,

      You can thank Adam for that. He wanted Exploit type abilities from the start, but due to the fighter being too awesome already that was the best workaround we could think of.

      Have you broken down any Delvers classes? If so, what new stuff did you make? :-O


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