Like a lot of people, I’ve been doing some thinking about the D&D Next design process. My personal opinion is that the developers didn’t start with a sturdy enough framework before they began throwing ideas around – or at least they haven’t been sticking as close to their espoused framework as I would in the same situation.
But that’s not what this post is about. Instead, I thought I’d tackle their boldest claim: that D&D Next will be The One System To Rule Them All. Early on, Mike Mearls said he wanted D&D Next to “[speak] to the recognizable elements of the game,” which anyone who lived through the last Edition War will know was a tall order. While fighting the good fight on the Giant In The Playground Forum I came to realize that there was an elusive quality of “D&D-ness” that people on both sides on the aisle seemed to cherish. As someone who still remembers the outrage when Wizards of the Coast got rid of THAC0 the idea that there could be any one – or more than one! – quality that any two people could agree was “D&D” seemed incredible. Still, I thought it would be worth a shot:
THE FOUR PILLARS OF D&D
Player Characters (“PCs”) have Classes
Ever since the first version of D&D, Player Characters have been defined by their Classes. While the definition of “Class” has changed over time I’ll fix it as “a label that defines some, if not most, of your Character’s in-game capabilities and grants new and/or improved capabilities.”
Player Characters operate in Parties with diverse talents
The iconic party is Fighter, Cleric, Thief, Wizard – four people who work together (and stick together!), supporting each other with their individual talents. Now, the party doesn’t have to be those four classes but it does bespeak an approach of “everyone helps, and nobody can win alone” style of play.
This “Pillar” may be controversial, but I think it needs to be included.
PCs explore Dungeons
I mean, it’s in the title, no? If you’re calling yourself D&D you should include mechanics to explore underground structures filled with puzzles, traps, monsters and treasure. I know early editions were light on the mechanics, per se, but I think the “games without mechanics for core issues” thing has had its time.
PCs fight Monsters, including Dragons
This is the second part of the title. It extrapolated from “Dragons” because, well, it’s a bit too narrow.
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Those are my four Pillars of what it means to be D&D. My argument is these four elements are the Necessary elements to include to make something “feel like D&D” to 95% of the audience who has played D&D and cares about its “D&D-ness.” Given those Pillars, I decided to sketch out a framework that would ensure that the final game would “feel like D&D.”
Each and every Class has two main facets – a Combat Role and an Exploration Role. The Combat Role reflects how they contribute most to a party when fighting Monsters, such as Dragons. The Exploration Role reflects how they contribute most to a party when exploring dangerous places, such as Dungeons.
For the Core, I’d include just four classes with the following role selections:
Fighter: Combat (Front-line Melee & Blocking), Exploration (Knowledge of Monsters and Natural Hazards)
Thief: Combat (Ranged Damage & Singe target take-down), Exploration (Finding/Disarming Traps & Finding Secret/Hidden stuff)
Cleric: Combat (Healing & Buffs), Exploration (Divination)
Wizard: Combat (Controlling), Exploration (“Special Effects” like Light, Levitation and Magic Fingers)
The Core Classes are designed to operate best in Dungeons, the default adventure setting.
Splatbooks would each include four new Classes designed to operate best in a different setting, and rules specific for running adventures in that setting.
For example: Woods & Will-o-the-Wisps Expansion (for Wilderness Adventures)
Barbarian (Wilderness Fighter)
Ranger (Wilderness Thief)
Druid (Wilderness Cleric)
Witch (Wilderness Wizard)
That, of course, is not the be-all and end-all of Expansion Classes, but this is just a bare-bones sketch of the system so I won’t go further.
Additionally, W&W could include rules for getting lost in forests (or finding your way around), more “natural” hazards and monsters you might find above ground, rules for starvation, weather, etc. – things that wouldn’t matter in a Dungeon but would be relevant in this new setting.
You could do the same for any number of other settings: Castles & Cads for urban adventures (with detailed social rules, for example), Ether and Elementals for extra-planar adventures, Foulness and Fiends for going to Hell and/or the Abyss and so on.
This system has several points that recommend it as the One System To Rule Them All:
The Core is dense and focused
Any newbie who picks it up is going to get exactly the sort of game that the title indicates. With only four classes to worry about the designers can actually get these basic mechanics right before worrying about the 1001 “classes” that have accumulated over the years. Plus, by announcing the policy in “Expansions” nobody is going to worry about their “favorite” class being left out – it’ll get there eventually.
The ultimate set of rules is clearly divided into sections so you don’t have to worry about “missing” some essential Simulationist element
Lots of people want D&D to be Simulationist, but it can be daunting for everyone else to look at the “core” and find rules for everything from asphyxiating when being buried alive to the force of Ether Storms. My proposal “divides and conquers” this expansive intention, giving the designers plenty of time to think about the “modular” elements they want to include without causing Players to howl that such-and-such isn’t addressed.
Expansions are coherent and dense
This approach to Expansions provides an automatic theme to each splatbook so that the designers can add a little bit of everything to a book without worrying about filling pages. If every splatbook has Classes, Feats, Rules and Monsters focused around a specific setting then it will not be hard to figure out what to include and how much. Plus, Players will be more happy to buy Woods & Will-o-the-Wisps since they know what it’s about instead of Primal Power 23 or Book of 1001 Swords
It builds upon previously announced design principles
It is modular (to the extreme!), has rules for fighting and exploring, and can support whatever 3.PF mechanics you want. While I envisioned the “Wizard” and “Cleric” to be on par in flexibility and effectiveness with the Fighter and Thief you could easily release a “Caster’s Delight” splatbook which has 3.PF Caster classes in it if you really wanted to.
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That’s the basic framework, but there is obviously a lot of room to add definition. Even though I’m pleased with the design so far I’m unlikely to put too much effort into it for two reasons:
1) The “D&D” market is already quite full with Paizo and WotC.
2) Fleshing out all those splatbooks is a job for a team, not a single man. A game with as modularity as D&D Next is supposed to have is going to require more pure effort than any one person can (or should) attempt to shoulder on his own.
Still, as a thought experiment I found putting together this framework entertaining. I will elaborate on this “D&D That Never Was” from time to time.