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D&D Basic: Personality, Backgrounds, and Equipment

This post continues the detailed comparison between the D&D Basic PDF and the last playtest packet that WotC issued (10-14-2013). Part One of this analysis focused on races and classes; this time, we're getting into more terra incognita, including one of the most-discussed paragraphs in the whole bless├ęd thing. Without further ado:

The closest that the packets came to the Personality part of Chapter 4 was a few paragraphs found in Character Creation. I don't know that any D&D Player's Handbook has gone much beyond that, but 5e gives every impression of being more deeply informed by the last ten or fifteen years of what the rest of the tabletop industry has been doing. Let me be fair to the lineage of TSR and WotC designers: they have been the big dog for literally as long as there has been tabletop gaming. Everyone else has learned from what they have done (for good or ill) since 1974. As recently as 3.0, games of fantasy heroic adventure were defined by the ways in which they weren't D&D (no elves, for example). 4e shows a huge variety of influences external to a pure lineage of D&D, though specifying these influences is akin to posting a neon sign reading "Please Tell Me About Your Edition War." I hesitate to go too far into speculating about the influences on 5e, but I think I am not running amok to say that Dungeon World and Fate might be behind the system of personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws.

Right out of the gate, the second paragraph on Sex calls out the presence of characters outside the gender binary. I am not well enough educated on these matters to engage with the conversation that has burned G+ and other social media to a cinder over the past few days. I support everyone's right to have their fantasy game be what they want it to be, and a clear reminder of this in the rulebook can only help.

Skipping forward to the discussion of alignment, the text asserts that orcs are evil because their divine creators made them so. Now, I think this is probably the right general call for D&D: it's heroic adventure, and adventurers need some no-guilt violence. That's the genre for you. On the other hand, a creature that was made with "strong, inborn" tendencies toward evil... isn't as culpable for evil actions as a completely free-willed creature would be. Our modern moral and ethical structure might interpret this as "not guilty by reason of insanity." The gods, not their creations, thus bear the blame for all that results... right? (Conveniently, most D&D settings do not have to resolve theodicy at all.)

Okay, back to talking about design, because the commonalities with the playtest packets have come to an abrupt end. Each character has some number (two seems to be a proposed minimum, but there's no clear number... nor does there need to be) of personality traits. They further have one ideal, one bond, and one flaw. Personality traits don't seem to have a whole lot of teeth, mechanically speaking, but ideals, bonds, and flaws seem like they will. (I haven't really explored the chapter on social conflict yet.) I love that the Backgrounds suggest traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws for characters - it is a good reminder that your background determines as much or more of how you interact with people as your character class. It's also important to have random tables of each, to spark creativity. (Also, this makes me really want to shoehorn the excellent character creation of Beyond the Wall into 5e.)

There's this new thing called Inspiration, too. Let's not beat around the bush: these are D&D's answer to Fate points or nWoD's Willpower pool. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, there's a lot right with it, even though it won't be to everyone's taste. Just like Aspects or Virtues & Vices, players earn Inspiration by behaving the way their traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws suggest, especially when it is costly to do so.
I think this is pretty great, overall. I think they made a good decision in not over-committing to Aspect-based play - for example, from what we've seen, they haven't plugged Inspiration into a ton of other areas of gameplay. It won't appeal to some groups, because it's a narrative or cinematic mechanic in a game that has traditionally lived squarely in gamist and simulationist space. Introducing such a mechanic with a light touch means that grognards who denounce such ideas as story-gamer heresy might just ignore them and still embrace 5e.

Next we move into Backgrounds. I have liked 5e's implementation of Backgrounds from the very first playtest packet I saw them in; they are without question one of my favorite things that 5e has brought to D&D. I love that skills come from Background and from Class in roughly equal measure. One of my greatest frustrations with 3.x and 4e has come to be the way that some classes are locked out of participation in dice-driven social scenes, stealth challenges, or other situations where only specific skills will do. In 5e, you still might not have those skills (though bounded accuracy means it matters a damn sight less), but it's not because all wizards are that way - you could have gotten proficiency in Animal Handling just like anyone else, if you had cared to do so, and you wouldn't be arbitrarily worse at it while still spending the same number of skill points. I also find uncommon pairings of Class and Background or Race and Background to be exceptionally compelling - an Elf Wizard Sage may be completely expected, but an Elf Wizard Criminal? I am intrigued! (As you see, intriguing me isn't the world's highest bar.)

Backgrounds now grant two skills, and some combination of two tool proficiencies and two languages. I still don't grok the decision to make tool proficiencies just a separate category of skills, individually less valuable (for most people, anyway) but harder to come by. The best I can figure is that, given their lesser demand, they didn't want tool proficiencies clogging up the works of the core and most vital skill list - but that can't help but raise the question of whether a particular action should require a skill or a tool, since no one is going to remember the full list of tool proficiencies offhand.

Back to my point: the benefits of backgrounds have been trimmed slightly, but as they are now the basis for your personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws (with randomizing tables, if needed!), they're more central to play than ever before. The Basic rules include the Acolyte (formerly the Priest), the Criminal/Spy (mechanically, it's clear that this is a renamed Spy rather than a renamed Guild Thief or Thug), the Folk Hero (formerly the Commoner), the Sage, and the Soldier. Each of these except for the Acolyte also has a table further specifying the nature of your background. For example, the Sage: were you a Discredited Academic, a Scribe, a Librarian...? (It's obvious enough that the Acoyle's table of further details can't be specified in the setting-neutral D&D Basic, because it's just a list of the setting's faiths.) I like these tables as a reminder that even within this narrow range of backgrounds, there are huge varieties possible.

The other thing I love in the Backgrounds is the Sage's special item, a letter from a deceased colleague with a question the Sage hasn't yet been able to answer. It needs a bit of thought from the DM, but this is a great hook for adventure. In the playtests, my players have been enthusiastic about Bounty Hunters starting play with bounty broadsheets or warrants for similar reasons. I would love to see more along these lines for every Background.

What's that? I'm in luck once I get to the end of the Equipment chapter? That's awesome, Self Who Read Ahead A Bunch! Okay, but seriously: there's a d100 table of Trinkets, weird items that a character can start play with or that PCs might find in a dungeon... or curio shop. Not all of them are pure gold of intriguing ideas, but the majority of them I would rate Pretty Cool or higher.
Brief digression: It reminds me of Dragon Magazine #240, where Steve Berman's "101 Little Mysteries" did enough to fire my imagination that that issue holds a place of honor on my bookshelf, to this day.
Now I'll go back and take Chapter 5: Equipment from the top. It's funny, this had seemed to be one of the most stable chapters in all of the playtest documents. The changes were small, just adapting to changes made in other chapters... but no longer!

The Armor table has been overhauled in a number of ways. Most obviously, there's now a column for Strength; if you're strong enough, you can wear the heaviest of armors without a loss of Speed. This is an interesting decision, and it has a clear simulationist point to make; my issue with it is that finding new and creative ways to reward having high ability scores feels unnecessary to me. For better or worse, it deepens the divide between Dex fighter and Strength fighters - Dex fighters (who won't have high Strength, in all likelihood) are really definitely sticking with Light Armor now. Also, it increases pressure on Life Domain clerics to put a decent score into Strength, or to just be dwarves. (A dwarf out of armor is like a turian out of armor: technically, it probably occurs at some point, but never on-camera... not even for sexytimes.) I'll be curious to see how this plays out at the table, but I'm cautiously optimistic.

The specific armors in each category have been overhauled; one available interpretation for some of the missing types is a tonal shift in the fantasy that 5e (or just Basic) want to present. Another available interpretation is that they'll be in the PH or DMG. I talked about a bunch of issues with armor in an early playtest packet; have they been addressed? Without those high-ticket armor types (dragon leather, dragon scale, and various mithral armors), I think there's less implicit pressure to not bother enchanting anything until you can afford the high-fantasy materials. It's not like there are player-side enchanting rules in Basic, though, so there are huge swaths of conjecture at stake here. (Also, I don't pretend that WotC has prioritized the armor dynamics that I care about. This is my personal windmill.)

Some of the non-fantastical armors have been moved around to fill in gaps: studded leather moved from Medium down to Light, and provided a 12+Dex armor. Once it's available, you're never going back to leather armor unless it's substantially magical. (Unless the magic item creation rules do some extraordinary arm-twisting, PCs will always choose to enchant studded leather over leather.) I like the decision-making dynamics between the chain shirt and scale mail, and between the breastplate and half plate, but as long as crippling poverty is not a thing for your character, you're going to choose either breastplate or half plate and ignore chain shirt and scale mail. It's kind of odd that medium armor is where most of the interesting decision-making is going on

Then there's heavy armor, and it's kind of doing its own thing. If you have a Dex of 14 or 15, medium armor looks like a pretty good idea, unless you have the Strength and proficiency to deal with heavy armor. If you have the Strength and proficiency to wear heavy armor comfortably, you should always do so, unless you need to be stealthy. So... yes! Even though it wasn't a stated design goal, I think I can safely say that a 5e character with every kind of armor proficiency might choose different suits of armor for different situations. Not every armor remains viable, but I think many fighters will at least have to give some thought to whether this is a job for the plate, or just the breastplate.

Finally, shields: in D&D Basic, there is only one kind, and it provides a +2 bonus to AC. I would be not at all shocked (nor sad) to see bucklers and tower shields, at minimum, in the PH. If not... well, it's not the end of the world. (Tower shields should probably not grant more than +2 AC, and should do some other special thing while also carrying a drawback.)

Weapons are very near to unchanged. Bolas have been removed, whips now include a Strength or Dex modifier as a bonus to damage where they previously did not, and javelins can now be used in melee. Oh, and the Thrown property on a melee weapon allows you to keep using the same stat for ranged attacks and ranged damage that you use for melee - a clause included to make sure thrown daggers can use Strength or Dexterity, at the wielder's discretion. That was a good catch on someone's part. My only quibbles with the weapons - good Lord, is this ever nit-picky:

Adventuring Gear takes some very close reading to find changes.
There isn't a lot to say about Mounts and Vehicles: the text is new, I don't object to anything here, let's move on. 

Trade Goods were mentioned in the playtest packets, but without a lot of detail. In D&D Basic, though, they've included a table of price-per-pound on various goods, from wheat on up through platinum. I think it justifies its existence, given that it takes up half of one column - I don't know that I'd look it up during play, but it might inspire an adventure idea between sessions.

Expenses showed up for the first time in the very last Equipment chapter release of the playtest packets (9-19-13). They were a trifle under-explored at the time, and they see some attention here; breaking the Expenses down to per diem is a usability improvement for the way people actually treat time in game (at least in my experience). Also, I like the point that "aristocratic" lifestyles scale as high as you care to go. I would still rather see some mechanical underpinnings - comparable, maybe, to Traits? - but I also get not wanting to attach a mechanic to every little thing. They do add mechanics for how to sustain oneself with downtime activities - foraging in the wilds (clever use of Survival proficiency there!), performing, and invoking background traits to hold down a job are just some examples. This is definitely going in a good direction, and the vast majority of campaigns could probably fill all of their rules needs without another word of rules text.

It happens that this is another thing I care deeply about, because one of the things I habitually do is care deeply about deriving story and setting flavor from minutiae. Two of this blog's earliest posts were about this kind of downtime activity, in fact, to say nothing of more recent posts. This is the right about of content for a rule set labeled Basic; based on some Legends & Lore posts, the designers are serious about reintroducing domain management as a deeper form of downtime play.

But this chapter isn't done unfolding details of Expenses: food, drink, lodgings, and services. The table of food, drink, and lodgings is nominally redundant with the table of daily expenses, but I like the fact that it's displayed both in simplified and detailed form, so that I can use whatever's right for the situation. Usually I'll only care about the daily expenses, but sometimes a scene needs a little extra, you know? If Dumas can linger over the pistoles and livres changing hands in The Three Musketeers, then it's good enough for my table every once in awhile.

Services are another matter. Let me level with you: by August of 2000, I though I would never say, "This reminds me of Second Edition, in a good way." We adopted 3e fast and to the utmost - but here we are. This is the kind of detail I recall from the 2e DMG, and that doesn't make me roll my eyes in this case. It's a feeling of a living world, where money smooths the way toward accomplishing goals more than saving up for that next +1 widget. It doesn't go into full detail on hiring assassins and sages, the way the 2e DMG did, but I don't really miss them - because now a PC can be the sage of record, without having to give up the adventuring life. And, what the hell, some rules on hiring spellcasters. They're a lot more loosey-goosey than 3.x's (10 gp x spell level x caster level), and that works for me.

The Equipment chapter - and thus this post - close on Trinkets, which I mentioned before. Good stuff here, and worthy of taking up two pages even in a stripped-down rulebook. In those two pages this table says volumes about the kinds of stories D&D can tell, and more than anything I laud and approve of mystery and adventure being woven into characters and scenes at such a fundamental level.

In conclusion, these chapters do a good job of being light-touch roleplaying guidance and setting creation - these are some of the most universal elements of map fantasy and heroic adventure, and that's what something called Basic should do. If they don't fit your setting (Planescape, Spelljammer, and sometimes Eberron, we're looking at you), that's totally cool, and the system will still behave itself without them - but you could do a lot worse than reskinning. In my next post in this series, the game engine itself comes out to play as we begin Part 2: Playing the Game.

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