Sunday, May 25, 2014

D&D Next: Magic Items, Attunement, and Identification

In a recent Legends & Lore post, Mearls explored some of the thought behind magic item design in the new edition of D&D, particularly with regard to attunement. I've seen this post take some flak in other circles, but I think it has a ton of potential and I'm really excited about it, so I'll be providing a contrasting opinion that is largely in WotC's favor. Mearls also touches on item identification, and that's something of a can of worms, since we have many editions of prior experience with item identification as context.

The article opens with a sort of contrasting pair of ideas: that attunement is for the big, important magic items rather than consumables, items central to a character's portrayal; on the other side, items with attunement have a chance to compel the character's will. Okay, that's three ideas, so let's go through them. Yes, it would normally be the worst idea ever to require attunement in one-shot consumable items, since the PCs manage a mere three attunement slots... but I can imagine an awesome consumable item that has one effect when unattuned and a much greater one when attuned, and enough hurdles to attunement that characters can really only start adventures with one attuned - there's really no way to attune one during the course of an adventure. As with any medium, once you understand not just the rules but why they're a good idea, you can break them creatively.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How (and Why) to Talk to Villains

Today I want to talk about some very bad people. Well, narratively speaking, the bad people. Villains: a species of character that has a damn tough time getting a word in edgewise in roleplaying games. It's a tough life for villains; players have learned over and over again that letting the villain so much as speak is tantamount to letting him win. I'm here to make a case for talking to villains before the smiting begins. I'll also present some ideas for GMs on how to give their villains a chance to speak without springing a red leak - but this article is for players and GMs alike.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that villains should always be the heroes of their own stories, should always believe that what they're doing is right or necessary. Evil for evil's sake just isn't compelling - it's simplistic and, let's face it, we have trod that ground many times before. Don't get me wrong: you still want iconic villain moments, mad laughter, the whole nine yards. That just needs to be built on a foundation that the protagonists can engage with on an emotional and philosophical level. (I'm presuming that we all care about narrative. If that premise doesn't hold, this post isn't for you - pure beat-em-ups have their place, but this is a conversation about games with narrative.)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

D&D Next: Class Design Postmortem and New Ideas

Now that I've created or modified four classes for D&D Next (the alchemist, outlander, sorcerer, and warlock), I want to take a step back and consider what's working, what isn't, and a few new ideas I've had for future classes. It isn't that I want each campaign to have a huge list of classes to choose from; I think 10-12 classes is as many as any one setting needs, and many can do with fewer than that. Fantasy is bad about cleaving to its tropes, though, when some new and wild idea could be right around the bend.

For people who don't super care about reading my personal design postmortem and want to skip straight to the New Ideas, you have my permission to scroll down to the New Ideas heading below.


The first thing I've learned is that it's hard for me to get myself to completely ditch the structural underpinnings of WotC's classes. Given the slightest opportunity, I'll reskin rather than restructure. I have good reasons for this, like a greater assurance that the class will fit in with the advancement paradigms, general feel, and basic rules concepts of other classes... and then some bad reasons as well, like a reluctance to embrace radical change. This is why the alchemist and my revised warlock are reskins of the bard, and the outlander is more or less a ranged monk with guns rather than punches. The sorcerer is more its own thing - and also by far the least successful of my efforts in kitbashed class design.

So what would the sledgehammer solution entail? For starters, it would take a spell list that was comparable to but separate from the cleric and mage lists. This is achievable, but it's a lot of work - a lot more than one post should attempt. I started this kind of effort with the alchemist, offering a paltry 14 formulas, but the post was already pushing 5,000 words. If in the future there is a robust OGL for D&D Next so that I could sell the class as a PDF, that would be great and I would absolutely want to expand the formula list.

The Outlander more or less works as a class, though it could use a second at-will attack - a scattershot attack or something. I know that this is D&DN and WotC doesn't think every class needs two or more at-will attacks that are pretty much always good ideas, but... well, they're wrong. Super wrong. Having two different options won't prevent a fight from being dull, but only having one at-will option (and not all that many daily options) makes it a lot more likely to be boring. When you're staring at the same bonus and damage expression on your character sheet round after round and you know that description is empty fluff... the game's illusion starts to fall apart.

The Outlander could use more flavor and background, emphasizing the role of outlanders in the setting. A whole class of this guy and this other guy and a few others isn't exactly the strongest setting connection. They're kind of the creepy, sexy loner gunslinger right now, and while there's nothing wrong with that, I could stand to provide more nuance and depth by considering what other kinds of outlanders look like. D&D Next offers a handy tool for this: all I have to do is match the class up with each Background option and see what kind of weird new idea that generates. The Minstrel background speaks for itself. On the other hand, I'll have to do a lot more thinking, and maybe adjust aspects of the setting, to match it up with Backgrounds that aren't social outsiders, such as Noble, Priest, and Soldier.

My sorcerer is, to put it briefly, a hot mess. I have some thoughts on how I'd revamp it - possibly swift-action spells that require you to have cast another spell that round. Getting them off of spell points and onto spell slots is certainly useful for getting them to play nice with the multiclassing rules. I was particularly proud of the second sorcerer build that I created, as it fits Aurikesh very well, and thus especially disappointed with my result. The mechanical conception of the class - a middling spellcaster that transitions into a pretty solid melee brute (or some other role, but there's only one example) as it burns through its daily potential - was an instant hit with everyone in my gaming group who saw it. WotC has made it clear that there will be something called a sorcerer, and that there will be a class functionally similar to the thing we like, and that these will be separate things.

My most recent warlock is a little bit more of a departure from WotC's original warlock draft. WotC's version had at-will and per-encounter abilities, but no per-day powers. That isn't a problem in any particular sense, but I watched the later development of other caster classes and came to the conclusion that my first warlock, which stuck with the no-per-day-powers idea, was conceptually losing ground relative to other classes. The Outlander - which again is a very close reskin of the monk - highlighted that the utility of ki powers and Arcane Gifts was substantially outpacing the utility of pact abilities. In actual use, I think we even forgot that Arcane Gifts are written to be per-encounter just like ki powers, a fact I have only just now recalled.

Therefore my most recent draft of the warlock gains pact boons as well as a half-casting progression, comparable with bards, paladins, and rangers - a full spread of at-will, encounter, and daily abilities. I feel like the class would work, and prove to be reasonably competitive, as I've written it, but the flavor I was going for isn't playing all that well with the target audience. The idea was that the warlock's advancement describes an increasing knowledge of forbidden lore, and some of that includes the hidden (i.e., arcane) secrets known to others; because the warlock is a dabbler rather than a true student of any one art, some spells are borrowed from other lists (perhaps leaning on the "beneficence" of the patron as well). What came across instead was the same problem as bards prior to 4e: second-best (or lower) at everything, not shining in any single field.

The thing that I love about outlanders and warlocks is that they emphasize the importance of the classes of supernatural entities that struggle to wrest control of the world away from the gods. This isn't to say that all warlocks or outlanders want these powers to triumph (though the warlock that is in the game would love to see the Fey do so), but it's the primary high-end struggle of the setting.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Liebster Awards

This blog was nominated for a Liebster Award today by +Dan Head, one-half of Dan & Sally's Digital Domain. The Liebsters are a pay-it-forward kind of blogging award designed to help others find new and interesting small-readership blogs in the vast, unexplored reaches of the Internet.

The good thing about the Liebsters is that being nominated means that someone’s reading your blog, and that they like your work.  By participating in the process, you can pass that love along and help others find readership, too.
1. Posting ten things about themselves.
2. Answering ten questions from the blog that nominated them.
3. Nominating ten new blogs of their own, preferably with 200 members or less.
4. Posing ten new questions to the new nominees.