This party is in trouble. (image by Alan De Smet, courtesy of Wikipedia)
The better part of a year ago, I speculated that I wouldn’t bother picking up the new D&D.
I meant every word of that post. Really, I did.
And yet, when the new edition of the Player’s Handbook came out, I picked it up.
No real surprise there.
What did surprise me is that it felt like D&D again.
Mind you, this is strictly the view of one long-time player, but to me, Dungeons and Dragons has always been a specific, unique branch of fantasy unto itself. Yes, it has visible roots in the work of Tolkien and Vance (and others), but once filtered through the flavor writers and mechanics, what comes out the other side is specific to itself.
You can play a barbarian in conflict with society, but it won’t really feel like Conan (the magic system is too far afield). You can play a fighter/magic-user/thief, but no trick of multiclassing or dual classing will make the result feel like the Gray Mouser.
And these are just two examples. But the purpose behind these examples is not to trash the system. No RPG system can reflect any given fictional setting without a fair amount of tweaking, and that includes systems intended to be generic (such as HERO, GURPS, and FUDGE/FATE).
But D&D created for itself a niche of fantasy that could stand on its own, even get imitated by other games. Not because its mechanics were so brilliant, nor its flavor writing impeccable, but because it created a feel that gamers came to love.
There are still many gamers who only play Dungeons and Dragons. There’s a reason for that. And that was also what caused such a gross divide among the players when 4th edition came out. The D&D feel could still be created using those rules, but it required a game master who knew that feel well, and players who were looking for it. It didn’t come pre-installed, as it were.
Which brings us back to the new D&D.
The system itself seems like an attempt to evolve from 3.5, using a few of the lessons learned in 4th to try to create a system that feels familiar, but avoids the problem imbalances of previous editions.
With the caveat that I have not yet played the game (only read the book and made a couple of characters), I would say it looks pretty good. The advantage/disadvantage mechanic has potential, the spellcasting classes have been separated enough to make their differences clear, and the less complex classes (such as fighter and thief) should be able to continue holding their own with the more complex classes (such as wizard and cleric) even into higher levels.
Mind you, the Player’s Handbook does not cover magic item creation rules, which may tip the balance, depending. And that detail brings me to another point: spell duration.
In previous editions (4th notwithstanding), most spells gained in duration as the caster’s level increased. For example, Unseen Servant (which summoned a telekinetic force to do simple tasks) lasted one hour per caster level. And now in the new edition, it lasts one hour for everyone who casts it.
The lowliest 1st level wizard fresh out of apprenticeship can cast Unseen Servant just as well as the most powerful archmage in the history of the game world. It has the same scope and the same duration.*
I had a chat about this with some friends of mine on GooglePlus, and came to the conclusion that this is largely a game balance decision (and also a help to minimize bookkeeping). For example, Lower-level spells risked eclipsing higher-level spells when their effects increased with caster level (the main reason 4th level Ice Storm went largely ignored for the 3rd level Fireball).
I confess, I worry about how this will affect utility spells, but mostly I worry about what this means to world-building. D&D is an innately high magic system, and that means that players will expect to see impressive sights. Previously, the game master could provide those without fudging the rules.
For example, in one of my last 3.5 campaigns, the town had a mayor who was an adept (an NPC class) of about 6th level (as I recall). When he got to his office in the morning, he would cast Unseen Servant and boom! All day long simple, cool fantasy display that fit the setting without breaking the rules.
Now I don’t know if NPC classes exist in the new edition (I imagine I’ll have to wait for the Dungeon Master’s Guide), but assuming they do, that mayor would have only two options: 1) he could burn through all his spells for Unseen Servant – an inelegant choice; or 2) he could spend ten minutes every hour casting it by ritual – not burning a spell slot, but taking up ten minutes out of every hour. Not an elegant choice either.
In this case, the elegant choice is to give him a ring of unseen servant, letting him keep it going all the time.
However, there are problems with this approach. Magic items are great theft targets, both for players and NPCs. Also, that means someone had to make that ring, and the question becomes who and what else did they make? And why? And why does the mayor have it instead of someone else?
In this instance, those questions can just lead to cool answers, as the game master figures out just who this guy is and why people give him magic rings. (or maybe that it’s his ring of office. Whatever.)
But here’s the thing. The answers to those questions shape the mayor into a different character than the one who dabbles in magic and takes time to cast a spell or two to each morning to make his work day easier.
I could give you other examples about how spells affect the design of dungeons, castles, even the evolution of societies. But I’m going to stick with the one example for now.
I like the flexibility of having a mayor who casts his own little spells as well as a different mayor who uses a magic ring. To me, that’s part of the feel of Dungeons and Dragons.
Overall, the Player’s Handbook looks good. I just hope that when I get the Dungeon Master’s Guide, it addresses my concerns about world-building under the limits of the new magic system. If they can do that, this game will truly feel like D&D again.
Have you looked at the new D&D? What do you think?
*Yes, the archmage’s save DC is higher. But why do you feel the need to save versus unseen servant?
Did you like this? Share it: