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Feats and Skills and Options, Oh My!

Posted in Indies & More

Mike’s given us a look at the larger picture of the different types of abilities in D&D Next. To sum up:

  • The simplest character is just a class and race. They roll their stats for everything, generally without extra bonuses. They get class abilities and racial abilities and that’s it. The only customization are the choices presented by the class and the stats the player chooses to increase.
  • Players who want a more complex character can use feats instead of ability increases. Optionally, they can choose a specialty to plan a path of feats to take.
  • GMs can choose to let players take backgrounds and gain skills. Skills add to ability rolls, so the DM will either have to change DCs or accept that their characters are now more powerful. Backgrounds also grant proficiencies that reflect the character can do something that might require training, as well as areas of knowledge and other benefits.

My first reaction was that the simplest option sounded really boring compared to the others. Which doesn’t make much sense, I’ve played games where characters don’t even have numbers to increase (Fiasco) and had an amazing time.

Which brings up the larger point here: it seems like there’s a laser-like focus on making classes and not as much thought to how the game actually plays.

This may be because it’s easier to write classes than write about how to play a game, but look at the topics of Legends and Lore recently, or the contents of the latest playtest packet: something like 3/4 of it is cool player powers (in the form of classes, races, backgrounds, feats, spells, equipment, magic items, and so on).

Historically, D&D doesn’t need all of it, but it can work with it. A class can be anything from a few abilities in AD&D to a dozen pages of specific in powers in 4E.

The amazing things about D&D (and RPGs in general) isn’t just the cool abilities. If we were more interested in just combining cool abilities it’d be a lot easier to play Magic.1 D&D is about play: about the freedom of imagination and interacting with another human being. Rules add a structure to that and provide a way to pass on useful procedures, but the key is the conversation between people.

The focus on adding more abilities now (or finetuning those that exist) is kind of a bummer. It means that the design team currently has more to say about what number to add to a d20 than how to play an RPG. The How To Play section of the playtest doc and the GM document have been given fairly little love. Aside from adjusting the numbers and reflecting whatever skills mean in this packet, they’re largely the same as the first iteration a year ago. The current direction makes D&D Next look more like a set of numbers with which you can play D&D than an actual manual on how to play D&D.

Some of that will probably come through as we get closer to release. The target audience right now already knows D&D, so they can afford to leave the document somewhat bare on how to actually play. Ultimately, though, it limits the audience of D&D to people who know how to play D&D and just want a new set of numbers to apply to that.

Their goal appears to be to make a Rorschach test of D&D: everyone who looks at it should see their own favorite edition or style of play.

The problem there is when you try to explain to a new person what D&D is. Do you tell them about the butterfly you see and they may be completely lost—without prior knowledge of what to look for, it’s just blobs of numbers.

Rorschach D&D, if it succeeds, might be a real hit with existing D&D players. After all, if you have any interest in D&D, this will look like the kind of D&D you like. The trouble is, how many of those people don’t already have a “home” edition that they prefer? If I look at Next and see all the elements of Moldvay that I love… why not just go play Moldvay?

As a personal preference, I can’t see this doing much for me. Most of the time when I get into a new game I do so because it has some ideas I wouldn’t have thought of myself, which in turn inspires me to make more cool stuff. If a game sets out to be what I already expect (and have a whole lot of choices to get to that point) I’m not sure why I’d be excited for it.

Next still has time to hit that mark, and maybe it will. While right now it’s full of the tools to play a variety of styles of D&D, nothing in the text actually helps you play those styles. If the game had a clear vision of what it wanted to be it doesn’t have to tell you much about how to play in that style—it’ll be an emergent property of the game design. But with a Rorschach game, if they want to help people see the butterfly (or the dead dog head) they need to provide some way to figure out what all these tools are for.

  1. And probably worth a lot more money to Wizards of the Coast, too. 

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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