Man, it’s taking me a week to get to this. Arcane is such a mess, thematically and mechanically, in D&D and I’ve been really unsure about how to go about this. What I’m looking for, though, is player agency. Player choice. This is what I’ve come up with.

We’re ditching spells for Arcane. Spells are clunky, weird, and poorly costed. There are some spells that are just obnoxiously powerful for their level, other spells that are totally worthless until you have extra caster levels to cast them with, and yet others that should never be used at all. This is exacerbated in tabletop where “creative” uses of spells have gone on to break the game. The comments here can help explain why the so-called Quadratic Wizard is a problem. On top of that, many Wizard players may come away with a feeling that they’re kind of pidgenholed into a certain kind of play style – even if they’re not playing 4th Edition. The spells are poorly written, which is the biggest problem for me.

So we’ve got to replace the most archaic and traditional D&Dism ever. With something that gives players more agency, which D&D players famously hate. Yay!

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D&D’s Magic is Busted

January 2, 2017

I’m serious. It’s terrible. Vancian magic is absolutely horrible for a game. I’m not going to preserve it, at all, and there’s no reason to defend it. It makes no sense that beings who are otherwise massively powerful and able to manipulate the very matter of the universe with their will alone, essentially, are trapped in the most player and game punishing system possible.

It’s also far, far too powerful as it exists now.

We’re scrapping the whole thing and starting from scratch.

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The boxer carefully parried the first punch out of the way and sized up his opponent. Just when another jab came toward his face, he deftly stepped out of the way and followed up with a huge haymaker.

It was easy to dismiss her petite frame and blindness as weaknesses, but combined with her short staff and her training, even the dragon’s bite found only the dirt under her feet. Her stance was strong, her reflexes fast, and her hands moved like water.

His hits weren’t hard, at least at first. His movements weren’t fast, at least at first. He didn’t look strong, at least at first. His opponents were powerful, at least at first.

She knew the honor she was undertaking. She had gone out into the wilds and found a great dire bear and brought it down with only her hands, and a little bit of her head. She had been given the graven axes of her fathers, and their fathers. She could feel the rage welling up inside as she accepted the mantle of Berserker. Read the rest of this entry »

The young elf moves silently, quickly through the Lord’s house. She picks her away around the guards, avoids setting off the Nightingale Floor, and arrives at her destination – the Lord’s treasury. So she kneels down, pulls out her simple tools, and begins to work.

They would never recognize him. As a master spy and confidant to the Prince, he was an expert in disguises. Now, though, with the Empress deposed and the Prince in exile, he needed all of his skills to blend in and find out what had happened.

He always had to fend for himself, ever since the humans came in and killed his parents. He wasn’t the fastest orc, or the smartest, but he was tough and he was good with his fingers. He picked pockets to feed himself and, occasionally, he roughed it out with those who caught him. Hasn’t lost a fight once, but he also doesn’t fight fair.

She cleaned her dagger on the jerkin of the merchant who had refused the Guild’s protection. It’s far too bad that the Merchant’s guild had decided he was worth sacrificing for their petty games. No matter, though – it was simple for her, a single thrust, right between the ribs on his back. No sound, no muss, no fuss.

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A samurai plucks arrows from her quiver and looses them toward an enemy before her, peppering the vicious ogre before dropping from her horse, drawing her sword, and moving in for the kill.

Fighting for his life, the gladiator bashes the first swarming goblin with his shield then throws the shield at the next. His sword cleaves a third goblin as he picks up one of their crude spears and uses it to old the mass back as he figures out his next move.

Plumes of smoke erupt from the guns of the small band of musketeers, picking off the flanks of the advancing force of armored knights. They keep in formation, shooting and falling back, until finally the knights number less than they and their swords leap into their hands for the final struggle.

All of these are fighters. Each and every one of them. They all stem from a single, pure ideal. A fantasy of the warrior who is an expert in all forms of warfare and combat. In Dungeons and Dragons, we call that warrior The Fighter.

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To continue discussing the importance of the fantasy in D&D’s design, I’m going to focus on the classes and their impact both in the game and the world the game exists in. Part of the joy and draw of roleplaying games, especially pen and paper roleplaying games, is the theoretical depth of the world they exist in. There’s a living, breathing world behind the heroes’ actions. Since there is a living, breathing world, though, there has to be a place for the heroes’ skills, abilities, and histories in that world. They cannot be entirely divorced from the capabilities of the people around them, and they must represent their power in the story in the mechanics of the game (as the mechanics represent the “physics” of a world, in a way).

Unfortunately, Dungeons and Dragons has always failed on this measure in one way or another. Fifth Edition represents the biggest failure in this fashion.

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So I’m listening to Loading Ready Run’s new Temple of the Lava Bears campaign and it has me thinking about combat design, weapon design, and how combat is abstracted in D&D.

To start my line of reasoning, let’s go over the way D&D, and most RPGs, abstract combat and damage in the particular slice I’m mulling over. Combat systems and styles are fully abstracted into a simple combat value (the To-Hit roll is how it’s normally referred to) and damage is dependent on the strength or dexterity of attacker and the damage “code” for the weapon. For instance, a character’s Strength could give them a +2 bonus and they could be using a broad sword (what D&D likes to call a longsword – not a longsword) which does 1d8 (one eight sided die) in damage. When rolled, they get 4, +2 from their Strength, for a total of six points of damage. This is a fine enough abstraction from a gamification perspective, especially given the history of roleplaying games. Namely, Chainmail and tabletop war gaming.

However, it doesn’t really reflect martial arts very well. The biggest example of this, I think, is the Roman centurion. In D&D terms, the Roman centurion uses a large shield (the scutum) and a short sword (the gladius).

A Roman centurion with scutum raised and stabbing with a gladius

Roman centurion with scutum and gladius

The Roman centurion was not known to do very little damage, even against unarmored opponents. The traditional D&D abstraction also fails to account for the fact that the scutum, as a shield, is not armor. The shield is a defensive weapon. This is not unlike the use of an offhand dagger in Florentine fencing. It’s certainly heavier and more difficult to use than an offhand defensive weapon of a more traditional make but the point is the same – move the shield to intercept blows, press advantage using the shield as a means of keeping the body defended, and create openings for the striking weapon. The warrior does not simply stand and hack with their weapon and waiting for a useful opening. They instead use their weapons tactically, exploiting the strengths of their weapons to create openings. This is true with every weapon, and with every martial system that is associated with that weapon. Whether it is a pike from Renaissance Europe, a viking’s sword and round shield, the Chinese jian, or the Japanese katana. Martial arts are not merely the home of modern-day training and rediscovery, the province of Asia, or tournament systems designed for health and entertainment. Every system of martial combat, from the earliest uses of Pankration to modern military defense systems, are martial arts.

That, I think, is where abstraction is far more useful. Not just as a supplement to the system of abstraction of physical attributes and ‘weapon damage’, but as a replacement to it. Instead of having a weapon that does a certain amount of damage when someone is struck with it, characters instead have maneuvers and training in a martial system that requires a certain kind of weapon. So characters in this system would never have weapons that have a particular damage coding to them and, while stats have to be abstracted for other purposes, stats would be a requirement but have no impact directly on the damage delivered by martial arts maneuvers. I think that this would more accurately represent how weapons are wielded and preserve the lethality of what are traditionally seen as “weaker” weapons in RPG design. Weapons like the dagger, the short sword, and percussion weapons. These martial arts would be a network of maneuvers abstracted through bonuses and descriptive elements that tie maneuvers together. This would also include ranged systems, since English archers were commonly experienced not just with their bow but with a broadsword or single-handed sword and buckler as well.

The trick in design is writing these martial systems up, and how much mass they take up in game design, but I think it’s worth it to provide a richer and more varied play experience than “I roll to hit”. It also provides some design space for more fanciful, fantastical systems that are rooted in historical combat.

 

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