Rebuilding D&D, or 5E my way…

I suppose I should start off by saying that I’m a huge fan of Pathfinder and for me, they’ve gotten the D&D thing down just about right. Not perfect, but just about right. So filter your perceptions of what is to follow appropriately. But I do see places where D&D could bring something from each of its various eras to capture audiences and create interesting gaming ideas. This post won’t be a deeply detailed investigation but rather a whirlwind tour. And I may reference some other games along the way — don’t be offended, please.

The Core Mechanic
Well — I’m a big fan of the d20. It’s a sacred cow, maybe, but it also works — and works for D&D. I can’t really imagine rolling 2d10 or 3d6 to play D&D (and I don’t see the need). I also appreciate 3rd ed’s approach of things going up instead of both up and down. Easier for new players, easier for the math challenged, just easier.

The Ability Scores
I realize that a lot of people are in favor of ditching the ability scores and just keeping the modifiers. Sure, why not? It works for Dragon Age rpg and Mutants and Masterminds (and True 20). I don’t see any reason that such a system couldn’t be adopted. My only concern is re-balancing the point-buy options when you constrict the range of numbers — though one of my later suggestions does interact with this. But seriously — this is a small thing — let’s make it happen.

The Classes
Now, I’ve played every edition of D&D. I’ve also played a lot of other fantasy RPGs. I think that one of the things that keeps bringing me back to D&D is the classes. I’ve discovered over the years that I like them. Specifically, I’ve never found a game that lets me make a straight-up Fighter/Magic-User the way D&D does. And I’ve tinkered…

I am not (NOT) a power-gamer. I like an effective character and I’m good a “system mastery” but I’m a fan of customization in character-creation. Now, this may not seem compatible with a class system — but then, you are also talking to a player who really enjoyed the Skills and Powers options in 2E. And I like flavorful options. One of the old D&D-clones, Arcanum, from Bard Games actually supplanted D&D for me for a while because it such evocative character classes and magic options. So, while I don’t really need setting in my core book — I like a sense of flavor.

So, what to do with classes? I think Star Wars Saga System was actually a good hybrid of 3.5, 4E, and D20 Modern and while it also wasn’t perfect, it was building in the right direction. And it offers some compelling ideas for both sides of the argument. For those who want to see a return to a more stripped-down set of classes, you could offer just 4 or five classes and then use the various talent trees to broaden the scope. For those who want more flavorful, rich option sets, the talent-trees could be used to instill that sense of flavor — “that’s right, I’m a fighter, but I studied at the Rusted Temple — so what have you got?”

And there is another compelling argument here. The core of the system could be built around the talent tree system and remain on the level of a game like Pathfinder or 3.5 — but it also offers another option to the 4E crowd and the Suits who want to make a buck… While the core system would be similar in scale to PF — a system this modular allows me to easily envision the “Book of Big, Damn, Heroes” where a more 4E sensibility is taken with powers (and the name could even be changed to Powers) and the scale of the game could be given a more 4E treatment.

You know, I might actually be on to something here… WotC, you hearing me?

Heck, this could work in reverse too — you could take the basic framework I outlined above and create an old-school version too, where the talent trees are limited to one track and built around a straight frame of four, core classes.

And each of the three would be built on exactly the same core and a DM would simply announce which version they were running — core, BDH (big, damn heroes), or OS. It works for Battletech — why can’t it work for D&D? And then, because it’s all built around the same core — it’s easy for a player to move between types with little extra learning needed.

And multi-classing could work in a similar manner. You want to move between classes — go for it. You pick up new talents when you switch classes — and this provides the core of the character building system — and has something for everyone in the D&D family (well, okay, in a perfect world it does — I know we’d still find stuff to complain about).

So, what would those classes be? Fighter, Rogue, Magic-User, Cleric? Why not? Then if you want to build Conan, Warduke, or Lancelot, they all work — just follow the right talent trees for your goal. Things like Paladins, Rangers, Cavaliers, etc could return to being “sub-classes” like they were in the old days and be built out of the same frame as all fighters. For purists, easy to do — for tinkerers, also easy to do… Heck, this even has a built in appeal to the “video-game” crowd. Talent trees and complex builds are bread and butter to games like WoW or Dragon Age (heck, even Diablo II works like this) so it is easy to pick up for those style of players and run with.

That’s all for now…
I warmed to the topic more than I thought I would and spent a lot of words on just few parts… I guess I’ll have to come back to explore my ideas for skills, magic, equipment (magic items!), and races. Thanks for reading and check back — I’m looking forward to writing about races and magic items. They both make me crazy!

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11 responses

  1. Though I’m advocating for removing levels completely in my “5E” build, if you have to leave levels in the game, I actually like the concept of talent options opened up during advancement.

    If I’m reading you correctly, there would exist at least 1-2 talent tree paths per class (probably a lot more once the tinkerers got their hands on the concept) that would be open to all characters. Then, at given levels a player could invest “talent points” (for lack of a better term) into either the advancement of a current tree or to begin a new tree.

    These talents would operate a lot like feats but would embrace (rather than try to remove) the tiered concept of directed advancement along a path.

    Want your fighter to know some basic healing spells? Invest in the Divine Favors tree and at talent level 2 it opens up that capability. What’s offset is that the same fighter is giving up advancement in the “Warrior of The Rusted Temple” talent tree.

    That level of character customization would make for some very interesting character permutations. Giving the player the option of starting with the base “Adventurer” that is customized via advancement along multiple talent trees is an intriguing one for D&D.

  2. Well, I really did have Saga Edition Star Wars in mind as I was writing, but effectively, the answer to your question is “yes.”

    I’m actually thinking a lot more than 2-3 trees per class. For example, since I referenced the Arcanum earlier — the Magic-User might have trees for High Magic, Sorcery, Low Magic, Astrology, etc. And the dual-magic caster types they had, like the Thaumaturge, might be mixed, taking levels in Astrology and Sorcery, for example…

    For Cleric types, talent trees could be built around faiths, domains, church role, etc. So you could build a “lay priest” type that was a “Cleric class” but avoided spellcasting altogether.

    Thinking about this more — Pathfinder is doing some of this “tool-kit” style thinking with their rogue. The Rogue talents let them choose things like “minor magic” or “combat feats” to specialize them more toward the type of scoundrel they are — more of a thug, a Grey Mouser type, or maybe a combination — without ever multi-classing.

    Also, I’m thinking along the lines that the classes are still necessary and would have some elements that are intrinsic — but I think 4E provides a good template for a unified advancement table and how to build around it to create classes that remain unique. And class entry would be a requirement for most talent trees (though maybe not all — and this would be a way to get rid of feats?)

    And this could steal an idea from Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. In that game you pick a focus when you build a class: Combat, Stealth, or Magic… what if you did the same for this new D&D but expanded the choices to Combat, Stealth, Magic, Social and Divine and had a basic talent tree for each?

    That has potential, I think.

  3. I agree.

    While it’s a bit unique in concept to D&D at this scale (a complete class skill/power tree is new though feats had progressive options that could be equated to trees) It’s not a complete left turn from what’s in the collective gaming sphere.

    As a result, I think it would be easy to adapt and (done right) would lead to some intriguing choice options for players.

    I think you’re on to something with this idea.

  4. My 5E? I wouldn’t call it 5E. Back to 0E. Essentials. Literally. 3 booklets ODnD style. With… all… the.. junk…in … 4e… and the worst of the WOTC era…BINNED.

    Junk Prestige Classes. You can’t imagine your plain vanilla fighter being a “Shadowdancer”/”Swordweaver”/”Monkey Sword Master”? You have to harangue the DM who offers you a game to allow your 101 splat books he can’t afford? Go play some other “game of your imagination”

    Junk stupid Heroic/Paragon/Epic tiers. Seriously? You can’t just roleplay what your fighter does when he’s at Godlike Level??? You need more books and SPECIFIC RULES and Paragon Classes for that?

    Keep Fighter/Wizard/Cleric/Thief and build out from there.

    Back to standard races. None of this Tiefling/Dragonborn crap.

    DROP POWERS IN ANY SORT OF FLAVOUR (except certain at-will powers) AND OTHER WOW CRAP (Screw you morons who keep insisting this doesn’t reflect a certain MMORPG).

    FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD, SEND STUPID CONCEPTS LIKE BLOOdied and HEALING SURGES BACK TO THE NINE HELLS!

    Clearly differentiate the four classes with CLASS-RELATED FEATURES but keep all of them a bit more survivable at early levels. Every class also has REAL & UNIQUE at will abilities (e.g. basic first level cantrips for wizards that don’t need choosing from a list). Players take it from there and ROLEPLAY IT OUT – fighter belongs to a warrior class of knights serving a deity (hell, sounds like a Paladin to me).

    Cleric turns Undead, heals/buffs/kicks ass

    Fighter – pure killing machine

    Wizard – spells and spells

    Thief – backstab, thieves skills and thieves tools. Use ’em.

    Focus on monsters (I mean NEW monsters – since WOTC seems to have run out of imagination and needs elite kobolds/orcs/dragons (young, middle-aged, old), why not go back through the entire Dragon Magazine ouevre WHICH THEY OWN and just relist those in an expanded monster manual),

    Put out more adventures with clever plots, fiendish traps, twists and so on, not thinly disguised same-old dungeon crawls with pretty graphics and maps for non-existent miniature lines

    Go for linked modules series (do we really NEED to call them Adventure Paths?).

    Think up a way to help folks play solo or online. Use online platforms to help design the best damned environment for playing online so a gamer in SIngapore can hook up with one in Istanbul or Helsinki or whatever – integrated dice servers, module creators, share information. Why are so many players using non WOTC platforms for this? Why waste time with character generators and online compendiums. Recreate the addictive social nature of the MMORPGS and bring it back to the D&D world to make it way more easy to play.

  5. Well,

    I’m not anti-4E. I enjoyed 4E well enough and I think it does bring some good innovations to the game.

    I’m also a fan of the Adventure Paths.

    My goal with this post was to think about the evolution of the various D&D and D&D related (and unrelated) games to see what else might be hidden in there to build out to a better gaming experience.

    I appreciate your comment — and hey — I’m planning on addressing my thoughts about the old school TSR stuff WotC owns — so check back!

  6. […] The Rhetorical Gamer chimes in with Rebuilding D&D, or 5E my way… […]

  7. Perhaps I’m too late to the party here, but this all got me thinking about the innovative approach Trion took when they designed their MMO Rift.

    For those not familiar, there are 4 core classes, and each eventually has access to 8 different talent trees of which only 3 can be used at a time. So for Mages for example, you have Necromancer, Warlock, Dominator, Pyromage, Stormcaller, Archon, Chloromancer, and Elementalist. This leaves you with the ability to play a healer, ranged damager or a new role called support. Other classes can do melee damage and tanking as well. Each class can also “respec” nearly at will, so you can almost always find a way forward no matter what situation you find yourself in. The lore of the game aligns well with this system.

    Furthermore, each tree has 2 parts… a “branches” portion and a “roots” portion. In general, the upper sections are more choicy, while the roots are more fundamental and progress linearly. Another approach might have been the upper gets the optional abilities, while the lower gets the passive ones. You spend points in the upper area, and gain progress in the lower area. If you have all 51 points (almost all of your points at max level), then you have access to everything, but your 2 other trees are minimal. Also, even with nothing in the tree, you have access to some core ability just for selecting it.

    The overall approach is quite interesting, but effectively left the designers 36 trees to keep in balance at a time. And as often happens in games with lots of customization, certain “builds” become the norm, tossing most of the possible permutions into the “ineffective” bin.

    Full disclosure: I used to subscribe to the game until recently, when I no longer had time to continue playing. It was enjoyable for researching the innovative approach they took, if nothing else.

  8. Another relevant detail: The classes themselves are basically naked without the talent trees. You only get small incremental stat boosts with your level. All of the abilities and powers come from assigning talent points.

  9. Dude, it is like you were reading my mind!
    I totally agree with you! The SW Saga d20 was suposed to be the logical base for the 4e.
    I started playing D&D in the early 90’s and didn’t had the chance of playing the 1st D&D edition, but I read the rules. I also played all the editions of D&D. And I am somehow unhappy about the game evolution, 3rd edition have a lot of cool game mechanics in comparison to the previous versions, but I think it has it’s flaws. And the 4th edition, would be Perfect if we were talking of a MMO. But we are not, so I think being all about attack powers a bit boring.
    Well anyway! Congrats for initiative, and if you want someone to discuss some rules and gives ideas, you can count with me.
    Cheers!

  10. Is this thread closed? Or this would be a good time to put some thoughts into it again, since wizards are already working on their 5th edition, or how they call it D&D Next. I have several ideas about how an “improved” D&D should be…

  11. cauldronofevil | Reply

    I’ve always HATED classes. They always seemed restrictive, completely unnatural, matching nothing in any fantasy literature I ever read and far more reminiscent of Napoleonic wargaming.

    It seemed like Classes always produced 2-dimensional clones that could in fact be described by two words – your class and level. And of course, once you got past the basic 4 they were always broken and unbalanced.

    I never understood how anyone could stand them or why they would want them.

    Then I discovered Barbarians of Lemuria. I realized that not only could you have your classes and have them make SENSE but you could even have all the crunchy chrome of them without them being overwhelmingly broken as well.

    But at the same time you could remove all the artificial restrictions of assuming that all your PCs life he has only done ONE thing!

    No ‘trees’, ‘branches’, ‘powers’, ‘kits’, ‘feats’ or any of mechanical dross.

    BUT you can have as many ‘splat’ books as you want – Here’s what happens when you take a career in X. If you stay for this many years you learn this, if you stay longer you’ll learn THIS!

    BoL is the way D&D should always have been done.

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