Wizards of the Coast has posted a new update on what to expect in the upcoming D&D Next playtest packet. Naturally, I want to comment on them! Some bullet points:
- Levels 1-10. Happy about this – though I’ll have to give some serious thought to whether or not Aurikesh continues to play with a hard-cap of 5th level, as I’ve been vaguely planning
- Significant developments on wizards and clerics. Interesting stuff on both fronts.
- Rogues are losing some of their automatic-success class features, while staying focused on skills. There’s no commentary on this in the article, but I expect rogues to also get a bit of a shakeup on the function and/or scaling of Sneak Attack, based on other posts. Happy about this.
- Backgrounds are gaining a fourth skill, and it sounds like
- Passing reference to an Investigation specialty – I am very dubious of this.
For Aurikesh, I had been thinking about keeping the level cap at 5 anyway, similar to the E6 campaign concepts, because I want new characters coming in later in the campaign to start at first level without feeling like they’re so far behind that they can’t join in an adventure and have a good time. (This is the huge strength of bounded accuracy, for my purposes.) Obviously I want to see what comes next in the classes, and it’s possible that I’d still have a level cap that was some number higher than 5. Even as much as I want to see the new developments in classes, I want to see the new benefits from Specialties just as much, and I want to see if anything new happens with Backgrounds at higher levels.
I think it’s really interesting that the three “builds” of cleric are a “fighter” one, a “blaster” one (you know, mage-y), and a “rogue” one. The healing-and-buffing ability set is kind of bolted on to a reduced-strength version of the other class archetypes. I’m reminded of the Diplomat class in Alternity – it was unique in that it took one of the other four classes (basically soldier, techie, rogue, or psion) as a sub-class and got partial access to that class’s benefits. I think it might represent an acceptance that, in D&D, the system doesn’t really want the healer class to spend all in-combat time on healing or buffing spells, but wants the character to shift into and out of that role when necessary.
The danger, then, is that the game might treat the cleric as “best at healing, second-best at actual gameplay” – rather than making sure that the “leader” role is gameplay unto itself. In the “old days,” the cleric was clearly “leader” gameplay (to use the 4e terminology) attached to a reduced-strength fighter. In 3.x, the first serious ranged-damage spell that clerics receive is, what, searing light at third level, so it’s not until a few levels after that that a character could cast enough of those in a day to make it a mainstay, and even then its damage is deliberately not impressive and single-target so as to protect the wizard’s niche. It’s flame strike that starts to level things out a bit. 3.x had marginal support for what D&D Next is calling a Deceiver cleric, with the Trickster domain – but without additional skill points or Sneak Attack dice, I don’t recall that support ever rising above “marginal.”
This led to a lot of jokes when 4e came out, as it gave strong support to the “laser cleric” – a cleric build with radiant lance as an at-will, ranged-damage attack. I was happy to see some other approaches to cleric gameplay, but it still didn’t really strike me as healing and support functionality bolted onto wizard gameplay. The bard class is the closest 4e has to a sneaky leader, and even then the combat style is not especially based on behaving like a rogue. All of which is to say, I hope that the designers make cleric gameplay its own thing, even if it is partially joined with the other classes’ styles.
Wizards: I’m interested in where they go with the wizard’s Arcane Traditions. It’s a new development in the class’s architecture, a kind of wrinkle that promises a lot of room to develop setting flavor and distinguish one wizard from another. One of the things that always seemed odd to me in 4e was that a wizard’s build options revolved around their chosen implement, and each implement relied on a different ability score, but these builds didn’t alter the spells’ throughput the way the builds of other classes enhanced the effects of particular powers. Mearls has also stated elsewhere that they are likely to store a number of important options for the wizard’s function in the DMG, so that the DM informs the player of which option or options, out of a list, the setting supports. As someone who cares deeply about setting cosmology, exploring the secrets of magic, and so forth, I am excited about this. I don’t go so far as to say that the magic is the setting, but any two settings with an identical magic system can’t help but feel very similar.
Rogues: I begin to feel like they’re painted into a bit of a corner with the rogue dynamic of “expert at skills,” in that they don’t want to just give rogues a much bigger skill bonus, but at the same time, automatic success on many kinds of challenges is not actually fun. Without either tension of a random roll or the player making a choice, it isn’t gameplay. Maybe they’d find some mileage in giving the rogue a unique set of choices when faced with the kinds of problems their skills solve – options that for some this-had-better-be-good reason, non-rogues just can’t manage. Reduced time to completion is likely to come up, of course, but in most possible narrative situations, the characters either have plenty of time (rogue not necessary) or almost no time (only the rogue should even bother). What I think you want here is something more like the healing dynamic: anyone can recover hit points, by spending Hit Dice out of combat, drinking healing potions, and so on, but a cleric, a Healer specialist, or someone who is both has more options and effectiveness. This is already true of Stealth (see commentary below) – non-rogues can hide, but a hidden rogue has far more options and effectiveness in doing so. So how do you do the same with locks, traps, and other things we might define as archetypal rogue functions?
On backgrounds and specialties: I think having the specialties be combat-focused, the backgrounds non-combat-focused, and a high wall of separation between the two is preferable in terms of keeping them competing for the correct niche in player imagination. To put that another way, backgrounds and specialties are separate silos of character ability. Specialties are primarily a feat-like progression of combat abilities; if an Investigation specialty enters the mix, it’s all too likely to get treated as a non-option. Likewise, if a background gained any clear combat potential, there will arise a sentiment that it is the only option. It’s interesting, too, that from what we’ve seen so far, the Lurker specialty doesn’t make you better at attaining the “hidden” state (as that remains a function of Background, and the rogue class), but it makes you much more effective in capitalizing on the hidden state. It’s splitting a pretty fine hair of combat/non-combat, but Stealth without Lurker or Rogue is good for avoiding combat (a benefit in the Exploration area of gameplay, chiefly) and in gaining advantage on a single attack in combat (useful, but there are many ways to do this).