Developments in D&D Next

D&D Next development has progressed since my first post on the new system and I want to break down the changes.  DDN is radical in the game design world: rather than try to upgrade or rework a previous system, DDN attempts to break down and simplify D&D. Buckle up, because we’re going real deep.

Understanding Scaling Factors

Scaling from leveling up is the main target of DDN’s revisions. Here are a few examples of scaling factors (roughly corresponding to 4E):

  • Each even level, your base attack bonus increases by one.
  • Every 4-6 levels, players upgrade their magic weapon and armor to new versions with a higher attack or armor bonus.
  • Characters increase hit points by four to six every level.
  • Weapon expertise is an additional feat that increases attack bonus by one per ten levels.
  • Strikers typical find or buy specific bracers that increase the damage of their basic attacks.
  • Skills rolls include half the character’s level.
  • Characters add two points to two ability scores every four levels.

Scaling rarely opens up new options. It makes you better at certain things, but generally, the things you’re trying to do also become harder. A level 13 rogue might be better at unlocking chests than a level 3, but the locks he finds in his level 13 dungeons are harder to open. A fighter might have +21 to hit at high levels compared to +6 at low levels, but monsters have ACs that are 15 higher to compensate. Scaling is an arms race.

Recent RPGs have cut back on scaling factors. In Final Fantasy 13, there are no armor upgrades, only attack and HP upgrades. Whatever you attack damage is determines how much HP you knock off. Damage is understandable by players rather than being indecipherable math involving armor, damage reduction, shields, etc. Numbers can obscure the tactical possibilities of a game. In D&D’s case, it can hamper the creative aspects as well.

DDN axes scaling factors. Here are a few examples:

  • Attack bonus goes up about 1/2 to 1/3 as fast.
  • AC doesn’t seem to scale by level at all.
  • Ability scores start a fair bit lower (you’ll expect your best stat to be around 16-17).
  • Hit points go up by Constitution mod per level, which is generally 1-3 points lower than the old class-based HP scaling.
  • There is little-to-no baked in magic weapon/armor expectation, especially on the armor side.
  • Skills do not scale by level, though certain class features can increase them over time.
  • There is little-to-no treasure expectation outlined in the DM document.

In some ways, these changes are terrifying. Try to take a breath. The goal here is to make character progression less number-based and more about new options and tricks. Here are some shifts that could occur when transitioning from 4E to DDN:

  • Locks, traps, and other skill-based challenges do not need to have level-regimented placement (or awkward down/upscaling rules).  A lock that is nigh-impossible at level 3 will still be difficult at level 9.
  • Monsters will not be obsoleted nearly as quickly and, as a result, there is less need for hundreds of different monster variations just to provide enough choices at each level.
  • It’s less necessary to dump your favorite sword just because it’s a +1 and you’re level 9 now.
  • A low level but highly influential mobster boss could possess a massive treasure trove. Riches are less directly correlated to combat ability.
  • Similarly, magic item prices don’t scale nearly as fast. Items retain some of their value as you level up. In 4E, even an item 2 or 3 levels old is nearly worthless.

New Progression Details

If numbers don’t go up, why level up? To get two hit points? There don’t seem to be strong patterns yet, but here’s a compiled look at class progression:

Level Bonus
1 Lots of class stuff, first Specialty bonus
2 Extra tier 1 spell or a Manuver for melee classes
3 New spell tier, second Specialty bonus
4 Extra tier 2 spell. Maneuver+Expertise upgrade
5 New spell tier, not much for melee?
6 Extra spell, third specialty bonus, maneuver
7 New spell tier, ?? for melee

Some rough patches aside, progression is all about new options. You’ll have new tricks every other level, sometimes two at once. Progression is mostly about these new options and what they allow you to do. Clerics and Wizards are roughly as you’d expect, but melee have some new details to cover.

Expertise and Maneuvers

A pretty clear vision for these classes have started to emerge for martial classes. Each class gains, depending on level, 1-3 expertise dice to use every round to use one of several maneuvers. You may spend all your expertise on one maneuver or, if possible, split it up over a few different ones over the course of the round.

The E&M system unites a number of mechanics for each class. For Fighters, it combines marking, total defense, power attack, cleave, fortitude bonuses, and others. For rogues, it combines sneak attack, tumble, skill boosts, reflex bonuses, and more. Almost all class features run through this one mechanic. As a way to simplify the base class, I think it could be successful. Expertise dice are both your resource for the turn and a randomized element to add excitement.

Let’s see a basic Expertise example. A level 2 Fighter, let’s call him Guthrie, has 1d6 Expertise, which means he can do one Maneuver during the round. Guthrie is pretty defense-oriented and has three Maneuvers: Deadly Strike (which all fighters have), Protect, and Parry. During his turn, he might hit a goblin and may then decide to spend his expertise die to Deadly Strike and deal an extra 1d6 damage. If he misses, or if he feels his allies might need his help, he will have that dice remaining after his turn. Before his next turn, his nearby wizard buddy has an orc bear down on him, scoring a hit for 3 damage. The wizard needs his help, so Guthrie spends his die to Protect and negate 1d6 damage. If Guthrie is himself hit after the wizard, he no longer has expertise dice remaining and can not use Parry to negate some of the damage against himself.

I imagine most players will opt to funnel lots of expertise dice into damage, it gives them a nice consolation prize when they miss. This general flow also rewards players for taking a variety of maneuvers rather than pure offensive ones. I hope that the maneuvers will be innovative and provide cool possibilities when combined with specialties.

Specialties and Feats

I mentioned in my first post that Specialties are meant to serve a portion of the role that classes used to fill. It seems that specialties have been deemphasized in this latest update. Now, specialties seem to be feat tracks, similar to how a college might offer a track of related courses to ensure that a particular topic is well covered. Feats are as free-form as ever, but specialties seem to ensure that there are four feats that suit each particular specialty.

For example, the Stealth Specialist track will give you Hide in Shadows at level 1, a feat that grants three things: training in Sneak (nee stealth), the ability to hide in dim light, and low-light vision up to ten feet. Any class can take this, and since ability scores are less spiky than before, it’s reasonable for anyone to chose to become stealthy. At level 3, you could opt to take the Master Sneak feat,which guarantees you a minimum of 9 on any Sneak check. Not bad! At higher levels you can improve your sneaking abilities by allow you to move from cover to cover and escaping after taking an action.

From a game design perspective, the specialties system is a contract between the designer and the player. It says “I promise to design at least three other feats that work with each feat.” Those with 3E and 4E experience will appreciate this guarantee.

Healing

My main concern in earlier playtests were HP and healing. The adventuring day is drastically shortened by the removal of most non-magical healing. Although it doesn’t relate to progression, there have been two new experimental healing rules that may signal a recognition of these issues.

The (non-experimental) ruleset says that characters have one “hit dice” per level based on class (d8 for tough classes, less for others). Between battles, you may roll these dice to heal. Translated from 4E, you get roughly one surge per level per day. The unusual part of this is that low level characters have a very low tolerance for pain and high level characters can heal quite readily. Gaining extra hit dice may be one of the larger bonuses one gets as one levels up.

The first experimental ruleset provides a more old-school approach to healing. Each hour of rest grants HP equal to character level plus constitution modifier, or around 10-25% health. Resting for 8+ hours essentially restores all health via a mostly complicated formula.

The second experimental ruleset is more 4E-like and thus much faster. After a 4E-style short rest (5 minutes), regain 1+level+con mod HP, meaning around 30 minutes off will fully recover anyone. Once you are “bloodied” (drop below half health), however, you can not naturally heal back above half health without a long rest. This bloodied threshold implies that some wounds can not be simply shaken off. It retains the excitement and danger of combat and means that characters who enter a battle bloodied put themselves at significant danger. At the same time, a party that mostly routs their first battle can simply shake off the dirt and be at full strength heading into the second battle.

Though these rulesets are experimental and rough, I appreciate the acknowledgement that healing could be better handled. I look forward to Wizard’s further developments in this area.

Conclusion

DDN has developed nicely and I can see a strong vision for the product. This is not a ruleset for a videogame. It is meant to be interpreted, warped, adapted, and evolved. Character classes, backgrounds, and specialties are not being built to stack up to exactly equal on the damage meter. Many of us 4E players are a bit worried that the game might be significantly broken in that area. Despite that, I have great hope that DDN will instead be a game for non-powergaming playerbase who simply desire a general-purpose fantasy roleplaying game with deep character customization and reasonably low complexity.

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