Monday, August 17, 2015

Some thoughts on D&D 5th edition

I've finally had some free time to actually start reading the 5th edition of d20 D&D, and the more I dig into it, the more I like what I see.  It really is, as many have said, a natural outgrowth of 2nd edition, with all the good of 3rd edition's clean and straightforward mechanics, but none of the bloat or the truly egregious game-breaking imbalances.

The fact that spells scale not with caster level, but with the level of the mana point (excuse me, spell slot) spent to cast it, is a big draw.  There is beautiful elegance in that.  Spell-casters are no longer "quadratic" in 5th edition.  And WotC was able to accomplish this without scrapping Vancian spell levels!  Imagine that... the whole 4th edition ADEU system was utterly unnecessary after all.  (With all the sarcasm I can muster:) I never would've guessed!

Now, at the moment, I'm running an OD&D campaign that doesn't show any signs of losing momentum.  And I'm loving every minute of it, to be quite honest.  I've cleaned up OD&D's mechanics for myself anyway, so that's not exactly a major concern for me.

But I do hope to get the chance to run (or at least play) some 5th edition sometime soon.  In fact, if I ever get the chance to run a one-shot on one of the days in between my regular Sunday campaign, I might just go ahead and give 5e a try.  I've read enough about other players' experiences with the rules by now to recognize all the major pitfalls.  The game balances itself out with hit points, not attack bonuses and AC the way older editions do.  This means most hits get through, which in turn means that you make an encounter challenging by increasing the number of enemies to match or exceed the party size, and you make it easy by having the player characters outnumber of the monsters—the levels of either side in the fight be damned.

I can dig that.  It's more a matter of common sense than actually having an intuitive notion of how tough an encounter will be (which is something one only develops after reffing an game for a long time, as I've done with OD&D).

That said, I would need to take a long, hard look at 5th edition's character options and decide what to allow.  At the moment, there just plain aren't options yet for some of the nonhuman races that exist in my Gaia setting.  On the other hand, settings like Færith and Alyewinn (have I talked about this one on my blog yet?  I'll have to get around to that soon) are pretty straightforward, with five common races in both: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Ogres—and it just so happens that they nicely match up with the mechanics given for the standard (non-feat) Human, the Half-Elf, the Mountain Dwarf, the Stout Halfling, and the Half-Orc.

While I'd be disinclined to allow humans to have a feat at 1st level, I'd probably allow feats and multi-classing at higher levels, on a case-by-case basis.

The classes, though.  Whew.  Part of the fun of an "advanced" D&D campaign is having all those classes around.  I've been playing OD&D with just six basic classes for so long that I have to get myself into an entirely different mindset for envisioning what classes are and what they represent in-game.  In 3rd edition, you could cherry-pick from so many classes that having a class didn't really mean anything to the in-game fiction.  A class level was just a chunk of skills and abilities.  But in 5e, even though it uses 3e style multi-classing, that's really not the case.  Your first class brings a lot to the table, and the ability requirements for multi-classing make dipping into another class a big deal.  In a lot of ways, classes 5e are just as "real" to the in-game fiction as they are to 2e and earlier editions.

Looking at the mechanics of the classes, there's nothing I'd really change at first glance.

It's just that I really don't like some of the class's names.

Petty, I know, but there you are.  To make the spread of 5th edition classes fit my settings, which period-wise tend to range from "early modern" to "pulp era", I think that re-skinning the classes would just be a matter of giving them different names, to better emphasize their role in a non-medieval world.

Fighter → Soldier.  Sure, "fighting man" is a perfectly adequate description of the class right up into modern times, but "soldier" sounds so much better.  And it presents a great contrast with the game's other heavy hitter, the...
Barbarian → Warrior.  I've never liked "barbarian" as a name for a class.  It's too broad, and it's more a name for a culture than a profession.  "Berserker" is already taken by one of the sub-classes here, but "warrior" with the implication of a tribal or primitive sort of fighter is just about perfect.
Paladin → Cavalier.  Paladin is very medieval.  Crusader too.  But "cavalier" is a word you hear a lot in 18th century literature.  Okay, so it implies more of a rogue or an adventurer than a do-gooder, but the vibe is there.  One can envision an early-modern paladin as a sort of city-level super-hero, a masked swashbuckler or such.
Ranger → Ranger.  This class's name is fine, but in any of my games, a ranger is apt to be a gunslinger or a marshal or some such.
Monk → Monk.  The 5e monk starts getting ch'i powers at 2nd level.  This class really is an eastern mystical martial artist and nothing else.  There's no better name for that than "monk".
Rogue → Expert.  I've called thief-types "experts" in my campaigns for so many years now that it's rote habit.  The 5e rogue even has a class feature called "Expertise".  And since skills in 5e are tied directly to background, this class really is a generic skill-user and not specifically a burglar.  "Expert" is a fine name for this class.

Those are 5e's six martial classes: two heavy sluggers, two half-casters, and two sneaky strikers.  The six caster classes can be broadly divided into the divine types (cleric, druid, and bard) and the arcane types (sorcerer, warlock, and wizard).  For one of my campaigns, these names would have to be shuffled around a bit, à la musical chairs.

Bard → Bard.  This name is fine.
Druid → Druid.  This one too.  Bards and druids in my settings would both be trained by the Druid Order, which tends to take the place of your typical D&D churches dedicated to specific deities.  Which brings us to a class that won't fit:
Cleric → Wizard.  Instead of armored, crusading priests, I like for my game's white mages to be, well, white wizards.  Gandalf-types who wander around righting wrongs, fighting evil in secret, not drawing too much attention to themselves.  Using a staff instead of a holy symbol as their divine focus.  Wizards would be the more "independent" operatives of the Druid Order, more out on their own recognizance and less beholden to orders from a central authority.  Plus, the domains make a great guide to "color-robed wizards": Knowledge Clerics become "gray wizards", Life Clerics become "white wizards", and so forth.
Wizard → Occultist.  This is a good name that emphasizes the academic and Intelligence-based approach to magic which is unique to this class.  I would imagine that occultists would be the type to specialize in a school like enchantment or illusion or what-have-you. Plus, "necromancer occultist" just sounds freaking cool.
Warlock →  Sorcerer.  Okay, pet peeve time.  I've been a little pissed at WotC ever since 1999 or so, when they decided to make "sorcerer" their word for "innately talented magic-user with magical ancestor blood."  Uh, no.  In fantasy fiction, a sorcerer is a guy who practices sorcery, which is ritualistic spell-casting that often involves invoking dead gods and evil spirits and other eldritch beings.  In other words, what D&D calls a warlock.  This one is a no-brainer and quite beyond dispute.
Sorcerer → Mage or Magician (same thing).  The truth of the matter is, there is no good or even vaguely consistent word for a spell-caster whose powers are innate.  In fact, fantasy worlds where some people have magic innately and others get it from study are quite rare.  Generally, a fantasy setting will either have magic be an object of study, or it will be in the blood, like it is in Harry Potter or Midkemia.  Midkemia is famous enough, though, to use as a decent model.  In that world, arcane spell-casters born with a talent for magic are called magicians.  And both "mage" and "magician" are fine names to use for a character for whom magic is a part of their very being.  They're not magic-users; they're of magic.  Mages.  Plus, it fits the sub-classes (dragon-blooded magicians could be called "Blood Mages" and wild talents are simply called "Wild Mages").

Finally, there would be at least two more classes to consider:
Mystic → Psionicist.  Whenever 5th edition psionics finally come out, I'll probably just call the main psionic class "psionicist", because I'm used to that, and because "mystic" is awfully vague and not quite "science fantasy" enough.
Engineer → Tech or Technologist.  I really love this 5e engineer class, but out of habit I'm doubtlessly going to continue to follow in the vein of my beloved Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura and keep calling such characters "technologists".

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