refactoring dnd 4e

I’m trying to keep up to date with what’s going on in the Dungeons & Dragons world. I think the fourth edition rules are nice and easy to use. On those occasions where I encounter a rule I don’t know well, I can guess and when I look into the rules later, it usually ends up being easy to remember for next time. I’m looking forward to seeing the new rules for psionics. I like the stuff they’re doing with hybrid classes to introduce something more like old style multiclassing.

That said, I still think that 4E is very different from what I want out of a ruleset. It all comes down to the order of organization at which genericity is applied. D&D 4E has a number of core concepts that are used all throughout the game to do just about everything. There’s the “core mechanic” that’s used to determine most events’ outcomes. There’s the combat round, the defense system, and effect keywords. These are simple, universal concepts that show up all over the rules to make the game easy to learn.

The next level of specifics are almost entirely limited to special abilities: some class features, powers, and monster abilities. This is what I’d like to refactor.

Imagine that I wanted to introduce a new kind of character to my campaign. Right now, I might do that by creating a new class. Creating a new class, though, means creating new powers. Classes in the PHB have about fifteen pages of powers each, so that’s a huge amount of work. The powers have to be playtested, considered for balance, and so on. It’s a massive amount of work, almost certainly beyond what any Dungeon Master will do. Other than that, what can be done? Well, there’s always rebranding. That is: we’ll call your character a hybrid rogue-warlock but replace “Arcane” with “Divine” and “Martial” with “Primal” and change the name and flavor text of your powers. This is a great solution, and very easy – as long as you can accurately describe the new class as a hybrid of two others. This is probably increasingly likely as more core classes are added. It also means more and more powers are being added to the game, which really reduces what remains of the “hold the whole game in your head” simplicity we had in some very early editions.

For example, I recently read some comments about how original Dungeons & Dragons, as typified by the Rules Cyclopedia, was an incredibly simple game, easy to learn, easy to run, and lots of fun. I looked over a copy, and while it’s clearly simple, it’s not very flexible. It has nine classes (each of which is both a class and a race), and each class has its own kind of rules. In other words, there is no generic powers system. You can’t hybridize classes. So, “OD&D” is great if you want to run a game set in Mystara or Greyhawk.

There was another game that I liked, which had very, very simple rules. It’s been years since I played it, so I may have forgotten some of them, but I think I could remember nearly all of them enough to write them down. I could certainly sit down and start playing now without being confused or needing review. The game had lots of splat books, but none of them really added new rules beyond minor tweaks or flavor. The basic rules perfectly covered the whole system.

The game was Mage: the Ascension. It was one of the original “World of Darkness” games, so it used the Storyteller System (aka “the d10 system”). In some ways, it was like 4E: there was a fixed set of attributes and skills, and they were used together to accomplish nearly everything – apart from the application of powers.

Powers were entirely defined by the Spheres. There were nine spheres, each dealing with some broad domain like “life” or “position in space” or “consciousness.” Each sphere was ranked from zero to ten (although in practice this was really from zero to five) and each achieved rank granted broad powers. For example, “Matter 3” allowed the user to create matter. The amount of matter that could be created was related to the core d10 mechanic.

Absolutely every magical effect could be reduced to a set of sphere values. Anything else could be resolved with the skill system. Because the Sphere system covered combat as well as non-combat applications of magic, it was much more generically useful. (I will restate, but not elaborate, at this point on my complaint that 4E rogues are more like ninjas than burglars.)

I know that rules systems are built to reinforce the flavor of the game that one wants to run, and that highly generic game systems can be bland and boring. Mage’s system was fantastic for Mage, but would be bizarre and horrible for D&D. I wonder, though, whether D&D could be adapted to use a system like Mage’s. There might be more than nine core power stats. Maybe more would be added later. (This would have been absurd in Mage.) Classes could become optional – collections of flavor text and ideas for using powers, or possibly granting bonuses for certain types of power. It would be possible to have an entirely free collection of powers and keywords, up to the discretion of the DM. Some Dungeon Masters will allow you to have both “Melee Combat” and “Abjuration” and some will not.

So far, I have been able to do what I want by hybridizing and rebranding classes. I’ve been just slightly wary of this as I’ve produced a Divine-sourced Invoker/Warlock, because “normal” combinations are presumably playtested – along with their huge list of powers – but my tweaks are not. A metapowers system would provide more built-in balance.

Maybe someday I’ll take some time to sketch out a generic metaclass system for D&D. For now, I’ll just try to keep myself one adventure ahead of the party.

Written on June 15, 2009
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