Fourth edition of D&D has been around for a few years now, and we have learned a lot about its strengths and limitations. Some of them can be overcome with incremental change, as Essentials are trying to do, others are too deeply embedded in the existing material. Today I’m going to talk about one of the latter cases. What would I change, if I were writing 4e today?
Probably greatest drawback of 4e, in my mind, is its overabundance of options. Hear me out. Options are great. Deep character customization is an excellent thing to have. But nowadays, players get presented with thousands of feats and items, hundreds of class powers, skill powers, themes, boons… It is staggering. And when viewed in a list in Character Builder (a necessary tool), devoid of initial context and intent, its hard to perceive them as anything but flavour-less bits of character design. Many wizards want to have White Lotus Academy feats, not many of them want to or even can go there. And, sure enough, it’s just a feat, and there’s nothing particularly specific about it, and someone else could have taught them that. Liberal re-flavouring is not necessarily a good thing, but this is, again, a topic for another discussion.
The topic of this discussion is the fact that there are no instruments available for DM to control access to these options beyound vetting them one after another or limiting sources, i.e. banning all Dragon materials or running Essentials-only games. The former approach allows for more interesting things in the game, but requires a lot more effort, and puts the DM and player in an adversarial position. The player wouldn’t ask for this feat if he didn’t want it. The DM wouldn’t prohibit it if he didn’t think it was too much. The player gets disappointed, the DM feels like a tyrant. The later approach is a lot more neutral and makes life easier for everyone, but more boring as well. There’s all this stuff out there you’re leaving out, and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with most of it.
Wizards tried to address this, to certain extent, with introduction of item rarity. However, as it stands right now, there’s officially not enough support. And even once there are enough common and rare items out there, it still relies on the DM to choose uncommon ones manually out of the endless list. Yes, there are wishlists and other techniques to spread this cognitive load. But it is still a tremendous task.
Alternative rewards, such as boons, grandmaster training, etc. deserve a special mention. They are a fantastic idea: being an internal ability, they make a character less dependent on external items (the Christmas tree effect*), as well as tie in with their accomplishments. They are also nearly worthless: there aren’t that many to choose from, and requiring the DM to custom-build ones appropriate to the actual story by first finding suitable items, then modifying them and figuring out which character would like what is just too much work to do regularly. Plus, when the whole party finishes some great quest, who gets the boon? Magic item system on which they build doesn’t allow for everyone to get items of the same level.
Further confusing things is the fact that many of these boons, as well as some feats and other options, really want to be powers, both conceptually and mechanically. But, since powers are locked-in to classes, these attempts at diversifying what characters can do only serve to muddle up what differentiates the character options.
This overabundance is caused by the obvious need Wizards have to keep publishing more books and more DDI articles, and this is where the dreaded power creep comes in. Typically, it’s not the individual character options that are broken, this is relatively easy to fix and regular errata accomplishes just that. It’s the combination of edge cases, stacking of chosen synergies these options have, that often allows for overpowered characters.
Enough with the criticism. What do I propose to fix this problem in my hypothetical do-over? Well…
Each class description consists of somewhat fewer options. These are solid, robust choices that exemplify what the class is supposed to be about. Feat selection is similar to that offered by Essentials – again, solid, slightly generic choices. You can make a functional character out of them, though without many distinguishing features. And then there are themes that provide these features. They are somewhat similar to the Dark Sun themes, but are much broader, and are the main instrument of diversification for characters.
A theme consists of any number of feats, powers and even magic items, tied together by some narrative or conceptual elements. White Lotus academy; Gladiator; Friend of the Fey; Favoured of Pelor; Touched by the Abyss. These are themes. Characters acquire access to themes by accomplishing things. In fact, each theme description has several examples of just how it can be acquired. They are, in essence, story rewards. A character may only have a limited amount of themes at a time, determined by level, though they’re free to respec out of them. One per 5-10 levels seems reasonable. Some themes can be chosen at the start (think warlock pacts), and many are assigned a tier. There probably even are theme power slots in character progression.
Instead of having boons inflicted upon characters by the DM, its players who decide just how invested they want to be in a given theme. Players remain in control of their characters’ abilities, and can actively influence them by seeking out ways to acquire a desired theme. Characters’ abilities reflect their story, not abstract builds. This particular point happens to be very similar to the rant on MMOs I’ve had a while ago.
Feats remain feats and items remain items, as there’s no need for them to imitate powers. Somewhat weak flavour-wise paragon paths are not needed in this model, as they are merely a collection of feats and powers any character with that theme can take.
DMs’ life is made easier as they operate on a higher level, granting access only to the themes they feel are appropriate. And Wizards still sell DDI subscriptions to Dragon, which publishes a theme or three every month.
While not a fundamental change, I think it could make life easier for both DMs and players, and lead to greater player investment in their characters, integrating them with story. Unfortunately, there’s simply too much stuff to try and implement this retroactively. But one can daydream.
* Using detect magic on a mid-to-high level party causes them to light up like a Christmas tree.