What Third Edition gets right, part two
We’re looking at what each Edition of D&D gets right to see if they can all be mashed together to make the best darned edition of D&D, ever. This isn’t quite how the next edition of D&D is expected to work, but it’s a fun experiment. From our understanding so far the next edition of D&D will take a modular approach where the GM, group or even individual players can make their characters as complex or as simple as they desire. I’ll be blogging about relative complexity later this week.
We have already looked at Fourth Edition (parts one and two) and last time we covered the wonder that is the Open Game License. This time around let’s take a closer look at the Third Edition D&D rules themselves.
Starting power level
On a scale from 1 to 20 where your typical normal Peasant is a 1, the average 1st level Third Edition character hardly scrapes a 2. In contrast, a 1st level Fourth Edition PC would be a 4 or 5.
Third Edition D&D gets it right. At the very start of their careers, your heroes are barely differentiated from the common rabble. The only things which put them a step above their peers are higher-than-average stats (4d6 drop lowest > 3d6) and decent equipment. The PCs have barely enough hit points to take two solid hits, and need to rely on wits and teamwork rather than big flashy powers in order to survive. The world is dangerous because it’s dangerous, not because the flavour text says it is so.
Of course, there’s nothing to stop your game starting at a higher level. If you want your heroes to really be heroes (and on a par with their 4e counterparts) then start the campaign around 4th level and you’re there. The game needs levels 1-3 there though if you want that core D&D “starting from nothing, risking everything” experience. It’s one thing which 4e D&D sorely lacks, and Third Edition D&D gets spot on.
Later supplements and splatbooks ramped up the overall power level of the game to the point where even low-level PCs could be walking tanks, and this is one area where 3e fell down. I hope that the next edition of D&D does a better job of keeping a lid on the power curve than 3e did. 4e was pretty admirable in this respect, but even in that edition some power creep did manage to sneak in.
Is D&D really still D&D without Vancian Magic? Maybe, maybe not. I do think that D&D loses something when it’s not there, and there should be room in the rules for a Wizard class that has to commit their spell to memory and lose them when cast.
One of the strengths of Third Edition D&D is that it kept conceptually close to its roots. I love spells with Verbal, Somatic and Material components and some of my best gaming sessions began with the Wizard heading off on his own to search for rare spell components, then promptly needed rescuing by the rest of the party.
In another session the Wizard was cursed to cast a random memorized spell whenever he opened his mouth. That’s role-playing gold right there, and all thanks to the magic system in Third Edition D&D. Try that with Fourth Edition and you’ll just get blank looks.
What I would like to see in the next edition of D&D is the return of a Vancian Wizard class alongside an inate magic-user (Sorcerer?) who works in a similar way to a Fourth Edition class. This lets the GM choose which style of magic suits their campaign setting, and the player freedom to choose their preferred style of play. I feel that the 3e Sorcerer almost got it right, but the reliance on Spells per Day and a Spells Known list did little to sufficiently separate it from the Wizard class.
If I was designing the magic system for the next edition of D&D there would be a Vancian Wizard who could memorize a fixed number and level of spells per day, and other magic-using classes (Sorcerer, Cleric, Bard, Druid) would use spell points. These would be equal to their key stat (CHA for Sorcerer and Bard, WIS for Cleric and Druid) plus their class level. Spells cost 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 15, etc according to spell level but spells above your class level cost double. Only level 1 but want to cast that level 3 Fireball? That’s 10 points (level 3 spells cost 5 points, doubled because it’s above your level).
Spell points reset back to full points each day at times depending on the class (A Cleric of the Sun God’s points reset at dawn, for example) and can be affected by location, magic items, following (or disobeying) the laws of your god, etc. If your Sun God cleric fails to pray at dawn he only has half his spell points for that day, or a Druid with metal on his person is penalized by the item’s weight (don’t try wearing a metal breastplate if you’re a Druid – that’s -30 spell points!). Cantrips (0-level spells) cost no spell points provided your character has at least 1 spell point remaining.
This means that a 1st level Sorcerer with CHA 15 would have 16 spell points so could cast 16 1st level spells, or two 2nd level spells (presuming he knew any) and three 1st level spells, or one 3rd level spell and 6 1st level spells, or any mix of the above. At 2nd level he gains one more spell point but 2nd level spells are no longer double-cost so he could now cast five of them and two 1st level spells, or be free to mix them however he wants. Meantime the Vancian Wizard doesn’t need to mess with spell points at all but instead chooses his spells from his spellbook in advance.
Buy hey, that’s just me. What do I know?
No Dragonborn or Tieflings
I quite like 4e’s Dragonborn, but not as a core race thankyouverymuch. The core races in the game should be the ones which are likely to be present in the majority of campaign settings. As D&D is a fantasy game first and foremost so that means Humans, Elves, Half-elves, Dwarves, Halflings and Half-Orcs (and Gnomes, if you insist). Having Dragonborn and Tieflings as core races in Fourth Edition meant revising existing settings such as the Forgotten Realms to a massive degree just to make them fit. Thanks, but no.
Save these races for Player’s Handbook 2, or whatever. Core races my ass.
Talking of races……
I consider Savage Species to be one of the most under-rated supplements ever released for any edition of D&D.
This supplement allowed you to play a Kuo-Toa. Or a Grimlock. Or an Ogre Mage. Or a Dragon. Or Flesh Golem. Or Zombie. Or any other creature at all from the whole of the Monster Manual and beyond. It included rules for creating Anthropomorphic Races (Catfolk ftw!) as well as turning powerful monsters into full classes with level advancement.
Quite simply, it blew my mind. Savage Species is D&D, wide open. I planned (but for several reasons never got around to running) a session where the PCs were Skeletons under the command of a particularly incompetent Necromancer (imagine The Office but with undead, and you’re there), and ran one scenario where the players were all Wizard’s Familiars trying to rescue their captive owners. In another session the players created the monsters inhabiting the dungeon and I ran a team of adventurers as NPCs trying to “cleanse” their home (I failed).
Much as Savage Species was glorious, ambitious and frankly downright awesome, it was not without flaws.
The problem was not so much with the supplement itself but with the whole Level Adjustment/Effective Combat Level thing. The rules for those didn’t work. A Level Adjustment was just nowhere near equivalent to the level it was supposed to be adjusting. You couldn’t, for example, play an Ogre Mage (5d8 HD, +7 Level Adjustment) alongside a party of 12th level heroes and have a hope in hell’s chance of keeping up. In the end we just ignored Level Adjustment completely. Sure, your Ogre Mage is going to be more powerful than your 5th level comrades for a while, but it will all balance out in the end.
What Third Edition D&D, and Savage Species in particular, did was help us to think of monsters as having classes. The PCs could face off against a group of Orc Rangers or a White Dragon Necromancer, and that just rocked. Sure, the implementation was time consuming – creating custom monsters and adding class levels took ages – but the end result was often very satisfying, at least for the five rounds they lasted in combat.
I would love to see a return to something like this in the next edition of D&D, but in a simplified and less time consuming form. Fourth Edition D&D tried (and partially succceeded) with the Class Templates in the DMG but like so many things in that edition of the game it wasn’t well followed through when new classes were released, or the material was hidden behind the D&D Insider paywall. Did they ever release Psionic class Templates, for example? D&D Insider lacks a good enough index (or decent organization at all, for that matter) for me to find out.
What would be interesting would be open up the whole “a race as a class” thing. Your hero could be a Level 1 Elf just like in good ol’ Classic D&D, but also take levels in a profession-based class at later levels. Your Level 3 Elf/Level 2 Ranger could stand alongside a Human-1/Fighter-4 as an equal. Likewise, a Level 20 Goblin would be a God-King among Goblins, and a true foe to be feared.
Imagine a version of D&D where every monster had a sliding class level range so the GM could easily scale each and every monster encounter, and the players could even mix-and-match races to create unique race combinations. Taking Orc-1/Human-1 gives you the archetypal Half-Orc, but what about a Gnome-1/Goblin-1? Gnoblin, anyone? It’s like a Half-Orc in miniature!
Seriously though, monsters with levels rocks both sides of the gaming table, hard. It will need to be implemented a darned site better (and by better, I mean nowhere so damned time consuming) than Third Edition’s system, but I believe it can, and should, be done.
Phew. We’re going to need a Part Three for this. After that we’ll take a sidestep and look at Pathfinder before moving on to AD&D and end with the grand-daddy of them all.
Till next time!