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Dungeons & Dragons Next Part 1: Cautious Optimism

Wizards of the Coast

Image via Wikipedia

So, Wizards of the Coast recently announced that a new edition of D&D is on the way. They also announced that, starting this spring, they would have open playtest material, and were basing a lot of their design decisions on player advice. I’ve got a few things to say, and since this is my little slice of the internet, I thought I would, you know, say those things… that I have to say…

I’m planning to cover some serious ground in this series of posts – discussing the things I love and hate out of each edition is a start.

D&D has been a big part of my life for a good long time. It’s like an old friend to me, and I find myself coming back to it time and time again. I’ve played every edition of it except the very first one (0e, if you keep track of that sort of thing), and there are things I love and hate about each of them. Every time a new edition is announced, I get excited. I love the new ideas and the new takes on old ideas that accompany each new edition. I don’t always completely love each edition, however.

Dungeons & Dragons Red/Blue/Teal/Black/Gold Box Sets

As I said, I have no hands-on with the 1974 oD&D; in fact, my experience with D&D -and Role Playing Games in general – begins with the 1981 revised edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. Despite having undergone a grand total of four revisions since oD&D, the Basic Set still had some pretty obvious connections to the War Game (Chainmail) that it had evolved from. Character movement speed, for instance, was expressed in inches. Tactical map combat was part of it, whether people realize it or not – it just wasn’t given much emphasis.

Dungeons & Dragons Expert Set

Image via Wikipedia - THe version of the Expert rules that I had. There's an older edition that a friend of mine had, but this is the one we had in our house.

The Red Box contained some pretty simple rules. You chose a “class” for your character rolled 3d6 for the same 6 stats D&D has today, and got with adventuring. It really was pretty much that simple. The Red Box covered levels 1 to 3, the Blue Box (Expert, 1981) levels 1 to 15, the Teal box (Companion, 1983) levels 15 to 25, and the Black Box (Master, 1985) levels 26 to 36. These different boxed sets each covered a different stage in a character’s adventuring career: Basic games and Expert games were similar in all ways except scale, Companion games generally dealt with establishing kindgoms and traversing the planes of the multiverse, and the Master Rules primarily dealt with world-shattering levels of power where the characters faced demon lords and even deities in combat. The Gold Box (Immortals, 1986) covered rules for characters becoming deities and continuing the game through a quest for immortality and “adventuring” as gods/goddesses.

Dungeons & Dragons Companion Set

Image via Wikipedia - the Companion rules. I had 'em, practically memorized 'em - but never actually used them. Weird, huh? It did contain mass combat rules that my brother and I used a few times - they were pretty fun.

The Basic D&D Rules were great in some ways. They were simple – the actual character creation process took about 10 minutes, even for beginners. The books were well organized, and keeping the different “tiers” of play in different books made them seem more special. The art was good (all black and white, but still pretty good), and the boxes all came with adventures that many of us can still remember to this day – Keep on the Borderlands, for instance. The whole thing eventually culminated in the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia, which contained the whole damn thing – Basic, Expert, Companion, and Master rules (Immortals got left out, but no one seemed to miss it very much). It also had basic setting infor for the Known World (Mystara) and Hollow World settings. D&D as a whole (back in those days) kept most setting-specific detail out of the rulebooks, which was another plus.

Dungeons & Dragons Master Rules

Image via Wikipedia - contained the new "Mystic" class, which in modern D&D parlance is a Monk with no Eastern/Asian flavoring. I've never been able to decide if that;s racist or not. Probably not, though.

I would love to get my hands on a Rules Cyclopedia – the old Basic D&D was a great intro to Role Playing game. That having been said, it did have some problems. You might notice that I put the word “class” in quotes earlier. The original Classes were Cleric, Fighter, Thief, and Wizard; in the Companion rules they introduced the Druid, and in the Master Rules, they introduced the Mystic (a Monk ny any other name…). If, however, you wanted to be a non-human, you didn’t pick a class – you picked a race that functioned as a class. You could be a Dwarf (essentially a Fighter with a few mining and toughness related abilities), an Elf (essentially a combination Fighter/Wizard who could find Secret Doors easily), or a Halfling (basically a Fighter/Thief who was a lot smaller than most Fighters or Thieves). This race-as-class thing never sat well with me.

Another issue with the Race as Class system was that Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings were very limited in maximum level. While all the Human Classes could advance to 36 (except the Druid and Mystic, which were generally weird), the Dwarf stopped a level 12, the Elf at level 10, and the Halfling at level 8. They got expanded combat abilities with additional experience, but they were severely stunted, and not well compensated for the draconian level limitations. As I’ll get to in a later post, AD&D suffered from this problem as well.

Another issue was that there were no options for multiclassing whatsoever. If you started your career as, say, a Cleric, you were stuck as a straight Cleric for all of your adventuring career. The lack of character options made all characters seem the same – and they mostly were, from a mechanical perspective. One 25th level Fighter was mechanically almost identical to another,  with the exception of which Magic Items they had, what armor they chose to wear, and things like that. There was some variance between Wizards, since it was pretty unlikely they’d have all the same spells, but that was about it. You don’t need a bunch of mechanical differences between characters to make them different, but it’s nice to have a few more choices as you go.

These rules (along with oD&D, and AD&D 1e-3.5e and Pathfinder) use the vancian magic system. This involved Wizards, Clerics, Druids, and Elves preparing their spells in advance, choosing from the list of spells available to them that they would be able to use throughout the day. While some people swear by this system, I don’t personally care for it very much – it requires a level of prescience that I don’t possess. When 3e came out and gave us the Sorcerer as an alternative, no one in any group I was in wanted to deal with the vancian magic hassle. In fact, most steered clear from Cleric and Druid as well. I don’t blame them, even though I loved the 3e Druid (despite their Alignment restrictions).

I know that this all seems to be going nowhere… but it’s not. I think that the old D&D boxed games should be carefully looked at during the D&D Next design phase. They have a hell of a lot to offer. I’ll summarize below.

TL; DR: What I think the Old Boxed Sets have to Offer D&D Next

I think the following things should be taken from the old Boxed Sets for the new Edition:

  • Very streamlined and well organized rules
  • Only core Classes and Races (Cleric, Fighter, Wizard, Thief; Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human)
  • Levelable Racial Abilities (they were the only way to level non-humans, which is bad – but the basic idea is good. in 3e’s Unearthed Arcana, they had Racial Paragon Classes, and I thought that was an awesome idea)
  • Tiered releases (the Basic, Expert, Companion, and Master rule sets – although I’d do levels 1-10 in the first set, 11-20 in the second, and 21+ in a third, and leave it at that).
  • Include a complete adventure module in each set (for the Basic 1-10 level one, I’d absolutely love a re-make of Keep on the Borderlands)
  • Setting agnostic rules

Stuff from the old Boxed Sets that should be left out:

  •  Races as Classes
  • Severe restrictions on non-human leveling
  • No multiclassing (this is something that should be included in the core system – multiclassing, I mean)
  • Poorly defined map combat rules (If you’re going to have them in the core rules – and I think it should – they should be streamlined, simple, and, most of all, well-defined)
  • Vancian Magic as the only option for spellcasters (Spellcasting classes should be able to choose from two or three different methods on a per character – not per class – basis).

In the next part of this series, I’m going to talk about 1e Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and how I think that the division between AD&D and D&D should be brought back – sorta.

I’m starting a Blog in the Wizards of the Coast community pages, where I will be re-posting this series, along with some other stuff that is D&D related. You can find it here, for folks who would rather read it/follow it there.

As a last note, if SOPA/PIPA passed, this post could theoretically shut down all of WordPress. I know they’ve been shelved, but we need to stay aware and on top of this issue, folks. Stay aware, and follow related  news.


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