Recently it was announced that Monte Cook was returning to work on D&D, an announcement that got the Internet in a tizzy. Speculation abounds, with many people asking the question: does this mean that 5th Edition is on its way? Certainly there have been hints of this, in Mike Mearls’ Legends and Lore articles. I’ve made it no secret that I’m a little burnt out on the current edition of D&D. I still like it, I still think it’s great; I play Encounters at my FLGS whenever I can. However, I’m finding more of what I enjoy playing in various indie RPGs, so that’s where my interests currently lie.
However, I’d be interested in seeing what Mearls and Cook do in a 5th edition of the game. I might not adopt it as readily as I did 4th Edition; I saw 4th as a vast improvement over 3.x, so I had immediate and intense enthusiasm for it, which lasted several years. That said, 4th Edition is not perfect. It is largely a combat engine, and I find that I want more than that in an RPG. With that in mind, I’m going to discuss some things I’d like to see in a 5th edition of the game.
A few disclaimers first. Some of these ideas are extrapolated from, or even shamelessly stolen from, a Twitter conversation between Sarah Darkmagic, Fred Hicks, and the Newbie DM. Credit where it’s due. Also, note my bias: I’m really into a variety of indie RPGs right now; most notably, FATE has been on my mind a lot due to a number of reasons, such as Bulldogs! and The Demolished Ones.
Mechanics that Support Roleplay
Back when D&D was my bread and butter, I would have scoffed at this notion. Why do you need mechanics to support roleplay? It’s roleplay; the players should be doing it, and there don’t need to be rules codifying it. I’ve since read a number of games in which such mechanics are employed, and I’ve changed my tune about them. A well-developed roleplay mechanic can stay out of the way when it’s not needed, but can reward and incentivize good characterization when it is.
The main issue, as I see it, is that everything on a D&D character sheet describes what your character does, what he or she is good at. Most of this is also combat-oriented; what does he or she do in a fight? There’s little to nothing on that character sheet that describes why the character does what he or she does. What are your characters goals? Motivations? Relationships? Fears? These things matter if you want to play a convincing person rather than a set of stats. While it’s true that there’s nothing preventing you from coming up with this stuff on your own, there’s nothing supporting it either. There’s nothing making it easier, or making it worth your time, within the game. Some groups will do it because that’s the kind of game they like; others won’t because it won’t even occur to them. I’d like to see rules space devoted to this kind of thing; not just advice for players, but real, concrete rules that encourage you to play a person in the game, with all the baggage that goes along with being an individual.
More Power to Skills
Skills are an underutilized commodity within D&D. Everybody has them, to some degree or another, but there are too many arbitrary limitations, and their utility is far too situational. In some games, skills will get a lot of use; people will jump across chasms, swing from chandeliers, run up walls, charm the guards, create cunning distractions, and so forth. That’s awesome. In other games, skills will be numbers on your sheet that mean very little. What I want to see is more mechanical benefit for taking those skills, and fewer restrictions on which skills you can take. Why, for example, can’t my fighter take Bluff without spending a feat on it? Are fighters incapable of lying without special training or effort? These sorts of things play to stereotypes, which can be a useful shorthand, but has the mechanical effect of limiting character concept potential.
And speaking of feats, I’d like to see feats directly tied to skills. I’m thinking specifically of a system similar to FATE’s, with feats taking a role similar to those of stunts. Rather than a bunch of conditional combat bonuses, I’d like to see feats used as ways to do additional things with your skills. Some of these things might be combat bonus-related; for example, maybe an Arcana feat can be taken to imbue a weapon with magical power for +1d6 fire damage for a short period of time. The key is that they’re tied to skills, making the choice of skills more important and the payoff for taking a particular skill greater.
Finally, I’d like to see the explicit link between skills and ability scores go away. In some cases, this makes sense; Endurance and Constitution make sense together. But I’d much rather see a system in which the bonuses are separate, and your description of how you use the skill determines which ability score bonus is added to it. For example, a fighter flexing his muscles menacingly could use Strength + Intimidation, while a ranger employing his knowledge of how to survive in a hostile environment could use Wisdom or Intelligence + Endurance to survive a desert’s heat. The description is a requisite for this; you can’t just say “I use Intelligence + Endurance”; you have to explain why the two go together.
Less Explicit Combat Focus for Powers
I like powers; I like the variety they can add to the game. However, they can also cause monotony, when players simply tell you what power they’re using, rather than describing their actions. I think that part of this is due to the fact that so many powers are simply attacks. I played a game of Old School Hack a while ago, which uses things called Talents, which are similar to D&D’s powers. However, many Talents are not simply attacks, and are not purely combat-focused. The magic-user for example, rather than taking a spell that might make her more powerful in combat, took a spell that allowed her to talk to doors, and unlock and lock them at will. It turned out to be a great choice, not just mechanically (though it was very helpful during the game), but for fleshing out her character and informing her decisions and descriptions during play. I’d like to see fewer powers per character, and I’d like to see them do something other than just damage + condition + effect. I’d like to see powers that you have to work a little bit in order to use, powers that require descriptions in order to make useful.
There are a lot of things that I still like about D&D. I like the simplicity of hit points and defenses, and I like the way monsters work quite a bit. I like experience points and levels, and I like action points. The class system is simple, evocative, and fun, and I like the different races and how they work. I like a lot about D&D, but I think it can be more than it is. I hope it will be.