January 2012

In thinking about the next edition of D&D I’ve been looking through some of my older D&D rulebooks. I’ve got a set of the core books (PHB, MM, & DMG) of Advanced D&D, the one with the excellent cover by David A. Trampier. It’s interesting just leafing through the Player’s Handbook and looking at the old illustrations and rules commentary. My favorite area to read over is the class section and see how the classes have evolved and changed over the years. The edition of the game that I know best is 3rd edition, having played it since it first came out to until last year, so my barometer for what works and doesn’t work in terms of class balance is based on 3.5. Without getting into a full discussion about balance in 3.5, I’ll just say that the classes were not evenly balanced against each other, which was something that 4th edition worked to change.

My litmus test for fantasy rpg’s is the Fighter class. From years of playing 3.5 and having the fighter be overshadowed by over classes at being a fighter I look to how the Fighter (or Warrior) class is designed to see how it will hold up with the magic users at higher levels. Before 4th edition it was hard for Wizards to survive the early levels but once they started getting more powerful spells then the play dynamic changed from the Fighter defeating monsters while the Wizard hung back to the Fighter holding back the monsters until the Wizard could cast the right spell to kill the monsters. 4th edition changed that, of course, with each class being more or less evenly balanced against the others in terms of how effective they could be in combat, and the role that each class played in combat didn’t change as drastically as the party increased in levels.

As I was looking over the Fighter class in the AD&D Player’s Handbook I noticed a little note about Fighters, Paladins, and Rangers attack rate that really surprised me. On page 25 there’s a table for labeled “Fighters’, Paladins’, & Rangers’ Attacks Per Melee Round Table“. As the Ranger & Paladin were sub-classes of the Fighter, all three enjoyed multiple attack per round at higher levels according to the table, eventually getting 2 attacks per round at levels 13, 13, & 15, respectively. What surprised was the note below the table.

Note: This excludes melee combat with monsters (q.v.) of less than one hit die (d8) and non-exceptional (0 level) humans and semi-humans, i.e. all creatures with less than one eight-sided hit die. All of these creatures entitle a fighter to attack once for each of his or her experience levels (See COMBAT).

I sat there for a few minutes and imagined the likes of Conan and Richard Cypher being surrounded by lesser swordmen and the heroes cutting a swath through them. Considering that a long sword did between 1-8 points of damage and that these rank of monsters had less than a full d8 hit die, it’s likely that a single blow would kill them. I’d never heard of this rule before but the first thing that came to mind was 4th editions concept of Minions, creatures with only a single hit point. In 4e Fighters don’t get extra attacks against a Minion, but as they only have 1 Hit Point, any attack that deals damage will kill them instantly. Maybe this AD&D rule was a possible inspiration for the Minion concept.

I went searching through the AD&D Monster Manual to see what creatures qualified for this treatment from the Fighter. As stated in the Monster Manual, “Some creatures have hit points which are less than a full 8-sided die, and this is shown by stating their hit dice as a point spread.” As I imagined, some of the usual suspects showed up. Goblins were listed as having 1-7 Hit points. Kobolds had 1-4 Hit points. Bandits, Berserkers, Buccaneers, and Dervishes also made the list, but they all had another thing in common as well; they rarely fought alone. Each of the mentioned monsters were usually found in groups, and in groups of a certain size there would always be a few members with actual Fighter or other class levels. For example, Goblins appear in numbers of 40-400.

For every 40 goblins encountered there will be a leader and 4 assistants who are equal to orcs, each having 7 hit points and attacking as monsters with a full hit die. If 200 or more goblins are encountered there will be the following additional figures: a subchief and 208 guards, each fighting as hobgoblins and having 8 hit points, armor class 5, and doing 108 hit points damage.

This is an easy to overlook rule but it has huge implications for how the game plays. At higher levels in 3.5 a Wizard could clear a room of enemies with a well placed fireball, killing dozens of monsters at once. The 3.5 Player’s Handbook fighter doesn’t really have that same power, and it wasn’t until later supplements were releases such as the Tome of Battle that Fighting classes were able to compete with that type of raw power. But this rule from 1st edition paints a different picture. Sure, the name level Wizard can drop fireballs all over the battlefield, but the high level Fighter (and Paladin, and Ranger) got something that was similar in function, if not in power. The image of a heavily thewed warrior hacking his way through mobs of enemies is a classic trope in adventure fantasy and it pleases me that 1st edition had rules to support that.

The question I’d like to see answered now is how will D&Dnext handle this? In 4e we had Minions which may have been partially inspired by this 1st edition Fighter rule. I’d like to see it combine the two rules. I think Minions are a good tool to have in our D&D toolbox, but I’d like simpler rules for them than 4e used. I’d like to see Fighter classes get some ability like the old rule that lets them handle waves of minions with as much style as Conan cracking skulls and leaving lesser mortals behind.

The blog has been silent for awhile but I’ve been doing some quality gaming in the mean time. The word dropped yesterday that WoTC is releasing the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons and I’ve been fortunate enough to have playtested some of it. I’ve played three sessions so far and while I can’t speak about the mechanics, there’s still plenty to tell.

The group that I’m playing with is comprised of experienced players. I think I’m the newest to D&D in the group and I’ve been playing since the late 90’s. One member of the group has played every edition of D&D ever published and the rest have varying amounts of experience somewhere in between. Suffice to say, we all love D&D and take this opportunity to playtest D&Dnext seriously. Before, during and after each sessions there’s lots of discussion on what we think worked, what didn’t work, what’s awesome and should stay, and what sucks and should go. Of course we don’t all agree on everything but I think we’ve made some positive influence through the playtest.

The game feels different than 4th edition, but I think anyone would expect that. I haven’t played the older editions of D&D (got started late with AD&D 2nd ed) but I own a number of older manuals, including the Basic Set and the three core AD&D books released in 78/79. From reading through them and following a number of OSR blogs I think I’ve got an accurate idea of what those older editions felt like in play. The few sessions of D&Dnext that I’ve played have felt more like what I imagine those games to be, but in a way that isn’t a direct clone. Without delving into mechanics its hard to fully explain, but I’d advise those in the OSR community who may be wary of D&Dnext to at least approach it with an open eye.

One of the key elements that I think helped to give it that older edition feel was how the DM ran the game and I think that’s going to be a big part of D&Dnext, perhaps moreso than the previous two editions. Robert Schwalb has said on his blog that “…our primary goal is to produce a rules set that speaks to every incarnation of D&D.” I think that what they’ve got right now will do a good job of that. The player mentioned above that has played all the editions of D&D has stated before that 4th edition is his favorite of them, so I was interested to see how he reacted to this game. At my first session he was a little hung up on making the transition from 4e to D&Dnext and I think the feeling was mutual around the table. I play with the same group in a 4e Essentials game and we’ve played Heroic and Epic, so there’s a lot of 4e crunch in our heads. The experience of sitting down and playing D&D in a different way required some change but I think everyone has adapted well and is enjoying the game.

There’s a lot of speculation going around about what this game will actually be. Don’t Panic. From my experience it’s still D&D. There’s a great opportunity here to make one of the best editions of the game and I can’t wait to play again.