Thursday, 12 January 2012

Making D&D 5th Edition Modular: Part II

The previous post in this series looked at a few of the underlying concepts of a unified modular D&D system, and also some of the disparate mechanics that would need to be reconciled in the new system:
• Core Mechanic (d20)
• Ability Score Bonuses (Ability Score - 10 / 2)
• Gradual improvement (+1 per level mechanics)

Before I look at Combat, Themes, Feats, and Skills in more detail, there are a couple of general areas that require further investigation:
• Gradual improvement mechanics
• Balancing modular mechanics

Gradual Improvement Mechanics

In the previous post, I looked briefly at the options for how to implement the +1 per level mechanic that is present in each of the editions (but implemented differently in each). At this stage, it's worth having a closer look at how this mechanic has been implemented in various editions, and how it could be implemented in a unified system.

D&D 4th Edition uses a variant of this system which is both interesting and broken at the same time. The ½ Level bonus in 4th Edition is great because it can be combined with gradually increasing ability scores and magic enhancements to met the assumed +1 per level. However, in practise 4th Edition's rules mean that the rate of increases in ability scores and magic items is not fast enough, meaning that the edition has increasingly relied on feats to patch the holes in this progression.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition has the following underlying mechanics for the +1 per level progression:
• ½ Level Bonus
• Magic enhancement every 5th level (assumed +1 weapon at level 5, +2 at level 10, etc)
• Ability score modifier increase every 7th or 8th level (via +1 to two ability scores every 4th level and then semi-randomly after that)
• Various feats and proficiencies that are available to the player, but are sometimes not chosen

If you add up the first three of these, you end up with a progression of about +0.85 per level, with the remander (+0.15) coming from various feats. The 4th Edition feats that are used to plug these gaps include:
• Weapon Proficiency (+2 to hit)
• Weapon Focus
• Weapon Talent
• Weapon/Implement Expertise

The problem with these feats is that they are optional for players. So in many cases, casual players will choose non-optimal feats, and their characters will fall behind the expected progression, leading to large mechanical imbalances between optimal and non-optimal characters.

Now a system that doesn't support feats (or makes them optional), can't rely on feats to be a key component of the game's progression and mechanics, so 5th Edition is going to need to satisfy the +1 per level without feats.

As I mentioned, I 'solved' this issue in Heroes Against Darkness with the following:
• ½ Level Bonus
• Magic enhancement every 4th level (assumed +1 weapon at level 4, +2 at level 8, etc)
• Ability score modifier increase every 4th level (via +1 to two ability scores every 2nd level starting at level 3)

The combination of these three mechanics gives Heroes Against Darkness the assumed +1 per level progression, without feats. Obviously there's some variability here, with the GM able to give magic items sooner or later than the assumed level and with the unlikely situation of players choosing to put both of their ability score increases into non-optimal choices.

In my opinion, D&D 5th Edition is going to need to achieve the planned progression rates in a manner close to what I've got in Heroes Against Darkness so that the system doesn't rely on feats (or any other optional element) to shore up its core progression mechanics.

It's worth asking here whether this +1 per level mechanic is even required in the game at all.

Early editions of D&D had this mechanic through the Character Hit Table, the THAC0 table and the Base Attack Bonuses. While each of these editions generally adhered to +1 per level, there were certain anomalies:
• In all earlier editions, weapon enhancements fell outside of the +1 per level progression, meaning that the character's actual progression could be significantly higher, depending on the generousity of the DM.
• Early editions (especially Basic and AD&D) had no mechanic for balancing monster difficulty against player character aand overall party power.
• Early editions had no mechanism for gradually increasing the power/difficulty of magic attacks.
• 4th Edition matches the +1 per level progression with approximately +1 per level progression for defenses, and +1 per level to monster attacks and defenses, keeping the whole system consistent.

The only alternative that I can think of is if they somehow removed all of the assumed gradual improvement mechanics, and replaced them with a Relative Level mechanic, where you get +1 for each level lower the enemy is than the character, or -1 for each level higher they are than the character. This would also zero out all of the +1 per level escalation of attacks and defenses, leaving simply ability score modifiers and weapon enhancements or armor as the only progressive elements.

Ultimately, 5th Edition will need the following:
• +1 per level mechanic for attacks (that does not need feats)
• +1 per level mechanic for primary defense (AC), something smaller for alternate defenses
• +1 per level mechanic for monster attacks
• +1 per level mechanic for monster defenses

Balancing Modular Mechanics

Once you've established the core mechanics of the modular and unified system, the next task is to layer in various optional subsystems. For example, D&D 5th Edition could offer the following modules:
• Basic and Tactical combat options
• Feats and Skills
• Combat Powers

Combat is likely, to come in two forms, Basic (i.e. descriptive) combat for 'old-school' players alongside Tactical combat that features the grid-based combat seen in 3rd and 4th editions.

When thinking about how Skills and Feats fit into a modular game, there are a few options:
• Feats and Skills become optional modules that either totally absent from the game or can be included if desired
• Feats and Skills are always in the game, but are pre-selected in Basic character creation and customizable in an Advanced character creation module

Finally, the inclusion of Combat Powers in the game could take a number of forms:
• Combat Powers are optional, with Basic Combat only offering 'basic' melee and ranged attacks
• Combat Powers are pre-selected for characters by default, and can be customized in an advanced character creation module

Additionally, the Combat Powers themselves could take a number of forms:
• Combat Powers that are always available (gained at specific levels) and take the form of trade-offs (e.g. more hit chance for less damage) or give characters situational (e.g. flanking, etc) or class specific advantages, but do not otherwise escalate from the baseline combat power (Heroes Against Darkness uses this type of combat power system to avoid escalation of power)
• Combat Powers that behave like Vancian magic, where some are only usable on an encounter or daily basis (like 4th Edition)

Some of these possible combat and feat module choices imply lesser or greater degrees of power creep. For example, if the game doesn't have feats by default but they can be optionally included, then those feats are likely to offer some mechanical advantages when compared to the game run without feats. Furthermore, the inclusion of Vancian combat powers (like the Encounter and Daily powers in 4th Edition) is also more powerful than a combat system that is run with only basic attacks, or one that is run with trade-off and situational attacks.

The important considerations here for a creating a modular game system are:
• Can characters with different levels of complexity exist in the same game (i.e. one character without feats in the same party as someone with feats)?
• Do the optional modules increase the overall power of the characters?
• How does the escalation of power inherent in optional modules impact the overall game balance (e.g. if the party has feats and is using tactical combat, how do you balance this against enemies)?

Ultimately, a modular system needs a mechanism for avoiding or dealing with the inherent power creep of each individual module. Some systems, like GURPS, use a point buy system to balance the power of characters but I can't see D&D moving to point-buy.

Without a way of balancing the various optional modules, there's no way for 5th Edition to properly balance the entire game (for example, how would encounters be balanced for Basic or Advanced characters). So here are a few possibilities for a modular system where the power creep is kept under control:
• Tactical combat that only uses trade-offs
• Basic characters have higher ability scores to compensate for their lack of higher-power options
• Basic characters come pre-generated with appropriate feats, while Advanced characters can choose their own feats
• Feats are stripped back to minor enhancements which don't fundamentally break the balance of the game.

This series continues with part 3:

Making D&D 5th Edition Modular: Part III Combat and HP


  1. I think the mechanic for gradual improvement will be an interesting area of compromise. We moved from THAC0 to BAB (functionally equivalent), then to a flat bonus based on level. The really tricky bit here is that there was a deeper fundamental difference between older editions and newer editions. Older editions never assumed that encounters were "balanced", figuring that characters would have to judge the danger of the situation for themselves. 3.x and especially 4e looked to make all encounters "level appropriate", which also served to discourage scouting and retreating.

    This issue also feeds into your second point about feats and powers. On a surface level, it is fairly trivial to balance these. If the characters have feats "turned on", so do the monsters. This becomes tricky on a deeper level, though. How do you decide which powers in older material get turned off and on? How do you present the stat blocks to make it clear which powers get turned off and on? And, again, should the abilities of the monsters really change based on the abilities of the characters? It is not going to be an easy thing to do.

    On that note, though, I do think that the switches for various modular components are going to have to happen at the campaign level. I don't think there's any practical way to have a feats-on PC and a feats-off PC in the same party.

    1. @Marshall Smith

      I think that you can trace the gradual movement from fixed arbitrary difficulty to 'balanced' difficulty in a variety of places, not the least of which is videogames. I suspect that most players expect and appreciate balanced encounters. I also know that any GM can change the difficulty of a 'balanced' encounter with a flick of his wrist (by leveling monsters or including more or less baddies). I suspect that the 'unforgiving difficulty' of early editions is more of a reflection of the state of game design of those editions, compared to the tools available to modern GMs.

      All of the Grognard criticism of 'balanced encounters' is just noise. I see the 'balanced' encounters of 4th Edition (and Heroes Against Darkness) as a tool for the GM. It's up to the GM to decide whether they want the encounter to be easy, balanced, hard, or even impossible. There's no law saying the encounters have to be balanced, just guides and tools.

      Monte's new Legends & Lore column confirms what I suspected, which is that the goal is for characters at the same table to be playing with different 'builds', some simple and some advanced. Which means that you can't just apply a binary switch for the monsters to turn their feats and powers on or off.

      As I've mentioned, I think that feats will have to be stripped back to not include gross mechanical effects, or those feat-enabled characters will need to have some kind of 'power level' that the GM can then apply to the encounters as a modifier to the difficulty.

      Furthermore, even the earliest monsters had a huge number of implied powers, even though these hadn't been codified yet in the manner of 4th Edition, so I think that classic monster powers will get codified and clarified in the new edition.

      Thanks for your comments Marshall.