Wednesday 11 January 2012

Making D&D 5th Edition Modular: Part I

All of the role-playing blogs are weighing in with their thoughts, suggestions, demands and (sometimes) their denunciation of WotC's plans for the new edition of D&D.

So today I'm going to look at what would be involved in making a unified and modular version of Dungeons & Dragons, with elements that can be bought in (or out), and what the core rules of this system would be.

As a long time role-player, I think that all role-players should hope that the team at Wizards succeed in reuniting the various factions of D&D players, from the Grognards to the 4th Edition players. If Wizards fails, then there's a great chance that the hobby's gateway drug (D&D) will die entirely, and that with no new players coming in the hobby itself will wither and die, leaving us all the poorer.

This quote from The Angry DM seems spot-on:

"So, you can bitch and piss and moan and start edition wars and talk about why you hate WotC or D&D or 4E or 3E or whatever. And all that does is piss away the chance you have to constructively help make a new edition you want to play. If you do the bitchy pissy moany thing instead of the honest constructive thing, you’re saying you care more about hating D&D than D&D."

What Is The Core of D&D

First, Maldoor at The Mule Abides notes in his blog post:

"The bare-bones game includes the DNA of D&D – six attributes, experience and level progress, three or four base classes, d20 combat, saving throws, simple d6 initiative, and a basic selection of classic spells and monsters."

Mike Mearls himself broke this down in his Legends & Lore article titled Essential D&D Mechanics as:
"• The six ability scores—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma—as the categories for measuring a character’s abilities.
• Armor Class as the basic representation of a character’s defense.
• Alignment (Law v. Chaos, Good v. Evil) as a personal ethos and a force in the universe.
• Attack rolls made using a d20, with higher rolls better than lower ones.
• Classes as the basic framework for what a character can do.
• Damage rolls to determine how badly a spell or attack hurts you.
• Gold pieces as the standard currency for treasure.
• Hit dice or level as the basic measure of a monster’s power.
• Hit points as a measure of your ability to absorb punishment, with more powerful characters and creatures gaining more of them.
• Levels and experience points as a measure of power and a mechanic that lets characters become more powerful over time.
• Magic items such as +1 swords as a desirable form of treasure.
• Rolling initiative at the start of a battle to determine who acts first.
• Saving throws as a mechanic for evading danger.
• 'Fire-and-forget' magic, with spellcasters expending a spell when casting it."

Based on Mike's post, and D&D's move towards a unified core-mechanic in 3rd and 4th editions, I think that we can imagine that in its most basic form, D&D 5th Edition will have:
• Six ability scores
• Armor Class
• Race
• Alignment?
• Classes
• HP
• Levels
• Initiative
• Saving Throws
• Fire-and-forget Vancian magic (or something like it)

Regardless of that, where does this leave us with all of the following mechanics in the game (and how do these then get layered on top of a 'modular' game?):
• Action Economy
• Kits, Backgrounds, Themes
• Prestige Classes
• Skills (also previously known as Non-Weapon Proficiencies)
• Proficiencies (Usable Weapons and Armor)
• Martial Powers
• Feats
• AEUD (At Will, Encounter, Utility, Daily) Powers
• Rituals
• Saving Throws to remove ongoing effects (4th Edition)
• Healing for all classes (e.g. Healing Surges)

Universal Underlying Mechanics

These universal underlying mechanics are the numbers and the dice rolls on which all other elements of the game are built. These have changed over time, and any attempt at making a unified system will have to reconcile the various mechanics that D&D has employed through its development.

Core Mechanic

Until 3rd Edition, D&D didn't have a core mechanic. 3rd Edition bought with it the unifying mechanic of the d20 System, with all skill rolls and attack rolls being made with the same dice, and where higher rolls are always better. This contrasts with earlier editions which had many different mechanics for different parts of the game:

• Initiative: d6
• Searching: d6
• Wandering Monsters: d6
• Saving Throws: d20
• Attacks: d20
• Turning Undead: d20
• Thieves Skills: d100

It's hard to imagine 5th Edition abandoning the core mechanic of the d20 system, so I assume that this would be adopted.

Ability Score Bonuses

Ability Score Mechanics have varied through the course of D&D's editions. In Basic and AD&D, each of the ability scores had a different set of associated Bonuses that kicked in at higher (or lower) scores. In 3rd Edition, these were unified to use the same formula for all:

Ability Score Bonus = (Ability Score - 10)/2

5th Edition should see the unified Ability Score Bonus mechanics of 3rd and 4th Edition to simplify all of the disparate (but similar) bonus calculations of the earlier editions.

Gradual Improvement

As with the Ability Score Mechanics, each of the editions of D&D has had a mechanism for gradually increasing the power of characters as they gain levels.

In Basic and AD&D, this was represented through the Character To Hit tables that gradually decreased the roll that a character would need to hit a specific armor class.

In 2nd Edition, the Character To Hit tables were replaced with the THAC0 table, which presented the same information more simply, but also required more maths from the players (rather than looking up every Armor Class and the roll required.

In 3rd Edition, the THAC0 tables were replaced with the gradually increasing Base Attack Bonus (+1/level for fighters, less for others).

In 4th Edition, the Base Attack Bonus was replaced with the ½ Level mechanic. The advantage of 4th Edition's mechanics is that it applies to all ability scores, whereas the mechanism in previous editions only applied to melee attacks and ranged attacks, not magic attacks.

So, 5th Edition needs a mechanism to increase a character's primary attack bonus (melee, ranged, maybe even magic) by +1 per level (in line with all earlier editions). Here are a some ways to achieve this:

1. Fixed +1 per level to 'prime ability', such as strength for fighters, dexterity for rangers, etc. Possibly some smaller bonus (+1 per 2 levels) for other abilities (Basic, AD&D, 2nd and 3rd Editions use variations of this system)
2. ½ Level bonus applied to all rolls, combined with magic or feat enhancements, or more frequent ability score increases which combine to +1 per level (4th Edition uses this and Heroes Against Darkness uses a variation of this method, with less magic enhancements and with more ability score increases).
3. All ability scores increase by +2 each level, giving +1 across the board bonuses each level (pretty unlikely).

The advantage of the 2nd option, is that it can also be applied to the Saving Throw mechanic to gradually increase the character's saving throws as well.

Irreconcilable Differences

Ascending vs Descending Armor Class

Many of the OSR stalwarts swear by the descending armor class (starting from 10 and going down) of Basic and AD&D.

However, from 3rd Edition the descending AC has been replaced with ascending AC (starting from 10 and going up), which is (arguably) easier to use, allows greater range than the 10 to -10 of early editions, and also maintains a consistency of higher numbers being better.

Descending AC is one of the badges of honor of OSR, and it's hard to see a way of easily reconciling the two systems. It is possible to represent both in a single system (Castles & Crusades does this, IIRC), but it would be unwieldy.

Ultimately, I think that for simplicity and consistency 5th Edition will settle on ascending AC, as this system fits more neatly into the rest of a unified system. I'm sure this will cause some consternation, but hopefully it won't prove to be a deal-breaker.

Saving Throws Versus Defenses

Mike Mearls refers specifically to "Saving Throws as a mechanic for evading danger," however, the mechanic of active player saving throws is the opposite of 4th Edition's passive defenses (that monsters attack). Based on this, perhaps 5th Edition will fall back to active player rolled Saving Throws as opposed to passive defenses that the opponent attacks.

In the case of active player-rolled Saving Throws, the Saving Throws would have to be presented like 3rd edition's Saving Throws, much like an attack bonus (such as a relevant Ability Score Bonus + a scaling bonus for higher levels). The complication with this system (as opposed to the one used in 4th Edition), is that it involves an extra calculation step, which is the DM's calculation of the DC that the player is trying to beat with their saving throw roll. This calculation needs to be scaled for tougher monsters, so there's some calculation involved for the DM to calculate every saving throw DC.

Combat and the Action Economy

Another seemingly irreconcilable difference between the early and later variants of D&D is the expansion and codification of the action economy in combat in 3rd and 4th Editions.

The action economy is basically the things that each character can attempt in a round of combat:
• Basic, AD&D: Move/Attack/Spell per 1 minute round
• 2nd Edition: Move/Attack/Spell + Minor Action (shout, drop something, or swap weapons) per 1 minute round
• 3rd Edition: Full Action or Standard Action + Move Action + Free Action (and Partial Actions as well) per 6 second round
• 4th Edition: Standard Action + Move Action + Minor Action + Free Action per 6 second round

The 1 minute rounds of the first few editions allowed characters the freedom to describe various actions, including movement and attacks. The freedom of the earlier editions has become progressively more codified, peaking with the huge crunch of 3rd Edition, and then simplified slightly in the 4th Edition.

The other question is whether 5th Edition presents different flavors of combat rules, with a simple system allowing flexible descriptive combat, and a tactical system that has a more codified action economy like 3rd or 4th Edition and supporting minis and a battle grid.

So, where does this leave us with the action economy? Will the Grognards accept a combat system with a codified Standard Action and a Move Action in a single round or will the playtests result in two different combat systems?

Part II continues with the following:
• Kits, Backgrounds, Themes
• Feats
• Skills and Non-Weapon Proficiencies

This series continues with part 2:

Making D&D 5th Edition Modular: Part II

Of course, everyone already knows that this is the future of role-playing games: Heroes Against Darkness. :-)


  1. Ascending and descending armor classes are mechanically equivalent. Ascending armor classes are simply easier to use. I don't see the grognards winning this one based solely on nostalgia.

    Similarly, active and passive saving throws are mechanically equivalent. I have some variant rules for d20 in which all the players' rolls are active and all the NPCs' rolls are passive (that is, the DM never rolls dice). It's pretty trivial to express this in optional rules. The optional rules can even easily be situational.

    The action economy is definitely going to be a sticking point. I'm guessing this is one place where the 4e rules are going to win out, based mostly on simplicity and consistency. I don't see how you can make something so basic be changeable. There will likely need to be some conversion notes for older material, to bring the actions in line.

    1. @Marshall Smith:
      I agree about the differences between ascending and descending AC. As I mentioned, I think that ultimately 5th Ed will need to settle on one style (rather than supporting both).

      As with the saving throws, I think that these fall under 'core mechanics', so again I think that they're going to have to commit to either 3rd Ed style saving throws or 4th Ed style defenses. I personally prefer defenses, because it keeps all of the rolls on the same side of the table, which I think is more elegant.

      Ultimately, I think that the underlying mechanics of 4th Edition are much more elegant and coherent than those of the the previous editions, so I wouldn't want to see the game going back to Descending AC, Saving Throws, or the crazy action economy of 3rd Ed or the limited action choices of the early editions (move or attack).