I was reminded of this when playing the newest version of the playtest packet for D&D Next at Gen Con, and also clicked even more when thinking about themes with how they work in 4e and also how 13th Age tackles it. Here’s my conclusion: I’m not a fan of the Race/Class/Background/Specialty system as implemented in D&D Next.
For those who don’t know how the current D&D Next system works, during character creation, you select:
- Race (with possible subrace)
- Class (with a possible build option, including Domains, Styles, Schemes, and Schools)
- Background (which is your primary source for skills, and provides a singular trait)
- Specialty (which is described as your approach to adventuring, which is a bundle of mechanical benefits. Examples include Archer, Dual-Wielder, Magic-User and Necromancer.)
So you could have a Mountain Dwarf Fighter (Protector) Soldier Guardian, a High Elf Wizard Sage Magic User, or something like a Stout Halfling Cleric (War) Thief Dual Wielder. I have some issues with this on a number of levels. I’ll break down why.
Weird Combinations Means Inferior
Let’s look at that last example of our Halfling. Sounds a bit strange, right? Well, I’ll say up front that I have no issue with quirky characters, ones that skew the traditional options for characters and make something out of the ordinary. Having one standout quirk is often character-defining, and interesting.
However, in this case there are big issues as a result of this. For one, you have to sacrifice in order to have that quirk. Specialties are the worst offender here. In order to be a dual-wielding cleric, you’re giving up the Healer theme. At 3rd level, you automatically give the maximum amount of healing. Now, in most D&D campaigns, the cleric is the primary healer. That means taking a more interesting option is trading off from an extremely effective ability and combination with your class. Most other classes taking the Healer talent (a Healer Fighter for instance) receive almost no benefit. Some specialties are “trap” choices, others are super-effective. I also don’t think this is just a matter of balancing the abilities. If you create some specialties that are extra effective with certain classes and others that are markedly inferior, you run into this same thing.
By detaching those mechanics from the class itself, you’re always going to run into these issues.
Having “Necromancer” as a theme and being able to combine that with any class sounds cool. But if you are a wizard who has to give up having at-will spells in order to have it? Suddenly, not so fun. (Correction: I misread the rules, and Wizards and Clerics do get at-will spells as part of the class. While it does take away this concern, it makes things even muddier for me when taking Magic User plus Wizard.)
Compare this all to the 4e implementations of themes. By and large, they aren’t no brainers that define your class. They add an extra layer that provides more rounded abilities. Some are definitely skewed towards being more effective towards certain character types, and there are totally minmaxed/broken combinations that involve themes, but ultimately, they add to your character and provide an interesting spin. They’re not asking you to give up what should be a core option for your class.
Necromancer is on the list of specialties. It is a core option, so it has the expectation of being played more than most options. Thus, necromancers are relatively common in your game world. Sure, you could ban them in your campaign, but why not ban Archers? Or Jack-of-All-Trades? There are specialties that have much greater implications on a game world, but all on the same playing field mechanically. There’s an extra step the DM will have to consider.
Let’s also look at a very common option. The “Magic User” specialty, as already discussed, gives at-will wizard spells, while the “Acolyte” specialty gives at-will cleric spells. Many Wizards will be Magic Users, and many Clerics will be Acolytes. What does that really SAY about those characters? A Wizard Magic-User is somehow more into magic than other Wizards? He spends more time studying magic than a Lurker Wizard? Let’s fold in backgrounds into the equation, which is much more about the character’s backstory. If my Wizard Magic-User takes a different background, like bounty hunter, does he really care about magic all that much? (It means he doesn’t have Lore skills.) Is a Wizard Magic-User Sage the most magic dude ever, and all others don’t stand a chance?
The real problem with specialties in my mind is how many of them seem like purely mechanical expressions with no real ties to the world, with one or two exceptions. I don’t know if characters in the D&D world are supposed to refer to Magic-Users, but game terms like those have a way of seeping into our language of play, whether we mean to or not. Being a Dual Wielder or an Acolyte don’t say much to me about the character, while Necromancer or Survivor say A LOT, and it’s all very blurry to me.
Along those lines- if I’m a Fighter who takes the Magic-User theme, how is that conceptually different than a Fighter with some Wizard levels? Probably very different mechanically, but really blurry to translate from character concept to mechanics.
I like that the current draft of D&D Next has a “building block” approach- it lets you customize a unique character very quickly based on your character concept and produce a decent build, without having to do things like assign feats from a big list.
However, it’s a lot to assign, and leads to the weird compound lists like I show above. Race and Class are the classics. Options within a class are pretty well trod. Backgrounds- some become obvious, some get blurry if not done right (If I’m a Rogue, do I need to be a Thief too?) By the time you get to Specialties, you’ve already made a lot of choices, and you have to make another one that either will likely boil down to “the effective one for your class” or “a weird one.”
Describing your character becomes a mouthful. Options and customization are a good thing, but there seems to be a point of diminishing return where it starts to eat itself.
Missing Out On Cool Tech
This is my biggest complaint of the whole thing. Simply put, I miss earlier implementations of these ideas (particularly in 4e) because I think they worked better. When themes were introduced for the Dark Sun campaign setting, they filled a gap that I thought worked very well. You could be any kind of race or class and be a gladiator. Same for a merchant or a noble. They provided skills and abilities, while also providing another dimension to the character in the story that worked well with many (though not all) of the potential combinations. Simply put, they made the concepts gel.
When we got the Neverwinter book, I feel like they executed the concept perfectly. For one, each theme was unique in the world: you were the ONLY lost heir of Neverwinter, and so on. Each one provided immediate story hooks that the DM could work with, and really showed how your character fit into the game world. And again, they were designed to really work with nearly any class.
And in the shameless plug department, themes are ideal for Planescape factions. As a blend of skills, background, and mechanics, they work perfectly in a way that neither the current versions of backgrounds or specialties could. Between Dark Sun, Neverwinter (Forgotten Realms), and Planescape, that’s three of the classic D&D settings that it works very well with. I’m sure other D&D settings would be the same way (Greyhawk themes, anyone?)
Let’s go back to Race/Class/Theme for D&D Next. Let each piece give skills: your race gives some skills, your class some more, and your theme some more. (Or an easy choice of skills at each step.) Put some of the more mechanical options back into the classes themselves. (Seriously, if the surveys are showing such strong support for wizards having at-will spells, why make them sacrifice other cooler options for it?) Make some awesome themes that overlap with most race/class options in ways that suggest some easy connections but aren’t mechanically either traps or too strong.
Alternatively, you could make a system that better flows from one step to the next- you select Race, which lets you pick from a list of Backgrounds that make sense for that Race, then you pick a Class from a list from that Background, and you end up with a Theme from those choices. A flowchart approach, from “birth” to adventuring career. You could also overlay that kind of approach or the previous one with the 13th Age approach to skills and just make that be background.
When recently playtesting, the inclusion of the specialty soured how I felt about my character. I was making a Sorcerer quickly at the table and used the suggested specialty, which was Magic-User. I was playing a class whose main hook was that they could cast spells all the time, taking an option that literally any other class could take to let them cast spells any time. Suddenly, my class didn’t feel so special. And that bugged me.
Plus I need D&D Next to support Planescape, or no dice.