Legends & Lore 2013


Legends & Lore Archive | 2/4/2013

A Change in Format

Legends & Lore

Mike Mearls




A s the playtest moves into its next phase, I think it's time to make a few changes to this column. By now, we've shared the big picture design goals for D&D Next. From here, most of the work focuses on specific classes, races, rules options, and other pieces that fit into the bigger picture. With that in mind, I'm going to shift gears a bit. For the foreseeable future, this column will focus on the progress we make each week and specific things we're releasing in upcoming packets. Think of it as a weekly update on what's going on with the R&D team and our progress on the game.

The Case of the Mysterious Missing Rules

In the last playtest email, we mentioned that the new packet (the one including the barbarian) featured expanded rules for exploration. The rules didn't make it into the draft of the playtest documents, but we missed the reference to them in the alert email.

The expanded rules work a little like combat in that they outline turns and a set of actions characters can take while exploring. The idea behind them is to give a little more structure to manage the action at the table. One character might map, another keeps an eye out for traps, while a third keeps watch for approaching monsters. These rules came about from two playtest experiences.

First, they proved helpful in running the Isle of Dread adventure as a hex crawl, or an adventure where the characters chart out an unknown wilderness and come across monster lairs, ruins, and other features as they explore. In this model of play, the wilderness works like an enormous dungeon waiting to be explored. The structure of the expanded rules for exploration made handling that at the table a bit easier.

Second, in my personal experience I've always wanted an excuse to tell DMs to map dungeons for their players. I've had a lot of games grind to a halt as players asked me for details on where a door was set in a wall or how a particularly complex nest of hallways worked. It's pretty easy for a person looking at a room to sketch it, but a bit of a pain for a DM to rattle off a verbal description of that room over and over again. In running In Search of the Unknown a year or so ago, I found it much easier to draw the map for the players as they explored. It sped up play and kept things moving.

The rules serve as a structure by giving DMs the basics of how far the characters can travel in a matter of minutes, hours, or a day. They also provide guidelines regarding how pace can affect speed and readiness for an encounter and how random encounters fit into the balance between speed of travel and caution. These rules will be part of the next packet.

Barbarian Update

We're looking at early barbarian feedback and see that many people are finding it more powerful than the fighter. At this stage, I think that the martial classes need some math tweaks to get their damage in line, and you can expect the barbarian to power down a little, the fighter's maneuvers to become a bit more flexible and useful, and the barbarian to also get a few more things to make the class more distinct from the fighter, especially when the barbarian isn't raging. Debates and such in R&D continue to roll along, and we'll see what the playtest survey tells us before striking off in a firm direction.

Adventures

If you were at Winter Fantasy in Fort Wayne in late January, you had the chance to play Skip Williams's new adventure, Danger at Darkshelf Quarry. We commissioned Skip to write a brand new prequel adventure, which will be part of the A-series reprint due to hit shelves this summer. Skip's excellent work on Danger at Darkshelf Quarry, in my opinion, captured the feel of AD&D's earliest adventures and has sparked a lot of discussion here at the office.

One of the things I like about classic adventures, a feature driven home in running Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain, lies in their cross between simplicity and flexibility. Danger at Darkshelf Quarry is open to any number of approaches a group wishes to take. You can rely on stealth, interaction and deception, or good old brute force to unlock its mysteries. Over the past few years, we've been too focused on covering every possible action in adventure writing rather than giving groups flexibility. That comprehensive approach has spawned a layer of complexity, in my opinion, that makes leaning on adventures more work than simply cobbling something together. It took me about an hour to read and prep Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain and yet it led to about eight hours of play at the table.

Adventures should save you time and give you ideas, but not at the expense of playing to D&D's strengths, flexibility, and possibilities. It's definitely something that's been on my mind as we're talking about adventure support in the future.

Orcs vs. Giants

Speaking of Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain, I ran it to completion as part of testing high-level play. At one point, the characters had rallied several hundred orcs to join them in an assault on several dozen hill giants, ogres, and other brutes. Necessity being the mother of invention, I put together some guidelines for handling battles between hordes of creatures using our core combat rules.

In essence, these rules are guidelines that replace die rolls with the estimated damage per attacker when two big groups fight. Given that X orcs can attack Y giants, and vice versa, you can quickly determine how much damage the two sides soak up each round. I also worked up a simple table to determine what percentage of a mob makes a saving throw against a given DC, making things like cloud kill fairly easy to adjudicate as they roll across a huge battlefield.

I was pretty happy to resolve a battle involving five 10th-level characters, over two hundred orcs, sixty hill giants, twenty-four ogres, fourteen dire wolves, and assorted stone and cloud giants in about two hours. You can expect the guidelines, after a few revisions for simplicity and clarity, to show up in an upcoming playtest packet.

This kind of rules option, something that speaks to the tools that DMs find useful, is one of those things that an extended playtest helps us uncover. Pushing the system in a variety of directions helps discover blind spots and gaps in the DM's arsenal. Hopefully, these guidelines will be a useful middle ground between our standard combat rules and the full-fledged rules for mass combat.

Legends & Lore Archive | 2/11/2013

This Week in D&D

Legends & Lore

Mike Mearls


A fter a stretch of cold weather, by Seattle standards at least, and a week of spooky fog, we're finally back to a regular cadence of gray, drizzly weather here in the Pacific Northwest. It took me some time to adjust to the weather when I first moved out here. Not so surprisingly, given that my complexion could be generously described as being as white as the underside of a cavefish, I've adapted fairly well to our annual stretch of gloom.

This whole reflection on recent weather brings me to how weather is treated in roleplaying games. Weather is one of those things that fantasy games often overlook. There's nothing like a snowstorm or a scorching heat wave to liven up a game session. For something that shapes so much of the real world, it's something that DMs can easily overlook. Do you work the weather into your games, or would you prefer to worry about it only in your real life? Drop an answer in the comments below.

Fight, Fight, Fight!

We made some interesting progress on the fighter in the past week. We've known for a while that asking fighters to choose between damage and a maneuver was not an ideal situation, and we're working to fix that. On top of that, we're looking at maneuvers to fill the space between the fighter's basic combat ability and the class's full power. It's like an equation that looks like this:

Barbarian = weapon user base combat abilities + rage

Monk = weapon user base combat abilities + ki

Fighter = weapon user base combat abilities + expertise

Barbarian = Monk = Fighter

Rage = Ki = Expertise

"Weapon user base combat abilities" is an intentionally awkward way of saying, "The basic method in which you get better with weapons."

In essence, building those two classes let us settle on exactly where maneuvers should rest, and the conclusion we came to was that they are additive to an attack, rather than something that comes at a cost of your base effectiveness. That means bigger, more effective maneuvers that are fighter-only, with stuff that we want any character to gain as being accessible through feats.

As an example, a feat that makes you better with a bow might allow you to ignore cover. A fighter maneuver aimed at ranged attacks might let you fire a quick volley of arrows to make an area attack by spending your expertise.

Expertise represents a combination of skill and energy. A fighter expends energy to pull off difficult maneuvers and can use an action to take a break and regain some of that energy. Mechanically, we're representing that energy with a pool of dice.

Do We Need Rules for This?

Last week I mentioned exploration rules, and that brings up a key point for the game. Outside of the basic mechanics for stuff like moving, combat, and casting spells, we're assuming that everything else is optional. Something like the exploration rules, or the shortcuts for handling fights with lots of creatures, are simply tools for DMs to use or adapt for their games.

Just as we know that DMs and players have a wide variety of styles, we also know that different styles demand different amounts of rules. Some DMs want structure, and others want to wing everything. The core rules present the minimum rules needed, and they rely on a DM to make lots of calls and judgments, primarily because that keeps the game simple and also plays to the RPG's strengths.

Minimum is a tricky word. You can expect things like rules for flying, but presented in a fairly simple, easy to run form. If you want to run dogfights with detailed rules for turn radius and such, we can provide deeper rules for that. In most cases, though, you just need to know how fast a creature flies. We'd likely just provide simple rules that apply to all flying creatures in the core system, unless otherwise noted in the creature's description. For example, a creature might need to move forward at least half its speed and cannot turn more than 90 degrees total during its turn.

In Other News

Most of our work right now is focused on new races and classes. We have three races worked up, along with two or three more classes. We'll playtest them a bit internally to work out the obvious kinks, but you can expect future packets to focus on providing more character-building options.

Legends & Lore Archive | 2/18/2013

This Week in D&D

Legends & Lore

Mike Mearls


P art of my personal quest to kick the tires on D&D Next consists of running games that I've really enjoyed in past editions or doing things with D&D that I've always wanted to try but never got around to trying. This week, I'm prepping for a huge game involving about ten players, five tables of pre-arranged 3-D terrain, and several hundred orcs, gnolls, and other nasties in an epic, all-day game. My aim is to fit an entire, epic story line into one day. The characters will represent the last hope against an army of evil that seeks to ravage the land. We'll have sieges, battles, daring commando raids, and good old-fashioned dungeon romps. By the time you're reading this, the game will be done and (hopefully!) a success.

So far, the system has mostly done what I've needed in terms of prep. We don't have mass combat rules yet, but I'm planning on using the shortcuts I used with Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain as needed. The more telling thing will be the relative power of various monsters. How well does a dragon attack on a small town play out? Will the town guard snuff out the creature or will it run rampant? Mathematical modeling is a useful starting point, but I've found that sitting down and playing is the best way to get a good handle on the correct assumptions, details we've overlooked, and the actual flow of events in the game.

Have you tried any interesting scenarios or set-ups in your own playtests? Drop a comment below and tell the world about it.

Physician, Heal Thyself

We have had a few interesting talks about healing in R&D lately. I'm wondering if we might be thinking too much about healing. Our goal has been to remove cleric healing as a necessary element of adventuring. Does that approach make sense given our modular design?

I'm starting to think that it doesn't. As a default, we can just embrace the cleric's healing with the understanding that most groups have rolled with that in the past without any real issues. The nice thing about that solution is that it keeps things simple, since the Hit Die mechanic (along with the other options we've tried) becomes an optional rule for groups to use as they see fit. We can then also offer other options for DMs, either making healing rarer or more plentiful, along with options for lingering wounds, longer or shorter rates of natural healing, and so on.

The real issue, based on playtest data, is that there really is no consensus on the perfect set of rules for healing. Going for the simplest route available to use makes the game more accessible while giving DMs the most latitude to make adjustments. In other areas, like the fighter, we've seen shifts in one direction or the other, but I've always felt confident that there was an answer for us to focus on. Healing is far more scattered. I think that we started off with a few assumptions too many in terms of what people want out of the core, treating an element that should be an option—nonmagical healing—as a key part of the game.

With this sort of thing, we don't assume that the default rule is the "right" or "correct" choice. With the core game, our aim is to err on the side of simplicity and streamlined, easy to learn rules.

In any case, nothing is set in stone. There are still discussions pending, and we all still have thinking and playing to do, but right now I'm leaning toward this as our best path forward.

Legends & Lore Archive | 2/25/2013

This Week in D&D

Legends & Lore

Mike Mearls


It's been an interesting week for D&D. The game I ran last Saturday was a success, though I had to trim back on its scope. I originally wanted to run a mini-campaign in one day, centered on the siege of a small castle. In the end, the siege became the meat of the event, but it proved more than enough to keep us occupied for nearly 8 hours of continuous gaming. If you follow me on Twitter—my handle there is @mikemearls—you had a chance to see live updates of the game as an orc horde threw itself at the castle's defenses.

I'm particularly happy that monsters like hill giants and a giant skeleton fit in with how I imagined the game playing out. The orcs recruited a hill giant as a walking battering ram. While he was able to lay waste to the castle defenders, he was felled in a few rounds by several, massive volleys of arrows and a tightly packed rank of spear-wielding warriors. The giant felt sufficiently threatening, but it also felt vulnerable to becoming overrun. That fit my conception of how such powerful monsters might operate in the world of D&D. They can turn the tide of a battle, but if left alone or isolated, the sheer weight of their enemies' numbers can overwhelm them.

That same trend held out for the characters, too, with some of the most dangerous moments occurring when a lone character was surrounded by orcs or caught by a sudden counterattack. A lone hero can defeat many lesser foes, but there is still a significant element of risk in being heavily outnumbered.

Working Away

This past week saw the internal release of the next packet. Before we send things out to the public, we pass materials through internal groups and a select group of external testers. The newest packet included the druid, among other classes, and provoked some discussion of roles and classes in the office.

Roles in a tabletop RPG are a little tricky, since the act of choosing roles says a lot about what your game is about. DMs and gaming groups like to set their own tone and focus for campaigns, making it quite likely that whatever roles the design team picks might not match what the players want to do in the game. That doesn't mean we don't pay attention to what the characters are most likely to do.

Take combat as an example. Every class should have the potential to contribute to a fight, and our efforts to make attack bonuses fairly flat mean that most characters can make at least a nominal contribution through attacks. A wizard who avoids any attack spells whatsoever can still make ranged weapon attacks with half-decent competence.

Our approach to skills also plays into this. By limiting the maximum bonus you can gain through a skill system, we can keep most DCs in the 10 to 20 range. Even the highest DCs are still possible, though not likely, for characters without a bonus.

Although that approach speaks to basic competency, what about more specialized abilities? For something like healing, any class that you'd expect to have robust healing abilities should be equivalent to similar classes. Thus, a cleric and a druid are on equal terms here. The same would apply to a paladin with a specific focus on healing.

We've also used a similar approach for weapon-using characters, like the fighter, the monk, and the barbarian. They all use the same core rate of advancement in basic fighting ability, with each class then adding a unique mechanic (maneuvers, ki, or rage) on top of that.

A Little More on Healing

Last week I wrote about healing, and I'd like to follow-up with a specific idea for our core healing rules. My preference is simply to allow a small amount of healing: 1 hit point per level per hour of complete rest. An 8-hour rest would restore most characters' hit points.

The nice thing about this rule is that it is very easy to change it to match your campaign. You can simply speed up or slow down healing. If your group lacks a cleric and you prefer lots of combat, you can allow healing at 5-minute intervals. For a more lethal campaign, change the healing rate to 4 or 8 hours. By changing one factor, you can make a significant change to the tone and feel of your game.

Legends & Lore Archive | 3/4/2013

This Week in D&D

Legends & Lore

Mike Mearls


It might be strange for the guy in charge of D&D R&D to say this, but here it goes: After the core rules for the game are done, we really want to stop adding so much stuff to the mechanics of the game and shift our emphasis to story.

D&D is a shared language. The rules serve to make it easier to talk about the game and make stuff happen. They take abstract concepts and give them clear meaning. When we say "5th-level wizard," we know what you can do and how you do it. We know that because we play D&D. Someone who never played the game would be utterly lost.

A language works best when everyone who uses it can communicate efficiently. If I described my character as a "prime tier ensign," that doesn't mean anything to you. Could you guess what my character wears, what sort of weapon he might wield, and what special abilities he uses? Any answer you give is a pure guess.

For that reason, in building classes, character options, and everything else in the game, we need to stick to things that make sense and resonate with you. That's why we've adopted things like specialties and backgrounds as tools to organize game rules. Rapid Shot and Precise Shot are abstract things that aren't really clear. You can only understand them by knowing what they are. They don't stand on their own in a meaningful way. Describing your fighter as an archer, though, makes sense to anyone. Your character uses a bow. That's self-evident from the word archer. There are still details to study, but the general idea evokes a key fantasy archetype.

The trick is that the list of things that resonate is shorter than an unbound list. It's a challenge, but it's one worth tackling. Realistically, I'm willing to bet that most people didn't start playing D&D because they wanted to take Rapid Shot. You probably wanted to play an archer, or a sneaky thief, and so on. The most resonant elements arise from outside the game, in the myths and stories that we're all exposed to.

The other side to this coin is that with a much-reduced emphasis on turning out new rules mechanics, the material we make receives more playtesting, development, and care. If you want to make an archer option, it has to be a good option. You don't get a second chance at it.

So, that's the general philosophy on expanding the rules of the game.

Legends & Lore Archive | 3/11/2013

This Week in D&D

Legends & Lore

Mike Mearls


As I write this, it's the Friday of Emerald City Comicon. One of the nice benefits of working on D&D is that interesting people like to play the game. Felicia Day stopped by the office to visit, and we were able to sit down for a quick podcast. Am I bragging? Is there a point to this story? Yes and yes. Felicia's Geek & Sundry Network is organizing International TableTop Day on Saturday, March 30th. As a creator of tabletop games, I have a vested interest in urging you to grab a game, gather some friends, and take part. Games are fun. Share them with people.

The Right Tool for the Job

There's an old saying that every army is equipped for the last war it fought. Game development is similar in that it's easy to hold on to assumptions about systems and games that might no longer apply because of changes we've made. For instance, our approach to magic in D&D Next is more forgiving when it comes to picking spells than previous editions were. If you guess wrong in D&D Next—that burning hands spell you prepped can't dent the fire elementals swarming around you—you can always spend your magic to cast acid arrow or fall back to a cantrip such as ray of frost.

Up to this point, our spell design has followed a philosophy that worked well in the past. We tried to make spells as versatile and broadly useful as we could. While a spell might not have been the exact fit for a situation, we wanted to avoid universally applicable spells. But as we test D&D Next, it has become clear that we can afford to make spells more specialized.

For instance, fog cloud as currently written in our tests hinders vision for your enemies, but not for you and your allies. We are now looking to modify this, and our change in emphasis means that we don't need to worry as much about making it strictly beneficial. We can make the spell a little simpler and apply its effects to everything. You won't use fog cloud unless you can afford to hinder your allies. If you don't want to do that, you can cast something else. Preparing fog cloud doesn't shut down your ability to use other spells.

This approach is one of the advantages of our playtest. Nothing is more frustrating than finding that old assumptions have led to more complexity or a broken spell a week after new rules for the game release.

Managing Options

We've talked about managing dead levels, a level in which you gain nothing aside from hit points, versus the creeping complexity that comes with piling on character abilities. This topic is critical to managing the transition from a simple option to a complex one, based on what kind of character you like to play.

Our current thinking is to do some renovation to the classes and create the opportunity to add a new ability or improve an existing one where we can. For instance, as a fighter you might have the option to take a new maneuver or improve one that you already have. A fighter's maneuver might increase accuracy, and then it can be improved to grant a larger bonus.

This change is subtle, but it helps the system flex to match a user's needs. It also makes it much easier to manage nonplayer characters with character levels. You can expect that in published adventures and in our guidelines for using classes to modify monsters or create NPCs, we'll show you the bare minimum you need to make a functional character. For instance, an NPC wizard might have only three spells prepared, but if those spells scale with the level used to cast them, you haven't weakened your NPC.

Delving Further into Complexity

Speaking of things being easier to manage, complexity is a big issue for me. I've heard far too many stories about people trying to play tabletop D&D and giving up on it. We know that many people get into D&D by finding someone to teach them, but why design a game that requires this when it does not need to be the case? Giving people the ability to easily jump into the game without guidance from an experienced player and to make the transition from a simple game to a complex one is a key part of a design. And as we move ahead, you can expect it'll be a huge focus after the classes and races are out there being playtested.

Legends & Lore Archive | 3/18/2013

This Week in D&D

Legends & Lore

Mike Mearls


B ig news this week: We have a new playtest packet coming this Wednesday, March 20th. So, what can you expect to see in the next packet? Let's take a look. In fact, I'm grilling Jeremy Crawford about this stuff as I type this.

Druid: The druid in the packet gains wild shape at 1st level, along with the choice of a circle. The circle of the oak grants improved spellcasting, while the circle of the moon focuses on wild shape. The druid matches the cleric's healing in terms of spells, but also has more access to damaging spells.

Wild shape is a daily ability that allows a druid to turn into a specific, chosen form. For instance, a 1st-level druid can transform into a hound that has a high speed, low-light vision, and a superior ability to find hidden things. Its bite attack makes it a useful combatant.

At higher levels, you gain access to more forms. Both circles gain access to forms that provide noncombat abilities, such as a fish or bird. The circle of the moon druid can turn into a bear or assume other mighty forms that can tear a swathe through the battlefield. In contrast, the circle of the oak druid gains more spells and can thus unleash flame strike and similar spells on enemies.

Paladin: For the first time ever, we are giving you the paladin, the anti-paladin, and the warden, all in one package. Those three characters map to good, evil, and neutrality. The class as a whole is called the paladin, but the individual types are the cavalier (good), blackguard (evil), and warden (neutral).

A 1st-level paladin gains a bonus to saving throws, can detect evil undead and fiends, and takes an oath that determines the character's ethos. The oath grants a paladin domain spells and special channel divinity options, such as smite evil or the ability to control undead.

At 8th-level, a paladin gains a mount, whether a celestial charger, a nightmare, or a summer stag. In the past, the paladin's mount has been a bit of an issue in dungeons and other areas where a mount has trouble maneuvering. The mount's attacks are fairly weak, meaning it doesn't have much value in terms of the paladin's combat abilities. Instead, it is useful for traversing rough terrain while traveling overland or for paladins who specialize in mounted combat.

The paladin is our knight in shining armor, whether that knight is clad in white, green, or black. Compared to a fighter, the paladin lacks tactical maneuvers but gains spells and the benefits of an oath.

Ranger: The ranger gains spellcasting at 1st level, marking a bit more of an emphasis on magic in this class than in earlier editions. The ranger's favored enemy serves to give this class a set of special abilities that grant the class a set of static bonuses and advantages. This class feature illustrates the ranger's role as guardian of the wild.

The favored enemy bonuses are themed around specific opponents such as dragons or giants, but the mechanics are versatile enough that you can gain their benefits against a wide range of creatures. For instance, picking dragon as a favored enemy grants a ranger immunity to fear. This ability is useful against a dragon's fear aura, but is equally useful against undead, spellcasters, and so forth.

In a bit of a change from the past, the ranger does not feature specific abilities to augment archery or two-weapon fighting. The specialties we offer allow a ranger to pursue those paths. We thought about creating ranger-only versions of them, but that approach ended up competing with the fighter's maneuvers.

New Spells: This packet includes many new spells to support the druid and ranger.

Math: The math has been overhauled, with character damage dropping. Monster stats are remaining the same, but you might see some monster levels and XP values shifting. More importantly, the martial damage bonus is going away for our weapon-users. Instead, they will gain multiple attacks at higher levels.

Fighter: The fighter is getting expertise dice that are spent to gain a bonus to AC or attack rolls, along with other specific abilities. A die spent is gone until the fighter pauses for a moment to rest, with an action spent to rest allowing the fighter to regain a die.

Skills: Skills are part of our ability check system as before, but we've made some tweaks to how we present them. For instance, you gain your skill die when using Intelligence to search for traps. The system is similar to what you've seen before, but we are casting it as an augmentation to your ability checks. The biggest benefit I've seen at the table is from a DM's point of view. I've quickly fallen into a cadence of saying things like, "Make a Wisdom check to listen" or "Make a Strength check to break down the door." The idea is that those descriptive reasons for the check map to our skills.

Two-Weapon Fighting: Our default assumption is that if you fight with two weapons of the appropriate size and are proficient with both of them, you are on par with a two-handed weapon user or a sword and board character. Feats and such make you better at two-weapon fighting. This change reflects our overall approach to character options, with options making you good at things rather than merely competent.

Swift Spell: The word of power mechanic has been renamed as the swift spell rule, allowing us to use it as necessary with other classes and clearing up confusion between the rule and spells such as power word stun.

Races: We've revised races a bit, refining their abilities so that they are simpler and easier to apply in character creation.

Exploration Rules: These are in the packet this time, rather than just listed in the playtest email alert.

What's Next: Just as a new packet is going out to the world, we've finished up an internal packet with even more races and classes, along with multiclassing. Those will be the big pieces of our next packet.

Legends & Lore Archive | 4/1/2013

This Week in D&D

Legends & Lore

Mike Mearls


Today is April Fool's Day, but in the interest of not trying to inflict my sense of humor on you (you're a rough enough crowd as it is), I'll let Scott Kurtz and his web comic, Table Titans, entertain you. If you're not familiar with it by now, Table Titans is the web series written and illustrated by Scott Kurtz. The comic follows the real and imagined adventures of three friends in their quest to become the world's most legendary D&D gaming group. Mines of Madness was (until now) the made up adventure the group played and was first introduced in Scott's PvPonline.com web series. It was such a strong storyline that resonated with so many people that we decided to bring it to life. Scott teamed up with Chris Perkins to create the Mines of Madness. Participants in the DM's Challenge at PAX East had the chance to delve into the mines, and now you do, too. Later today, the adventure will be available in the playtest packet for download and play with the D&D Next rules.

I ran Mines of Madness during one of our Friday afternoon playtests here at the Wizards of the Coast offices and had a ton of fun with it. It's a fairly brutal adventure, but one with a sense of humor. I'd suggest playing with the pregenerated characters, unless you aren't particularly attached to your current PC.

Tiers of Play

Tiers of play have been a part of D&D for quite a long while. In some versions of the game, they were explicit breaks between character levels. Basic D&D folded itself into the Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal sets, with the game's focus shifting between dungeons, wilderness, rulership, the quest for immortality, and cosmic adventuring, respectively. In 4th Edition, we created the heroic, paragon, and epic tiers, each with a different focus on the scope and location of adventures that was somewhat similar to Basic D&D.

Other editions have had softer breaks in play. For instance, a lot of groups feel that 3E became a different game somewhere around 10th level, with saving throws bearing a much heavier load in determining your ability to survive and casters outpacing everyone else in terms of power.

For D&D Next, we've had some discussions about tiers and what they mean for the game. I've felt that a tier should be much like any other option a DM picks for a campaign—a flag that tells you what kind of game to expect. A tier can also be a useful way for us to organize the game, since the focus can shift in response to the characters' growing power. Here's how I see tiers playing out. Keep in mind that this tier structure is the sort of thing that we've saved for last because it involves a fair amount of structural change, but it doesn't mess with the basic content of the game.

Apprentice Tier: This change is the biggest shift from how you've seen the game so far. What we've treated as 1st-level characters in D&D Next before now shift to become 3rd-level characters, with two new levels inserted into each class that allow you to gradually gain the full abilities of a character.

Not everything shifts in this manner. For example, a wizard's spell progression still matches the current rules, but you instead gain one cantrip at 1st level, an extra one at 2nd level, and then another at 3rd level. You don't gain your tradition until 3rd level, reflecting that you cannot truly specialize in magic until you have mastered its basics.

From a game design perspective, this approach allows us to spread out class features over more levels. Beginners have an easier time getting into the game, nonplayer characters are easier to run, and creating a character for a quick game is much easier. Furthermore, groups that want to start with tougher characters can start at 3rd level. The rules will include that as a specific option.

In terms of the story, characters are (as the tier name says) apprentices. They're just starting out and are learning the ropes of their basic class features. Characters level fairly quickly. For instance, in the Keep on the Borderlands, your first adventure might be an expedition to discover the fate of an elf who disappeared in the forest south of the keep. In about two hours of play, you encounter a wandering band of lizardfolk, battle a nest of spiders, recover the elf's remains, and head back to the keep. That's enough to earn 2nd level. To reach 3rd level, you play for about two to four hours and deal with a bigger threat, such as tracking down and defeating a bandit gang.

In practical terms, the idea is to have one play session that covers character creation and reaches 2nd level, and then have a second session that takes you to 3rd level. Of course, changing the rate of leveling in any tier is a trivial change. Groups that want to linger in one level band or speed up the rate of advancement will have those options.

Adventurer Tier: If the apprentice tier is the prologue to your adventuring career, then the adventurer tier is the meat of your character's story. When you've reached 3rd level, you've proven yourself as an adventurer and are ready for bigger challenges. An extended expedition to a dungeon, like the Caves of Chaos, is within your capabilities. Apprentice tier characters lack the flexibility and durability to take on an entire lair of monsters far from civilization. Characters in the adventurer tier are more capable, have a broader range of abilities, and start to develop the unique talents that make them distinct.

Mechanically speaking, this tier supports more customization and choice. Specialties come into play for the first time, as do choices such as a wizard's tradition or a rogue's scheme. Apprentice tier characters are more on rails compared to the adventurer tier.

In the story, adventurer tier characters have made a name for themselves. People notice when an adventurer tier character comes to town, whether it's by reputation or thanks to the ancient suit of magic plate mail that gleams impressively upon that character.

Adventurer tier covers most of what we consider to be the standard D&D experience. Most experienced groups will simply jump straight to adventurer tier, and our rules for building such characters will include some simple story options (random tables and other idea generators) for setting down what happened to your character during his or her apprentice tier adventures.

Adventurer tier runs from 3rd level to 15th level. You can expect to level every other session in this tier.

Legacy Tier: This tier, as its name indicates, covers the legacy system that I've written about earlier. At 16th level, you are the equivalent of a major celebrity in the world of D&D. For better or worse, people know who you are. Your adventures determine the fate of kingdoms and the course of history. As you gain in power, you can't help but leave behind a mark on the world around you. You might gain a throne, lead an army, or found a new religion.

In the legacy tier, you take on an active role in the world. While adventure might still find you, more often than not you are the propelling force behind the events of the world. At lower levels you reacted to orc raids. Now you raise an army and venture forth to besiege the orc king's fortress.

Legacy tier runs from 16th to 20th level, with characters gaining a level every three sessions or so. As with adventurer tier, we'll have clear rules and guidelines for starting at this tier.

Please tell us what you think of all this in the comment field! We're interested in your feedback.

Legends & Lore Archive | 4/15/2013

This Week in D&D

Legends & Lore

Mike Mearls


I t's hard to believe that we're closing in on nearly a full year of open playtesting for D&D Next. A lot has changed since we first started this process. This week, I'd like to talk about a new idea that we're implementing. It's something that came about largely because of playtest feedback and the discussion and ideas it has sparked among us.

So What Is a Feat, Anyway?

I'll admit my bias: I love feats. When I first laid hands on a playtest version of 3E (I had early access due to my involvement in the RPGA), I thought feats were a great innovation. Recently, I came across two of the first characters I made for these rules: a wandering human paladin who wielded a quarterstaff and an elf fighter with a case of amnesia. In both cases, the feats available in the game helped bring those characters to life. I liked that I could come up with ideas for a character concept and match that to mechanics outside of a class.

On the other hand, feats were by no means free of warts. I vividly remember helping a friend make her first 3E character after the game released. She created a sorcerer, and when it came time to pick a feat the entire process came to a halt.

She could take Toughness, but its measly +3 hit points were clearly not going to be useful in the long run. She considered a metamagic or item creation feat, but the metamagic feat was useless to her at 1st level, and she didn't want to spend XP to gain magic items.

Frankly, it would've been a lot easier for her if we could've just skipped that step. She was a D&D veteran who had an easy time picking spells, assigning skill ranks, choosing a race, and rolling her abilities, but the feat choice had little to do with her character concept (disowned daughter of a ruthless noble). I think she ended up taking something that gave a bonus to Diplomacy checks.

Here we had two people, both experienced D&D players, both of whom had the opposite reaction to feats. We've been acutely aware of the divide between people who want to build characters from mechanics, and people who just want to get on with playing the game. We think we have a solution that will make the game work for both of them.

Right now, we're working under a few new assumptions:

  • Classes gain feats at a rate appropriate to that class. Fighters might get more feats than wizards, for example. We don't have a universal rate where all characters gain a feat at levels X, Y, and Z.

  • A feat can be used to gain +1 to an ability score, to a maximum of 20, or to gain a special ability that is equivalent in power to that ability bonus.

  • Feats have level requirements, and higher-level feats are more potent than lower-level ones.

We believe that these changes can smooth out the game for beginners while keeping options open for people who like picking and choosing class-independent abilities. It also means that feats have to become much, much more interesting.

For beginners and players who don't want to spend a lot of time making choices, the ability score bonuses are both powerful and easy to apply. Veteran players will likely take a few bonuses to raise their key abilities to 20, and then delve into more special abilities.

In addition, the fighter and rogue—along with their unique class features—will gain more feats than other classes. This approach helps emphasize their versatility by making them more customizable.

Finally, this approach has a fairly interesting implication for paragon paths and prestige classes. Feats are now more powerful than they have been in prior iterations of the playtest materials. At this stage, I feel comfortable that we can model many paths and prestige classes through sets of feats that duplicate their powers and class features. I always really liked that paragon paths were an additive layer to your character. This approach means that players who don't want to even think about such options can concentrate solely on their original class, while other players can mix and match benefits to their heart's content.

Legends & Lore Archive | 4/22/2013

This Week in D&D

Feats and Skills and Options, Oh My!

Mike Mearls


Last week, I wrote about feats and our change in philosophy regarding them. This week, it's time to talk about feats, skills, classes, and how this all fits together.

Back at the beginning of the year, I wrote about the different layers of the game. I also shared our two core goals. Here they are:

  1. Create a version of D&D that embraces the enduring, core elements of the game.

  2. Create a set of rules that allows a smooth transition from a simple game to a complex one.

Feats, skills, and classes all fit together at the nexus of meeting these goals. As I wrote last week, we're merging paragon paths and prestige classes into feats. That change makes what I'm about to talk about much easier for us to manage as we work on the game.

It's easy to argue that feats, skills, and character customization haven't always been a big part of D&D. We don't need them to embrace the core of the game, and removing them would make it easier and faster to make a character. It also gives DMs less to track. Our easiest solution here is to create the option to play without them.

On the other hand, people do like customizing their characters with mechanical choices. They also want different levels of complexity. If we completely cut out feats and skills, that might cause us to miss our second goal.

Thus, we hit upon the core, central conflict in the design. How do you make the same game work for players and groups who might be very, very different? It's a question that requires a few steps to address.

Containing Complexity: Feats

To start with, we need to contain the game's shifting complexity in as small a footprint as possible. We settled on feats, because we could define a feat's value as worth +1 to an ability score. Applying +1 to a score is a fairly simply operation with clear, useful value to a player. On top of that, adding +1 to an even ability score doesn't have an actual effect on a character but still gives a player a sense of progress.

As an aside, whenever possible we give feats alongside another incremental improvement. For instance, a rogue's feats can come in alongside an improvement to sneak attack damage. A caster gains a feat alongside more spells. We don't rely on a feat to carry the entire load of goodies you receive for leveling. We can keep complexity low by pairing them with other incremental benefits.

In the basic rules, players see only the option to improve an ability score. This rule places further emphasis on the abilities. It also scoops up all the passive, simple feats that have appeared in the past. We don't need to give a +1 bonus to attack rolls, damage rolls, or saves, because the ability bonuses include those.

We don't want to make any assumptions about increased ability scores with leveling. There are two reasons for this. First, that would turn the ability increases into another tax. Second, we're mindful that not everyone who wants to make an attack will max out Strength or Dexterity. A melee character should feel comfortable about boosting Charisma or Constitution for story reasons or personal preference. A choice isn't a choice if there's only one assumed, correct answer.

Finally, this approach allows us to use feats to shoulder a lot of the load in shifting complexity. Powers, special attacks, minor spellcasting, expertise at sneaking or interaction, and so forth can live inside of feats. This approach allows us to deliver on the idea of players picking the type of character they want to play and building toward that. Someone who wants to make the most complex character can play alongside someone running the simplest character imaginable. A DM doesn't need to make any special considerations or changes to how he or she creates adventures or manages the game.

So, in summary, feats allow us to isolate complexity, give it a clear definition in terms of power and effect, and create a highly variable pool of abilities to choose from. Prestige classes, paragon paths, and any option that we see as something that any character should be able to select rest here. The lack of an exact story definition of feats is a feature, not a bug.

Skills and Backgrounds: A DM's Tool

Our attention now turns to skills. If feats are where we're containing complexity, where does that leave skills?

Up to this point, we used backgrounds as a way to deliver skills. We've determined, though, that skills as a situational bonus have run into a few challenges.

  • The idea of a static, increasing numerical bonus runs counter to our aim to prevent bonus inflation.

  • The skills are awkward at the table. Some DMs still ask for a "Spot check" or other named skill. Veteran players know what that means, but new players are lost. They might not have a Spot skill anywhere on their character sheets. We'd like the DM to only ever worry about asking for an ability check.

  • The skill die mechanic really doesn't address either point. It reins in the bonus somewhat, but people who like skills find it isn't big enough. It also does nothing to address awkwardness at the table, since DMs still need to be clear about what kind of check they are looking for.

Playtest feedback shows people have been really happy with skills as part of a background. Their open-ended nature and flexibility have proven popular. So, how do we handle this?

To start with, we're making skills completely optional. They are a rules module that combines the 3E and 4E systems that DMs can integrate into their game if they so desire. If you use the full skill system, we expect that you'll ask for a Perception check rather than a Wisdom check to spot a hidden monster. We can also allow skills to give you a steadily improving, static bonus. If the DM opts to use the skill system, he or she just needs to keep in mind how it affects DCs. A DM can change DCs, or just use the standard ones and accept that characters will succeed more often.

Backgrounds now give you a set of options that capture the key, interesting benefits that have proven popular. They are broken down into a few categories:

Areas of knowledge give you a +10 bonus to Intelligence checks made to recall lore about a subject. This bonus does not improve with level. By baking this into the system, we can present it to DMs as an exception to the basic rule of always asking for an ability check. The list of areas will be fairly limited to make it easy to manage.

We're making this an exception to our general approach to skills because there will always be a divide between what characters can and should know about the world and what players might remember. This mechanic allows us to directly address that.

For instance, let's say the characters are journeying to Waterdeep. The players might not know much about the city because they haven't read much Forgotten Realms lore. We can assume that every character in the world of the Realms knows some level of info about Waterdeep. The area of knowledge system presents a list of Waterdeep lore that everyone knows, and it includes information available at DC 10, 20, and 30 Intelligence checks. It allows DMs to be more permissive in sharing what should be common lore, while also giving clear guidelines in how best to share more obscure lore. The bonus means that anyone with the appropriate area of knowledge automatically hits the DC 10 knowledge and has a good chance of reaching DC 20. DC 30 is tricky but possible for characters with a high Intelligence score.

Proficiencies extend beyond weapons and armor to cover a wide range of things. You can become proficient in thieves' tools, blacksmith's tools, sailing ships, musical instruments, and so on. A simple prerequisite system combines with our ability check system to make it easy to manage things such as forging a sword or sailing a ship using only ability checks.

For instance, let's say the characters want to sail a ship across a lake. Only a character with proficiency in sailing can attempt some of the Dexterity, Intelligence, and Strength checks needed to guide the boat. We don't need to rely on skills to deliver that, but instead a simple proficiency that says you know how to do something. It also means that we can be fairly clear about what checks need special training without using the entire skill system.

For clarity's sake, we'll note in published adventures if a check requires a special proficiency. The proficiencies will also be fairly broad. For example, a watercraft proficiency covers all boats and ships.

Benefits (the name is a placeholder for now) extend to all the other things that your background might give you. A noble has access to powerful people and better accommodations. A sage always knows where to look for information that he or she can't recall off the top of her head. A merchant speaks several languages and can find cheap, mundane goods.

These abilities are flavorful additions to your character that help give your character more options in dealing with noncombat situations. They are the connections, ties, and tricks that you picked up before becoming an adventurer.

Classes

Finally, we come to classes. Our classes are designed with the assumption that you are using the ability bonuses in place of feats and aren't using skills. Therefore, they need to be complete on their own. A bonus feat can't replace the core abilities that a class gains.

For most classes, the changes will be largely cosmetic or a simple rearrangement of what you've already seen. The fighter and rogue bolster the choices and options presented within them, adding more class-specific features. In addition, they both feature choices similar to a wizard's tradition and a cleric's deity. We've had these before, but now we're giving them more teeth.

For instance, a fighter might choose between knight and gladiator. The knight is skilled in heavy armor, courtly manner, and mounted combat. This bold fighter seizes the initiative and can protect allies from harm. The gladiator trains with a variety of exotic weapons and excels at finding and exploiting an opponent's weaknesses or mistakes.

Since the rogue and fighter have traditionally presented simple options, we can easily create a choice that focuses on ease of use and clearly understood features for the basic game.

The idea behind this move is to make sure that we are creating abilities and identities for the fighter and rogue that stand out. Those classes have been fairly generic for much of D&D's history. We want to preserve some of that feel—fighters and rogues gain more ability increases/feats than other classes to make them more flexible—but we're also mindful of the need to make sure we don't sell them short.

In Summary

As you can see, our process is fairly complex and involves keeping several lines of design moving at once. At times, things can seem muddy or confused, but we've been keeping a careful eye on directing this entire process with our major goals intact. I'm confident that, with this plan in place, we can deliver on our two major goals for the game.

This is a long column, so here's a condensed version of the goals for abilities, feats, skills, and backgrounds that I discussed above:

  • All characters gain a +1 bonus to an ability score of their choice at various levels, depending on the class.

  • You can trade a +1 bonus to an ability score for a feat if your group uses feats.

    • In other words, feats are optional and don't appear in the basic game.

  • Skills are an optional system that your DM might want to use.

    • Skills are optional and don't appear in the basic game.

  • Backgrounds give out a combination of areas of knowledge, proficiencies with tools and objects, and special benefits.

    • An area of knowledge is a situational, +10 bonus to Intelligence checks.

    • A proficiency indicates you know how to use an item.

    • The unique benefits are social connections, tricks, and other abilities.

Legends & Lore Archive | 4/29/2013

So What Is a Subclass?

Mike Mearls


Last week, I talked about feats and the overall transition in complexity between the basic rules and the optional rules elements you can add. This week, I want to talk about subclasses and the role they play in the game.

Subclasses are already present in the D&D Next playtest. Each class will have a different take on what a subclass actually represents to it.

For a cleric, it's deity choice. For a wizard, it's tradition. Every class in the game is a broad archetype that represents a range of possible characters. The subclass choice within a class reflects that broad range.

The key class features that all members of a class receive represent the core identity of the class. They are the shared elements that all fighters or wizards gain.

The really nice thing about subclasses is that they represent another way we can scale complexity. The basic rules that I've referred to in an earlier Legends & Lore article present a wizard subclass that is simple and easy to use, but no less powerful than more complex options you might see in the standard and advanced rules, like necromancer or wild mage.

The biggest change you will see in an upcoming packet involves the fighter and the rogue. For too long, those classes existed well within the shadows of other classes. We're taking concepts such as warlord, knight, samurai, gladiator, or scout, and we're transforming them into fighter options. For the rogue, you'll see options such as the assassin, the thief, and the vagabond.

Does that mean that anyone who steps into an arena must be a fighter? By no means, but it does mean that we're creating special powers and abilities for fighters who trained as gladiators. In other words, we're creating unique and special mechanics that only fighters and rogues can access. We're not simply giving them better access to our (now optional) feat and skill systems.

This move also puts more pressure on the paladin and ranger to remain distinct from the fighter. That's why our first draft of those characters more prominently featured spellcasting.

Finally, this move allows us to be more flexible in how we handle the classes. The fighter can offer a warrior option that gives a bonus to damage rolls and attack rolls that is perfect for beginning players or people who just want to hit stuff hard. In contrast, the duelist has abilities that make the character acrobatic, talented with light weapons, and capable of using powers that improve the character's ability to disarm, parry, and so forth. The two subclasses don't even have to present the same core mechanic, with the duelist using expertise dice and the warrior simply gaining a series of static bonuses.

It's important to note that concepts like archer or two-weapon fighting specialist don't fall into subclasses. That's where feats come in, since they can offer specialization in areas that aren't linked to specific classes. After all, a rogue, a fighter, and a ranger have all supported archers, two-weapon fighters, and so forth in the past.

Feats also allow us to create that paladin-gladiator without using multiclassing. If your concept of a gladiator is a warrior who fights with a trident and net, you can use feats to focus on those weapons with your paladin and ranger if you'd prefer not to play a fighter.

Legends & Lore Archive | 5/20/2013

This Week (May 20) in D&D

Mike Mearls


I 'm back! Sorry for the unplanned hiatus, but a variety of crises (my dog learned the hard way that she can't digest gravel), deadlines (sorry, not another packet), and other tasks have kept me busy. We're also at the point where we're focused on refining what you've already seen rather than building new stuff. The latest round of playtest feedback is in our hands, and we're busy making adjustments along with implementing subclasses and some of the other stuff I've talked about.

This week, I want to briefly go over how we're implementing the three pillars of D&D: exploration, interaction, and combat. You've seen the start of the exploration rules in the playtest, and we have a set of interaction rules designed.

Exploration

The basic model of giving specific actions and a turn sequence has gone over well in the playtest. To simplify the rules and address issues that have come up in play, we're doing a few things.

  • We've removed the sliding time scale, and we've instead broken the rules into dungeon exploration (also usable with ruins, city travel, and other tactical-level exploration) and overland travel. Overland travel uses 1-hour increments, and dungeon exploration uses 1-minute increments.

  • Each exploration scale has a set of actions, with overlap where appropriate. You don't navigate in dungeons since there are no rules for getting lost while using 1-minute exploration turns.

  • We've simplified the actions in some areas and will integrate the exploration rules for surprise into combat to bridge the systems. We've folded some actions into others and added the option to forage for food and water.

  • We've added optional rules for weather, rules for environmental dangers such as extreme heat or cold, and guidelines for starvation and thirst.

  • Most importantly, we will integrate these rules into classes, monsters, backgrounds, and feats where appropriate. For example, rangers can't get lost while traveling as long as they navigate.

The final point is a big one to me, since it formalizes exploration in a way that makes it just as much a part of the game as combat. Using a set of basic actions really helps seal these connections, since they give design something to aim at. For instance, a green dragon could have a special ability that causes creatures within 10 miles of its forest lair to have a much higher chance of becoming lost, owing to the hypnotic magic it spreads throughout the woods.

Interaction

We've taken a lighter touch with interaction, focusing on a framework that DMs can use to manage nonplayer characters. Here are the basics.

  • The system uses a few categories to describe an NPC's traits. It covers things such as the NPC's fears, goals, mannerisms, and so on.

  • The rules rely on Charisma checks (or other checks, as appropriate), but also show how to use roleplaying to manage a conversation.

  • The system allows characters to attempt to invoke those traits to influence an NPC. Threaten an NPC with a specific fear you know this character has, and that NPC could cave in to your demands. Offer to help the NPC achieve goals, and this character might form an alliance with you. Miss the mark, and you might trip over the NPC's hatreds or rages, turning this person against you with one ill-considered proposal.

  • The interaction rules allow a DM to classify an NPC as hostile, neutral, or friendly. Charisma checks can't change this attitude. Instead, the attitude determines the range of NPC reactions, from best to worst case. In a favorable situation, a hostile NPC might look the other way or offer you some small aid, but this character isn't going to suddenly become your dear ally. With a blown check, you can expect the NPC to take actions to work against your goals. By the same token, a friendly NPC will offer at least minimal aid and might take on enormous personal risks to help you. Neutral NPCs might oppose you or help you, depending on your check.

  • That said, NPC attitudes can change, but that is only at the DM's discretion based on the long-term interactions with the characters. In addition, determining and using an NPC's beliefs and attitude can cause a temporary shift in attitude.

Here's an example of how interaction works. The characters try to bribe a magistrate to sneak them into the town jail. The magistrate is normally neutral, but let's say that he's corrupt. His goal is to become rich, and he uses his power to benefit himself. A bribe is the perfect tactic. For this check, the DM shifts the magistrate to friendly. The magistrate will help, and the check serves to determine how much help he offers. A bad check means he makes a copy of a key to the jail and gives it to the party, but only after ensuring that he can plausibly deny any connection to them. On a fantastically great check result, the magistrate volunteers to personally take a hand in sneaking the characters into the jail.

On the other hand, let's say that your notes show that the magistrate hates corruption. The bribe pushes his attitude toward hostile. A great check result can overcome his nature, but chances are that he orders the characters arrested.

The key to the system is to give a DM a structured way to take note of an NPC's traits, allowing the system to speak to them in a consistent way, while also ensuring that Charisma checks don't turn into some sort of mind control.

As with exploration, this approach means we can create character options, monster special abilities, and other material that speaks to it. Our monster entries can give a few sample personalities for interaction encounters alongside combat stats, with the personality material speaking directly to our rules for managing interactions.

Legends & Lore Archive | 6/3/2013

Hit My Points

Mike Mearls


T hrough the D&D Next playtest, we've discovered that hit points are D&D's mechanic for genre emulation. Genre emulation is the idea that in a roleplaying game, some of the mechanics serve to create a specific type of story.

For instance, the Ravenloft setting focused on gothic horror. It introduced mechanics to D&D that measured a character's fear and sanity. That sort of rule is common in horror RPGs, making it a good fit for Ravenloft. On the other hand, such rules wouldn't make sense in the heroic world of the Forgotten Realms. In Ravenloft, a horrific vampire is scary enough to break a high-level fighter's mind or cause that character to run in terror. In the Realms, a high-level fighter draws a sword and leaps to battle the monstrosity.

Hit points are D&D's genre emulation mechanic because they tell us that some characters, specifically higher level ones, can survive attacks that would slay lesser mortals. Just as an action hero can beat up a dozen mooks at once, a D&D character can survive increasing dangers with increasing character level. Hit points fuel much of that capability.

Time and again, we've seen divergent opinions on what hit points represent, how quickly they refresh, and so forth. When we read comments, we see many views that coincide with this concept of genre. Are the characters in your campaign the main characters in a grand story? You want an easy way to get hit points back. Does your campaign embrace the survival of the fittest, with one bad decision leading to ruin? Then you're fine with an extended period of time needed to regain hit points.

D&D as an RPG has developed a few genres within itself. You can see this in how people talk about the game. Some groups run intricate stories that place their characters at the center of world-changing events. Other groups play characters who are merely one adventuring band among many, delving into ruins in search of treasure and risking life and limb to the vagaries of the dice. When you say roleplaying game, do you emphasize roleplaying or game?

There's no right answer here, and that's why we're embracing the idea of hit points as something that DMs can customize. That said, we do need to start somewhere. Here's where we are.

  • Hit points represent an element of physical wear that involves a combination of fatigue and physical injury. As you take more damage, you have more evident wounds.

  • To regain hit points, you need to do things that would logically heal those wounds, such as receive a healing spell, drink a potion, or rest for a long while. Right now, we're thinking that a rest in a dungeon or the outdoors can return you to half your maximum hit points. You need to take refuge in a comfortable place, like a tavern or other point of civilization, to rest for a few days and return to your maximum hit points.

  • We also like the idea of taking refuge because it makes interaction more prominent by encouraging DMs and players to think about what happens between visits to the dungeon. While resting in town, do you start a business, mingle with nobles, or apprentice yourself to a weaponsmith? That sort of narrative padding can make interaction and relationships in the campaign a more prominent part of the game. By placing interesting things to do in town within the core system, we can create a game that embraces the entirety of an adventurer's life. Urban adventuring can still feature stuff like delving into sewers or battling a wererat infestation, but it can also become the signature form of an interaction-heavy adventure.

Keep in mind that I am fully aware that many DMs are now gnashing their teeth and are ready to take up arms against these bullet points. Remember, this is just the beginning point—the entry spot for people new to tabletop RPGs. Recovery, rather than the total hit points you receive, is our dial because it allows for maximum compatibility between tables. What kind of options can you expect for hit points?

  • To enable heroic play, you could choose to have a quick hit point refresh option in your game.

  • You could use an option that allows for healing without magic, which supports low- or no-magic campaigns. This option would also allow you to play without a cleric, druid, bard, or other healing class.

  • Adding fate points to your game can provide you with a mechanic that allows characters to avoid death but perhaps suffer some other plot-based complication.

  • For low-powered campaigns, you could choose to emulate lingering wounds.

In essence, this approach focuses on the different styles of play and genres of D&D that people enjoy. You can imagine that Ravenloft, Dragonlance, and Dark Sun would each have different takes on hit points to better model the feel of those worlds.

Next week, I'll write a bit more on this topic as it relates to save or die mechanics.

Legends & Lore Archive | 6/10/2013

When Adventurers Aren’t Adventuring

Mike Mearls


Over the past few weeks, I’ve talked about exploration and interaction. I also mentioned in passing that we’re working on a set of guidelines for what happens between adventures. Because we've had many questions about this topic, I'd like to focus on that material this week and circle back around to save or die mechanics in a future article.

The idea behind the three pillars of D&D Next—interaction, combat, exploration—is to ensure that the game is as immersive and flexible as possible. If a group wants to focus on one pillar, that’s fine, but the game as a whole needs to allow for all three to play a role in a campaign. Those three elements don’t stop when you leave the dungeon, defeat the big bad guy, or come to the end of the adventure. The space between formal adventures is just as rich in gaming possibilities. If anything, encouraging groups to think about the campaign from a wider perspective opens up a lot of possibilities.

Our goal with these rules is to deepen immersion in the game, prompt players to develop their own plots and adventure goals, and create a richer narrative tapestry for gaming. In some ways, this part of the system ties everything together.

To start with, we’re tentatively calling this our downtime system. The downtime system covers what happens when you aren’t on a traditional adventure. The system assumes that when you’re not adventuring, you spend time resting, practicing your class abilities, socializing, and so forth. In addition, each week you can choose one special task. This task is your focus for the week. The task isn’t the only thing you do that week, but it represents where your focus and attention rest.

Here are a few sample tasks:

  • Craft an item, such as a suit of plate armor or a sword

  • Take a job or practice a craft to earn money

  • Study or practice a craft to become better at it

  • Develop social connections and alliances

  • Build, create, and/or manage a castle, business, temple, or similar institution

  • Manage your followers

  • Raise an army

Those are some basic ideas we’re working from. The tasks boil down to four categories. They are as follows:

  • Influence: Actions that win you friends and political or social power

  • Economic: Actions that deal with earning and investing cash

  • Knowledge: Actions that allow you to train abilities or uncover secrets

  • Dominion: Actions for managing your personal followers and holdings

Although some actions can be completed in one week, others require more effort. All the benefits offered under backgrounds can be earned through this system, but they take a fair amount of time to master. If you have two months between adventures, you can apprentice yourself to a jeweler and learn the basics of gemcutting, spend hours in the great library and earn a new area of knowledge, or personally oversee an expansion to your keep.

In addition to time, many of these actions require money. Having liberated treasure from a dungeon, you can choose to invest it in a business or a castle, or you can spend it to win power and influence in town. A rogue might spend a week carousing in the dockside taverns, shifting a few nonplayer characters in that part of town from neutral to friendly.

Your location determines many of the actions you can take. A small settlement on the frontier offers the chance to win influence with the locals and research lore at the library maintained by the order of mages based in town. You can also mingle with adventurers and scouts to learn about the dungeons and wilds around town. In the capital, you can attempt to win the emperor’s favor for a land grant and the imperial writ needed to found your own duchy.

The real interesting part comes when you integrate backgrounds into this system as your starting point. Are you a noble? Then you begin play with the social standing needed to interact with other nobles. You are on friendly terms with a few nobles, while others consider you an enemy. An artisan can set up shop and earn money in town. The background system allows Dungeon Masters to match nonplayer characters in their campaigns to the characters as friendly, neutral, or hostile, as per our system for interaction. It also gives characters expanded options for things to do outside of adventures. Those options are the starting point for your character’s actions in town.

The downtime system is at its best when it serves to drive the next adventure—one sparked by the players’ ideas of what they want to do next. Does your group’s wizard Kanaea lust after a staff of power? With enough research, she can uncover stories of one lost in a distant dungeon. Has your fighter Haydar sworn vengeance against the Three-Eyed Prelate of Chaos? He can hit the bars, talk to wanderers and adventurers, and attempt to learn that fiend’s whereabouts and its secret weakness. A group of pilgrims bringing a holy relic to the cleric’s temple go missing, prompting the group’s next adventure.

As a DM, think of the downtime system as your chance for the campaign to stop and catch its breath, while also giving the characters connections to the world. If a dragon rampages through town while the characters are away, things are more interesting if the player characters have lost friends and the tavern they purchased, renovated, and operated profitably.

The downtime system provides the characters with a set of strategic goals that can help define the entire campaign. Building a castle is something that might start at 1st level, with the characters saving money and finding ways to win the support of a noble who can offer them a land grant. Many of the most rewarding elements of the system require months of work, making them span multiple levels and adventures.

Mechanically speaking, we’re aiming for a simple set of rules to develop the characters’ ties to the area and provide them with long-term goals. So, what do you think about all this?

Legends & Lore Archive | 6/17/2013

Playtesting Dragons

Mike Mearls


For this week's Legends & Lore, I thought I'd do something a little different. As part of our internal playtesting, we often cobble together ideas and test them out before formalizing their design. If something flat-out doesn't work at the table, we can either modify it or toss it aside without putting a lot of work into it up front.

Over the past few years, we've learned a lot about how single monster battles work and what it takes to make a truly legendary monster. To try out some things, I ran a playtest a few weeks ago using the black dragon given below. Here are the design principles I used.

Legendary Means Something: I was never quite happy with how the solo tag from previous editions transformed into a mechanical contrivance. The original concept in 4th Edition was that solos and elites were meant to be size Large and bigger creatures—massive foes that by their nature posed a constant threat. Imagine a group of goblins with spears and short swords attacking an elephant. Even as the beast shifts in place and moves, it can inadvertently trample and crush the goblins. You can see how a solo is dangerous even when it's not the creature's turn.

That definition didn't stick over time. In part, I think the definition didn't maintain consistency because I believe that elite and solo didn't clearly represent something within the world of the game. So, we've recast solo and elite as legendary, a description that applies to truly powerful, notable, and important creatures in the world of D&D. These are monsters whose very nature is tied to the fabric of the cosmos. Magic runs through their veins, and their mere appearance is a noteworthy event. Dragons, titans, most fiends, and elder elementals are a few examples of legendary creatures. Artifacts can also make creatures into legends. The orc king carrying the spear of Gruumsh is a legendary figure.

Big creatures that still pose a physical threat can simply have mechanics to reflect their abilities. They don't need to dip into the legendary mechanics to pose a threat.

Legendary Creatures Ignore Your Silly Action Economy: Legendary creatures are infused with such powerful magic and innate might that they move and think on a different level than other creatures. A dragon's mind is simply different, allowing it to move and react with supernatural speed. The necromancer armed with the wand of Orcus sees time and the cosmic order with a different eye. She peers into the source code that runs the universe and enters a higher state of being.

Legendary creatures have a set of bonus actions they can use between their turns. This is a bigger point of emphasis than in 4th Edition. We learned that creating a dynamic interaction between a solo monster and the characters goes a long way toward making such battles dramatic and tense.

Legendary Creatures Are Creatures of Destiny: The vagaries of the d20 can spell doom for a character, but powerful, notable creatures are made of sterner stuff. Due to their magical nature, dumb luck, or an innate resistance to magic, legendary creatures can mess with the dice and sometimes dictate outcomes. You can think of this as fate or the gods, in the form of the DM, intervening on the creature's behalf.

The specific mechanics can range from a free pass on saving throws to dictating outcomes of attack rolls or checks, but it does so in a limited manner. The deck is stacked in a legendary creature's favor, but the game is not completely rigged. You can eventually stun one, but only with a persistent effort.

Legendary Creatures Change Their Environment: A legendary creature, due to the intensity of its magical nature, alters and changes the land around it. A dragon's lair is a daunting place of magic. The land around it shifts and changes. The power of a legendary creature is like a gravity well, pushing and altering the space around it.

A legendary creature's lair or abode is a key part of its existence. Orcus is a ferocious enemy if he manifests in the world, but he is nigh unstoppable within his Abyssal lair. Fight a legendary creature on its home turf only if you must. The land strives against you and the world itself becomes the legendary creature's weapon.

From a game mechanics perspective, this design concept is tied to the idea of making a solo monster's environment a key part of the battle. Creating a dynamic fight is more than putting a dragon at one end of the room and the characters at the other. The scenery and set pieces play a key role in how the battle plays out.

So what does a legendary creature look like? Here's the black dragon that we playtested. Note that I also included its interaction "stat block" in case the characters decided to talk to it. In our playtest, the characters defeated the dragon, though at one point the characters were within a die roll or two of a TPK (total party kill).

Please note that the black dragon is a work in progress. I added this material for a game I ran at the office. It isn't the final version.

Legends & Lore Archive | 6/24/2013

System vs. Content

Mike Mearls


One of the biggest challenges in working on D&D Next lies in finding the right balance between addressing issues in rules design and in campaign or adventure design. It's easy to conflate the two, and making a mistake in this area can have big consequences.

A debate we had in R&D a few weeks back brought this topic to light. Someone made the point that running low on spells and hit points while in the middle of the dungeon was irritating. Putting the adventure on pause to return to town was disappointing.

At this point, I'm willing to bet that about half the people reading this agree with that statement. The rest of you are likely already making the counterargument. Running out of resources in the dungeon is a challenge to be overcome through strategy and planning. The adventure doesn't pause at that point. Escaping the dungeon with only a few hit points, spells, and potions is part of the adventure.

In many ways, our approach to adventures and campaigns shapes our approach to modularity. What kind of campaign do you want to run? What are your favorite parts of an adventure? One person's feature is another person's bug when it comes to adventure design.

The danger we face is that solving an adventure design issue in the system can quite likely harm one style of play at the expense of another. D&D Next is a big enough game that, based on what we've learned from our playtest surveys, players and DMs value a flexible game that supports a wide variety of campaign and adventure styles. Making one specific style king takes away from your ability to enjoy the others.

From a system design perspective, we have to be sure that our design achieves one of two goals. The core game must support the most essential, core elements of D&D—those that are needed for all types of campaigns. Second, when we design rules that we expect DMs to change to match their campaigns, we need to focus on the simplest, easiest to modify rule. In these areas, we must focus on flexibility above all else.

Let's take alignment as an example. A good number of DMs prefer to leave it out of their campaigns. On the other hand, it's a big part of D&D's identity. We've all seen charts that try to fit different characters from a TV or comic series into the nine alignments. For that reason, we've included alignment as a default part of the game, but we're also committed to severing its ties to any mechanics. For instance, a paladin detects the presence of supernatural creatures rather than whether a creature has an evil alignment.

In terms of adventures, you can easily imagine how alignment and its mechanical elements can wreak havoc with adventures heavy on intrigue, roleplay, and mystery. Who murdered the duke? Probably the person who makes the paladin's nose bleed when busting out detect evil. The same goes for spells that allow casters to detect thoughts, learn information, and so on. In designing our spells, we need to take into account a variety of different adventure styles and make sure the game can support them all with its core system and options.

Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle

Speaking of adventures, a few weeks back, we announced that we would offer a limited edition, D&D Next preview book at this year's Gen Con through our partners Gale Force Nine. Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is a complete, level 1 to 10 campaign set in the area around Daggerford, a small town in the Forgotten Realms. This product includes a number of pregenerated characters, complete with notes on advancing them all the way to 10th level.

The real exciting part of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle lies in its graphic design. We're producing a book that is designed to serve as a sort of yearbook for your D&D Next experience at Gen Con. It includes places for your fellow DMs and players to sign their names, along with spots for designers, editors, artists, producers, and anyone else you meet at the show. We're also featuring design notes for the adventures, concept art, and classic art from previous D&D editions.

Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is but one part of our overall approach to Gen Con this year. As with everything we do, we're always looking for ways to improve the play experience. This year, we're forgoing a traditional booth in favor of a focused D&D Next play area. We're taking over a big space in Hall D to host the massive Confrontation at Candlekeep adventure, your chance to man the walls of Candlekeep and take part in a battle that will play a key role in the future of the Forgotten Realms. We'll also have author signings and the Murder in Baldur's Gate launch weekend events. I'd mention the 28-hour marathon sessions of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, but those are all sold out.

Gen Con also officially kicks off the Sundering—a huge event that reshapes the face of the Forgotten Realms, involving the whole pantheon of gods, many nations, countless individuals, and the fabric of the cosmos itself. You might remember us announcing this last year during the Gen Con Keynote address. To celebrate the launch, make room on your calendar to spend an evening in Baldur's Gate with the "Night with Dungeons & Dragons" Sundering launch party. Kick back with authors, D&D designers, and other industry luminaries for food, drinks, music and adventure.

If you attended Gen Con last year, you might have taken part in our dice giveaway. If you had to wait in a long line last year to get your dice, allow me to apologize. We had a lot of success with our walk-up and play events at PAX and PAX East, but our sense was that most gamers at Gen Con have mapped out schedules that preclude drop-in events. It turns out we were wrong, to the tune of several thousand people showing up to play D&D Next. That's an order of magnitude more than we expected.

We're bringing the dice back this year, but making it much easier to collect them. If you take part in the defense of Candlekeep, you get a set. On top of that, we've designed Confrontation at Candlekeep to meet the overwhelming demand we encountered last year. This year, we're offering pregenerated characters, a quick turnaround to get people playing, the option for people to step up and DM for their friends (rather than relying solely on our indomitable volunteers), and other improvements to keep the game moving.

Check out the Gen Con page on our website for more information about our events.

Legends & Lore Archive | 7/1/2013

The Many Worlds of D&D

Mike Mearls


Last week I wrote about adventure design and how it relates to game design. This week, I'd like to touch on how we're approaching the many worlds of D&D Next. This also relates to how your personal campaign world can fit into the greater D&D Next cosmology.

To begin with, we're making some tweaks to the cosmology to reconcile the differences between various editions and worlds. Our goal is to make it so that as much prior material as possible is still useful and relevant. In a sense, you can think of this approach as attempting to ensure as much story compatibility as possible when you convert an existing campaign over to D&D Next.

For instance, the elemental planes will be divided into three basic rings that surround the prime material plane. The innermost ring consists of the border elemental planes. These regions are like the regular world dominated by a specific element. The border plane of fire is a land of ash deserts, billowing volcanoes, and lakes of lava. The next ring out consists of the deep elemental planes, which are areas of pure, elemental energy much as the elemental planes were portrayed in the Planescape material. Finally, the outermost ring is the elemental chaos, a region of pure, fundamental elemental energy.

This approach came about based on a variety of sources, but it all began with the azer, everyone's favorite fiery dwarves. Their original description mentions that they dwell in towers of basalt. The azer's description prompted us to look at the plane of fire courtesy of the cover of the original AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. That image helped create the concept of the border elemental planes. Here was an iconic image of D&D that didn't actually match the lore as it developed. If we embraced an aspect of the elemental planes that was more like that cover, we could open up more vistas for adventure without overwriting or deleting prior material.

Going back to the azer, we can have azers dwelling in basalt towers along a great chain of volcanoes that marks the boundary between the border earth and border fire elemental planes. Meanwhile, in the deep elemental fire, you can find other azers who live as described in the Planescape supplement The Inner Planes.

By the same token, we're treating the Feywild as a similar border plane between the positive energy plane and the prime material. The dreaded domains of Ravenloft are its opposite number, between the negative energy plane and the prime. Elements of the Shadowfell can become domains within Ravenloft.

When it comes to the outer planes, we're treating Planescape as our default assumption. It's a much-beloved setting and one that's fairly easy (by design) to integrate into existing campaigns. That means the return of the Great Wheel, the Blood War, and other classic elements of the D&D cosmos. The same process for the inner planes applies to the outer planes, with our intent to add elements to the cosmos to increase storytelling opportunities and make the Wheel as flexible as possible for different settings and different DMs.

The biggest setting change we're looking at concerns Spelljammer. In the past, it incorporated all of D&D's settings as places you could visit. I'm not sure that's the strongest selling point of the setting. In my mind, Spelljammer was an interesting exercise in placing D&D in space. Adding in Faer?n, Oerth, and other worlds muddied its initial vision. It also says stuff about settings that might be fairly jarring given a world's flavor and feel. Not everyone wants the equivalent of spaceships in their campaign, so I think that when we talk about Spelljammer as it relates to other settings, we're going to focus on it as its own setting and downplay its role as the connecting tether between various D&D Next worlds.

Ideally, our approach allows Dragonlance, Eberron, Forgotten Realms, the world of the Nentir Vale, Greyhawk, Mystara, Dark Sun, and your own campaign setting to work with the basic assumptions we make about the planes.

Remember the Sundering?

Some of you might remember the Gen Con Keynote last year where we told you about the Sundering, a huge event that will change the Forgotten Realms forever. The time has come to revisit that topic briefly now so that you know this: Check out DungeonsandDragons.com tomorrow and find out how you can participate in the various events tied to the Sundering and how you too can play a part in reshaping the future of the Realms.

Legends & Lore Archive | 7/8/2013

Monsters and the World of D&D

Mike Mearls


Last week I wrote about the cosmology of D&D Next and our approach to it. The plans I outlined represent our initial thoughts, and stuff like the relationship between the domains of Ravenloft and the Shadowfell are still up in the air. This week, I wanted to pull back the curtain on our approach to monsters.

As we work through the lore behind monsters, we are in some places either highlighting elements of a creature's story or expanding it out. Our approach to monsters follows these basic goals.

  • Invalidate as little of the monster's past as possible when it comes to adventures and settings. If a creature has lived in the desert, or if it has been a tough single opponent (as opposed to a creature that attacks you in great numbers), preserve as much of that as we can.


  • Give the creature a place in the world. Where does it live? What does it want? How does it act? What creatures does it ally with? Who does it hate? A creature's context is important for making it feel like a living, breathing entity in the world of D&D Next.


  • Let a monster be what it needs to be. We don't need a complex story for the purple worm. It's an underground, burrowing monster that devours whatever crosses its path. In contrast, a lamia is an intelligent, powerful creature. It needs a good story seed to bring it to life.


  • Tying into the point above, we're not trying to cast creatures only as things you fight. Some creatures pose hazards when you're exploring. Others are potential allies or things you interact with. Some are a mix of all these possibilities.

In writing up our notes, we're following a style similar to what we used in the Monster Vault product, with each creature described with a few key traits that are given further details.

You will notice that we're giving monsters a bit more story detail than in past editions. Although some DMs like as little detail as possible, the story we're providing is a starting point. It's the assumptions we'll use in creating adventures, but our goal is to make sure that the creature's basic stats aren't overly dependent on that story. That way you can easily take a creature and adapt it to your home game or re-skin it as a different beast entirely.

Here's an example: the ettercap. Hopefully, you can see here how we're adding a bit more depth to the creature to help suggest its place in the world, its ties to adventures, and how you might use it in your campaign.

Ettercap (NE)

These creatures are humanoid/spider hybrids.

  • Spider Shepherds: Ettercaps are spider shepherds. They tend to spiders, feed them, and watch over them in the same manner a shepherd watches over a flock of sheep. They watch over spiders in much the same way that treants watch over forests. They are creatures of the natural world that lair in deep forests, where they quietly dispose of creatures that wander into their areas.

  •  Through a Forest Darkly: Ettercaps delight in silently killing explorers, travelers, and homesteaders. They have no desire to live in harmony with nature. Rather, they prefer to despoil civilized lands and turn nature into a wild, out of control garden choked with spiders, webs, and sinister predators. A forest infested with ettercaps becomes a dark, gloomy place choked with webs and a variety of giant insects. After all, giant spiders feed on other giant bugs (flies and so on).

  •  Devourers of Pixies: Ettercaps specifically seek to capture pixies and, to a lesser extent, other small, winged fey in their webs. They covet pixie dust, and they collect it to sell to hags and other evil folk. Ettercaps also feed captive fey to their spiders, helping them grow to tremendous size. An ettercap takes pride in its herd and views the largest of its spiders as its pride and joy. Killing an ettercap's spiders is a sure way to enrage it.

  •  Aranea: Ettercaps that consume enough fey flesh become creatures of magic themselves, gaining the powers of an aranea.

  •  Webs: Ettercaps can shoot webs like a weapon, but they prefer to use their webbing to make tools and items.

What do you think about this treatment of the ettercap? Please tell us in the comment section below.

Legends & Lore Archive | 7/15/2013

A Bit More on Feats

Mike Mearls


This past week, we've been doing a fair amount of work on feats and their place in the system. We started with the idea of feats that looked fairly similar to one from previous editions, with the concept of a specialty tying them all together. As we did more work on the game, it became clear that not everyone wanted feats in their game. Thus, we ended up making feats an optional part of the game.

As your character levels, at certain points you gain a +2 bonus to one ability or a +1 bonus to two different abilities. Alternatively, your group can choose to use feats. In that case, you can forgo the ability bonus and gain a special ability.

There are a few nice things about this approach.

  • We know a feat has to be equal in power to an ability score boost, giving us a clear target to aim at for design.

  • We can design feats knowing that players don't need to select only feats. Even for groups that opt into feats, we can assume that characters will mix between ability increases and special abilities.

We fielded a lot of questions about what that meant for feat design. Here are two example feats based on this approach. Note that neither of these example feats has been developed or edited.

Great Weapon Master

You can let the momentum from a deadly attack carry your weapon into another foe.

Benefit: You gain proficiency in heavy martial weapons.

When you make a melee attack with a weapon, you can take a –5 penalty to the attack roll to double your damage with that attack.

When you score a critical hit with a melee weapon or reduce a creature to 0 hit points with a melee weapon, you can make one additional melee attack as a part of the same action. The attack granted by this feat cannot trigger another attack from this feat.

Heavy Armor Master

You can use your armor to deflect strikes that would kill others.

Prerequisite: Proficiency with medium armor

Benefit: You have proficiency with heavy armor.

When you are wearing heavy armor, you have a +1 bonus to AC, and you reduce all bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage you take by an amount equal to your Constitution modifier.

The first thing that might strike you is that these feats are more powerful than feats from earlier editions. For example, Great Weapon Master combines what would have been three feats (Weapon Proficiency, Power Attack, and Cleave) from 3rd Edition. This design direction plays into the points given above. Feats have to be meaty to stack up in power to an ability increase. In addition, we think that most players using the feat system will want to spread their choices between ability bonuses and feats. Thus, we want to avoid special abilities that become useful only after spending several feats on them.

In essence, we've taken the specialty concept from earlier playtest drafts and transferred it into individual feat design. A single feat says something interesting about your character and gives you a very noticeable benefit at the table. The feat can be a bit more complex, because this is an optional system. The feat has to be compelling at first glance, because it must compete with the lure of an increased ability score.

The best thing about making feats optional is that it allows us to really aim the design at gamers looking for customization and options. We don't need to worry about watering down feats so that everyone can use them. Instead, we need only keep an eye on character balance while catering to the specific types of gaming groups that would want feats in their campaigns.

So, there's a check-in on feats and where they stand in the design. If you have any questions or comments, I'm on Twitter as @mikemearls. Feel free to drop me a line or sound off on the game.

Legends & Lore Archive | 7/22/2013

Roleplaying in D&D Next

Mike Mearls


It's pretty obvious that D&D began its life as a roleplaying game. It has grown to include toys, novels, comics, video games, and board games. At the core of D&D, though, rests an RPG.

So, if D&D is an RPG, what do the rules need to do to encourage you to roleplay your character? Like a lot of things relating to D&D rules design, the answer lies somewhere between providing no encouragement and demanding players to play act personalities that are distinct from their own.

To start with, I think that D&D is more fun when players adopt characters with distinct mannerisms, traits, and goals. As a DM, I love it when a player ties a character to the setting in a meaningful way.

For instance, in my current campaign, the rogue is a former member of the duke's secret police. He turned in evidence of a plot that resulted in the execution of his former comrades for treason. One member of the secret police escaped arrest and has sworn to kill the rogue. That gives me a ready-made villain to throw into my campaign. It also means that when the player characters visit towns or villages where the secret police installed a reign of terror, he had best watch his back.

One of my current characters, the wizard Kel Kendeen, is fun because of his personality and mannerisms. His mechanics reflect his abilities as a wizard, and I love slinging fireball spells and using disguise self spells, but five years from now I'll remember him more for his ardent dedication to anarchy, chaos, and freedom. He's fun to play not because he can cast the disguise self spell. He's fun to play because he's a radical anarchist who uses that disguise self spell to mimic petty officials and undermine hierarchical organizations.

If the rules give us tools to use in a campaign, our character's personalities tell us why and how to use those tools. Without that layer, D&D is no longer an RPG but simply a fantasy world simulator or a skirmish battle game. It doesn't take much to make that work, but it's a layer of play that brings the game to life in a way that no other type of game can match.

Of course, every group has different standards for roleplaying. Our goal is to give you guidance and ideas to inspire you to roleplay a character with a compelling backstory and provide you with mechanics that have a light touch in terms of helping you shape your game. We want to encourage you to roleplay your character without mandating it.

In the current draft of the game, as part of character creation, you also flesh out a few things beyond alignment. Your bonds are your character's ties to the world, people, places, or things that are meaningful to your character in some way. Your flaws are your character's weaknesses, while your ideals represent the things that keep your character going when things are at their worst.

In essence, these concepts flesh out the starting point provided by alignment. They translate those abstract ideals into actions, things, and beliefs that are tied to the campaign world.

To make things easier, our current draft of backgrounds includes tables you can use to flesh out your character's bonds to the world. Additional tables use alignment as the starting point for ideals and flaws. For instance, as the member of a craft guild you might be intensely loyal to the patron noble house that sponsored your guild membership. On the flip side, you've made an enemy of the criminal cartel that wants to disrupt your guild. DMs with the time and inclination can fill out their own tables as starting points for characters. As usual, you can also choose to make stuff up if nothing on the tables is appealing, or simply roll on them and accept the results.

A final table provides your character with something that sparks the beginning of your adventuring career and gives your character a key problem or question that needs an immediate solution. Perhaps you left the guild because your master was murdered under circumstances that point to you as a suspect. You might have been sent as an undercover agent to infiltrate the cartel that is working to undermine the guild. Your DM could also give you ideas based on the campaign, or you could come up with something on your own.

Mechanically, we're looking at a fairly simply system that we're calling inspiration. When you have your character do something that reflects your character's personality, goals, or beliefs, the DM can reward you with inspiration. The key lies in describing your action in an interesting way, acting out your character's dialogue, or otherwise helping to bring the game to life by adding some panache to your play. By demonstrating that the events in the game are critical to your character's goals and beliefs, you can allow your character to tap into reserves of energy and determination to carry the day.

You can spend inspiration to gain advantage on a check, saving throw, or attack attached to your action. Alternatively, you can bank it to use on a roll that happens during the current encounter or scene. Additionally, you can choose to pass the inspiration along to a different character during the scene. In this case, your character's determination serves as an inspiration for the other party members. You can have only one inspiration at a time.

It's up to the DM to reward inspiration, but as a rule of thumb, a player can gain it once per significant scene or important combat. Inspiration fades quickly, so you must spend it within a few minutes in game time before you lose it.

Just as a DM chooses when to reward inspiration, the DM also chooses why to award inspiration. You can use it as described above, or adapt it to other things that your group finds help bring the game to life, keep the action moving, or otherwise make the game more enjoyable for everyone.

Like many things in the DM's hands, inspiration is a tool that requires more finesse and art rather than science to properly apply. A good DM uses inspiration to encourage play that makes the game better for everyone at the table. Think of it like a micro-reward, something short of experience but still a useful reward for good play.

The inspiration mechanic is a simple gateway to deeper rewards for roleplaying your character. Groups that want a more narrative game can reward inspiration freely or adapt it for other uses. You can even give players a pool of inspiration that they can spend only to reward other players for good roleplaying moments. By baking inspiration into the core of the game, we have the basic structure needed to provide for more in-depth rules modules.

Legends & Lore Archive | 7/29/2013

It’s Mathemagical!

Mike Mearls


Over the past few weeks, we've revised the character classes to hit our goal of producing a game that can shift from low complexity to more detail and options. For instance, for the fighter we have a subclass that offers a number of passive benefits to attacks, and we also present other options that allow access to a set of special maneuvers similar to 4th Edition's powers. For the true kit bashers and hardcore optimizers, we're also planning on giving guidelines for building your own subclasses from the individual class features offered by each subclass.

As with most things in D&D Next, we expect a DM or group to decide how much detail they want to allow. You might use only the simplest character options, allow players to choose subclasses, or go all out and let players build their own subclasses.

With the classes rounding into form, we've turned our attention to the basic math behind the game. If you've followed our streaming playtest sessions and the podcasts we've released with them, you've gotten a little preview of the issues we're looking at. Here's a summary of our goals:

  • We want to focus on growing hit points, rather than attack or saving throw bonuses (or DCs), as the way we reflect growing character power.

  • Keeping numerical bonuses under control means that the gaps between characters don't grow too large.

  • Since the gap doesn't grow too large, you don't have to rely on system mastery—your mastery of how to manipulate the game system—to make an effective character. You can make a better character (character optimization is fun for many gamers) but it isn't an "I win!" card.

  • Since AC, attack, and saving throw numbers don't grow too much, low-level monsters can still hit and damage you (though for a smaller portion of your hit points) as you reach higher levels.

That said, we've seen a few issues from our playtest feedback and from our own games. The big one focuses on saving throws and skill DCs.

  • Saving throws against effects that take you out of the fight, like a ghoul's paralysis, mess up monster scaling. A ghoul is equally deadly to a 3rd- or 17th-level fighter. If either one blows a saving throw, the fighter is out of the battle.

  • Our skill DCs are out of whack. They don't match up well with the actual bonuses that characters accrue at all levels.

Over the course of a few meetings, we've plotted out some changes that you will see in the packet following the next one (we focused on character content before the math; our playtest data is showing that while people notice this issue, it isn't distorting the game as a whole). Those changes are as follows:

  • We're instituting a consistent bonus progression for characters that ranges from +1 at 1st level to +6 at 20th level for attacks, checks, and saving throws.

  • For characters who are truly experts in some areas, that bonus can go as high as +12 for checks. For example, rangers can hit +12 on Wisdom checks and rogues could hit it on Dexterity checks. You won't reach that height for attacks. We might allow characters to gain that on saving throws if it fits a character archetype. For instance, a dwarf fighter might eventually reach +12 on Constitution saving throws.

  • The optional skill system allows you to reach +12, but only for specific checks that map to the traditional D&D skill system as seen in 3rd Edition and 4th Edition. For instance, a 20th-level cleric who maxes out the Sense Motive skill might be at +6 for Wisdom checks and at +12 for Sense Motive checks.

  • We're plotting out monster saving throw DCs by level so that lower level critters have lower save DCs than higher level ones. In other words, a creature's DCs play a big role in determining its level and XP value.

  • We're pushing the DCs used by player character casters down a bit and factoring effective spell level into the equation. Thus, a high-level wizard has lower saving throw DCs for weaker spells and higher ones for stronger ones.

  • We're revising the DC table to match our expected bonuses.

  • It's not clear if we'll continue to use a skill die or swap to a flat bonus. We're going to focus on getting data about this question in the next round of surveys.

So, that's what we're looking at in terms of math revisions. If you have any questions, remember that you can always reach me on Twitter where my user name is @mikemearls.

Legends & Lore Archive | 8/5/2013

Scaling Complexity

Mike Mearls


A t the end of last week, we released the latest playtest packet. I wanted to talk a bit about the fighter class and how it fits into our overall plan to make as smooth a transition from simple options to complex ones.

For the fighter, the subclasses manage this transition. Take a look at the path of the warrior option in comparison to the path of the gladiator.

The warrior offers six special abilities gained over 20 levels of play, in addition to the fighter's core special abilities. They break down into the following categories.

  • Two of these abilities increase your chance to score a critical hit. These are fairly passive benefits that simply modify your normal attack. You don't make a decision to use them.

  • One benefit applies to the exploration rules. It makes the warrior good at keeping watch, helping to define the character's role when traveling.

  • Armor Focus is another passive benefit. You gain +1 to AC.

  • Devastating critical adds an additional wrinkle to your critical hits. It offers a choice of sorts, since the weapon you wield determines its effect based on damage type. This is an area where a player can decide to make this a choice by swapping weapons based on the situation. Players who don't care can just note the effect based on their favorite weapon.

  • Survivor is the final benefit, and it's the only one that requires round-by-round bookkeeping and tracking. Like most of the other benefits, it doesn't present a choice but is a static benefit in certain circumstances.

Overall, someone playing a warrior doesn't have many round-by-round decisions to make based on special class abilities. You still have all the freedom and flexibility that are part of an RPG, but your class doesn't introduce a lot of decisions to make.

In contrast, take a look at the path of the gladiator.

  • At 3rd level, you receive three maneuvers to choose from each round. Your reliance on superiority dice means you must weigh the benefits of using a maneuver against a standard attack.

  • Brutal display is another effect based off critical hits, so it doesn't add to the class's complexity.

  • At 7th level, you gain an additional three maneuvers from which to choose.

  • At higher levels, you gain more superiority dice and the option to roll multiples as part of a maneuver.

In contrast to the simple warrior, the gladiator offers a number of tactical options each round. If you like managing special abilities on a round-by-round basis, the gladiator is the fighter path for you.

Getting this part of the design right has been a major element of our work for the past year. It took several drafts and a lot of feedback, but I feel confident that we're hitting the mark.

It's important to remember that you don't pick a martial path until 3rd level. At 1st and 2nd level, most of your complexity comes from your background and your race. In essence, those levels give you the chance to learn your racial special abilities and bring your background into play as the key, unique elements of your character.

Compared to class, both race and background have more complexity early on but don't add any more at higher levels. As a player, your fighter features provide the basic distinction between you and other classes. In terms of your active abilities, though, your race and background play a much bigger role in terms of your total number of special abilities.

Ideally, your first two levels allow you to embrace your character's background and race along with the most basic functionality of your class. At 3rd level, you're ready to opt into a more distinct expression of your character class.

As you gain levels past 3rd, you gain more benefits from your chosen subclass and your class's core abilities. At this stage, you can also opt to choose between boosting your ability scores and selecting feats. We believe that most players will boost their scores first, then opt into feats as they max out their key abilities. In either case, players are free to opt for the complexity that feats bring or keep it simple.

Thus, you can imagine that the lifespan of a character looks something like this.

  • At 1st and 2nd level you learn the basics of your class, race, and background.

  • At 3rd level, you begin to specialize within your class.

  • At 4th level and later, you can decide to further customize your character or keep things simple.

  • At any point, you can decide to multiclass after 1st level.

  • Before you start play, you can also opt to design your own subclass, provided that your DM approves this choice. Subclass design won't be a science, but we can provide pointers and advice on which combos to avoid.

The really nice thing for new players is that they see only the transition between the focus on race and background and its transition to a focus on class. The other options are precisely that: options that they don't have to follow until they are ready for them.

One of the big issues that plagued D&D in the past was that running a long campaign holds a lot of appeal, but the rules inevitably pushed players to endure more and more complexity. That's good for some players, but not all players. Ideally, our design holds that at bay and makes it easier to keep gaming into double digit levels.

As always, all our work depends on your feedback. Keep your eyes open for our next playtest survey.

Legends & Lore Archive | 8/12/2013

Gen Con Bound!

Mike Mearls


This week, members of the R&D team are heading out to Indianapolis, Indiana, to take part in Gen Con, the biggest tabletop gaming convention in North America. We have some pretty exciting stuff on tap.

  • For a few hours on Thursday night, the Indiana Roof Ballroom transforms into the city of Baldur's Gate. Meet the authors of the Sundering novels, preview some new digital games, and hobnob with members of the R&D team. You can also help solve a murder mystery, created by the folks at Lone Shark Games, which takes place on the streets of one of the most famous (or is that infamous?) cities of the Forgotten Realms.

  •  Candlekeep needs heroes! The forces of evil have gathered to lay siege to the fortress-library. Brave adventurers are needed to ride forth and dispatch this threat. Grab two generic tickets, hop into line, and join the battle. The Siege of Candlekeep is a two-hour, open gaming event. We'll seat new tables as soon as groups finish their adventure.

  •  I'd go into more details on our Murder in Baldur's Gate event, but it sold out! We might have some more tickets available onsite for this preview of the upcoming adventure, the landmark first entry in the epic Sundering story arc. Don't worry if you can't make it to Gen Con. Game stores worldwide will be participating in the Murder in Baldur's Gate Launch Event Weekend on August 17–18. The Launch Event Weekend and our Gen Con event use the same material.

  •  We'll also have panels throughout the weekend. The panels are your chance to ask our Sundering authors, R&D members, and our digital partners questions about our games. Get a book signed!

  •  We'll also have author signings with R.A. Salvatore, Ed Greenwood, Troy Denning, Erin M. Evans, and Richard Lee Byers throughout the weekend in our D&D play area. Swing by to say hi!

Our play area this year at Gen Con is located in Hall D. It's your one-stop destination for all things D&D at the show. Pick up your pre-order of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, buy a D&D T-shirt, get into a session of D&D, meet new players, jump into a pick-up game of Lords of Waterdeep—whatever you want! If it's D&D, you'll find it there.

But What About the Dice?!?!

Of course, no mention of Gen Con would be complete without talking about the nifty set of dice we're offering this year. Last year's convention promotion went over very well—maybe too well judging by the vast lines queued up for our events. This year, we're making the process of earning a set of dice very easy.

If you play in Siege of Candlekeep or Murder in Baldur's Gate, you get a complete set of dice. So play some D&D and get a cool memento to commemorate the beginnings of the Sundering.

A Little Bit on D&D Next

After the last playtest packet, we're almost done with the classes, races, and other core elements of the game. We haven't shown off multiclassing yet, but it will be in the next packet.

For multiclassing, we're adopting a system similar to 3rd Edition's. Some of this will be old news to longtime readers, but I'm going to recap what we've mentioned before and then add in a few elements that are new.

  • In order to multiclass, you simply take a level in a new character class when you gain a level.


  • The math for attack bonuses, saving throws, and so on scales based on your overall character level, so you don't have to worry about accidentally breaking your character.


  • Multiclassing with spellcasting classes is somewhat similar. Your overall levels in classes that cast spells determines how many spells you can cast. Your levels in those individual classes determine which spells you can prepare. For instance, a 3rd-level mage/3rd-level cleric casts spells per day as a 6th-level character, but can choose to prepare spells available to a 3rd-level wizard or to a 3rd-level cleric. Luckily, our scaling spells ensure that you can still get the most bang for your spells.


  • What if you combine a fighter and a mage, or a caster class with one that isn't a caster? If you want to dive deeply into such a combination, we're designing a set of subclasses that cater directly to spellcasting. The eldritch knight is a fighter subclass that augments a fighter/mage combination. The warden subclass gives a ranger/druid the flavor and forms of that character class.


  • Our approach to low-level characters removes the abuses you can achieve by dipping into several classes by spreading out features over the first few levels.


  • For things such as weapon and armor proficiencies, we have multiclassing-specific rules to ensure that you gain some new proficiencies, but not all of them. You can't dip into fighter to gain all weapons and armor.

So, that's a basic overview of multiclassing. You'll see it in full in our next playtest packet.

Legends & Lore Archive | 8/19/2013

The Final Countdown

Mike Mearls


At Gen Con this past weekend, we announced that the release of the upcoming D&D Next public playtest packet would be our final one. Does that mean that the game is done?

No. Obviously there is still work to do, but the nature of that work is shifting.

In the public playtest, we assume that most groups roll up characters, play through an adventure or two, give us feedback, and move on. We figure that most people pop in and out as they have the time and inclination to test.

This phase of the playtest was all about nailing the feel of D&D. D&D isn't simply a set of rules. It's a tool for creativity. What it does is important, but how it does it is just as critical. I also believe that D&D had wandered away from what players are looking for from it. The public playtest was our way to get back in touch with you in a way that ensured the next generation of D&D tabletop roleplay gaming was relevant to you.

Our playtest emphasis is now changing to the repetitive grind of balancing out the math and finding and dispelling abusive combinations. We'll continue to work with a big list of testers, but our needs are such that we require focused, directed play to drive our results. Frankly, that kind of testing can be fairly boring. It also mandates a level of feedback that is more detailed and demands more work than the testing done so far.

On top of that, it requires that we know a good deal about each group. Is a group more story-based? Are they optimizers? That kind of knowledge on our end is key, and it's something that we can learn best by getting to know a group through their prior, detailed feedback.

In terms of scope, this upcoming phase of the playtest is at least as large as the playtest for 3rd Edition, if not larger.

So, what did we learn from the public playtest? In some cases you confirmed things, in others you dispelled some notions that had become lodged in R&D's view of you.

  • You like simplicity. You want to jump into the game quickly, create characters, monsters, NPCs, and adventures with a minimum of fuss, and get down to the business of playing D&D.

  • You like that every class has the potential to contribute in most situations, but you're OK with some classes being better at certain things if that fits the class's image. You see balance on a larger, adventure-based or campaign-based scale.

  • You want rules that make it easy to build adventures and encounters. You want to think about the story or your setting's details, rather than fiddle with math.

  • You value flexibility in rules. You prefer an ability or a rule that's easy to adapt or that leaves space for creative applications, rather than rigidly defined abilities.

  • You aren't edition warriors. You want the game to support a variety play styles in equal measure. You're not attached to any specific ways of doing things as long as the game works.

At this stage, our ongoing columns will continue and you will see the same weekly content that we've provided in the past. We're not going anywhere. Now it's time for us to iron out all the details. We'll keep giving you previews and insights into what we're doing and how we're doing.

Legends & Lore Archive | 9/2/2013

Classes and Subclasses

Mike Mearls


Before I dive into this week's Legends & Lore, I want to take a moment to thank Dave Christ, Robert Altomare, and all of the DMs who ran our tabletop gaming events at Gen Con and PAX Prime. Those conventions are an important part of what makes D&D work. Every year, thousands of gamers take their first step into D&D at those shows. Thanks for all your hard work!

This week, I'd like to talk about classes and subclasses, and explain how they allow us to manage complexity in the game.

From a player's point of view, subclasses are the most powerful tool we have to slide from a simple game to a more complex one. The fighter's Path of the Warrior is a great example of this, since it allows you to opt into a fairly simple fighter. In comparison, the Path of the Gladiator offers a lot more options each round.

That said, subclasses also play a key role from the DM's side of things. The subclasses you allow into your campaign say a lot about your world. For that reason, we're looking at subclasses shouldering almost the entire burden in D&D Next, which were previously handled by character classes.

When we introduce new types of magic into the game in the future, we won't need to add a set of new classes to the game. Instead, we can present subclasses that tap into that power source. The shadow dancer can be a rogue subclass that dabbles in shadow magic, while the hexblade does the same for the fighter class. Psionics can fill a similar role, with subclasses that tie into it granting access to its powers and abilities.

This line of thinking illustrates the principles behind the design of the mage class in D&D Next. By making the wizard an option under the mage, we open up space for the warlock, sorcerer, psion, artificer, and other casters without having to reinvent the wheel for each caster. They can share spells, magic items, and feats as necessary, allowing new design to focus on the elements that make them unique and interesting.

It's important to remember that while these casters share the same base class, that doesn't mean they share the same casting mechanics. The entire point of this change is to focus on what makes those classes unique. The same goes for subclasses. Although the hexblade might be a fighter subclass, it can still gain access to spellcasting. The shadow dancer as rogue can still teleport between shadows and use overt magic.

This approach ties back to subclasses and their role as a DM tool. If you run a low magic campaign, you simply eliminate the hexblade and shadow dancer from the list of subclasses in your game. If nonmagical healing runs counter to the tone of your game, strike the warlord from the fighter's list.

So, that's the basics of subclasses in D&D Next. They help us regulate complexity for players, and they are a powerful tool that allows DMs and groups to determine the tone and feel of their campaigns.

Legends & Lore Archive | 9/16/2013

The Latest on Skills

Mike Mearls


In the last D&D Next playtest packet, we took a stab at removing skills from the game. Our overall design with skills has followed these approaches and goals:

  • Emphasize the abilities as the centerpiece of the game. Abilities have replaced skills as the primary tool characters use to attempt checks.

    • Skills are great for customizing a character, but too heavy an emphasis (especially a focus on steadily inflating bonuses and DCs) turns them into a list of what you can and cannot attempt.

  • Encourage flexibility and creativity at the table by making skills a true bonus, rather than a necessary component to achieving basic competence in an area. The abilities cover that.

    • Our DCs need to back up the primacy of ability scores by ensuring that the first few levels of difficulty are within the scope of someone using a moderate to high ability modifier. Only the higher edge of DCs, the very difficult tasks, require skills.

  • Streamline the game by removing specific rules from skills and placing them in the core game. Rather than have rules for climbing determined by a Climb skill, the game instead includes climbing as one way to move among others.

    • Skills have a tendency to silo actions and rules away from each other. By starting with the core and then adding skills, we can ensure that the game is as streamlined and easy to use as possible. Skills shouldn't introduce new rules. They simply provide a modifier to situations already covered in our core.

It's clear from the latest round of feedback that removing skills entirely isn't a popular option. Playtesters tilted toward disliking it, though a good chunk appreciated the simplicity and flexibility their removal brings to the game.

Personally, I like skills as a tool to customize my character. I like that I can create a cleric with a high Dexterity, pick leather armor and a ranged weapon, take skills that improve checks dealing with stealth, survival, and perception, and play an outdoorsy tracker and hunter who feels much different compared to a traditional, mace and chainmail cleric.

Furthermore, for beginning players, skills can serve as a handy reference for what your character is good at. Ideally, skills don't overwhelm ability checks but they do help guide the process of making decisions. They should inspire and aid players, rather than constrain them.

Here's where we ended up with skills:

  • In presentation, skills are subordinate to abilities. In the rules text, we'll refer to a Strength (Athletics) check rather than an Athletics check. This presentation follows our philosophy that abilities are the foundation of the system and skills are bonuses to those checks.

    • As a further bonus, this makes it easy for DMs to vary the abilities matched to a skill. Strength (Athletics) might apply when scaling a treacherous cliff. Wisdom (Athletics) can apply when assessing the difficulty of scaling that cliff.

  • When you gain proficiency in a skill, you gain a bonus based on your level. Some characters, most notably rogues, can become experts in a skill. Experts gain a further +5 bonus from their skill proficiency.

    • Your skill bonus equals your proficiency bonus. Your proficiency bonus is based on your total level and applies to skills, weapons, and tools that you are proficient with. For this reason, we don't have a Craft skill. Instead, you can become proficient with the appropriate set of tools needed to conduct a craft or make an object.

    • The proficiency bonus starts at +2 and increases up to +6. This follows our model of keeping bonuses under control to ensure that the range of DCs remains consistent across all levels.

    • We're also replacing the die-based bonus to checks with a flat modifier. We had a lot of feedback that the die's variable nature bred only disappointment. People like randomness, but it's irritating to want to play a skilled character and endure the vagaries of two die rolls.

    • The expert bonus is important to ensure that rogues are the best at finding traps, rangers excel in surviving outdoors, and bards are the best at performance. We'll use it selectively in design to ensure that classes that are experts in certain areas can live up to that billing.

  • We have a fairly compact skill list, both because feedback showed people liked broader skills and because some skills can migrate over to tool proficiency. In place of a blacksmith skill, you take proficiency with a blacksmith's tools. The same applies to thieves' tools and picking locks or disabling traps. Note that the lore bonus in the last packet is gone and replaced with the appropriate skills. Here's the list of skills with the abilities that they are typically linked to.

    • Acrobatics (Dex)

    • Animal Handling (Wis)

    • Arcana (Int)

    • Athletics (Str)

    • Deception (Cha)

    • History (Int)

    • Intimidation (Cha)

    • Medicine (Int)

    • Nature (Int)

    • Perception (Wis)

    • Performance (Cha)

    • Persuasion (Cha)

    • Religion (Int)

    • Search (Int)

    • Sense Motive (Wis)

    • Sleight of Hand (Dex)

    • Stealth (Dex)

    • Survival (Wis)

  • For things like the Profession skill, we're instead relying on backgrounds. A sailor can use background picks to become proficient in the Acrobatics, Nature, and Perception skills and with waterborne vehicles.

    • We'll include an optional system for skills that reflect a broader character background or archetype. For instance, sailor might be a trait that grants you a proficiency bonus to any check that can be reasonably tied to your background as a sailor. This optional system would replace or supplement skills, as the group wishes.

  • The skill and proficiency system allows anyone to attempt anything. Skills and proficiencies offer a bonus. They are not a wall that closes off even the chance to try something. Anyone can try to pick a lock, but a rogue is better at it because he or she is proficient with thieves' tools.

That's our skill system in a nutshell. At the end of the day, skills aren't entirely optional, but our approach makes ignoring them fairly easy. I believe that while they do reside in the core of the game, we've made them simple enough to use that they benefit beginners by providing focus while keeping the abilities as the centerpiece of the game.

Legends & Lore Archive | 9/23/2013

The Next Phase

Mike Mearls


L ast Thursday, we rolled out the final public playtest packet for D&D Next. It’s been a long journey to today from the first days of this project. It hasn’t been easy, but nothing worth doing ever is.

For the next few months, our work in R&D falls into two categories.

The editors and a team of designers will finalize work on the core game. This work consists of squashing bugs, simplifying things, and incorporating the final round of public feedback. The game’s foundation will be set in stone, as will the core options for the classes.

Meanwhile, a second design team will tackle a number of outstanding topics. These include the following elements.

  • The underlying math of the game. We’ll run stress tests on the numbers, monster abilities, and so on to make sure that everything shakes out as we expect. This work is important to making adventure and encounter design fast and easy. It also ensures that the classes play fair.

  • An optional tactical combat system, with rules for using miniatures, rules for combat that operate like 3rd Edition or 4th Edition in that they remove DM adjudication of things like cover, and expanded, basic combat options to allow for forced movement, tanking, and so forth, as options any character can attempt. This optional system will look a bit like AD&D’s Player’s Option: Combat and Tactics book with key lessons learned from 4th Edition. Its goal is to present combat as a challenging puzzle that pits the players against the DM, capturing the best parts of 4th Edition.

  • An optional dramatic system that emphasizes D&D as a storytelling activity. This system treads ground that D&D hasn’t formally embraced in the past. It casts a gaming group as collaborative storytellers, with the DM managing the action and everyone contributing events, plots twists, and sudden, dramatic turns.

  • An optional system that cranks up character customization by allowing players to build their own subclasses. This system is really more of a set of guidelines that let you mix and match abilities pulled from subclasses within a class. You can approach it as a DM tool (“In my setting, the wizards of the Burning Isle combine illusion and necromancy”) or as a way for players to have more choice in building characters. We’re making this system optional because we know that some players want a lot of ways to customize their characters, but more customization invariably leads to broken combos. We can manage combinations and fairness at the subclass and feat level, but slicing things much finer than that goes beyond what we can reasonably expect to playtest.

  • A campaign system that extends the action beyond the day-to-day adventures, focusing on what we’ve called downtime. This includes managing a domain, running a business, playing politics on a grand scale, and so on. Things like mass combat would naturally slot into this system.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, these systems are aimed at specific subsets of players. Testing them in public would just result in a lot of people that the system isn’t aimed at giving us negative feedback. Thus, we’re showing these systems to groups that we know are in the target audience.

That’s where we stand today. With the last public packet out the door, there’s not much more to talk about today that you can’t see for yourself in the latest rules. Download, enjoy, and give us your feedback.

Legends & Lore Archive | 9/30/2013

Class Groups

Mike Mearls


O ver the past few months, we've worked with the concept of merging the various arcane caster classes into a single class: the mage. Within the mage, you could then choose whether to play a wizard, a warlock, or a sorcerer

There are a few benefits to this approach.

  • It gives a framework in which we can add new casting styles and approaches to magic that are specific to settings.

  • It makes expanding the game easier, since we can create one list of spells for those classes.

  • It simplifies magic items, since something like a staff of power can refer to the mage. We know that any future classes included under the mage can still use that item.

Having worked through the classes and looked at feedback, we're now adopting a different approach. In working on the sorcerer and warlock, it's unlikely that we want to give those classes blanket access to all mage spells.

In addition, feedback was fairly lukewarm or negative over the approach. It caused more confusion than clarity.

Grouping classes provides a useful tool for us. We saw that 2nd Edition AD&D used it. If applied correctly, grouped classes can make handling things such as magic items, feats, and other options much easier as the game expands.

We've decided on four basic categories of classes. They are tentatively called warriors, mages, priests, and tricksters.

Warriors are masters of arms. They are tougher than other characters.

Tricksters are experts in a variety of fields. A trickster might be a master infiltrator, scout, or negotiator. They excel at ability checks and are the most flexible characters.

Mages specialize in arcane magic. They rely on spells to overcome obstacles. They are the least durable characters, but, if protected by the rest of the party, they are quite potent.

Priests specialize in divine magic. Their magic can heal or protect their allies. They're more durable than mages, and they're equal to tricksters.

None of these definitions should be all that surprising. In some ways, these are similar to roles in 4th Edition but crafted with a much lighter touch. They are much less prescriptive in nature, describing classes in generalities rather than dictating what exactly a class is supposed to do.

To give you a sense of the changes this direction might cause in the design, here's our list.

  • We'll probably look at the monk's AC and boost its Hit Die to d10 if we categorize it as a warrior, or give it Expertise in a few skills if it's a trickster. The general feeling is the monk is more of a warrior, since unarmed fighting is its defining ability. This was a decision we were going to make anyway (is a monk more like a rogue or a fighter?), and it helped spur this topic.

  • The nonmage classes using a d6 Hit Die will bump up to d8, but that's a change we were going to make anyway with the mage's elevation to a d4.

Our goal with class groups is to provide an easy framework that magic items and other abilities can use to refer to classes, to give people a set of terms they can use to compare and contrast classes in broad strokes, and to make it easy for players to understand how the classes beyond the core four (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard) relate to that basic group.

So, please tell us what you think about all this! We're interested in hearing from you.

Legends & Lore Archive | 10/14/2013

Wild Shape Revised

Mike Mearls


A little over a week ago, we talked about the druid's Wild Shape ability in our regularly irregular podcast. Tomorrow, October 15th, we'll have an updated playtest packet available for download that includes some changes to that ability. This minor update to the packet will be the last. We wanted to make Wild Shape as simple as possible. Here's a breakdown of our new direction.

When your druid uses Wild Shape, you simply adopt the stat block of the creature you've chosen to transform into. You retain your own Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, but otherwise use your chosen animal's statistics.

That transformation extends to you using the animal's hit points. If damage reduces you to 0 hit points, your Wild Shape transformation ends. Any excess damage applies to your current hit point total. For example, a druid with 22 hit points transforms into a 5 hit point creature, then takes 10 damage. The animal form takes 5 damage, the druid transforms back to normal, and the remaining 5 damage reduces him to 17 hit points.

Magic items do not extend to your animal form. Magic and mundane gear is subsumed into that form, so you don't have to worry about dropping all your gear to the ground when you change. You do not gain any of the benefits of your items.

Your proficiencies do carry over, and you gain any proficiencies that the animal benefits from.

The animal forms available to a druid are meant to provide creative options for solving problems. You can transform into a bird, a fish, or some other small, mundane animal. The Circle of the Moon druid can take forms that are more ferocious and suitable for battle.

Overall, these changes are meant to simplify and streamline Wild Shape while creating a sense of flexibility for the druid. It's easy to simply switch to a new set of statistics while in animal form, rather than going through the steps of modifying one set of stats or the other. How Wild Shape handles hit points is perhaps the biggest change compared to earlier approaches.

So, there are the Wild Shape changes in a nutshell. This set of rules keeps things simple, emphasizes that forms such as a bird or fish are best used outside of a fight, and also makes the battle-focused forms powerful and durable in melee.

Legends & Lore Archive | 10/21/2013

Monsters and Stories

Mike Mearls


This week, I'd like to move away from game mechanics and talk a bit about the story of D&D—specifically, the material we're writing for monsters. I've touched on this before, but I think it's worth returning to this topic to give you a sense of where we're going.

D&D has been around for a long time. Over the years, the stories that frame the origins, habits, and goals of certain monsters have changed quite a bit. In addition, we've spilled a lot of ink talking about the biology of monsters as if they were real-world creatures. That stuff can be interesting, but it doesn't necessarily translate into something you use at the gaming table or while building a campaign.

When looking at monsters for D&D Next, we start by looking at how they've been portrayed in the game over the years. Is a critter devious and likely to set up ambushes, or is it a simple brute that loves to wade into melee? Is it a mastermind that gathers minions to command, or does it keep to itself and rely solely on its own abilities?

These questions are useful because they give us a sense of how most players and DMs have experienced the creature in the past. It's a starting point we can use for a monster's story that allows it to remain consistent with how the creature has behaved in previous editions of the game.

However, even as we keep the monster's fundamental role in the D&D cosmos unchanged, we can introduce new stories or flesh out details that have previously been left vague. This approach means we can introduce that new material without forcing you to think of the monster in an entirely new way. If we're doing our jobs right, we're instead making the monster more interesting as an NPC or a force in the world.

A couple of weeks ago, we tackled the backstory for the medusa. We've preserved the basics of the medusa as outlined in the Monster Manual of original and 2nd Edition AD&D. These creatures live alone or in small groups. They are hateful and dwell in dark caverns. A medusa's body is human, but its face is hideous and its hair is a nest of writhing vipers. Its gaze turns victims to stone.

On top of those basic facts, we've added some more depth to give a sense of what medusas are like in terms of background and personality. Medusas are created by a curse whereby a human trades a decade of great beauty and personal magnetism for an eternity of a visage so wretched that it turns onlookers to stone. Most medusas are ambitious, grasping, and self centered, willing to amplify their appearance and charms to work their way up the social ladder. Some use their temporary gifts to marry into wealth and power. Others build their own base of power.

Regardless of how a medusa uses its newfound gifts, after a decade, it must pay the price of its bargain. The transformation is sudden and hideous. Some medusas plan for their change and retire to a distant villa or keep, shielding themselves from the outside world while still enjoying the wealth and power they have accumulated. Others forget about their bargain, attempt to reverse it, or remain ignorant of its true price. These poor wretches are killed or driven into hiding.

The important element for storytelling lies in giving a DM the sense of a medusa's personality and potential. One medusa might be a vicious, hateful creature that kills out of spite, specifically targeting the most handsome or beautiful adventurers that invade its lair. Another might be a secluded noble desperate to conceal her true nature, and who becomes a party's mysterious benefactor. And of course, a medusa might just be a fearsome monster in your dungeon—a creature whose background and origin story never come up. But the story we created remains there to serve as a good read in the Monster Manual or to inspire your own ideas.

By keeping the frontward-facing parts of the medusa intact—the elements that have been most prominent throughout the game's history—we can ensure that existing adventures and campaigns don't need to be altered to fit into D&D Next. By the same token, the new mythology of the medusa can hopefully inspire adventure ideas, NPCs, and campaign settings of your own.

Legends & Lore Archive | 11/4/2013

Warlock Design

Mike Mearls


A s we compile the last of the feedback from the D&D Next public playtest, we're also working on a couple of classes. This week, I wanted to talk a bit about the warlock.

Since its first appearance in 3rd Edition's Complete Arcane, the warlock has evolved in terms of both its background and its magical abilities. The original warlock stood out for its ability to use magic at will. A warlock could unleash an eldritch blast again and again, climb walls like a spider, or see through invisibility or magical darkness without running out of spells for the day. In terms of its background, the class was similar to the sorcerer, gaining power through a distant ancestor. But where sorcerers were tied to dragons, warlocks could trace the origin of their power back to planar fiends.

With 4th Edition, the class evolved to make its background more distinct, gaining elements of the binder character class from Tome of Magic. Rather than drawing from a bloodline, the warlock gained arcane power by entering into a pact with a planar or otherworldly patron. Eventually, new warlock options came to incorporate elements of the hexblade character class from Complete Warrior. This allowed a warlock to create a mystical weapon used to deliver powerful melee attacks fueled by arcane magic.

For D&D Next, we've gone back and fully integrated these approaches into the core class. A warlock chooses a patron—a powerful being from the outer planes or beyond—that supplies the character with arcane secrets. In return, the warlock grants something in trade or acts as the patron's agent in the world.

The nature of the warlock's pact shapes the class's magic. A warlock might enter into a pact based on the blade, the book, or the chain. The pact of the blade allows a warlock to forge a weapon of pure arcane power. Drawing inspiration from the hexblade, a blade pact warlock can serve as a ferocious warrior in close combat.

The pact of the book unlocks ancient secrets and mystic knowledge. A warlock that has this pact calls upon arcane magic and shapes it into a variety of effects, based on the character's patron. The pact of the book focuses more on spells than the other pacts.

The pact of the chain deals with summoning and binding a planar creature to serve as the warlock's minion. This creature is a powerful ally capable of wading into battle at a warlock's command or serving as a conduit for the character's magic.

In addition, the warlock is notable for its ability to channel spells again and again. A warlock masters the secrets of spells to use them repeatedly, though compared to a wizard, a warlock has a much smaller spell list.

The overall approach to the warlock for D&D Next aims to cover the bases of what we've done before, while also adding some new wrinkles. As the class design firms up, we'll have more details on its progress.

Legends & Lore Archive | 11/18/2013

A Matter of Priorities

Mike Mearls


As we move forward with the design of D&D Next, it’s worth taking a step back to look at some of the general principles of RPG design that the team has employed over the past year.

Of course, we’re busy right now finalizing design and pulling things together. The results of the last round of playtesting were overwhelmingly positive. Although we still have things to polish up, we hit our highest levels of approval. Believe me, you’ve been tough critics in these surveys. It feels good to look back at where we started with the very first round of material and see our progression from there. We’ve made huge strides forward in keeping our playtesters happy while maintaining a consistently high level of participation.

So, without much new design to show you, it would be useful to address some of the techniques and approaches we used in building D&D Next.

Priority Ranking and Balance

Here’s some insight into our design process, specifically regarding how we worked to balance spellcasters against their nonspellcasting allies. Our weapon of choice was a simple priority ranking of options.

A priority ranking for D&D is a list of character option categories, such as classes and proficiencies. The priority ranking places the most important elements at the top of the list and the least important ones at the bottom. In terms of D&D’s content, classes sit at the top of the list, followed by races, spells, backgrounds, and feats.

The ranking answers the following question: What wins in a contest between option A and option B?

If my class gives me the ability to become an awesome archer, I should be a better archer than other characters whose classes give them no archery ability, but who took feats or can cast spells on themselves to gain that ability. Class is ranked higher on the list than spells or feats. Therefore, class wins.

This kind of ranking helps make sense of the interactions between options as a game is designed. It’s a tool to help answer questions, resolve conflicts, and guide design decisions. It helps shape all the elements in the game by clarifying their relationships.

More importantly, using a priority ranking meant that we could sort out options and abilities at the class level, knowing that assigning a feature to a class made that class the best at that particular feature (or tied it with another class that needed that option, too).

When two types of character options start to crowd each other, we know which one is more important. In general, a more important piece of the game should trump a less important one. There are exceptions, but as a general guideline, this rule gives you a place to start in design.

Take spellcasting as an example. If you want to become a powerful caster, you need to take levels in a class such as wizard or cleric. You can take feats to augment your casting ability, or you can pick a race that offers some minor innate magical ability. However, climbing to the top of the spellcasting heap requires you to invest in a character class.

That example might sound obvious or intuitive, but it becomes much fuzzier when you delve into more nuanced class features. If rangers can track but all characters can take a proficiency and feats that allow them to track and improve their ability, who should be better at it? Is the ranger equal in tracking to the character with the proficiency? What about the character with proficiencies and some sort of tracking-related feat?

The line is rarely obvious and easy to spot, but the ranking of options helps us understand how we should weight things. In this case, we’d expect that a ranger could be overshadowed at tracking only by a character investing several choices in background options and feats. A nonranger needs to make a real commitment to stepping into the ranger’s niche.

On the other hand, something like stealth is less clear-cut. In prior editions, a wizard might use invisibility while a rogue makes a Stealth check to hide. In D&D Next, we decided that stealth and other checks are of utmost importance to the rogue—the elements that help define it as a character class. Thus, a rogue who takes stealth options within the class shouldn’t be overshadowed by the invisibility spell. A class trumps a spell.

As with everything relating to game design, much of the process is more of an art than a science. The ranking of options is a useful tool, but not a straitjacket or a checklist. As a team, our understanding of the ranking was fairly explicit about a year ago, but became more intuitive and obvious as our work progressed.

The biggest benefit of this approach was that it made it clear when a spell was threatening to overshadow the abilities of a nonspellcasting character. In almost every instance, we opted to improve the abilities of a class such as the rogue or the fighter to exceed the temporary boost afforded by a spell.

The other big benefit was that it allowed us to create a flexible system for customization. We knew that we could give options for stealth, casting, and so on in feats, backgrounds, and races, as long as the options available at the class level served as an upper limit that those lower-ranked options couldn’t overshadow.

Legends & Lore Archive | 11/25/2013

Design Finesse—Part 1

Mike Mearls


If you want to make a tabletop RPG designer happy, call that designer's game elegant. It's the highest praise you can give a game. It's like saying, "This game is a world-class athlete with a PhD in astrophysics and an impeccable sense of style." Elegance means that your game not only works, it works well.

Unfortunately, when it comes time to build a game, elegance is a slippery target. It isn't like cooking with salt or garlic, where one can simply add more or less to taste. Elegance is a byproduct of your approach to a work, your eye for design, and your decisions on when and how to build rules within the game. To make things even more complicated, you're more likely to introduce elegance to a game by removing something than by adding it.

Though elegance is a shifty goal, it is by no means impossible to achieve. My favorite tool in the quest for elegance is finesse. An approach that attempts to put a minimum amount of effort, tracking, and work into an RPG, design finesse relies on a few precepts:

  • Remove problems by removing rules whenever possible.

  • When facing many problems, solve them with a few big changes.

  • Design rules that are invisible to players who don't need them.

  • Go with the flow of the game, not against it.

Solve a Problem by Removing It

I love this solution to a problem. It's the experienced designer's way out of even the thorniest corner. If part of the game doesn't work, excise it. Delete! Eliminate! Doctor Who's Daleks would be great with this approach.

Though it's not always a practical solution, deleting a rule to solve the problems it causes can be a powerful tool. It forces you to question your assumptions and to focus on the truly critical parts of an RPG.

In the design of D&D Next, we made use of this approach very early on. The process of tracking and calculating Fortitude, Reflex, and Will saves added time to character creation and placed an extra layer of detail into every monster. Saving throws are obviously important to the game—but was the manner in which they had been previously implemented adding too much detail and complexity to the game?

Thinking about this complexity forced us to reconsider how we did things—so why not just use ability scores to make saving throws? This step removed jargon from the game and sped things up at the table. We kept saving throws, but we removed much of the complexity around them.

Putting everything on the table as potential fodder for the chopping block forces you to design toward efficiency and ease of use. It reminds you that complexity is a budget that you must spend on the parts of the game that offer the biggest rewards to DMs and players.

Understanding that budget plays a huge role in letting you make your cuts in the right places, and drove much of our huge playtest of D&D Next. The insight we gained from the playtest surveys helped to guide us as we decided what to cut, what to slim down, what to keep, and what to expand upon.

One Bullet, Many Targets

This edict requires you to keep a strong handle on the entirety of your RPG system. As playtest feedback comes in, it's easy to focus on individual elements and get straight to work. Stuff is broken, so you want to fix it. However, it's better to hold off and take a big-picture approach.

Let all that feedback come in, give it some time to accumulate, and then start working through it. To start with, don't even look at the specifics. Categorize the feedback into different topics. You might divide it up by class, race, or subsystem. If an issue touches on multiple areas of the game, flag it and categorize it in each area.

Many issues are simply details that need ironing out, or tactical errors (a spell does too much damage, a monster's special attack is missing a saving throw) that you can solve with a simple editing pass. However, when you see the big picture, you can see that what appeared to be individual issues are often subissues that combine to underline a single larger problem.

Your big issues—the ones that require fundamental system changes—will shine through in multiple points this way. As such, trying to fix all of those subissues individually simply papers over the actual, fundamental malfunction hiding deeper within the system.

During our very earliest tests of D&D Next, the advantage mechanic grew out of this imperative. In past editions, we've used tables big and small to capture all the +1 or –2 modifiers that can creep into the game. Advantage (along with its sinister twin, disadvantage) is easy to remember, simple to apply before or after a roll, and comprehensive enough to devour huge swaths of fiddly modifiers.

We went through a lot of arguments and ideas over how to implement a variety of penalties and bonuses in the game—along with calls to simply do away with the entire concept or approach it from a much more radical angle. In looking at the static that modifiers caused, it was clear that removing them from the game eliminated many issues. The game was faster, there were fewer exceptions to memorize, the DM had fewer things to track, and the game became much simpler to explain to beginners or players who didn't care much for memorizing complex rules.

This case also shows how one rule can indirectly lead to another. The action points of 3rd Edition and 4th Edition inspired the concept of advantage. Using an action point allows you to take an additional action. Most often, you might make an attack, miss, and then spend an action point to make that same attack again. Action points essentially allow a small-scale do-over, and that concept of a reroll as a bonus morphed into D&D Next's advantage mechanic.

In part 2 of this article, Mike continues with a discussion of opportunity attacks, and talks about how simplification and applying the rules of the real world guide the quest for finesse in the design of D&D Next.

Legends & Lore Archive | 12/2/2013

Design Finesse—Part 2

Mike Mearls


Last week, I talked about how elegance is the ultimate goal for every game designer, and about how that goal has shaped the design of D&D Next. Design finesse is the main tool we use in the quest for elegance. However, beyond design, it's important to remember that elegance only ever reveals itself as a byproduct of play.

Elegance arises in the natural, organic rhythm of an RPG session, as the rules effortlessly support the action, make the DM's life easier, and enable flow at the table. Elegant rules are invisible rules, in that using them makes the moments of the game move more smoothly than they otherwise would. You can think of elegant rules as helpers who are always in the right place at the right time.

The last two of our four precepts for design finesse are specifically focused on creating elegance in the way the game is played.

Think Locally to Keep Rules Invisible

American politician and former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill was famous for saying, "All politics is local." The same can apply to RPG rules—at least rules designed to take care of a specific situation.

The story of opportunity attacks in D&D Next was written by this concept. If you remember attacks of opportunity in 3rd Edition, they had quite a number of specific cases and exceptions attached to them. A number of actions either did or did not provoke attacks of opportunity. Moving into a creature's threatened area did not provoke, but moving within or out of that area did. Casting a spell provoked. Standing up provoked. Drawing a sword didn't. It's a lot to learn, and every player had to understand the rules because they had a big effect in combat. Each round, almost every character or monster involved in an encounter would do something that was specifically called out as provoking or not provoking attacks of opportunity.

In 4th Edition, we slimmed down opportunity attacks considerably. They were triggered by movement and certain types of attacks (ranged and area), as in 3e, but by nothing else. In D&D Next, we took this simplification even further, with opportunity attacks triggered only when you leave a creature's reach.

In this case, we knew that opportunity attacks were a rule that everyone needed to learn. As such, we needed to keep that rule as simple as possible. If you run away from a melee, you risk a free attack. That penalty has been a part of D&D for decades, and it makes sense in terms of the game's narrative.

However, we knew also that spellcasters have never been eager to engage in melee. This is where the principle of keeping rules local comes in. Rather than including spellcasting in opportunity attacks, we introduced the concept of concentration. In the final form of the rule, attacks can break your concentration and cause a spell to end. Casters who use concentration spells thus still want to avoid melee and take cover whenever possible.

A fighter or rogue doesn't need to learn this rule, nor does a paladin or bard who never picks up concentration spells. It only comes into play for those who want to use buff spells or long-lasting control spells. A player who learns the rules and knows that an evil cleric has used a concentration spell is rewarded by being able to make informed tactical decisions when fighting that cleric. However, you don't need to know the rule to play the game.

As an added bonus, you can't keep more than one concentration spell active at a time. This also cleans up spell stacking and prevents buff abuse. It's an efficient little rule that has done a lot of work toward making the game play well.

Go With the Flow

The final principle of design finesse ties into the idea of creating rules that stem from the players' understanding of how the game is supposed to work, even without any knowledge of the rules. RPGs are powerful because we can take our understanding of the world, apply it to the game, and often come to a correct decision without using the rules to make that choice. This aspect of RPGs helps produce their unique immersive qualities—the ability to draw players into the world of the game and make it come to life.

As an example of a type of gaming that depends entirely on the rules, consider a strategy board game such as Lords of Waterdeep. When playing that game, I know that I should slap a mandatory quest on Rodney because he's in the lead, it's the last round, and he can't complete any more quests with that mandatory quest hanging over him. Only by understanding the rules do I understand when and why to make that decision.

By contrast, in D&D, the DM might describe a pack of hobgoblin archers taking aim at my rogue. If the DM mentions a stone pillar nearby, I can decide to leap behind it and take cover. In D&D we give you a bonus to AC for taking cover. That's a sensible, logical rule that people would expect. However, in deciding to jump behind the pillar, I might know how the rules for cover work, or I might not. I'm simply taking my understanding of how the world works and applying it to the game. All things being equal, the guy behind the pillar is harder to hit than the yokel standing out in the open.

Along these lines, we've talked about adding drawbacks to using bows and ranged weapons in melee. Prior editions used opportunity attacks to punish such attacks, but I don't think a free attack necessarily captures what actually happens when you try to use a bow in melee. Instead, I might advocate for a new trait for weapons—call it 'unwieldy' for now—that we can use to capture the sense that some weapons are a bad choice for close-in fighting. You suffer disadvantage when using an unwieldy weapon within 5 feet of a hostile creature. The longbow, sling, and longspear might be labeled unwieldy, capturing the idea that they are difficult to use when an enemy presses in close.

Rather than use the opportunity attack rules and make everyone learn another exception, the unwieldy rule puts the burden on the attacker and links it to a subset of weapons. Simply by envisioning a character trying to use the weapon while surrounded by orcs, a player can get a clear sense of how and why the drawback makes sense. Even without the rule, many players will intuitively understand that you don't use a longspear or bow in close quarters fighting. As such, the players' sense of the real world makes it seem logical that some sort of drawback should come into play.

Legends & Lore Archive | 12/9/2013

The Ever-Elusive Feel

Mike Mearls


Over the course of developing D&D Next, we’ve talked a lot about the game’s feel. Like elegance, feel is an elusive target in game design. Feel is an almost intuitive quality. It pulls you deeper into the game, making it easier and more rewarding to become fully immersed within the rules.

A mechanic’s feel is correct when it helps to match your actions, thoughts, and decisions as a player with the actions, thoughts, and decisions made by your character. Roleplaying games have an unmatched potential to immerse participants in the act of playing. The idea of feel fosters this immersion by bringing a player’s mindset into harmony with his or her character’s mindset.

When the feel of a game mechanic is off, it leads to situations in the game that pull you out of character and force you to think purely in terms of mechanics. The word “force” is important there. Some players quite enjoy approaching D&D as a puzzle to solve, and it’s okay for those players to actively decide to disengage from the feel of a game mechanic. However, trouble arises when a player who wants to become immersed has difficulty doing so because of how the rules function.

For example, imagine a scenario in which a quirk in the rules meant that the average orc in plate armor was easier to hit than the average unarmored orc. Orcs aren’t known for their speed or agility. In this case, the orc’s AC fails the feel test. It doesn’t match what you’d expect. It feels wrong.

On the other hand, you could imagine that the same scenario would make sense when applied to a quickling. Armor slows down a quickling and negates its inhuman agility. Throwing such a creature into plate armor could well make it easier to hit.

In D&D Next, our approach to light, medium, and heavy armor captures the basic feel that armor should evoke in a fantasy roleplaying game. Agile characters wear lighter armor, even as clumsy or average characters would rather wear heavy armor to cover for their lack of agility. Even though this approach might not be the most realistic, it meets the much more important criteria of evoking the feel of D&D.

Character Classes and Feel

RPG designers face an interesting set of opposed goals when it comes to feel and class design.

On the one hand, designing flexible classes allows each class to accommodate a wide variety of play styles. For example, your rogue can be a shadowy killer, a cunning treasure hunter, or a charming diplomat. Flexible classes do a great job of serving players who bring a specific character concept to the game, and then look for a class to match it. You can think of those players as goal-oriented shoppers. They go to the store knowing exactly what they want, they track those items down on the shelves, and they make their purchases. These types of players come to the table with the feel of their characters already determined. They know what they want, and they need the system to provide it.

On the other hand, such flexibility can prove troublesome for new players, and for those players looking to inspect different classes first, then pick what they want to play based on what they see. Those players are more like browsers wandering through a store. They look at what’s on the shelves and let the selection guide their purchasing decisions. For players who like to explore first, then decide what they want, the feel they seek is the blank slate that allows them to fully interact with the game.

Though many mechanics lend themselves to a straightforward sense of whether they support the feel of D&D or miss it in some manner, classes have to match a variety of expected feels. Some players think of a fighter and imagine a towering half-orc with a huge axe. Others see a nimble elf with a short sword and bow, or a cunning halfling with a pair of axes. Each class has a number of basic shared traits that it should support—for example, the idea that fighters are good with weapons and armor. However, other preferred traits will vary between players.

On top of that, it’s clear from the playtest feedback that players love to customize characters. Although getting the basic feel of a class is important, there will never be one single sense of feel to rule them all. Some players want the flexibility to add their own unique flavor to a class. Others want the option to pick from a limited number of class archetypes. In designing D&D Next, we thus faced an interesting challenge.

Historically, 3rd Edition D&D catered to the goal-oriented shoppers. Classes were open ended, with feats, spells, prestige classes, and multiclassing all acting as doors opening onto near-infinite options. Unfortunately, this open-ended approach proved an impenetrable barrier to many new players. Players of 3e were required to bring their own feel to the table.

In reaction, 4th Edition took the opposite approach. By adopting roles and builds, the game made it clear what each character class was supposed to do. The decisions you made as a player were more limited in scope. Players who loved to browse had a much easier time of it, since they could look at a class and its builds to see what was available. In exchange for that, however, 4e left many goal-oriented players out in the cold. If you wanted your fighter to be a cunning archer and survivalist, you had to wait until we published the appropriate build and power, or you were forced to play a ranger.

In 4e, the game assumed that players came to the table with a blank slate. The game dictated your character’s feel from the range of explicit options it provided. Players could always pull various pieces together to form the exact characters they wanted. However, doing so took more work and sometimes required that an ability’s description be ignored in favor of its mechanics.

With D&D Next, we took an approach almost straight down the middle between these previous editions. We moved away from roles to give players more freedom, but we adopted subclasses as a way to provide more focus and guidance to character creation. In many ways, the roles from 4e helped give focus to the design of specific subclasses. For example, when we look at the fighter, it feels equally natural to view that class as a protector of the rest of the party, or as a warrior whose only focus is dealing out punishment at a prodigious rate.

Browser-type players have more finely tuned options in D&D Next, even as goal-oriented character builders can mix and match subclasses to create their own unique characters. Feats are bigger, making their effects on characters more obvious and pushing us to design fewer of them. Browsers can spot the feats that improve their chosen specialty. Builders have access to feats that can give their characters a strong push away from a class’s typical identity.

For Dungeon Masters, we’re placing the idea of creating your own subclass into an optional part of the game. We want DMs to embrace subclass creation as a part of setting creation. We also want to make sure that builders or players who love to optimize take a moment to sit down and talk to their DMs before a campaign starts. If a player wants something specific from the campaign, it’s important that the group talks about it, understands it, and gives the DM space to plan adventures and sessions around it.

This is just one of the many areas where the D&D Next playtest was critical to striking the optimal balance between the needs of different groups of players. By relying on survey results to hone each iteration of the game’s design, we slowly but surely arrived at a basic approach to class design that works well for all types of players.

Legends & Lore Archive | 12/16/2013

Can You Feel It?

Mike Mearls


Last week, I talked about the concept of “feel” in RPGs, and what it means for the design of Dungeons & Dragons. This week, we turn our attention to how some specific approaches to design can help focus a game’s feel.

D&D’s magic system is a great example of how a design can deliver on creating a particular feel for a game. It also highlights one of the biggest pitfalls in choosing a specific feel for a big part of your game. Spellcasting in D&D takes a lot of heat for its idiosyncratic nature. It shares few, if any, features with how magic is depicted in most fantasy stories and games, with one notable exception—the “Dying Earth” stories of Jack Vance, which inspired D&D’s original spellcasting system. As a result, preparing spells and expending slots can seem out of sync with the exploits of fictional magic-users such as Merlin or Zatanna.

On the other hand, D&D’s magic system delivers the game’s feel in spades. In the last column, we defined feel as a quality that matches your mindset, thoughts, and decisions as a player with your character’s mindset, thoughts, and decisions. When a mind flayer comes around the corner, both you and your 3rd-level wizard should be overcome by fear and plotting an escape. When six kobolds swarm your 12th-level fighter, both you and your character should be confident of victory.

In the same way, the feel of D&D spellcasting means that just like your character, you need to carefully consider which spells you want to cast. Knowing that you’re about to track down a Zhentarim agent in Baldur’s Gate, do you prepare charm person to win over suspicious locals? Or magic missile in case you’re caught in a fight? Would sleep be a better option, to avoid causing injury and angering the city guard? Your character goes through the same process that you as a player go through in picking out spells. Even better, this choice is a great opportunity for players to express their characters’ personalities. Even as a cautious cleric opts for subtle magic, a mage who has sworn an oath to kill the Zhent might pick devastating spells heedless of the consequences.

You can also use the language of the rules to precisely describe your character’s mindset and approach to spells. If you have only one 3rd-level spell left to cast, it makes sense for your character to say something like, “I can cast fireball or fly once more before I need to rest and regain my power.” The mechanics describe the world in terms that make sense to your character.

Of course, many people come to D&D having read plenty of books and seen many fantasy movies. Their concept of magic likely doesn’t match how D&D portrays it. As a result, the feel of magic in the game might be off for them. However, even as we stick to our guns and maintain D&D’s identity through the feel of the game’s traditional spellcasting mechanic, we can keep the needs of these other players in mind—for example, by creating options for groups that want to use spell points in their game.

The challenge in bringing out a game’s feel lies in crafting rules that mimic the decisions and thought processes that a character faces during play. Here are three of the most useful approaches to doing so.

Choices and Consequences

Feel shines through when you ask someone to make a decision. The distinctions between possible choices should resonate with both the player and the character. Your character—working from knowledge of the game world—and you—working from knowledge of both the world and the rules—should weigh the same factors, benefits, drawbacks, and risks as you come to a decision.

Weapons and armor provide an easy example. A greatsword lets you hit harder, but the longsword allows you to use a shield and improve your defense. You as the player and you as the character approach this choice with the same basic criteria and expected outcomes. Your character knows that a shield helps deflect attacks. You know that a shield is worth +2 to AC. Those two things mean the same thing. The mechanics are merely expressions of what happens in the game world.

Matching choices and consequences to run in parallel for players and characters is the most fundamental tool a designer can bring to bear in bringing a game’s feel to life.

Complexity in Strategy, Simplicity in Tactics

During a battle, your character has no more than a second or two to make a decision. Though a round is six seconds long, you still need time to actually complete your action and movement. Nothing messes up feel and breaks game immersion like attaching complex, involved rules to things that should happen quickly in the game world.

On the other hand, complexity is okay when a character can reasonably be expected to take time to make a decision. The rules for managing a kingdom can be more involved than the rules for combat because a single “round” for a realm might represent months or even years of game time. The discussion around the table could mimic the debates between counselors, envoys, and nobles as they hammer out a peace treaty with a nearby dwarf stronghold, or debate whether to launch a raid on a hobgoblin citadel.

In fast-paced situations such as combat, the mechanics for any given decision should allow that decision to resolve in about the same amount of time that the character would take to make the decision. By doing so, the game avoids bogging down the players to the point where referencing rules overshadows the action. In other situations, you can add more nuance and detail.

Narrative Cohesion

Narrative cohesion brings to life the decisions and consequences that a player faces. It provides insight into a character’s world. It bridges the gap between Mike, the guy sitting at his friend Rodney’s gaming table, and Kel Kendeen, the wizard of chaos bent on spreading havoc and confusion.

Narrative cohesion is simply the description of what’s happening in the world. In most cases, it’s so obvious that we don’t notice it. Plate armor provides better protection than leather. Giants are stronger than orcs. However, in building mechanics, it’s easy to lose track of what’s happening in the game world. Likewise, if you pay too much attention to the reality of the campaign, then the rules can easily bloat out of control. Finding the middle ground between too much and too little abstraction is a huge challenge in RPG design.

Take sneak attack as an example. In 3rd Edition, huge swaths of creatures were immune to it. Sneak attack was defined as a rogue’s ability to hit a creature in a vital area of its discernible anatomy. Monsters such as golems, elementals, and undead either don’t have a traditional anatomy or lack vital areas to target. Likewise, later rules clarifications implied that you couldn’t sneak attack a giant if you could only reach its arms or feet.

In the end, this focus on reality in the game detracted from sneak attack being a big element of what made rogues distinct. As a rogue, you spent your battles on the edge of the action, waiting for the opportunity to dart in and deliver a deadly strike. While exploring a dungeon, you’d scout ahead in silence, set up an ambush, and take down a guard before it could raise an alarm. However, nothing shatters that kind of immersion faster than realizing that the monster on guard is an elemental or undead. The assumption that sneak attack should focus on a rogue’s knowledge of anatomy breaks the feel of these most common character concepts. Your entire way of thinking as a rogue breaks down.

In later editions, we’ve tweaked the definition of sneak attack to make it more flexible. The key is that rogues are devious. They prefer ambushes, tricks, and indirect attacks. A rogue fights on open, even terms only if there are no other options. Rogues aren’t straight-up warriors or anatomists—they’re devious opportunists and backstabbers. As such, a rogue knows how to maximize attacks when a foe’s guard is down. Your rogue should be able to spot a crack in a stone golem’s leg or the flickering central essence of a fire elemental as easily as he or she can target a living foe where it hurts.

Narrative cohesion explains how you and your character can think of a situation in the same way, even if you’re thinking of the game’s rules and your character can only understand the description of the situation in “real” terms. Narrative cohesion works best when it strikes a middle ground between providing enough detail to explain a situation and leaving enough room for the abstraction necessary to produce a fast, easy-to-use set of rules.

Even with these approaches, feel is much more of an art than a science. By far, the biggest challenge for designers is making sure that the feel we aim for is right for the game. As I mentioned last week, the biggest benefit of our playtest was in opening a dialogue with D&D players and learning what they thought about the game. With more than 175,000 players taking part, the playtest made sure that the R&D team and the broader spectrum of D&D players were on the same page when thinking about the feel of the game.

Legends & Lore Archive | 12/23/2013

The Many Worlds of D&D

Mike Mearls


During the holiday season, we're looking back at some of the most popular articles this year, within each column. Today's Legends & Lore originally ran back on July 1.

We look forward to seeing you again in the new year!


L ast week I wrote about adventure design and how it relates to game design. This week, I'd like to touch on how we're approaching the many worlds of D&D Next. This also relates to how your personal campaign world can fit into the greater D&D Next cosmology.

To begin with, we're making some tweaks to the cosmology to reconcile the differences between various editions and worlds. Our goal is to make it so that as much prior material as possible is still useful and relevant. In a sense, you can think of this approach as attempting to ensure as much story compatibility as possible when you convert an existing campaign over to D&D Next.

For instance, the elemental planes will be divided into three basic rings that surround the prime material plane. The innermost ring consists of the border elemental planes. These regions are like the regular world dominated by a specific element. The border plane of fire is a land of ash deserts, billowing volcanoes, and lakes of lava. The next ring out consists of the deep elemental planes, which are areas of pure, elemental energy much as the elemental planes were portrayed in the Planescape material. Finally, the outermost ring is the elemental chaos, a region of pure, fundamental elemental energy.

This approach came about based on a variety of sources, but it all began with the azer, everyone's favorite fiery dwarves. Their original description mentions that they dwell in towers of basalt. The azer's description prompted us to look at the plane of fire courtesy of the cover of the original AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. That image helped create the concept of the border elemental planes. Here was an iconic image of D&D that didn't actually match the lore as it developed. If we embraced an aspect of the elemental planes that was more like that cover, we could open up more vistas for adventure without overwriting or deleting prior material.

Going back to the azer, we can have azers dwelling in basalt towers along a great chain of volcanoes that marks the boundary between the border earth and border fire elemental planes. Meanwhile, in the deep elemental fire, you can find other azers who live as described in the Planescape supplement The Inner Planes.

By the same token, we're treating the Feywild as a similar border plane between the positive energy plane and the prime material. The dreaded domains of Ravenloft are its opposite number, between the negative energy plane and the prime. Elements of the Shadowfell can become domains within Ravenloft.

When it comes to the outer planes, we're treating Planescape as our default assumption. It's a much-beloved setting and one that's fairly easy (by design) to integrate into existing campaigns. That means the return of the Great Wheel, the Blood War, and other classic elements of the D&D cosmos. The same process for the inner planes applies to the outer planes, with our intent to add elements to the cosmos to increase storytelling opportunities and make the Wheel as flexible as possible for different settings and different DMs.

The biggest setting change we're looking at concerns Spelljammer. In the past, it incorporated all of D&D's settings as places you could visit. I'm not sure that's the strongest selling point of the setting. In my mind, Spelljammer was an interesting exercise in placing D&D in space. Adding in Faer?n, Oerth, and other worlds muddied its initial vision. It also says stuff about settings that might be fairly jarring given a world's flavor and feel. Not everyone wants the equivalent of spaceships in their campaign, so I think that when we talk about Spelljammer as it relates to other settings, we're going to focus on it as its own setting and downplay its role as the connecting tether between various D&D Next worlds.

Ideally, our approach allows Dragonlance, Eberron, Forgotten Realms, the world of the Nentir Vale, Greyhawk, Mystara, Dark Sun, and your own campaign setting to work with the basic assumptions we make about the planes.

Remember the Sundering?

Some of you might remember the Gen Con Keynote last year where we told you about the Sundering, a huge event that will change the Forgotten Realms forever. The time has come to revisit that topic briefly now so that you know this: Check out DungeonsandDragons.com tomorrow and find out how you can participate in the various events tied to the Sundering and how you too can play a part in reshaping the future of the Realms.

Legends & Lore Archive | 12/30/2013

Roleplaying in D&D Next

Mike Mearls


During the holiday season, we're looking back at some of the most popular articles this year, within each column. Today's Legends & Lore originally ran back on September 22.

We look forward to seeing you again in the new year!


It's pretty obvious that D&D began its life as a roleplaying game. It has grown to include toys, novels, comics, video games, and board games. At the core of D&D, though, rests an RPG.

So, if D&D is an RPG, what do the rules need to do to encourage you to roleplay your character? Like a lot of things relating to D&D rules design, the answer lies somewhere between providing no encouragement and demanding players to play act personalities that are distinct from their own.

To start with, I think that D&D is more fun when players adopt characters with distinct mannerisms, traits, and goals. As a DM, I love it when a player ties a character to the setting in a meaningful way.

For instance, in my current campaign, the rogue is a former member of the duke's secret police. He turned in evidence of a plot that resulted in the execution of his former comrades for treason. One member of the secret police escaped arrest and has sworn to kill the rogue. That gives me a ready-made villain to throw into my campaign. It also means that when the player characters visit towns or villages where the secret police installed a reign of terror, he had best watch his back.

One of my current characters, the wizard Kel Kendeen, is fun because of his personality and mannerisms. His mechanics reflect his abilities as a wizard, and I love slinging fireball spells and using disguise self spells, but five years from now I'll remember him more for his ardent dedication to anarchy, chaos, and freedom. He's fun to play not because he can cast the disguise self spell. He's fun to play because he's a radical anarchist who uses that disguise self spell to mimic petty officials and undermine hierarchical organizations.

If the rules give us tools to use in a campaign, our character's personalities tell us why and how to use those tools. Without that layer, D&D is no longer an RPG but simply a fantasy world simulator or a skirmish battle game. It doesn't take much to make that work, but it's a layer of play that brings the game to life in a way that no other type of game can match.

Of course, every group has different standards for roleplaying. Our goal is to give you guidance and ideas to inspire you to roleplay a character with a compelling backstory and provide you with mechanics that have a light touch in terms of helping you shape your game. We want to encourage you to roleplay your character without mandating it.

In the current draft of the game, as part of character creation, you also flesh out a few things beyond alignment. Your bonds are your character's ties to the world, people, places, or things that are meaningful to your character in some way. Your flaws are your character's weaknesses, while your ideals represent the things that keep your character going when things are at their worst.

In essence, these concepts flesh out the starting point provided by alignment. They translate those abstract ideals into actions, things, and beliefs that are tied to the campaign world.

To make things easier, our current draft of backgrounds includes tables you can use to flesh out your character's bonds to the world. Additional tables use alignment as the starting point for ideals and flaws. For instance, as the member of a craft guild you might be intensely loyal to the patron noble house that sponsored your guild membership. On the flip side, you've made an enemy of the criminal cartel that wants to disrupt your guild. DMs with the time and inclination can fill out their own tables as starting points for characters. As usual, you can also choose to make stuff up if nothing on the tables is appealing, or simply roll on them and accept the results.

A final table provides your character with something that sparks the beginning of your adventuring career and gives your character a key problem or question that needs an immediate solution. Perhaps you left the guild because your master was murdered under circumstances that point to you as a suspect. You might have been sent as an undercover agent to infiltrate the cartel that is working to undermine the guild. Your DM could also give you ideas based on the campaign, or you could come up with something on your own.

Mechanically, we're looking at a fairly simply system that we're calling inspiration. When you have your character do something that reflects your character's personality, goals, or beliefs, the DM can reward you with inspiration. The key lies in describing your action in an interesting way, acting out your character's dialogue, or otherwise helping to bring the game to life by adding some panache to your play. By demonstrating that the events in the game are critical to your character's goals and beliefs, you can allow your character to tap into reserves of energy and determination to carry the day.

You can spend inspiration to gain advantage on a check, saving throw, or attack attached to your action. Alternatively, you can bank it to use on a roll that happens during the current encounter or scene. Additionally, you can choose to pass the inspiration along to a different character during the scene. In this case, your character's determination serves as an inspiration for the other party members. You can have only one inspiration at a time.

It's up to the DM to reward inspiration, but as a rule of thumb, a player can gain it once per significant scene or important combat. Inspiration fades quickly, so you must spend it within a few minutes in game time before you lose it.

Just as a DM chooses when to reward inspiration, the DM also chooses why to award inspiration. You can use it as described above, or adapt it to other things that your group finds help bring the game to life, keep the action moving, or otherwise make the game more enjoyable for everyone.

Like many things in the DM's hands, inspiration is a tool that requires more finesse and art rather than science to properly apply. A good DM uses inspiration to encourage play that makes the game better for everyone at the table. Think of it like a micro-reward, something short of experience but still a useful reward for good play.

The inspiration mechanic is a simple gateway to deeper rewards for roleplaying your character. Groups that want a more narrative game can reward inspiration freely or adapt it for other uses. You can even give players a pool of inspiration that they can spend only to reward other players for good roleplaying moments. By baking inspiration into the core of the game, we have the basic structure needed to provide for more in-depth rules modules.

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