Droll Initiative

I didn’t think I had room for rules-heavy games anymore. Years ago, I tried to learn Pathfinder 1E, but gave up halfway through rolling up a Rogue. I got really into 13th Age as my preferred D&D-alike, loving its freewheeling design and “stripped down 4E” vibe. More recently, I’ve ventured into FitD, PbtA, and other story-first, rules-light game systems, as well as the weirder, DYI side of the OSR.

But something tugged at me. I missed the strategic, granular gameplay of maps-and-minis gameplay that 4E excelled at. Sure, I had Lancer and Emberwind, both exemplary games. Couldn’t I let another one into my collection? I had looked at Pathfinder 2E (henceforth referred to as PF2E) a few times, but a few things made me bounce off:

  1. My word, those are a lot of pages to read.
  2. The character sheet’s color scheme is an affront to all that is good and pure in this world.
  3. I already had a negative reaction to the previous edition.

But still, something tugged at me.

I heard good things about the action economy. While I couldn’t wrap my head around how the degrees-of-success mechanic would play out, it sounded novel enough. Then I read someone on RPG.net talk about how PF2E handled multiclassing in a balanced, modular way, and I could resist no longer. I ran down to my FLGS and bought the Core Rulebook.

I’m really glad I did. This game is great.

So, what’s great about it?

I wasn’t far into the introduction when a paragraph leapt out at me:

Pathfinder is a game for everyone, regardless of their age, gender, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or any other identities and life experiences. It is the responsibility of all of the players, not just the GM, to make sure the table is fun and welcoming to all.

This should be the lowest of low-hanging fruit, to acknowledge that it’s everyone’s job to make the experience fun and welcoming, but this hasn’t been the case. Throughout the book, and sprinkled into appropriate sidebars throughout the books I’ve acquired since, are passages reinforcing this central tenet. Safety tools, callouts when monster themes might be too much, you name it. Good stuff all around.

But enough about that. What are the things that make the game fun?

Balanced, tactical combat: This was a huge draw for me. The encounter math is spelled out very clearly, making encounter design the easiest it’s been in years. From the player’s side, each class has something meaningful to contribute. Martial characters tend to have a bunch of options to squeeze advantage out of the action economy, while spellcasters trade action efficiency for potent abilities.

Progression with meaningful choice: As characters go up in level, they are confronted with a choice of some sort of Feat. This is probably the most daunting part of the game, but also the most rewarding. There don’t seem to be straight-up bad choices, and the retraining guidelines are generous if you make a choice that doesn’t work out. This means that, no matter if you’re a caster or a martial class, every level-up means you not only get something new to play with (no dead levels!), but you get your choice of things to play with.

Skills matter: Something that’s bothered me about d20 fantasy games is how skill usage tends to get siloed off into exploration, and mostly ignored once combat starts (aside from maybe Stealth). This bothered me especially in 4E, since terrain and forced movement were so important, but nobody really leveraged Athletics or Acrobatics to use them to their advantage. I can’t recall anyone using Intimidation to scare enemies into surrender. Most damningly, while there were rules for knocking over loose walls or whatnot for dramatic terrain effects, they were often inferior in outcome to the powers on your character sheet. So why bother?

PF2E takes a different approach. Skills all can do something basic, but if your character has at least one degree of training in a skill, they can often do fantastic effects that can fundamentally reshape the situation, and there’s reason to do them in the heat of battle, as they can often be a better option than swinging a sword a whole bunch for your actions (thanks to the Multiple Attack Penalty). Is your Fighter trained in Indimidate? Why not set the party up for success by Demoralizing your foe? A one-round -1 to defenses doesn’t seem like a lot, but since this also affects the crit range, a small bonus means a lot.

Outside of combat, skills still matter in big ways. Aside from the usual exploration and interaction skills that are commonplace among this sort of game, perhaps my favorite thing is the Medicine skill. Not only does it stabilize the dying, treat diseases, and other expected usages, it allows anyone to be the party healer. That’s right. Your Rogue can be the team medic and get everyone back up on their feet. You don’t need a healbot Cleric, though a lot of classes still get some support/healing options, if that’s an enjoyable play experience for a player.

Archetypes! Are! Awesome!: At the beginning of this review, I mentioned how I had heard that multiclassing was handled in a really cool, balanced way. This is the Archetype system: an optional set of substitution Feats that allows your character to grow in ways outside of their Class. They’re separate from the main Class writeups, which allows them to be tuned so as to not overpower your base Class (nor anyone else). But Archetypes do more than just this! The Advanced Player’s Guide has Class Archetypes, which allow for specialization and variation within a Class. What’s more, the requirements are often easy to slot into just about any character concept you have. Your Druid could be an Herbalist, for example… but so could your Barbarian.

Amazing support: Something I can’t get over is how all of the rules are available onlinefor free. That’s tremendous. Not only can I “try before I buy” (which I absolutely did), the rules are there in their entirety to help me run games. One of the things that’s driven me off from running 5E is the presence of spell lists in creature write-ups. While they’re present in PF2E as well, the fact that the spell lists are hyperlinks to the actual spells eliminates this pain point.

Closing Thoughts

Wow, that was a lot, but oddly fitting for such a mammoth book. It’s an incredibly dense, rules-heavy system, but learning it is giving me that feeling of knowledge interlocking and clicking into place that I got when mastering 4E. They’re wildly different games, of course, but PF2E has won me over in a big way, which is something I never thought would happen.

I have a post that I’m brewing in my head about a game that I never thought I’d love but do, but Judd Karlman wrote a really touching look back at his own experience with D&D over the years and I felt the urge to write my own. I need to do this because I felt so much what he wrote. I don’t like reminiscing about decades gone by, because it inevitably makes me sad, but hey, the oppressive heat of Summer is finally giving way to the first hints of Autumn down here in North Carolina, and I feel it’s just right to be a bit melancholic and wistful.

Mom and Dad had a bureau in our home’s foyer. I think it was the type that had a fold-out desk that we never used. It was more of a decoration than functional storage, and they kept all sorts of stuff in there that I guess they didn’t know a better place for.

One of the drawers contained a bunch of odd games. I remember we had a copy of Mastermind, Regatta, Stock Market, and probably some other ones. But most importantly, a blue box with a striking tableau – a fearsome dragon squaring off against an adventuring party! This was the classic Holmes Blue Box, and I had no idea what it was or what to do with it. But it had funny-looking dice and a wax crayon to rub on their sides, which was good enough for me.

I met a kid at school a year or two later who also liked this sort of stuff. He had Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and it made even less sense to my young brain. But he and I sort of ran with it, cobbling together a ruleset from the stuff we figured out and our own imaginations. It was a shambolic mess of a system, no doubt, but we had fun.

2nd Edition came out when I was in middle school. I remember sinking every bit of my allowance into buying books and taking them to school to read between classes. I somehow managed to get other friends roped into playing, and for someone as terribly awkward as I was, this provided an activity I could finally share with others.

In high school, I cobbled together whatever Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft adventures I could get ahold of into a semblance of a complete campaign. It was incredibly cringey for the most part, looking back – all of the Dark Sun and Planescape Easter Eggs I threw in just because, some really questionable homebrew ancestries, and the edgelordiest Drow edgelord antagonist I’ve ever seen – but we were teenagers. I remember the party finally dying, getting queued through some bureaucratic afterlife straight out of Beetlejuice, and ascending to godhood as a called-in favor.

Then… I just sort of burned out on D&D.

I can’t say why. Maybe it just reached saturation in my head. Maybe it was going off to college and getting exposed to Shadowrun and Vampire. Maybe… D&D stopped being a thing that carried nigh-totemic importance to me. I wanted something weirder, grittier, different, though to this day I have no idea what that actually ended up being.

The late 90s and early 00s were a blur. Lots of White Wolf. Ex Libris Nocturnum. RPG.net. Unknown Armies. Tribe 8. Blue Planet. Lots of misusing Forge terminology. I skipped 3rd Edition D&D because I was still burned out and, being the contrarian that I am, got irritated by the OGL glut. Maybe this is what Judd was talking about – the game went from something I zealously tore through and pored over to something that was just there to play or leave.

I recall having high-faluting ideas about character immersion and how system didn’t really matter. I remember thinking and spouting this while neck-deep in the Mage: the Awakening mechanics, so you could say I was probably full of shit. I definitely do.

I was in my thirties when a Sunday-night Descent campaign sputtered out and it was floated to give 4th Edition D&D a try. I loved it so much that I bought all the books pretty much on the spot. I didn’t understand the vitriol dumped on it by the Internet. Someone on RPG.net mentioned a lot of the criticism levied against this edition was the same levied against 3E, and I wondered what in the culture had changed. I ran a few lackluster campaigns, but had a blast as a player.

I was about to leave my thirties when 5th Edition dropped, and I gave it a fair shake. However, I felt it was once again a game to pick up and play, and that’s it. I still buy the books every now and then, mostly to have something to talk about with friends, and I occasionally play in an adventure or two. It’s okay. I pick it up, I get some enjoyment, and then I put it down.

I feel weird about my relationship to the game now. It’s a game put out by a large corporation, and I have iffy feelings about that. It’s not just a game brand now, but a social signifier, a hashtag, a lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle sold as much as a bunch of books and dice. I’m not saying that it’s bad, but that it’s changed so much as to be an entirely different beast from that old blue box. But that’s always been the case. The game I left on the humid shores of the summer before college was also different from that blue box. Same with the pickup 4E dungeon crawl.

Maybe I’m chasing a high I’ll never get again. One of holding a system and all of the worlds it supports in my head. One where each rule clicking snugly and surely into place gives me a jolt of satisfaction. One where the game ceases being just a thing to pick up and once again is something that beckons me to peel back its mysteries.

Eventually, travel back and forth to friends’ houses put too much wear on the Blue Box. Its cardboard shell crumpled. The books’ staples rusted in the humid, salty air of my hometown. One of the books was unsalvageable; the other one I think I gave to my friend with the AD&D books.

I still have the d10 from the dice set though. I’m keeping that one.

I posed a question on the Emberwind Discord this morning: what about magic items? The game doesn’t currently have rules for them, and I somewhat understand the argument for their exclusion. This is, after all, a game that is designed to be approachable by new players, and the combat rules, where I have typically seen the most use of magic items in other games, is plenty crunchy. On the other hand, magic items are a staple of fantasy fiction, so their inclusion seems like a fun idea.

Before I dive in, though, I’d like to establish the goal of this approach. First, I want to leverage the mechanics already present, partly because I’m not sufficiently confident in my skills to want to tinker around with major changes to the system, but also because I want to keep these additions to be approachable by newcomers. Second, I want them to mean something different to how typical fantasy games represent them. I want abilities to remain the starring feature of the character, not something the game expects you to have, lest you fall behind in efficacy. To that point, magic items should be rare, possibly even unique, and worthy of their own quest. Third, I want to have the options available to make them stand out as otherworldly, weird objects.

How to make a magic item (and what not to do)

A magic item can be anything – a deck of cards, a sword, a suit of leather armor, you name it. The magic item’s abilities should mimic the Keepsake system – a consumable bonus that refreshes after a period of time. The Hero’s Guide has a list of good Keepsake abilities, so use them. Another idea I had was to allow the use of a Class Action outside of the wielder’s Class, once per Milestone (I suggest sticking with the abilities tagged General) or allowing a different Maneuver to the one they possess, again once per Milestone. Any of these should work, although if your table allows the use of different Class Abilities, the GM should be alert for “super-combos” that entirely break the balance of the game.

I would not recommend emulating D&D and just slapping a static +1 on the item. I want the usage of magic items to be strategic, not just something you can call on consistently.

How to make a magic item… weird

Option 1: Minor Effects

Think about something weird or cool the magic item could bring to the character’s story. These minor effects shouldn’t have an effect on skill checks or combat outside of some extremely clever usage, but they should provide a strange, possibly whimsical element to the fiction.

Examples include:

  • A deck of cards that shuffles itself when nobody’s looking
  • A suit of armor that never gets dirty
  • A cloak that can billow dramatically, as if caught up in an imaginary gust of wind, upon command
  • An otherwise normal-looking sword that, when swung, makes sweet lightsaber noises

If you have a copy, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything for D&D 5th Edition has a lot of inspiring examples.

Option 2: Living Items

Taking a cue from 13th Age, perhaps your world’s magic items have a degree of self-awareness. Perhaps the magic that lives inside of them bestowed upon them limited intelligence, enough for them to communicate via flashes of emotion.

Come up with a compelling personality quirk like likes the sound or rhyming couplets or can’t resist pulling harmless pranks on other party members. They don’t compete with the character’s established personality, but having a bit of a give-and-take between item and wielder has excellent roleplaying potential!

Recently, I’ve been revisiting Emberwind, a really clever indie RPG that, at least to me, feels like a super-streamlined take on the tactical D&D 4E model. There’s a lot to like about the game’s welcoming, approachable structure that makes it easy for new players to get into, as well as the ability to combo abilities and craft synergistic builds that should appeal to knowledgeable power-gamers. It’s got a wonderful class system, with subclasses coming soonish. But something that might be missing for your table are Ancestries. The game avoids statistical differences between a Human and a Dwarf, if they exist in your setting, and for the most part, I’m okay with this omission. But if you’re not, here are some approaches I would suggest (and one that I wouldn’t).

How I Wouldn’t Do It – Mechanical Bonuses

Let’s get this out of the way first – I think straight mechanical bonuses (be they to CAP values, skill values, or whatever else) are a bad idea. I don’t think it’s a good idea for one Ancestry to be de-facto better at a given thing than another. Setting aside real-world racial stereotyping (although that sure is a thing that this approach echoes), choosing to be one type of playable creature versus another just for the stat bonus makes for kind of boring game worlds.

Expanding the Keepsake system

In Emberwind, every character gets a Keepsake, a little something that acts like a rechargeable consumable. They don’t have to be tangible items like lockets, either – everyone gets what’s called an “Emberwind Spark”, which to me is less “physical item that my character has on their person” and more “essence of heroism that exists because my character is a main character in the story”.

To use this, the GM or table have to decide on how to implement this:

  1. Give everyone a bonus Keepsake to reflect their Ancestry
  2. Everyone’s Ancestry must be reflected in their free-choice Keepsake
  3. Only the “default” Ancestry gets the Emberwind Spark, while others get their choice of a replacement Keepsake

Giving everyone an extra Keepsake probably makes the game slightly easier, and makes management a little more fiddly, but this might be a welcome trade-off, especially for veteran players. Personally, it still feels a little too close to static mechanical bonuses to be really palatable, but it’s leavened somewhat by a bit more looseness in the attribution, as well as the fact that Keepsakes aren’t always-on abilities.

Anchors and Deadweights

Anchors and Deadweights are fiction-based approaches to modifying skill rolls. They simply apply Advantage or Disadvantage to a roll, reflecting lived experience (good or bad) with an aspect of the world.

I’m taking inspiration from Whitehack’s Group system for this. If your character’s Ancestry has enough of an impact on your rolls, make it an Anchor, and choose an equivalent Deadweight. Maybe you’re playing a Drow, so you’d choose an Anchor like “the Underdark” with a Deadweight like “above-ground society”. It’s up to the GM or the table to decide how much a given Anchor/Deadweight are worth.

Which would I use?

Probably Anchors and Deadweights. These days, I generally prefer systems that only lightly touch the heavier, crunchier mechanics of a given game, especially one so intricate as Emberwind. That said, I know a lot of players like messing with systems, so the other options are examples of me doing that.

Though, truthfully, I don’t think I’d even use Anchors and Deadweights. I think the game’s just fine as-is, and if I were to use Ancestries, they’d just be role-playing prompts. If it’s good enough for Heart and Spire, it’s good enough for me.

  • The game’s art is quite lovely. That’s probably a very un-controversial, quotidian opinion, but it’s true!
  • The character structure – purely cosmetic/RP Ancestry, Classes, and Calling – which merges RP prompts with mechanics – is pretty neat. I like how the classes are all messed-up versions of D&D classes.
  • Boy howdy, I found the organization of the book lacking. Like, take the bit about how taking Fallout clears Stress. Sure, it’s mentioned on the quick reference, but I’ve learned not to trust quick references until I can look them up in the actual text. The actual rule is not lumped in with the Fallout section, but rather dropped in with the healing rules. I sorta understand why, but it doesn’t flow as logically as I think it could. And I still don’t have a concrete definition of what “refresh dX” means. I had to infer its meaning, which isn’t good for someone new to the game as I was.
    Not a cardinal sin, but it was/is vexing.
  • Trade was confusing, but once I understood the mechanics, it made sense. (Another victim of the less-than-stellar organizationof the book, perhaps?) Basically, if you need a d6 weapon, you need to trade a d6 treasure in exchange. Either that, or burn d6 worth of Supplies. They don’t explicitly say you can trade Supplies for other forms of healing, but if a player really wanted to trade one Stress track for another, I wouldn’t see why not.
  • Speaking of interpretations and house rules, I’m glad there are a handful of optional rules. It’s good that the designers thought about flexibility.
  • I think that the GM’s section has one of the best guidance for story games that I’ve read.
  • Despite there being a good bunch of supplements for the game, the core book is complete. The supplements expand on concepts already established in the setting, but are entirely unnecessary to play. That’s a relief, and a testament to how much stuff is in the book.
  • If I were to run it (and I think I might), I’d run it as a nodecrawl instead of a hexcrawl, as offered up in the book. It’s just the level of abstraction that makes the most sense to me.

Overall, I like this book quite a lot, despite my misgivings with some of the organization.

  • Virtual play is weird, and I’m not sure if it completely vibes with my brain. I suspect that it’s a similar phenomenon to Zoom Fatigue – voices are present, video might be present too, but bodies are not.
  • I didn’t realize how dependent the act of playing a TTRPG is, to me, on tactile elements. What I mean is: while a dice roller app might convey the same information, in the same idiom, as a handful of dice, there’s subtly different experiential information being picked up from the two scenarios. I’m not saying one is better than the other (although I prefer the physical over the virtual), but I don’t think either is well-served by treating them as straight-up equivalent.
  • Same goes for gaming rituals. Every group I’ve played with has had a set of handed-down things they did or didn’t do — don’t use someone else’s dice… that’s bad luck. That sort of thing. As a GM, I also delight in rituals to evoke a shared emotion. Like in D&D, where a GM producing a tactical map or scribbling down terrain on a dry-erase mat means shit’s about to go down, and everyone knows that. Or, in Blades in the Dark, producing an index card for a Clock, with theatrical malevolent flourish. Or ripping up the card when the scoundrels pull off the heist.
    These rituals are important to me. They act not only as some sort of communal practice, they serve to heighten the experience in some small way. As much as I appreciate the automation that goes into a good Roll20 sheet, it smooths out the ritual in favor of expediency. I think it’s the right call, but I can’t deny that something is lost.
  • Struggling with learning a system also is somewhat of a ritual too, I think. Once the Blades in the Dark game concluded, we went back to a game of Forbidden Lands that the lockdown put on hold. I am enjoying the game immensely overall, but I had a real trouble learning the system. That process – of jotting down as much of the ruleset as I needed to understand play, of tentatively picking up the different colors of dice and trying to map what they were to what they meant – was a ritual in and of itself. Automation makes for an easier onramp, but, again, something is lost.
  • The GM of the Forbidden Lands and I chatted a bit, and we both agreed that a game such as it, with its diegetic, fold-out map and myriad dice, would feel way different (and way worse) virtually. YMMV, as always.
  • Lastly, I missed my friends in ways I wasn’t ready to confront. Perhaps I’m still not fully ready. I might never be. 2020 was such a weird year, and it affected us all in ways that will probably take years to shake out.

Let me be clear: I don’t know shit about sandbox games. Yeah, this is coming from someone who’s been running Blades in the Dark for a few years. I’ve treated the game thus far as something more episodic, a scenario-of-the-week sort of deal where I come in with an idea about what I’d like to run and the players sort of follow along. I think I did it that way because completely open-ended scenarios are scary to me, and I felt like it was the GM’s place to provide guidance to what the sandbox state should look like.

Yeah, that was a mistake.

One of my players rightly critiqued me on that, so I swung in the other direction. Gone was “here’s what’s going down”, in was “what do you want to do?”. Solved, right? Wrong. This caused a different problem – the players had complete say over what they could do, completely removed from the context of the world state. I wasn’t happy with this approach either.

So then I flipped open the rulebook and read some advice that John Harper explicitly gave, but I glossed over in my previous read-throughs. It basically boiled down to keeping a running list of loose threads, phrased as leading questions. I figured I would give that a shot. We’re playing on Roll20, what with the state of the world as of this writing, so it was easy enough to have a running list of questions that the whole table could add to. I wrote down a few ideas that I had kept in my head.

And then it clicked: I was getting these ideas out of my head and into a trusted system. This was an invaluable process I did under Getting Things Done, or GTD for short. I’m not going to go into the finer points of GTD, but one of the core ideas is that keeping the things you want or need to do in your head is counterproductive, and adds friction to the stuff that’s already in progress. Instead, it’s best to offload these tasks into an external system that is trusted to hold onto them until you’re ready to make sense of them and plan them. Think of a notebook, or a spreadsheet, or a file folder. When you’re ready to make sense of them and give them context, they’ll be there.

The same applies to the approach I settled on for my game. Instead of having to keep the idea of a faction war breaking out, I made note that a faction war was possible, given the state of the fiction, and I jotted that down in the form of a leading question. I could revisit it when I needed inspiration, but until then, I don’t have to worry about it at all. It also has the benefit of accepting contributions from my players, so I can treat their additions as “wish lists” of story threads that are interesting to them.

Personally, I think this is astonishingly good, and I’m going to use this in any sandbox I run going forward. Heck, even some fixed-story games as well.

Recently, Whitehack 3rd Edition was released, and so I excitedly picked up the PDF. Overall, it’s a great revision to an already-great game, and I might do a full review of it when I get the print copy. However, I was discussing it with a friend of mine, who objected to how the Wise class fuels Miracles. So I’ve decided to figure out a house rule to change how the class works.

(Brief disclaimer: have I tested this at all? Hell no I haven’t.)

Here’s how it works

Typically, the Wise class fuels Miracles (aka spells) by spending HP. Unlike in games such as D&D, these Miracles are flexible in scope and intent (for example, a Miracle called “Flames” could light fires, shoot gouts of magic flame from the fingertips, and even extinguish a conflagration, depending on what makes sense). The cost in HP is determined by how much the Miracle breaks reality, as well as factors such as area of effect, duration, and so on.

In this hack, Miracles are not fueled by HP loss, but rather by taking on Corruption. Corruption is an optional rule that the game uses to track effects like radiation or exposure to 40K-style Chaos, and here it would be similar to this latter example. The bigger the effect, the more Corruption accumulates. Up to a certain threshold, the player has the option to make a saving throw, where failure produces manifestations of the power’s malign influence on their self. (Past that threshold, saves are mandatory. Good luck!)

So, for example, let’s say Uthred the Unwise is sitting at Corruption Level (CL) 2. True to his title, he wants to summon just a smidgen of the Gibbering Madness Which Lies Between The Stars. The GM decides, rightly, that this is a serious breaking of reality, and assigns a cost of 2d6, as per the guidance the book provides. However, instead of this costing HP, this will accrue Corruption. He rolls 2d6 and... gets lucky. He rolled a 3, so his Corruption is now 5. Going by the guidance in the book, he has the option to make a save, but if he fails, a Corruption of 5 means he’s going to have a noticeable manifestation of his transgressions against reality for a couple of days. Maybe a tentacle or two.

Stuff to look out for

First off, you’ll want to remove the Wise’s special rules on regaining HP. Those no longer apply.

Second off, the Wise has restrictions on not being able to cast Miracles that cost more than their HP (initially). I’m not sure if it makes sense in this context. Personally, I feel like being to cast powerful stuff even if it might ruin you is thematically appropriate.

Lastly, I do have some concerns about abusing the Corruption mechanics. I could see a scenario where a player would jam on low-Corruption spells, knowing that failing their save only causes temporary alterations to their bodies and failing this save almost certainly means the Corruption count is reset. I think this is mostly a table-culture sort of issue, as applying appropriately-gnarly complications for, say, growing lobster claws out of your face should have meaningful impact on the character’s relation to the fictional world, even in the short term.

Anyway, I’d like to know what you think!

Sitting in front of me, on a coffee table that has become incredibly familiar to me during this quarantine, is my copy of Lancer. It was one of those things I backed sight-unseen on Kickstarter, only based on a little buzz I heard on Twitter about the project. I’m super glad I did, though – despite not really being into the Mecha genre, the game makes them interesting in the context of a vast setting. But what drew me in the most was the system – namely, how the game exists as both a rules-light narrative game and a super-crunchy, maps-and-minis game depending on the context.

I’m going to focus on the latter, because I think it pulls off something really sneaky and clever.

In Lancer, your pilot is presumed to have relatively reliable access to massive 3D printers that can churn out a custom mech in a matter of hours. This mech of yours is custom to your specifications, factoring in systems and weapons that you’ve programmed the printer to install (indeed, your “mech stats” of Hull, Agility, Systems and Engineering are, in part, reflective of your skill at designing a mech that emphasizes these traits). The only limits are how many weapon and systems slots you have and, more importantly, what licenses you have access to. However, if you have the rights to do so, you can build whatever your heart desires.

And here’s where Lancer pulls off something pretty damn ingenious.

See, your character is a top-notch mech pilot. They know what they’re good at and how they vibe with the rest of the party’s composition. While everyone starts with a good all-rounder in the form of the GMS Everest, characters quickly accrue licenses to specialized parts and weaponry. As top-notch mech pilots, they’re going to seek out builds that are optimized for their role, seeking opportunistic synergies and clever loopholes to mitigate potential downsides to their choices.

That’s right, your character is performing CharOp. Not you. Them.

And that’s cool as shit!

CharOp and min-maxing have been... contentious for as long as I’ve been playing. Often, the accusations are that the perpetrator is not considering their character’s progression in an organic way that suits the story, but rather engaging with the metagame of trying to break the system. CharOp still exists as a facet of Lancer, but they made it diegetic. Of course the pilot you play is going to make the meanest, deadliest schematic they can – they wouldn’t be Lancers if they didn’t!

I’m not sure how applicable this would be for the designs of other games. This sense of in-game, modular optimization seems to only make sense to me if the thing your character is optimizing is a weapon or tool outside of themselves, but I’d love to see this idea flourish to games that I can’t even begin to think of now.

Recently, there’s been a big shakeup within the D&D community about handling of topics like race, to which WotC has mentioned steps to address the concerns presented. One of the things they mentioned was the announcement of a supplement that provides new, optional rules on how to handle starting bonuses, decoupled from race selection. While, on its face, that’s laudable, it does present a couple issues. First, it’s a separate, premium-priced supplement, which means there’s an element of economic gatekeeping – if you want to make use of these rules, you’re going to have to pay for a whole book (assuming they don’t publish this chapter for free online – but then, why include it in a for-sale book?). Second, given the core-plus-one rule in organized play, using this book means players will have to give up options from other books like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, which is a bit of a hard sell.

Personally, I think that this is a drastic patch to core rules, and combined with discourse around problematic depictions of monstrous races like orcs and gnolls, I’m wondering: is it time to think about 6E?

Sure, why not? So, let’s think about it.

Disclosing Biases

First, let me talk about where I’m coming from. While there’s a lot I’ve grown to like about 5E, especially post-Xanthar’s, it’s not my favorite edition. I feel like a lot of the early 5E design was largely a reaction to hostility to 4E (which, while far from perfect, is my favorite edition). It’s understandable, to a point – 4E was a victim of relentless edition warring, a fierce and traditionalist competitor in Pathfinder, and a myriad of unforced errors, so there was incentive to push away from that. I feel, however, that a lot of hostility against that edition has died down, and it’s a good time to reassess what 4E’s strengths can bring to the table with clear eyes, all the while building off of the high points of 5E.

A lot has changed since 5E launched, too. Distant are the days where the goal was to bring back people who hadn’t played in a while, or had drifted to Pathfinder. There’s a ton of growth in the line, brought about by shows like Critical Role. Pathfinder itself has moved on, now in a Second Edition that (irony of all ironies) takes a lot of design language from 4E. I think it’s important to approach this from where we are now, in 2020, with mid-decade reaction in the rearview, and a new audience growing by the day.

So, with all of these viewpoints disclosed, let’s (finally) jump in.

A Solid Foundation

Honestly, the foundation of 5E is pretty solid, and I wouldn’t change much there. The relatively gradual power curve and simpler math is really approachable. Advantage and Disadvantage are really elegant ways to handle a lot of status effects. I generally like how monsters can maintain a degree of challenge, because it feels pretty good to start off hopelessly outmatched by a single creature, only to eventually be able to take multiples on, all the while I as a player know I’m squaring my bundle of stats and mechanics against the same bundle of stats and mechanics but now I’m winning!

I also like Backgrounds a whole lot (as I’ve mentioned before on this very blog!). They make it easy to flesh out a character, even (especially!) if the Background is orthogonal to convention.

So, for the most part, I think it’s a solid foundation, and I think it would be good to keep it easy to convert adventures to a new edition.

But What To Change?

Well... a lot.

Race and ASIs

I’m definitely sympathetic to the idea of a given race as being inherently smarter/stronger/more charismatic than another has a whiff of eugenics to it, and should be reconsidered. The term itself is a little iffy, and I’m fine with following Pathfinder 2E’s approach and using the term “ancestry” instead.

But what to do about Ability Score Increases, then?

I think that at least some of the work should be handled by Class. I like the work Freyja Erlingsdottir is doing on this, making ASIs solely a function of your character’s training to take on the Class they belong to. I also like 13th Age’s (and, if I’m reading the SRD correctly, Pathfinder 2E’s) approach, where you get one increase from who you are, and the other from what profession you chose (but you can’t stack them). If 6E were to use Freyja’s approach, I would also add freeform tags to describe that, yes, a hulking Goliath would probably be better at using their intimidating largeness than, say, a Halfling, but the Halfling would be better at hiding in a crowd. Just give a couple of tags per ancestry, apply Advantage when they apply to an attribute check.

Classes, Subclasses and Multiclassing

I generally like the Class/Subclass division. It’s cool to have a set of broad, signature traits alongside niche refinements that reflect playstyle and presentation within the fiction. I think, however, that the presence of Multiclassing, however optional, makes their setup more problematic than it should be. It’s nigh-impossible to balance every level of every class against every other level of every Class, and Multiclassing makes Class design unwieldy. I understand why, for example, Bards don’t get Bardic Inspiration recharge on a Short Rest until a few levels in, because if it were easy to get, everyone would dip into Bard. Even if my table doesn’t use Multiclass rules (and they haven’t), we still have to use classes built with the assumptions it brings.

I’d be fine with doing away with this 3E-style system. I’ve seen someone suggest that Subclasses only be given to single-Classed characters (in other words, choose a Class and either a Subclass or a second base Class, but you can’t have both). The approach I favor, for balance’s sake, is to have two ways to blend concepts – hybridized Subclasses (like Arcane Trickster, blending Rogue with a little bit of Wizard) and 4E-style Multiclass Feats (as we’re seeing in a recent Unearthed Arcana). My proposed Feat system would be virtually identical to 5E’s – optional and balanced against and substituting for level-up ASIs. If your table doesn’t want to use them, or if you don’t want to use them, they’re not extremely obtrusive. You still get a stat boost that is equivalent in power to one.

Complexity and the Magic System

One of the things that bothers me about 5E is that it leans heavily on its magic system. There are plenty of character concepts for which learning about spell slots is an unavoidable prerequisite. While 5E does improve on Vancian casting considerably, it’s still not a system I like to engage with. But, if the character I have in mind is a floppy-hatted spell-slinger, I don’t have a choice.

Conversely, if I want to be a martial badass, my options are a little too simple. The Fighter and Rogue have some absolutely dull options, and even more engaging Subclasses like the Battlemaster pale in comparison to the complexity of one of their spell-hurling compatriots.

I’d like to see a higher complexity ceiling for martial characters, and a lower floor for spellcasters. While a unified power system a la 4E is probably not going to fly, having more complex subsystems for non-casters would be awesome. And, for simple casters, maybe repurpose the Battlemaster concept for empowered riders of basic spells that recharge per rest.

Splitting out Rituals into their own thing, and having them be something that any character can pick up in theory, is another concept. IMHO it worked really well in 4E. Why not have your Fighter know a dread rite or two?

Monsters and Encounter Design

While the general chassis of monster design is alright, it needs improvement. CR is a trash fire, for starters. While Xanathar’s provided a system to use the values, it’s kind of ridiculous that there’s no meaningful way of using them to balance an encounter without plunking down for a supplement. I can’t help but see it as a clumsy patch job, and other systems (like 13th Age) have done a great job of making encounters easy to build and balance. (Of course, the OSR-heads will say, “you don’t need to balance all encounters!” and I’ll say, “then, you don’t need to follow these rules, eh?”.)

Having creatures use spells seems like another design choice where traditionalism trumped usability. I’m of the mind that creatures don’t need to follow the rules that PCs do, and that having them cast from a shared list that DMs have to look up in another book is needlessly cludgy. Just have a simple ability or two in-line alongside the other abilities, maybe slap a recharge mechanic on them, and you’re done.

(Legendary and Lair Actions can stay though. Those rule.)

Odds and Ends

I’d like to close with a handful of odds and ends that don’t warrant the same in-depth discussion, but I’d like to have from Day One. whenever 6E drops (assuming it does).

  • Alignment is a core part of the D&D Brand, but it’s also a bit problematic. I’d like it relegated to an optional sidebar and just lean on the Traits/Ideals/Bonds/Flaws system as the default.
  • I’d like more solid rules for how to reward and use Inspiration. Right now, it feels vestigial.
  • It would be extremely cool to have tables for random minor effects that plain old +X magic items can have. Who cares if the only thing special about this piece of armor is its +2 AC bonus? It never gets dirty!
  • I’d like to have the game’s default tone clearly defined. This far into 5E’s lifecycle, it’s generally played as something unabashedly heroic (from what I’ve seen, read, and played), so why not design clearly towards that style? Then throw in optional rules for nudging the game in other directions.
  • It would be cool to have Party Backgrounds. We’ve seen this already in the Eberron book, but it would be cool to have stuff that the party can leverage just by dint of them being Adventurers, or Divine Crusaders, or Assassins.
  • Bring back the Warlord. Pretty please. I’m begging you, WotC!