6E: A Wishlist
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.
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!