Sometimes you plan to come back to something right away, only for life to decide, “Haha! Nope!” Sorry to be away so long folks, but I am back! If you are just joining us (welcome!) I am posting some ideas around a developmental edit of D&D 5e, as if I had been engaged to give feedback to a client. Last time I posted we talked about the six stats, a bit about why they exist and how they are used, and discussed whether they were truly useful as is. Today in Part 2 we’re going to look at some alternatives to the stats as they currently exist. I’m pushing ahead without a recap so please read Part 1 before proceeding.
As this is also meant to model how I would work with a client in search of developmental editing for their game, let me talk about two important things from the start: talking with my client and ensuring I give my client options. Talking with my client ahead of doing any work will help me understand what they want for their game and identify anything which might prove to be a “pain point”, something they really want left intact or are unsure of changing. Since WotC has made some changes in the past but has also tried to maintain a legacy feel to their game for older players, I’m going to pretend my imaginary client has the same concerns. Since the ability scores have remained in place through all editions of D&D including the three-ish editions WotC published, I’m guessing any major changes to these might prove to be a pain point.
Which brings me to options. It is easy to decide on a single idea and bank on convincing the client of how cool it is. And you should always put forward the cool idea, no question. But I think it’s important to suggest options for my client. I never want them to feel like I’m trying to write their game for them, and going hard on one idea can come across that way. I would rather give them 2-3 options on any major change I suggest, and then discuss those to get a more specific sense of what they want.
In this case, I’m giving three options, what I would consider a mild, moderate, and extreme change to how stats work. Having defined boundaries, my hope is the client and I can find a place within those bounds which works for them. Let’s start with:
Mild – As I mentioned back in Part 1, I had previously written articles discussing changes to D&D’s stats (here’s the link relevant to this idea). So my mild suggestion is, keep stat generation as it currently stands, but lose the bonus mechanic and use a simple “roll under” mechanic. This will make the stats relevant again as they actually get used during gameplay, as well as eliminating a great deal of math for both players and DMs. In the linked article I mention eliminating skills and saving throws as well, and while I still think that’s the way to go with this option, we’ll discuss those details further in future posts.
While I consider this the mildest change I’m suggesting, it will still have an effect on overall gameplay. The character with an 18 ability score is going to succeed on anything related to it more often than not. Which isn’t an issue, really, characters should succeed at what they are good at. Conversely, any “dump stats” are going bite that character a bit harder, but the successes are going to feel amazing when they happen. I consider this an overall pro, along with eliminating some math from gameplay. For me, one of the cons of this change is that it keeps the bioessentialist ability score names in place, but if it’s adopted that’s a discussion I can have with the client then.
Moderate – This suggestion is related to another idea I wrote about previously, and while it isn’t a larger change mechanically, it does stray into “this doesn’t look like D&D anymore!” territory. Basically, since the stats as rolled don’t ever get used again, ditch the stats and just record the modifiers. Generating those modifiers can be done using random generation or point buy, much as the ability scores are generated now. Going forward, anytime something gives you a positive or negative modifier to a stat, you increase the modifier instead. So instead of having an 18 Strength, you have a +4 Strength; instead of an 8 Charisma, you have a -1 Charisma, and so on. When you level, instead of increasing the nonexistent ability score, you increase the stat. Same for any other modifier which would normally hit the ability.
Over time your character gets incrementally stronger, more so than a character under current rules. Previously it required a 2-point bump to an ability to equal a +1 bonus from that ability, now it’s one for one. However, unlike the Mild suggestion this effect comes in over time, as opposed to characters starting more powerful off the jump. A potential pro is that this represents the least change to actual gameplay, as rolling your d20 and adding modifiers is still the basis. And there is still some simplification for the player, as you are removing a potentially distracting set of numbers from the character sheet. This may be seen as a con, though, if the client is determined to hold on to ability scores as a way to keep older players. This also shares the same bioessentialist con as the Mild suggestion, and will require a similar discussion.
Extreme – The Three Pillars of the D&D game are Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat. In Part 1 we discussed how the existing ability scores slant heavily to support Combat, while only supporting the other two Pillars situationally or not at all. If these three aspects are integral to the core of D&D, why not make them the ability scores? This suggestion is going to have the biggest ripple effect on the rest of the game from a legacy design standpoint. With this “simple” change, things like Classes, Skills, Feats, and so on will have to change or be replaced. But I think it solves a number of issues already pointed out, and allows the client to incorporate some aspects of the previous suggestions.
Things I see as positives:
- It offers the chance to play a broader range of character concepts from the start, as abilities are no longer tied to reductive physical characteristics
- This eliminates the bioessentialist ability scores, focusing instead on the core gameplay experience.
- Three ability scores are easier to track than six, regardless of what specific mechanics are put in place to use them.
- From character creation, the player has a better understanding of what the game is about and is able to choose their approach to it.
- As stated, this change is going to ripple through the rest of the game and require other equally big changes. The client may not have the time or resources to do this, though hopefully if they’ve engaged me for developmental editing this won’t be the case.
- This change and the other ones required will substantially alter how the game looks and plays, and this may not appeal to the large (but ever shrinking, let’s be brutally honest) number of legacy players. It’s possible the company might alienate a percentage of its existing market with sweeping changes like this. While it’s tempting to look at it strictly from the perspective of design and art, a game publisher is a business and you can’t ignore those considerations. If the client is definitely interested in a change, however, they might decide the risk is worth it.
There you have it, three suggestions on how to move forward with changes to D&D’s ability scores. These are obviously just the bare bones and this all would require further discussions with the client. But they give a framework for those discussions and the client reaction to them gives me an idea of where my client might be prepared to go with future changes. What if the client goes “nope” to all three? Then I ask if there are aspects of the suggestions they liked and absolutely hated and use that to calibrate my next series of suggestions, assuming they still want me working on things.
For the purposes of moving forward on future articles I need to have my imaginary client choose one of these. Since the client exists in my head and I think extremes are the most fun: my client has decided that, with a truly interesting game they will more than make up the loss of legacy players with new players, and they are willing to put their resources to a true overhaul. Extreme option it is!
With that direction from my client, we can explore how the mechanics of our three new ability scores might work, and how their changes will ripple through the rest of the game. Stay tuned next week for Part 3 of Let’s Stat at the Beginning. And if you have anything you want to ask or discuss, find me on Twitter or drop a comment below.