Friday, May 18, 2012

Paladin Design Goals

Paladins have a long history in D&D. For many, the image of the Paladin in Hell from the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook remains a favorite. Anyone can see immediately from the illustration that a paladin is a warrior at home in heavy armor, and capable of wielding a sword and shield. And by the nature of the hellish foes the paladin faces, it’s clear that not only does the paladin oppose evil, but in pursuit of that calling, the paladin is apparently fearless.
        The design team has iterated a few times on the paladin class, but we wanted to step back and present to you our broader design goals that meet the class criteria of being recognizable to D&D players, unique from other classes, and resonate in some fashion with an archetypical story.
        The following design goals are generally listed in importance to the character, though we feel they’re all important for shaping a paladin. As you’ll notice, I’ve actually slipped a few hints of mechanical design in with the broader design goal, which serve more as examples than as anything we’ve definitely fixed on.
1. The Paladin is a Champion of a Divine Calling
A paladin follows a personal code that is a reflection of the deity, and often even more significantly, a moral alignment. Though many paladins are lawful good, the particular virtues a paladin reveres can reflect nearly any moral attitude or divine calling (though such adherence means that a paladin is at least lawful). A paladin’s codes also usually point her toward an ascetic lifestyle, which speaks to a paladin’s selfless nature in pursuit of her calling.
2. A Paladin Can See and Smite Evil
A paladin knows when something twisted and unholy is near. While unable to unerringly zero in on a specific threat merely by walking past a structure infested with evil, a paladin knows something is wrong. Regardless of a given creature’s actual nature, a paladin can judge it unworthy, and smite it with divine power energizing her sword blow.
3. A Paladin is a Fearless and Selfless Warrior
The paladin is a warrior, nearly as skilled as a fighter and typically armed with heavy armor and a sword, and utterly without fear. When a paladin fights, it is not only to impose her code on the unworthy and slay threats to her divine calling, but also to protect her allies. More so than the fighter, the paladin is willing (and able) to sacrifice her own safety to ensure the safety of her companions. To this end, a paladin aspires to find a blessed sword of unequaled power: a holy avenger.
4. A Paladin Has Divine Abilities and Spells

As a servant of a higher calling and deity, a paladin can call on a variety of divine abilities, including the ability to heal allies with a touch (“lay on hands”), turn undead, cast a limited number of divine spells, and call a mount. In each case, the paladin’s divine ability diverges from similar abilities a cleric might have, speaking to the paladin’s strengths. For example, when a paladin calls a mount, that mount might inspire the normal mounts of the paladin’s allies, granting them speed and endurance while they travel together. When a paladin turns undead, she can also turn demons, devils, and other unholy creatures. And when a paladin lays on hands, the healing may also relieve malign conditions and spent stamina.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Goblins Care Only About Your Axe

(It took a bit of digging to find this--I pulled it up from the Wayback Machine!)

I’ve played a lot of D&D lately. But even when using rules prone to design iteration, one thing has remained constant throughout: When I swing my axe at a goblin neck, the goblin’s going down if I hit.

That’s true whether the fight occurs in the theater of the mind (TotM), in TotM with the aid of scratch paper to show general position, in a hybrid TotM-minis system, or with minis on a grid.

As was pointed out by my previous blog about the grid vs. imagination and the discussions it engendered, the system surrounding my goblin combat can dramatically change many other elements of the fight. The foremost difference is the amount of table time the fight takes to resolve overall, and the amount of tactical decision-making the environment provides my axe-wielding goblin killer.

The tension between these two elements is real, and it can’t be swept under the rug. Narratively speaking, sometimes it’s simply too much effort to break out the minis and gridded terrain map to deal with two goblin guards at a cave mouth. The “story” of the situation isn’t really about tactics, unless the DM specifically changes the encounter to make it so. Indeed, two guards at a doorway (and other “low power” encounters) are precisely the sort of encounters that grid-only combat tends to weed out of the game. Because the DM and adventure designer know it’s not worth the effort to break out minis for a simple interaction with two goblin guards (or even five goblin guards), the encounter either goes away entirely, or it faces pressure to become part of some other, larger encounter. This means that players, when they see minis on the table, always know it’s going to be some kind of fight, regardless of anything else.

Other times, the story is about tactics. I do want to exactly know where the vampire lord is in relation to the acid pit, the windows through which afternoon sunlight slashes, the vampire’s dominated spell-casting thralls, and her various spawn slinking through an advancing line of rolling mist. Pushing or being pushed 5 feet can make the difference between winning and losing this fight, depending on whether I’ve been pushed into the acid, or if I can push the vampire into the sunlight.

Based on the poll we conducted on my last grid-focused blog, a majority of you agrees that different encounters have different needs when it comes to encounter rules. That’s cool, because we feel the same way. Assuming we move forward with this line of thinking, we’ll end up with a core conflict resolution system that can encompass both TotM and the grid. Imagine a combat system not too different from previous editions that relied almost solely on the use of the grid, but tweaked so that it works seamlessly for those fights where minis are not used or expected.

This means, to answer one line of questions raised in the grid discussions, that switching between TotM and the grid must be easy and seamless, both for groups that prefer to switch between modes, and for groups who want to primarily stick to one or the other conflict resolution system. It’s not our job to pick a winner or loser in any sort of false “grid vs. TotM” contest, and thereby create a sub-group of D&D players who don’t have the rules support they deserve. Instead, it’s our job to create a straightforward environment where both styles of play prosper and can be used.

For instance, if a fighter uses an ability that seems to make sense on the grid, we should design that same ability to also be useful in the TotM. In a fight that takes place next to a curtain of green slime, even in TotM, it’s not as important how far I can push a foe with an ability as it is important that I can push a foe at all. If my “hack and shove maneuver” results in the goblin stumbling backward, then, regardless of distance in feet or whether this happens on the grid or in the players’ imaginations, the goblin has just discovered that green slime is not its friend.

Goblins Care Only About Your Axe

My axe kills goblins dead, regardless of the underlying game mechanics. 

"Goblins Care Only About Your Axe" is my latest D&D Next blog, where I touch on potential tension between describing fights wholly in the imagination for one combat, and using minis on a battle-grid in the next combat.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Variations on a Monstrous Theme

If you’re a publisher with a stable of game-designers on payroll, an easy way to create variation for a monster is to write up one or two alternate versions of that monster. For example, were I to write up a vampire monster manual entry, I’d start by creating the basic expression of the vampire. A vampire that fulfills the “vampire Platonic ideal” that most anyone might look at, and say, “Yup, that’s a vampire.”

However, thanks to decades of novels, television shows, anime, comics, and games that feature vampires, we know many variations are possible. So, in writing my hypothetical vampire Monster Manual entry, after I designed the vampire noted above, I’d also create a couple full-fledged vampire variations, with full stats. One would probably be the more “fragile” vampire spawn, who enjoys only a subset of the vampire’s strengths, and for whom a stake in the heart does more than render them dead, but might turn them instantly to ash. On the the other end of the scale, I’d write up the “vampire lord” that encompassed the idea of the far more powerful vampire elder who, thanks to a thousand (or several thousand) years of undeath, has achieved several orders more kick-ass-itude than the already powerful standard vampire.

The question is, how do I create such variations? One way is to apply a few levels of a player character class. This has the advantage of handing a very robust toolbox to DMs and game designers, a toolbox that leverages the strengths of a very detailed and multi-faceted system already used by players to create different characters.

This system also has its drawbacks. While using character creation rules for monsters provides a massive toolbox of options, it also invokes a time-intensive process for monster design where finished monsters can objectively be judged, thanks to the expectations created by our own rules, to be “right” or “wrong,” regardless of how fun and exciting that monster plays at the table. This precision for precision’s sake also creates a raft of anxiety on the part of conscientious Dungeon Masters and game designers who, of course, want to follow the rules of monster creation.
So what then?
Many things, actually. In fact, the more tools we throw into the mix, the better, as long as we dispense with the idea that monsters can “right” or “wrong.” Instead, judge monsters on how interesting, fun, and challenging they are to encounter in a game of D&D. Many monsters that are precisely “right” according to numerically absolute creation rules fail the ‘interesting, fun, and challenging” test.
Using the “is it fun and interesting?” criteria, we’ve got a ton of ways to alter monsters at our disposal. The first is writing hard-coded variations right into the Monster Manual entry. Another method we’re experimenting with is to include a mini-theme or two in some Monster Manual entries, where appropriate, that the DM could apply on the fly to a given monster. Such a theme wouldn’t be transformative enough for a monster to require a completely new statblock, but adding the indicated power to some subset of the monsters encountered would be enough to keep players on their toes. For instance, a mini-theme in the bugbear entry might be “bugbear strangler” which provides a method for DMs to give some subset of bugbears an ability to garrote a foe. The same mini-theme would indicate such a bugbear might be worth 25 XP more than a regular bugbear. A mini-theme for an orc might give it a ‘vicious finale’ attack that gives an orc a free last attack when it’s dropped. And so on.

Finally, I could imagine a section in the DMG, and related section in other more specific setting books, that would provide a whole slew of mini-themes, templates, and other methods to give Dungeon Masters robust and encompassing methods for varying any monster, or building new ones. Either way, hijacking some subset of character creation rules for monster inspiration (I’m looking at you themes and backgrounds[BRC2] ) remains a gold mine. For example, a vampire with the avenger theme.... wow. The story that sparks in my brain makes me want to start working on my campaign this very insta

Friday, May 4, 2012

Wizard with a License to Kill

Some of Rob’s latest blogs have described a possible approach to D&D character construction, using themes and backgrounds (Backgrounds and Themes, and A Closer Look [links]). As we continue to consider the benefits of such an approach, we must also consider the implications.
Of course, backgrounds and themes nicely serve players who want to follow an obvious “through line” of character creation. Someone who wants to play a fighter will discover all the puzzle pieces neatly fit together to create a dwarf fighter with a soldier background and the slayer theme, assuming all those components are in play at a particular DM’s table.
However, themes and backgrounds also give a character of one class access to “the feel” that’s traditionally been in the keeping of another class. For instance, if I wanted a spy character, in many editions I’d either play rogue/thief, or multiclass my non-rogue character into rogue/thief to gain access to those kinds of benefits.
As things stand in our current design iteration, I could create an elf wizard with the spy background without multiclassing, and play a secret an agent of Thay, on the road to learn what I can in a foreign land, and just perhaps, sow discord and unrest in my path. (And if I liked to wear red, I’d of course disguise it.)
Yes, I know a wizard of any edition could act like a spy, to great and wonderful effect. But if I want mechanics that help me stay disguised or deceive others, then the spy background provides those benefits.
One question that this design question creates that we’ve noticed gain a lot of traction in the forums is this: What separates theme and background options from full blown multiclassing?
The answer is actually simple--every class we design must have a core identity and handful of related mechanics so fundamental to that class that only the class itself and the features it offers can reasonably grant it. So, sure I could play a wizard with a spy background. But if I want a spy who’s also handy with a knife in the back and also incredibly stealthy, I’ll multiclass into rogue as well.

Themes and backgrounds can provide great through lines, and at the same time allow wonderful ways to modify the feel and play of your character. However, multiclassing will remain as the method for changing the way your character plays at an even more fundamental level. It’s one thing to be a wizard spy. It’s another thing to be a wizard/fighter spy, or more devious yet, a wizard/assassin spy...

Wizard with a License to Kill

My wizard has a license to kill! (But no one knows it, of course, because that'd blow his cover.)

Check out my latest D&D Next blog that treats the the role of multiclassing in a game with such robust backgrounds and themes.