Accountants and Actuaries

So, there’s a new “Legends and Lore” today at Wizards (, in which they detail why they are going to a “powers only” advancement system. Here was my response, kept under their 2000 character limit:

Outside of the idea that this flies in the face of pretty much all game design for long-term campaigning, I see hordes of campaign-oriented problems with this. Yeah, a lot of indie games built for one-off plotlines do this “Character growth is unnecessary” sort of thing, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a game for long term campaigns work like this.

First problem I see is the planned obsolescence of the game. Once you’ve played through a couple of times with different classes, you’ll probably play every possible damaging combo (especially with the “simple play” fighters). I see this becoming incredibly boring for players really quickly. D&D is built on the idea that you slowly move away from hordes of orcs and start fighting their bosses, and then their bosses’ bosses, etc. If I’m fighting common orcs forever, how do I become a truly heroic character? Sure, your character starts out a nice guy, and by continuing to be a nice guy, he gets some notability in game, but how does the legendary character ever come to be in such a stagnant system?

As a DM, if my players can just rally the troops, as described above, and a group of average footmen can be gathered to shoot a giant to death with arrows, how does a DM create a threat to a town or village that actually require the PC to be heroes? Are they heroic for getting the townspeople to defend themselves? Somehow, I don’t think we’d be remembering Gilgamesh or Beowolf or Roland if all that made a hero is that he could get the towns people to kill the Dragon for him.

So, it comes do to this, in my mind: You say this game will be “good for verisimilitude” but how will it be good for heroics and fantastic events? Sorry, this game is looking more and more like “accountants and actuaries” than Dungeons and Dragons.

To kind of expound on a couple of things I couldn’t in 2000 characters (That response was about 1500).

I look at this, and to me, this is a boring game. It sounds like what they want to do would be like taking Champions and saying “No spending on Attributes or Skill Levels once you’ve built your character. You can only spend on Powers, and we’re only giving you 1 XP every 2 sessions.” Imagine how boring that would be. As I said above, there are a lot of indie games out there without any advancement system, but that’s mainly because those games are intended to be run as one-offs. In Grey Ranks, your character isn’t meant to survive the brief run of the game (go look here to understand that game), so an advancement system isn’t important. I don’t believe there is one for Fiasco either, as I understand the playsets are intended for short run games. For a campaign-based game (which D&D is, I think this would be a game killer.

I also think it will lead to a lot of character death, if the monsters and powers so far presented are any indication of how the system will shape up. For example, the Medusa presented will likely kill the five characters at third level. It’s 66 hit points will keep it going for a long time, as the only character that can produce a significant amount of damage is the rogue, and the melee characters will be taking 1d10+1d4 (8 average damage) on 50-70% of their turns from “snaky hair,” as well as striking with disadvantage, which means less chance to hit. The best “to-hit” rolls the characters have is a 50%, which drops with disadvantage. On the other hand, since most of the characters have Con Bonuses of at least +1, they might almost be better off attacking regularly, as they have, in general, only a 50-55% chance of being killed outright by the medusa’s petrifying gaze, and those percentages apply at first level as well as 20th. Yeah, the math supports a killer campaign, with little advancement and a lot of dead characters.

As well, if hit points and powers are all you get from increasing a level, a lot is going to ride on those powers. Again, what we’ve seen is less than inspiring. The fighter is supposed to be the standard of damage, but who has the most damaging ability? The wizard’s “arc lightning” is 4d6 plus a bonus, half on a miss, while the best the fighter gets is two chances twice a day to do a single d12. As well, the wizard gets to attack a second target for 2d6 plus a bonus, half on a miss. Against a horde of orcs, this is not a good combo.

Of course, in 1st Ed/AD&D, fighters got to balance things with extra attacks, but it worked strange. Against creatures with a full hit dice, the fighter got one attack per round at 1st to 6th, 3 attacks every two rounds for levels 7 to 12, and 2 attacks per round thereafter, unless the monsters were under 1 hit die (kobolds, goblins, and normal humans without levels) in which case the fighter got an attack per level against those creatures. The original minion rule. Unless fighters get some sort of “kill lesser foes” powers, extra actions might well amount to nothing. That horde of orcs, who are still likely hit the fighter 40% of the time, will charge him for 1d8+1+1d6 (averaging 9 hit points each, 15 on a critical hit, since bonus die are now maximized on a crit), then peel off to let the next wave in, will beat down the fighter in a couple of rounds (as he gets about 6 hit points per level). You’ll need to play the game like we did in high school, constantly hiring men-at-arms to bolster your numbers, and die anyway, rather than have a heroic display or your character’s competence.

And this seems to be something the designers are missing: the vicarious pleasure players get from their character’s competence. That’s been part of the game from Day One. As high schoolers, we played in part to feel we have some power over our lives, something notoriously missing from the average teenager’s life. While I don’t need that high school level of power games, I like having a character that has some real agency, which seems to be lacking from all the developments in 5e so far.

This is something I’ve been meaning to discuss further in another post, and I’ll finally do that here. Many modern games assume all characters have either a similar power source or simply similar powers, etc. For example, in the World of Darkness, each game assumes the characters have access to the same powers, and doesn’t try to balance the power source of that game with any other. For example, mages in Vampire the Masquerade are built as NPCs with Thaumaturgy (a sort of vampiric magic), while vampires are built with rotes in Mage the Ascension. They discourage beings from different power sources from operating in the same game because of this. Each mage in MtA has access to all of the powers every other mage has. As well, guns and common weapons aren’t balanced against the powers. A gun is simply not as powerful as vampiric disciplines, wizard spells, or whatever you’re playing. I’m of the opinion at this point in my life as a gamer that trying to balance weapons and superpowers is typically foolish. 4e actually manages to pull it off, but it does so by treating the weapon as simply a die to apply to a power, as opposed to trying to nerf the other powers, or doing what D&D has traditionally done, trying to make fighters somehow equal to wizards.

Again, I find myself wondering what the designers of 5e are thinking. Their decisions seem backwards, and in fact they seem to home in on problems with older editions and find them to be “features rather than bugs.” Part of me applauds their attempt to stretch the boundries of game design, but I’m of the opinion that looking backwards and choosing the worst ideas as a sound direction is not the way to make a game for the future.


About docryder

I'm an experienced table top gamer with an open mind to new game systems. I'm looking to explore ideas I've got. Some are pretty meta, some are pretty mundane. Welcome to my world.

Posted on June 5, 2012, in Metagaming. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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