Another Fantasy Heartbreaker?

I know, I know. Another tabletop gamer starts a blog and says “D&D is good but I can do better even though I have no experience actually making a game!” I’m very aware of the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing. That’s partly why I started this blog – so that I could share the things I’m thinking about and building and get feedback (and hopefully fix them or nix them entirely).

So why isn’t Dungeons & Dragons good enough?

Well.. it is good enough. I love D&D and I currently DM one game and play in another (both currently on hiatus thanks to COVID-19). But just because I love something and enjoy playing it doesn’t mean that I can want something else. D&D does some things really well (mostly related to combat, which is D&D’s primary pillar no matter what their books will tell you) but other things… either poorly or not at all. What are those things? Err…

Things About D&D That Irk Me!

First, there’s low-level D&D play. From levels 1 until 5, combat lends itself to being formulaic because options are limited and low-level characters tend to be pretty squishy (especially compared to low-level monsters). In all honesty, most of the 5E campaigns that I’ve played have started at levels 3 to 5, simply because nobody really enjoys playing a very low-level character. There’s just nothing interesting going on until classes pick up their specialization at level 2 or 3 (except the cleric, who picks it up at level 1). And there are some things that could be done at low-levels, but to do that you’d have to adjust the overall scale of power within D&D.

Currently the power scale is something along the lines of “starting adventurer” at level 1 to “world-spanning conqueror/savior” at level 20. And… that’s a BIG gulf to fit into 20 levels. If you ask me, that’s a big gulf to fit into 30 or maybe even 40 levels. Personally, I would slide the power scale back some, especially at the start (that’s something I’m planning for this Unnamed Fantasy Heartbreaker That Shall Break No Hearts). Make low-level characters fragile but in different and more interesting ways. Make combat with monsters way more of a threat, and give them a REASON to prepare for combat before-hand and not just rush into it knowing they can short rest their way back to full health after.

Why not add in some equipment damage systems, so that finding and maintaining a few weapons is worthwhile? Why not change up the “attacker always rolls against a passive number” mechanic and make both sides roll, so players can’t as easily game the probabilities and combat is less certain?

Second, the magic system. I’ve never cared for D&D’s magic systems (in any of the editions I’ve played, from AD&D2E to 3E to my brief stint with 4E and into 5E). The “fire-and-forget” magic just doesn’t appeal to me, and 5E seemed to make it worse by changing how prepared spells and spell slots interacted. Gone were the days of having to decide if memorizing one Identify spell was worth it, or if you should load up on Magic Missile and Shield. Now you can prepare all 3 and decide how to expend them on the fly!

I know, it’s an ease-of-use change. It helps player’s who are new to the game to learn by not forcing hard choices. But… hard choices can be both fun and interesting. But I also feel like there’s gotta be a system that allows flexibility while also requiring some careful consideration of how and when to use magic. But I’ll come back to that in a later post.

The other problem with magic is that Arcane and Divine magic have no differentiation – they both use the same mechanics of preparation and casting. And in my mind, they should work differently if they are different sources or usages of magic. I’ll also come back to this later on, because I have some ideas in this area.

Third, monster design! Having made homebrew monsters for 5th Edition for years now, I can definitively say that the system for building monsters as it is laid out in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is very poorly designed. There are some great people out there who have laid out better guidelines for building homebrew monsters while staying inside the guidelines laid out in the DMG – but they shouldn’t have had to do that!

The other problem is that a lot of monsters are just… uninspired. They’re a bag of hitpoints with basic mechanics and no flavor or nothing that really differentiates them. There is usually some small thing that differentiates them – usually a special Trait or Action that one type of monster will have over another. But at the end of the day, most of them just hit over and over again until they die or the players do. And yes, some of this comes down to the DM – they could work to differentiate them in the monster’s actions and how they respond. But some of that work should be on the person who designed them! This is another space where I plan on having some more posts about in the future. I have some ideas (probably bad ones, but I’ve got them), and I want to throw them out there to see if they stick.

Fourth, everything but combat! D&D puts it’s combat foot forward, since it’s the most well-designed system in the game. And combat in 5th Edition is FUN (past like level 5) and frantic and full of choices (again, after level 5). But the other “pillars” of gameplay (exploration and social encounters) are… underwhelming. There are very brief chapters with very brief mechanics for both and this feels like a HUGE oversight. And it’s something I plan on addressing in whatever system I end up slapping together. Exploration is inherently really interesting – why is it so glossed over in D&D?

So What Are You Saying?

Well, I’m definitely NOT saying that I’m going to make a better game than D&D. That’s a laughable assumption from someone who has no real-world game design experience, and only knows what he’s doing (if I do at all) from building homebrew systems and mechanics and having players test them out.

I guess I’m saying that I have a lot of ideas that I think could work together, and I wanted to put them out there to see if anyone else was interested or had ideas. I’m all ears!

2 thoughts on “Another Fantasy Heartbreaker?

  1. Pingback: On Low-Level Play – Damnit Dave

  2. Pingback: On A Core Resolution Mechanic – Damnit Dave

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