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Why I Don’t Believe in Wizards Anymore

I’ll admit that I didn’t really care all that much when Wizards of the Coast announced  the 5th edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game back in January of this year. I’d already fallen in love with other systems (especially the new World of Darkness), and D&D just didn’t really do it for me anymore. I don’t dislike the game (except for 4th edition which felt like a glorified tabletop miniatures wargame to me) and I understand that Dungeons & Dragons is the “face” of role playing, both for the business side of things as well as those outside the hobby. Dungeons & Dragons is also considered by many, including myself, to be the “gateway” to role playing games, thanks to the organized play programs Wizards runs. However, if D&D Next turns out to be a miss for Hasbro there’s a big fear that the game will disappear, taking away the best known (possibly only known) face of role playing games to those outside the hobby. For that reason alone I really want the next edition of D&D to be a resounding success. But I almost certainly won’t be buying any of the new books when they come out some time in 2014.

Narrative nonsense

I’ve been following the development of D&D Next, both by reading the designers’ blogs and articles on the Wizards site and by downloading the playtest packets as they come out. As someone who (like every other gamer) has dreams of one day working in the gaming industry, I’m curious to see the mechanics of the new edition and the thought process that went into creating them. From the beginning, Mike Mearls, Rodney Thompson, and the other people in charge of D&D Next have stated repeatedly that they wanted the “story” and “narrative” elements of the game to be just as important as the mechanical ones. This is, after all, a role playing game. Story should be an important, if not the most important thing, otherwise you’re just playing a miniatures game (and I already play Warmachine and Hordes). I believed them at first, but as time went on and they used the phrases more and more frequently (and in contexts that didn’t seem to make much sense) I started to get the impression that they didn’t really know what those words meant. As of last week however, I fully believe that “story” and “narration” are simply buzz words with little meaning to the designers at Wizards, thrown around willy-nilly so that players like myself (who enjoy the narrative aspect of roleplaying games more than the other elements) will feel like we have a reason to stay interested in the D&D Next playtest process.

So what exactly lead me to this harsh conclusion? It was the new magic item document in the latest playtest packet released earlier this month pushed me over the edge. There were three points where the Wizards guys could’ve put their money where their mouth was and backed up that statement of wanting story to be just as important as mechanics. But they didn’t. Allow me to elaborate.

“Loot Drop” Tables

In his October 10th Legends & Lore article, Mike Mearls states that the goal for magic items in D&D Next is to make their discovery interesting.

“Our overall goal for magic items is to make finding them interesting and exciting. Magic items—aside from simple items like potions—should make everyone at the table sit up and take notice. We do not want magic items to feel mundane or dull.”

This goal is stated again in the second paragraph of the first page of the magic item document.

“Every adventure holds the promise—but not a guarantee—of finding one or more magic items, and part of the fun of exploring a dungeon is the thrill of unearthing a unique item found nowhere else.”

Yet on the very next page we’re given three d100 random item tables detailing what rarity and how many magic items (if any) should be found after encounters of various difficulties. Yes, the document states that these tables are meant to be guidelines and that the DM can add or withhold items as they see fit. Yes, there is a chance the die roll will result in no magic items being awarded after an encounter. Yes, we’re told that we can use these tables after every encounter or pre-roll before a session and lump the results of several encounters together into one “mega-hoard” guarded by a dragon or other fearsome beastie. Oh the flexibility!

Com on guys. The fact that these “loot drop” tables exist at all runs counter to the stated idea of magic items being special and unique. The game, and the designers, assume that for any given encounter there is a set chance of finding a set number of magic items after an encounter of a set difficulty. How is that not the very definition of mundane and routine? You’ve reduced the discovery of magic items down to a set percentage. If I’d studied more math in university I could break down those percentages for you, but I’m an art guy. Anyway, I get it. You wanted to give DMs some sense of what kind and how many magic items to hand out as an encounter reward. I’m not totally adverse to using random tables to spark ideas – sometimes the best ideas come from chucking a bunch of elements at the wall and then playing connect the dots between the ones that stick. But there isn’t any mention of how to craft a story around the discovery of magic items in the magic item document. A small section on that would have been nice. A paragraph at least, or even just a sentence. But no. It’s purely mechanics.

Meaningless Quirks

The document also provides several tables to randomly generate “flavorful details” about otherwise mundane magic items. The idea is to give players and DMs a quick way to create “a sense of each item’s history and purpose.” The four tables provide lists of possible creators (Draconic, Dwarven, Gnomish, etc.), the item’s nature (arcane, ornement, sinister, etc.), minor magical properties (beacon, gleaming, unbreakable, etc.), and minor quirks (hungry, painful, slippery, etc.) along with descriptions, usually mechanical, of what effect this has in the game. I think these tables are great for sparking ideas or to turn otherwise “mundane” non-specific magical items into something a bit more interesting. It’s no longer just a +1 longsword, it’s now a longsword created by an arcane magic user of draconic origin (that happens to also grant a +1 bonus). That’s much more interesting, and can (if you have proactive players and a good DM) lead to a whole new story arc of discovering who made the sword and why.

Where Wizards went wrong is with the minor quirks or flaws. They nerfed the negative attributes by making them so minor that they might as well be non-existent. This allows players to either ignore the negative effects of the item all together, or put forward the minimum possible role playing effort towards dealing with these effects. Several of the biggest offenders are:

  • “Coveted”, which states that although desired by every intelligent creature who see it, few will take action to claim the item from it’s current bearer;
  • “Hungry”, which requires the application of fresh humanoid blood for the item’s magic abilities to function, but no more than a single drop once per day;
  • “Painful”, which give the bearer a lingering ache when holding the item but otherwise has no other adverse effects.

Now I realize that these quirks are not meant to create cursed items, but just little negative qualities that make the item different and unique. But in my opinion, most of those negatives are so small that they don’t really mean anything. Pricking your finger once a day to satisfy that “hungry” magical sword is pretty boring and doesn’t create any interesting story decisions. Why even require it at all? It’s so minor that satisfying the requirement will take all of two seconds and never be a difficult choice for the player owning it. Lame. Owning an “coveted” item that everyone wants but no one ever attempts to claim from you is down right stupid. Why indicate that everyone wants the item if the text then expressly states no one will ever act on that impulse? Isn’t the whole point of the item being coveted the idea that people will attempt to take it from the current owner, thereby creating an interesting story? Bah. These quirks sound like they were designed by a munchkin who was told to create a disadvantage for an item and so tried to come up with ones that would have the least impact possible. Wizards seems to be hardcoding the “disadvantages are bad” mentality into D&D Next. Disadvantages aren’t bad; they are interesting. Make them matter.

Attunement Boredom

Lastly, the magic item document also introduced the idea of “attunement”. Flavor-wise, this represents the owner investing some part of themselves (a bit of their spirit, soul, magical energy, force of will, etc.) into their item to unlock new powers and abilities. It sounds pretty cool, in theory. In practice though it’s the most boring, flavorless, mechanically-driven element in the whole magic item document.

To attune an item to yourself, you have to…

… grasp or wear the item and spend 10 minutes concentrating on it. Depending on the nature of the item this can take the form of prayers, weapon practice, or meditation.

You also occasionally have to meet a mechanical requirement for certain items, such as “be a dwarf”, “have a Strength of 18″, or “be a Paladin”. That’s it. My god but that is boring. Who is going to do any of that “in character” or even in game? It’s the same as requiring Wizards to “study” their books for X hours per spell level to regain their spells, or requiring Clerics to “pray” to their deity every morning to recover their divine abilities. Who actually role plays that out? Why even bother to do so when the mechanic seems intentionally designed to be glossed over or hand waved away so that you can “get on with the good stuff”? What story hooks or “narrative elements” do those requirements create? Absolutely none.

The descriptions of specific magic items in the document are full of potentially awesome “narrative” requirements, yet instead of incorporating them into the attunement requirements, the Wizards team went with purely mechanical ones. For example, there’s a dwarven hammer with flavor text that explains these particular items were forged by an ancient dwarven kingdom beset by giants and given out to the greatest warriors of each clan. Most are buried in the tombs of their wielder or lost in ancient ruins. If attuned, the wielder of this item gets a hefty attack bonus, can throw the hammer like Thor, and does extra damage against giants. Pretty cool, and ripe with possibilities for interesting quests and story arcs. Yet the only requirement a character needs to meet in order to attune this weapon is “be a dwarf”. That’s it. If you’re a dwarf, all you need to do is engage in some Winnie the Pooh-style “thinking” for 10 minutes and suddenly you can swing that hammer as effectively as one of great dwarven warriors of old. I call bullshit.

Would it have been so hard for Wizards to include suggestions for quests or “attunement challenges” as part of the requirement? I can think of a bunch off the top of my head right now – defeat a giant in single combat, win an arm-wrestling contest against a giant, protect someone or something from a giant attack, rescue prisoners from a giant’s lair, return a valuable lost item to a dwarven king, or make peace between two feuding dwarven clans. That’s six I came up with in less than a minute. Why is something like that not in there? What story hooks does the purely mechanical requirement of “be a dwarf” create? None.

In addition to a lack of narrative requirements, there is a maximum number of items that a character can have attuned at one time; three. This is a purely mechanical constraint so that munchkin players don’t try to have all their attunable items “on” at the same time and unbalance the numbers of the game. That’s fine. But there’s no attempt by Wizards to rationalize this in the fiction of the D&D universe. There’s no “in world” explanation as to why a character can only attune a maximum of three items at once. Making matters worse, to de-attune yourself from an item all you have to do is hold the item for 10 minutes and “concentrate”. That’s it. There is absolutely nothing stopping a player from having a sack full of these attunable items, choosing which ones to equip before an encounter and “thinking” for 10 minutes, and then “thinking” for 10 minutes after the fight to de-attune them so they can then re-attune a different set for the next encounter. God that is boring. Since attuning items has absolutely no cost or consequence, there is absolutely nothing meaningful about the attunement process. If characters had to complete some sort of quest or task to attune an item, then de-attuning an item becomes a much bigger and much more meaningful decision.

Note: There is a sidebar with an “experimental rule” that sets the maximum number of magic items a character can have attuned at one time equal to their Charisma modifier (with a minimum of 1). While I like this rule, I have a feeling it will remain optional at best and will more than likely get removed from the mechanics all together before the final version of the rules get printed. I imagine that munchkins all over the internet will vehemently complain that a “dump stat” shouldn’t dictate how many magic items they can use at once. Just as players complained that Rogues should always be good at spotting traps despite having a low Wisdom score, I can see players wanting to avoid the drawbacks of a low Charisma score while still reaping the benefits of a dump stat. Munchkins.

Conclusion

These are the major reasons why I think the designers at Wizards talk a good game about wanting “story” and “narrative” elements to be an important part of D&D Next but aren’t actually following through on that promise. At places where they could have made narrative elements matter, they chose instead to either downplay them or to put mechanics in their place instead. Yes, there is stuff in the magic item document that story-loving, narrative-driven DMs and players can latch onto and run with, but I would’ve loved to see these be less of a flavorful suggestion and more of a requirement built into the core of the game. Hey! Wizards! Give us a section on how to craft a story arc around the discovery of a magic item instead of just random percentile tables! Give us quirks and flaws that are actually flaws a player will have to make choices over and think about instead of saying they can be ignored right in the flaw’s description! Give us attunement rules that actually encourage role playing and encourage players to be proactive, instead of designing mechanics that are going to happen during game downtime, if they even get mentioned at all! In short, give us what you said you would – a game that cares just as much about narrative elements as it does mechanical ones.

Update (10/25/12)

In the most recent D&D Next Q&A article, someone asked why Wizards decided that attuning an item should take 10 minutes. Here is the entirety of Rodney Thompson’s response:

For the most part, we’re looking to try to standardize the time increments in the game to make it easier to play and learn. Ten minutes is our time increment that says, “Not fast enough to happen in combat, but nothing that’s a major impediment to exploration.” As for why that was chosen for magic item attunement, that’s because it’s something that shouldn’t be happening in the heat of battle, but not something we want to be a big deal at the table so that the party has to plan around it. While you are bandaging up, I’m attuning to my magic item, and then we proceed with the adventure.

Did you catch that? According to Wizards, attuning a magic item is “not something we want to be a big deal at the table so that the party has to plan around it”. In other words, attuning a magic item should be as simple as the player saying “After the fight, while the Cleric heals us up, I’m going to attune the Seven Keys of Ventoosler to myself.” Screw you, Wizards. Seriously. Screw you and your damn attunement bullshit. Why even have attunement at all then? If all you really mean is “a player character can not attune a magic item while in combat”, why not just say that directly? That’d cut out all the nonsense about spending 10 minutes concentrating, practicing, praying, dancing, or whatever to attune yourself to an item. See, this is exactly what I’m talking about. Instead of Wizards following through on their promise of making story elements matter, they came right out and said to simply ignore that stuff. I call bullshit.

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HyveMynd is a Philly native who's been living in Osaka, Japan since late 2005. When he's not sitting in front of a PC at work, he's sitting in front of a PC at home banging out notes for yet another homebrew RPG system that will most likely never see the light of day.

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5 Responses to "Why I Don’t Believe in Wizards Anymore"

  1. Julian PerezNo Gravatar says:

    I don’t see the objection. Random loot tables have been a part of D&D since Gary Gygax made the first Chainmail game in the 1970s.

    Going after D&D for the new edition doing what D&D’s always done is like going after D&D for being a class and level based game: that’s what it’s all for. D&D delivers a certain kind of experience, which is very conscious of the fact it’s all a game.

    The notion D&D 5th is going to become story/narrative centered like the old Prince Valiant was never a realistic expectation.

    Besides, you don’t even HAVE to use the loot tables. You can award whatever magic treasure you like, provided it’s within +/- 10% of the experience points per encounter for balance (the old advice about giving away a gold coin for every XP point is usually true – 3rd Edition was more precise). There are rules for magic item generation, so you can make up your own gizmo if you don’t like the “generic” +1 Chaotic Broadsword.

    The quirk list is a cheat but it’s the kind of cheat I like. An instant shorthand for making something memorable that isn’t memorable, like the “quirk list” in the old D&D 2nd for NPCs: “You meet the inkeeper, and he” (roll on the table) “has a speech impediment and stutter.”

    1. HyveMyndNo Gravatar says:

      You’re not wrong Julian. But the way I see it, using the excuse of “this is always how D&D has been done” is a pretty flimsy one. Especially since we’re being told that the game is being stripped down to it’s base components and built back up again for D&D Next. I wouldn’t be as harsh on Mike Mearls, Rodney Thompson, and the rest of the Wizards designers as I am being if they hadn’t put themselves in this position. As I said, all this talk from them about making the “narrative elements” be just as important as the mechanical ones means that they have to deliver on that promise. And if they don’t, then they deserve to be called out on it. If the idea of D&D Next becoming more narrative was never a realistic expectation, then they need to stop proclaiming that as a design goal.

      Again, it’s true that you don’t have to use the loot tables. That’s a cop out though. My main point is that Wizards didn’t provide us with an alternative method, despite them claiming they wanted the discovery of magic items to be interesting and exciting. As an analogy lets look at LEGOs, the classic “build whatever you want” toy. Yes there are instructions to build one thing included in the box, but all the pieces are modular and you really can build almost anything you want with a LEGO set. But Wizards essentially hasn’t given us any pieces to work with. They’ve given us a choice between A and B; where A is a LEGO set with instructions, and B is just the instructions but with no pieces.

      You can award whatever magic treasure you like, provided it’s within +/- 10% of the experience points per encounter for balance (the old advice about giving away a gold coin for every XP point is usually true – 3rd Edition was more precise).

      Saying you can “award whatever treasure you want” and then saying “so long as it’s within parameters X” isn’t freedom. This is why Wizards should drop the whole stupid +/-X part of magic items. That way things can be special without throwing off the precious math of the system.

  2. marcoNo Gravatar says:

    You have tons of good ideas IMO, and maybe you should present your case to Wizards. I’m pretty sure this is the kind of ideas that they’re truly looking for in DnDNext…good article!

  3. StuNo Gravatar says:

    To me the item quirks thing was the most disappointing. It’s just meaningless grist for the munchkins.

    It was an opportunity totally missed. It would have made useful items interesting not just for their bonuses. It would have given a cost to using (or even possessing) an item.

    That makes them interesting — not some stupid block text paragraphs that ends with “but has no game effect.”

  4. psk20No Gravatar says:

    Apologies for the necro (I got here through google :D) and yep, I’m aware that your post relates to an earlier playtest packet – so they may have addressed some of your concerns by now. I’ve only just started looking closely at the playtest and haven’t yet had a chance to play.

    I sort-of half agree with what you say but perhaps you were/are overreating a bit. Or perhaps Wizards simply listened to you, so the playtest packet I’m seeing now has improved since you wrote this.

    There’s a profound difference between “few people will take action” and “no one ever.” If you walk past 1000 people in a crowded city and even ONE of them tries to steal the item (0.1%), that’s a pretty significant effect on the story. If a large proportion of people tried to steal the item, it would get very annoying very quick. Imagine if even 10% of NPCs in a crowded city did so. Your character would be lynched every time they went into town. I don’t see how that would be an interesting, enjoyable, or rewarding RP experience.

    Having to cut yourself every single day you have the item is not as insignificant as you seem to think, either. Other PCs and NPCs are likely to notice, and it may affect your interactions with them. Moreover, this is only a starting point. Players and DMs are more than entitled to collaborate on more interesting, impactful twists that such an item might have upon a character’s psyche. For instance, maybe the character eventually becomes a masochist after using the item for an extended period of time. Maybe there’s a risk they’ll cut too deep? Maybe they start to accumulate scars? This isn’t the kind of thing I’d necessarily want to see presented as the default rules, nor is it the kind of thing a good DM would inflict upon a player without collaborating with them, but depending on the group it might be a theme you choose to explore.

    Similarly, I don’t see the problem with painful. It’s a perfectly fine RP thing.

    If these are the worst offenders, I don’t really see the problem. Yeah, I think maybe it would be good for Wizards to add optional elaborations/twists a DM might add (similarly with attunement – I agree that most interesting magical items could have more interesting/weighty requirements for attunement) but I think it’s completely appropriate for Wizards to provide a relatively light/noncommittal baseline along with several optional rules or suggestions.

    After looking at the attunement rules, my personal intuition is that I’d like to extend them to more magic items (perhaps all but the most common ones) and would also make the attunement process more interesting as well as a bigger commitment (in many cases replacing minutes with hours or days, contests, or even quests… as appropriate for the importance and power level of the item).

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