Design & Development12/09/2005

Development Doesn’t Like Much

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

This week, Jesse Decker starts a miniseries on his dislikes of the game... by first examing the likes.

R&D spends a lot of time thinking and talking about the things that don’t work well in D&D... or perhaps more accurately, things that D&D could do better. Things that we don’t like were, in fact, a big inspiration for this column. You see, this is a place where we’ll talk about things that aren’t so great with our game, especially when we’ve identified a way to improve them. The idea of monster niches for example, shows how we can do at least one thing better—by giving folks some place to start thinking about how a monster is best used. If we identify a monster’s niche, it’ll be easier to put that monster in an actual game, and the chances increase of that encounter being fun. Next time out, I want to start what I hope becomes a regular feature of this column, and talk about house rules that R&D members use in their own games—things that, when we have a chance, we change for our own gaming sessions.

The column’s going to be riskier this week, however. I’m going to talk about stuff that’s cool. Stuff in the game that works and surprised us with its coolness. That’s a lot riskier than the house rules coming next week—because it’s pretty easy to feel smart when you’re pointing out something’s flaws, and a heck of a lot harder to be cool when you’re doling out some praise.

So, to get this miniseries started, here are a few of the little things that I like about D&D. I put this list together in no particular order, just by glancing up at my bookshelf as I wrote and focusing on things that I’ve tested myself, and have borne witness to how they look after contact with the gaming table.

Shifter Feats (Eberron Campaign Setting)

Tangent Alert!: We’ve gone over this disclaimer before, but it bears repeating. I’m recommending stuff from sources material that you might not own. Maybe this seems like schilling, but I’ve got no problem being up front about the fact that I would really, truly like you to own everything we make. Heck, I hope you pick up three copies of every product we ever produce! (That’s one for use, one for your friends to borrow, and one for “the collection.”) But you don’t only have take the word of a corporate stooge like me, head to this thread and share your recommendations for good D&D material.

Shifters are my pick for the coolest PC race outside of the Player’s Handbook, but even if they aren’t your cup of tea you should at least give shifter feats another read. Every shifter feat comes with a benefit that’s triggered when a shifter uses its namesake shifting ability to take on bestial characteristics for a few rounds. The duration of this shifting, as well as the number of times the character can use it each day, all build upon the number of feats. So more shifter feats mean that the character gets bigger effects from shifting, can shift more times per day, and can stay shifted longer each time he uses the ability. This structure opens up a ton of design space and allows for really neat shifter builds—and with hundreds of feats already published, those are pretty serious challenges to meet.

Shifter feats aren’t perfect—they tend to crowd other feats out of most character builds—but they open up mechanics that wouldn’t be available in the game otherwise, and really feel like part of the shifter race. It’s very cool to see design elements that fit their purpose. If D&D is about options and not restrictions, it’s hard to justify denying one race access to a feat while granting that same access to another. But shifter feats, and feat trees like them, show that there are feat (or spell, or class) ideas out there that can really be part of the race (or other game element) to which they are tied.

Shifter Feat Example:

Beasthide Elite [Shifter]
Your shifter trait improves.
Prerequisite: Shifter with the beasthide trait.
Benefit: While shifting, you natural armor bonus increases to +4.
Normal: Without this feat, a beasthide shifter has a natural armor bonus of +2 while shifting.

Luckstealer Prestige Class (Races of the Wild)

Prestige classes are one of the five best things about 3E*, but by now we’ve seen a lot of them. These days, to get me excited a prestige class has to show me a character concept that I can’t execute (or at least can’t execute as optimally) with existing game elements, have a solid mechanical core, and come wrapped in compelling flavor. The luckstealer hits on all three in my book, and I’m particularly enamoured of the luck points system because it rewards a player for using cool abilities.

As a luckstealer, you're part spellcaster, part professional gambler—and 100% mischief maker. As a luckstealer, your spell progression slows down, but you gain two useful curse abilities, class features that have an element of gambling to them, and some magical techniques that help you work your mischief at the gaming table.

*The other four are something like: a unified core mechanic, feats, encounter building (showing how to build encounter difficulty by level), attacks of opportunity (which make position important, therefore creating room for interesting tactical choices), rules for how bonuses stack, multiclassing rules that make sense, and codified character wealth per level. Hmm. I guess the top “five” is a pretty big list.

True Necromancer Prestige Class (Libris Mortis)

I’ve grown to really like theurge classes (such as the mystic theurge from the DMG that gives spellcasting progression in two unrelated classes), but not when the dual-spellcasting progression crowds out other design elements and flavor. The true necromancer from Libris Mortis seems like the best of both worlds, as it allows dual spellcasting progression to live beside compelling flavor, and provides real roleplaying hooks as well. (“Why yes Lord Mayor, that’s my zombie, it’ll help with that orc problem.”)

The true necromancer can’t be called perfect either, and we’re well aware that it appears in some uber-powerful builds over on the Character Optimization forums.

True Necromancer
Characters who wish to become true necromancers must take levels in both arcance and divine spellcasting classes, usually cleric and wizard or cleric and sorceror. Only then do they begin their sinister schooling, learning how to combine the foulest aspects of both disciplines into a single, necromantic whole.

Psionic Focus (Expanded Psionics Handbook)

I’m a big fan of the Expanded Psionics Handbook, but the stand-out mechanic for me is the psionic focus. I think that it’s a big part of why psionics feel like they’ve finally found their own place in D&D, and the mechanics really fit the flavor of mental focus and mental power. Another big virtue is that it provokes interesting choices (do I spend my focus for some big effect now, or do I remain focused and keep a host of minor benefits active?). In fact, it’s so good at this that it leads subsequent design to perpetuate this choice. Every time there’s a new psionic feat that gives either a big one-time boost for spending the focus, or a static benefit as long as the focus is held, the choice becomes more interesting and the list of psionic character concepts grows.

My praise for the psionic focus mechanic is a reflection of my belief that meaningful in-game choices are a big part of what makes games interesting to play.

Warlock (Complete Arcane)

Tangent Alert!: The power level of the warlock is an oft-debated subject on the message boards, and we even ran a poll on the subject in an earlier installment of this column (the results of which are here). I think it’s just about right by the way, but that’ll have to wait for another column or three.

I’ve got loads of character ideas for every class, too many to ever play really, so core classes need to do something new—because that’s the only way they’ll get me excited enough to give them a try. The warlock, a fun class that’s easy to play is the best example of recent years. The warlock has a cool signature power in the eldritch blast that garners it a lot of attention. Add to that the compelling flavor and breadth of character design options, and you’ve got a pretty exciting class.

So that’s a few of the things I like about D&D… but not the big things. The big things, like the fact that D&D has been the vehicle through which I’ve made dozens of life-long friends, you already understand. That D&D encourages reading, math, and social skills in its youngest fans; that it can wake up your imagination; that it’s one of the surest ways to get a group of friends together and get them laughing (although some of our jokes aren’t funny) are obviously more important virtues than shifter feats, but that’s the whole point to this bit—to lift a glass to the kind of mechanics that keep the game fresh and character options intriguing for even the most invested players.

If there’s a feat, a spell, or anything else that’s worked well in your game, drop us a note on this thread, or write in to And no, it’s not just to pad our egos (although we’re very sensitive, you should know). If something’s made your game fun, it’s likely to make other groups around the world a little better as well. Next time, we’ll start in on the things we don’t like quite so much... and house rules invented in response to them.

You Craft the Creature

Last week, we asked you how big is this Aberrant Mastermind of ours. Here are the results:

Large: 30.0%
Medium: 19.5%
Small: 11.5%
Huge: 11.4%
Colossal: 8.1%
Fine: 8.1%
Tiny: 6.0%
Diminutive: 2.7%
Gargantuan: 2.7%

So far, here's what have:

Large Aberration
Special Abilities: Blasphemous Geometries, Wild Magic Aura
Environment: Forest
Challenge Rating: 15+

This week, we wanted to expand a bit on the creature's "mastermind" niche (and to some extent, its forest environment). A mastermind should have its share of minions, after all -- so what type of minions does the Aberrant Mastermind employ?

What minions does the mastermind employ?
Evil Fey
Corrupted Animals
Fiendish Plants
Lycanthropes (e.g., werebear, wereboar)
Magical Beasts (e.g., owlbear)
A Fellow Aberration (e.g., ettercap)
Giants (e.g., firbolg)
Undead (e.g., zombie)

About the Authors

Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.

Development: Jesse Decker is the development manager for RPGs at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine; design work on Complete Adventurer, DMG II, and other RPG titles; and development work on numerous D&D products, most of which he can’t talk about yet.


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