Ten Dumb Things D&D Won’t Change

January 15, 2013 | | Comments 11

Oh sure, there are certain mechanical decisions other games have done better. I’m not even talking about some of the philosophical choices made. I’m talking about weird mechanics which the designers appear to refuse to deviate from, concepts not only carried over from past editions, but ones recent editions, including D&D Next AND Pathfinder still insist on adhering to. There are many staples of D&D, ones which we know will never change, but the following list are issues which I wish they would address.


Beyond the statistical flaws present in comparing a D20 die roll against 3D6, your actual attribute value means very little. Think about it, when is your attribute score ever used? Back in the old editions, every numerical increase gave you something, but that stopped nearly 20 years ago. In 4th Edition, your Constitution score was used to generate hit points at 1st level, but that was it. Everything else was derived from your attribute bonus, which is itself derived from said attribute score. But if that’s true, why have an attribute score in the first place? It does nothing anymore other than give you another fixed number. Oh sure, there’s that mechanic indicating that you only gain another +1 attribute bonus from 2 increments of your score, but that’s easily worked around. Other games don’t bother. So someone has a -1 to Charisma instead of 8. It means exactly the same thing and the -1 is applicable to rolls while the 8 is not. At one point, there was some reason for it, back in the old days, but it hasn’t in a long time.


Isn’t it unusual that a wizard gaining his knowledge from reading spellcraft is cursed to forget his spells at the beginning of each day? I’m aware of the need for limiting the uses of spells, but inventive writers have worked around this dilemma for decades. The best idea D&D can come up with is that magic somehow wipes its knowledge from the guy who spends the whole of his life trying to remember it. Ironic? Yes? An annoying meta-rule to work around logical problems? Yes. Necessary? No. This is another Wheel of Fortune conundrum—you know of that I speak; when choices are limited, people eventually just pick the same options as everyone else. Since Wizards need to select certain spells to use each day, it precludes them from doing anything actually clever. They’ve tried to work around this with the use of rituals, but even D&D Next and Pathfinder have still wrapped their heads around this obsolete concept that magic acts likes a dick. Wizards require a long rest and are then forced to select which spells to memorize, even if they might’ve cast said spell a thousand times by that point. Christopher Lee is 90 years old; he’s memorized the Lord of the Rings, every God-damned page, so I’m pretty sure Gandalf should be able to recall magic missile whenever the hell he wants.


D&D Next put Monk front and center with their core classes, because it makes perfect sense. There isn’t a single work of high fantasy that doesn’t make the mistake of excluding bare-fisted kung-fu flying magic men from their setting. It reminds me of a famous Gardner Dozois quote where he said (paraphrasing) there was no problem within a science fiction story which couldn’t be solved by putting dinosaurs in it. And now we have magic monks. Not just martial artists, I’m talking God-damned immortal teleporting indestructible flying men wrapped in robes that can throw fire from their hands. Why bother being a fighter wielding a clumsy sword. A rust monster could reduce his armor to dust. But a monk could punch your colon through your throat and be naked doing it. It’s like lining up the characters from the Fantastic Four film and thinking to yourself, okay, these make sense. We got water, earth, air, fire…and…bad ass armor with lightning? For once, I would just like a martial artist, and not some ridiculous retreading of an increasingly annoying cinematic cliché.


Someone made an argument that saving throws were intended to be a last ditch survival roll to prevent something horrible from happening. Unfortunately, it evolved into the single die roll you were given to prevent the instant and utter eradication of your character. One random number generator disregarding your AC and hit points which would wipe your character from that plane of existence. At least with 4th Edition, nothing could ever kill you dead unless you were already close to dying. Some people will applaud that brutal nature of the game, but there’s a point where that stops being fun, especially when it’s your character. I wouldn’t mind saving throws if it truly was a last ditch effort. A monster fires its hex vision, rolls to attack and hits, and THEN you get your saving throw—a double chance to avoid petrification. I haven’t even gone into the mechanics themselves, a topic I’ve ranted about previously. Why does a melee attacker have to roll to attack but a spell fall to the defender to roll? This was another point 4th Edition got right. D&D Next goes half way, crystallizing the problem while simultaneously only partially addressing it. There shouldn’t be a separate mechanic for spells and melee attacks; die rolls should fall to the attacker. If saving throws are required, make it for extreme spell effects, and only after an attack has succeeded. This also leads me to my next issue.


So let me get this straight. I get hit with a fireball and I wear no armor. My AC is entirely Dex based, but I still make a Dex-based saving throw, which is not connected to AC. If I wore armor, said armor should provide protection against fire…because stuff you wear just does that; it’s one of the reasons why we wear clothes. And yet it doesn’t, and said fireball is entirely based on a separate mechanic to my claimed primary defensive statistic. Armor Class has always been an obsolete concept which should have been abandoned with the eradication of THACO. To then create a separate saving throw or defense for avoiding things and what you have is this clumsy set of situations which are arbitrarily categorized to affect only certain situations. So when said dragon breathes fire, our poor fighter has no hope, because apparently being draped in four layers of cloth and metal provides zero protection. And what annoys me the most is that the solution has been easy from the get go. AC should be about avoidance and armor should be damage resistance. It’s called hardness, a mechanic the game already has!


In order to prevent players from utterly crucifying DMs when that solitary saving throw versus death is failed, D&D placated the masses by making death…well…annoying. Dying means very little. Don’t bother with tears or burial rights. Just make sure the body is intact until you can FedEx it to Miracle Max, ensuring the corpse is only mostly dead. Let’s get the obvious out of the way; there is no society in any reality which can function with commonplace resurrection. When mortality and economics combine, what you have left are legions of suffering peons which would hold every cleric to the fire to bring their dead wife or child back to life. And yet death and resurrection is a staple of gaming…well actually it’s not. In fact, few games outside of MMOs really involve true resurrection with little to no penalties. Most games actually feature save games, meaning the situation just becomes a giant do over. You may think that’s a jarring mechanic, but consider how valid the alternative is to a legitimate fantasy setting. Death should mean something more than a slight financial burden.


Sometimes, I think Wizards have their oddball mechanics in order to justify other classes. Nearly every edition of D&D has had a huge spells chapter encompassing in some cases half a book. No matter what spellcaster you make, they all tap from this same list with many sharing the same spells. But do we truly need all of them? And what fantasy world would take them all? Most settings only permit one, maybe two; do we really need a cleric, wizard, sorcerer, druid, bard, paladin, ranger, and in some cases even warlock. Sorcerer and wizard are basically the same class with some clumsy mechanics separating them, thus also proving the mechanical limitations on each are meaningless. Second, do we really require our paladins and rangers to be spellcasters? Do we really need a bard spellcaster? And then to have every one of these function with the exact same mechanics, tapping the same spell list, often sharing identical features from other spellcasters…it makes the whole ordeal…well…an ordeal. I’ve not run a game without outright banning most of them. I don’t mind wizard and I don’t mind druid. I have separate feelings on cleric, but most of the others could fall between the couch cushions.


Do you want to make a dwarf druid? Well don’t, because you’re stupid. Apparently that’s the argument from power gamers everywhere. Unlike human beings, fey races (you know, the halflings, elves and such) are skewed to specific roles, clichés, even stereotypes. This can almost be considered racial profiling; this ethnic group is populated by terrorists, while this ethnic group are all thieves…just like halflings. And why wouldn’t you make a character this way? Bonuses from being an elf generally boost your Intelligence and Dexterity, so why be anything other than a class using those attributes. For a brief time, 4th Edition played with the idea of customization, but D&D Next runs right back into static boosts, something Pathinfer is still stubborn to change. Despite creative gamers trying concepts purely out of some private fantasy; hardcore gamers are always smart enough to find the killer combination of class and race to make one clearly superior to another. Fantasy worlds may wallow in cliché, do we have to create mechanics for it?


Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. I hate alignment so much, I ignore it utterly in every game I play. 4th Edition tried to downplay the system somewhat but my perspective is that it should go completely. I find it irksome when people try to categorize me in real life, so I find it annoying and unnecessary when a game implements it as a rule. I don’t mind holy and unholy dichotomies, but good and evil is at its basic philosophical level quite nebulous. To then impose mechanics around lawful and chaotic ideas and then make abilities based on them is unwanted and unneeded. I simply tell my players that they have to play heroes and let them define for themselves what that means.


Do you remember that famous fantasy book where a band of intrepid heroes went on a quest wearing a million gold coins worth of magical items which they purchased at a nearby bizarre? Of course not, because that’s insane. I’ve always wondered about any game where plucky heroes are walking around with magic items worth more than the kingdom they are trying to save. You couldn’t even assume one was a family heirloom since after four levels, you’d have to sell it to acquire a better variant. I’ve actually seen adventurers with polished perfect armor and magical sporting rings, cloaks, amulets, and periapts ride into town in a rickety old caravan. They wear all of this, ignoring the sensible alternative of perhaps trading in all that magic in exchange for a castle made of solid silver, in order to slay a dragon for the sole purpose of acquiring more gold and purchasing slightly better magic. It makes you question the sanity of the adventuring profession. They sleep in the mud under the stars, and then put on their +5 armor to kill some trolls. Peasants would look on and ask themselves, “Why did they buy magic armor? Why didn’t they buy food?” The constant drive to acquire better magic items is something we tolerate in ridiculous video games, but even some of those create mechanics allowing you to keep the same weapon for the entire progress of your character. The items in particularly simply get better as characters do.

Readers may imagine certain mechanics they would want to add to the list. Some people criticize classes. I don’t generally. This is one where I don’t mind filling a mold. As for deities, yes, I admit I hate them, but I also understand its part of D&D canon. I just cut them out of my own personal settings. What would you like to see gone from D&D even though you know perfectly well it never will be?

Filed Under: 3.5 OGL4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons5th edition Dungeons and DragonsPathfinderRole-PlayingRPG

About the Author: Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.