Ten Dumb Things D&D Won’t Change

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.

ATTRIBUTE BONUSES

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.

WIZARD SPELLS

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.

MONKS

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.

SAVING THROWS

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.

ARMOR CLASS

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!

ANNOYING DEATHS

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.

TOO MANY SPELLCASTERS

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.

POWER GAMING

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?

ALIGNMENT

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.

MAGIC ITEMS

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?

Chris Dias

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.

11 thoughts on “Ten Dumb Things D&D Won’t Change

  • January 15, 2013 at 7:34 pm
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    I half agree with you on the saving throw point. I believe that the attacking mechanic should be unified, but weather the attacker or defender actually rolls is still up in the air with me.

    Even weather if the player should roll all of the dice themselves could be appealing to me, the player rolls attacks, the player rolls their own defenses as well. might be quicker to have 6 people adding up their defenses against the area attack instead of one person adding up 6.

    at the end of the day, I too am happy with the 4e attacker rolls everything, but there are some people out there who disliked it because it took the fate out of their hands.

  • January 17, 2013 at 10:29 am
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    Star Wars SAGA Edition addresses most of these concerns, save for the attacking and stat bonus thing, and I am currently adapting it for a fantasy setting. There is no alignment, there are very few magic items, and what there is are usually made by the PC’s. There are three defenses (Fortitude, Reflex and Will) that all attacks are made AGAINST, no rolling the save. Armor adds to reflex Defense increasing the chance you have to avoid an attack. Classes have talent trees that give them their abilities and the weapons you have at 1st level can be the same ones at 20th. There is only one “spell” list (Star Wars has Force powers, I simply renamed the to spells), but if you have a specific feat, then you can learn them regardless of class and they don’t disappear.

    If you haven’t looked at SAGA, I highly recommend it as you can modify it to fit pretty much any genre or setting.

    • January 17, 2013 at 10:35 am
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      woops, mistyped my screen name, isdestroyer.

  • January 17, 2013 at 11:23 am
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    I agree with some of the points; however, I’ve long since given up on “making sense” or intending to instill a more “logical” approach to the game.

    I love attribute scores. I know they don’t make sense since modifiers is what counts, but I just do.

    I like Wheel of Time (the novels, not the game) handling on magic. You could cast magic and you knew spells, but it could be a draining experience, even risky to the point of death. I think mechanics like this would make more sense to put a stop on magical firepower. Warhammer FRP does a good job in that you risk getting curse each time you cast a spell.

    Monks I’m completely neutral.

    I like saving throws in the hands of the defender. Just do, no reason other than tradition.

    Ditto for AC.

    Death is something I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think if your character dies, it should be a real pain in the butt to come back or that there should be severe penalties upon returning (like losing half of your levels is a good start). Even Pathfinder makes returning from the dead just an expensive proposition, but completely doable by 5th level or so. At high levels, death is just a 10 minute delay. One aspect though is that the easier it is to create a character, the level of lethality should be increase. If it takes an hour to create a character given all the options, just dying is an epic pain if death comes easy and translates into making a new character. However, if it only takes 10 minutes with all the bells and whistles, crunch up my characters a lot. The exception would be games like Call of Cthulu where the goal is not to survive, but to see how long you can survive before getting killed. Having indepth characters makes those games fun because it makes their deaths all the more tragic.

    On spellcasters, I see this point. Some games I would like magic “grittyness” and other days, I don’t mind the uberpowered everyone can cast spells.

    I’m a power gamer, my players are power gamers, but I see the point and it’s fun at times to purposely handicap yourself or play against type. However, in tournament settings like when the RPGA was around, I wanted to survive, so I power gamed. My favorite characters were always the one-trick ponies.

    I like alignment, but I understand the point and wouldn’t mind playing in games that did away with it.

    I agree big time on magic items. The whole concept of buying a Level 30 epic sword for 3,125,000 gp would require 31.25 tons in gold coins. While I play Pathfinder, their economy on magic item costs is not nearly as high as 4e, but still ranges on the absurd. The Neuroglyph blogger who is really into 4e came up with a good idea of setting the 4e D&D economy in silver and then made all the coins be 100x = 1y. That way, the original sword that would cost 3,125,000 would be set in sp, but then our hero only needs 312 pp and 50 gp. A more manageable sum that weighs only 7 lb in coins. The other argument should have been to design the game so that characters don’t need magic bling in order to fight monsters, but having it helps. I don’t mind a world of +5 vorpal swords, I just mind them being priced at X hundreds of gp that someone can pick up or place an order. I also think that crafting magic items should be allowed, but should be a punishing ordeal for the powerful stuff. Scrolls and potions can be bought and sold, but if you wanted to craft that +5 armor of invulnerability, you’re losing levels or Constitution or you need to make a dark pact with a demon, etc.

  • January 18, 2013 at 9:19 am
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    1. Attribute scores are just a vestigial mechanic, to hearken back to days of yore. True20 and a couple other d20 variants did away with them. Pretty much the only reason for keeping them is to add a touch more granularity to ability score damage.

    2. Wizard spells can be justified any damn way you want. The memorization is a reference to Vance’s books, and isn’t the same as memorizing a block of text. It is just as easy to describe it as “hanging” your spells, i.e., casting them partway during your morning rituals and activating them with a word and gesture when you cast them. This is strictly flavor text.

    3. Monks are just for HKAT/wuxia flavor, for people who think that awesome trumps logic. If you don’t want them, leave them out. Just because it’s in the book doesn’t mean it has to be at your table.

    4. Unfortunately, ditching saving throws would not be a clean and easy change. It would have a lot of implications. How do you handle poison without a save? Or resisting magical domination? I will admit that it is still a bit clunky, but I’ve yet to see a replacement that doesn’t have its own rough edges.

    5. Armor class is handled exactly the way you describe in several d20 variants. But, in all fairness, some players prefer it the classic D&D way.

    6. Death should be permanent. And yet returning from the dead is a classic trope in fantasy fiction. So resurrection should exist, but be rare. A lot of this problem actually stems from the fact that the magic system in D&D doesn’t distinguish between spells that should be able to be cast daily and those that should only be seen once or twice a campaign. Though, note that you can fix a lot of this problem by limiting raise dead to 24 hours (enough time to memorize if you haven’t, but not enough to get the guy to a temple if you can’t cast it). If you then only have one priest per god capable of casting resurrection, it feels more “realistic”.

    7. If you have too many spellcasters, just remove some of them. Pick and choose to fit your setting. If you hate memorization, just drop wizards and clerics in favor of sorcerers and favored souls. Again, you don’t have to include it in your campaign just because it’s in the book. But more options go a long way to support more types of campaigns.

    8. Power gaming has nothing to do with the system and everything to do with the players. You don’t want power gaming? Play with people who don’t power game.

    9. Alignment is a tricky subject. On the one hand, it has a long and terrible history of misuse and abuse. On the other, D&D was intended to tell simple stories of black and white morality. The alignment system was really intended to be a flag of “these guys are okay to kill, those guys should be friendly”. And sometimes you want a way to code for “good” and “evil”, because a ward against evil forces is pretty darned archetypical. So, alignment continues to be included. Mostly because no one has come up with a good alternative for the coding.

    10. Magic items are a constant problem, and possibly an insoluble one. The existence of magic items is pretty iconic. The Fellowship of the Ring was loaded down with them. Almost every fairy tale features at least one. Their misuse in campaigns is mostly a result of not being able to maintain their rarity and significance, because of the lack of authorial control. That is, you can’t control what your players do with the items. I’ve been looking at the problem for two decades now, and I don’t see a solution.

  • January 23, 2013 at 2:38 pm
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    All I have to say is…100% Agree with what you have said.

  • February 5, 2013 at 11:41 pm
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    Totally agree about Magic Items…way too over used. In fairness, DnD Next is gearing magic items as a rarer occurrence, which is super and the current spell system is “less” vancian , fire and forget but some of that element remains.

  • May 21, 2013 at 1:41 pm
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    Seems magic items and death really bother people. I can understand, getting near the end of 1-20 (tho brisk paced xp) campaign it’s been tricky to keep the flow going.
    Having to quest to get some one alive again derails everything and the magic items can overwhelm anything you can throw at them, and magic effects are like drugs to player characters. More!!!
    Saying that I’ve actually found that by adjusting a couple things the players never felt too cheated by a death, by just getting rid of almost all enemy save or die effects/spells. The world has almost no save or die at all, only massive damage rolls(20D6) occurences. Combined with the theme of where the damage is coming from players usually go “yeah that was super stupid/dangerous to do.”.
    Afterwords they usually just go with a new character cause that knee jerk reaction is gone. The madness of playing a character 20 games then dying from 1 stupid roll isn’t cool at all! The players can do that to enemies tho, but the trick for main baddies is to just adjust everything to set against abilities. Dm reduction, immune to crits, etc.
    Of course the demons and devils always come up because of high spell resistance, well screw them! Really tired of big campaigns only fighting them at high levels. I hate spell resistance for monsters so I’m
    using a system with “spell reduction” the baddy has 1-5 spell negation per dice. So basically the spell will work (again no cheated feeling), example, if the enemy has spell reduction 3, the 15d6 fireball loses 3 dm from each D6. Depending on the counting math of your players, it’s automatic 45 dm resisted or 3 cap on all dice so only the ones above 3 count, that can be slow tho. Oh and all players always have a backup character, they are sad to see the old one go but they have a “rebound” if needed (applied when story allows.

    As for the rest it’s either gameplay mechanics to even things out or just for fun(monks), pretty easy to adjust as long as you don’t have stubborn players 🙂

  • June 10, 2013 at 8:28 pm
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    You left one the number one thing of all, Dm’s Have final decision which to me the root of all the problems…

  • November 26, 2013 at 9:07 pm
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    You seem to be thinking that DnD is a novel, or a reality simulator. It is neither of those things.

  • December 13, 2013 at 10:55 am
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    Okay, I’ll sell my awesome magic weapons that help me kill things and buy a castle. That did me a whole lot of good since I’m a born adventurer who lives for going around slaying dragons, and will probably only sleep there a couple of months out of the year.

    And despite all that, plenty of players do buy houses and such in d&d. Hell I waste money on food even though of the dms I play with don’t fool with keeping track of hunger.

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