Killing (and Resurrecting) D&D’s Sacred Cows

When D&D switched editions from 3e to 4e, some ‘sacred cows’ of D&D were killed, including the Vancian magic system, Magic Missiles that always hit (though that has reverted), energy drain and save-or-die effects.

I’ve been of the opinion that if and when D&D moves to 5th edition, that those changes would be nowhere near as significant as the move from 2e to 3e or 3e to 4e, but would be much more like the switch from 1e to 2e.  I may go into this more in the future, but the main reasons I believe this, is that the current ‘exception based’ system is flexible enough to allow new mechanics to get introduced, and that the electronic DDI tools will actually make it difficult to go to a system that is substantially different.

However, that isn’t to mean that there aren’t some sacred cows that exist that should still be killed off.

First, I want to summarize what I think are the true sacred cows of D&D (mechanically speaking):

  • the use of polyhedral dice (no d20 only, or d6 only, or d-anything-only).
  • Armor Class
  • Hit Points
  • 6 Attributes (Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha).
  • Classes
  • Levels

I don’t think you can get rid of any of these mechanics and really call it Dungeons and Dragons any more.

However, there are some aspects of 4e D&D that could be still considered ‘sacred cows’ that I believe either will, or should, be killed.

Experience Points

While levels are a key component of the mechanics of D&D, I think that expereience points being the basis of level gain is not.  Anecdotally I know that many DMs have stopped awarding experience points based on killed monsters or quests, but instead are just awarding levels when appropriate to the story.

This solves the issue about having to ‘add encounters’ to adventure paths in order to make sure the PCs get enough XP to level up at the correct time.  It also solves any issues with PCs just killing monsters ‘so they get XP’.

In previous editions of D&D, XP were not only used as a determinant of when to level up, but also were used as a resource to be spent for casting spells like Haste and Wish or for creating magic items.  This is no longer the case.

Although encounters are built with an ‘XP budget’, it would be fairly simple to come up with a simlar system that didn’t involve XP.

+X Magic Swords (or Armor, or Amulets, or Implements)

One of the key mechanical elements in D&D is that everything (theoretically) is balanced from level 1 to 30.  Monsters of a certain level are designed (at least as far as attacks and defenses go) to hit PCs of the same level approximately 50% of the time (and vice versa).  However, the way that PCs and Monsters go about this is different.  PCs receive a bonus to hit and to their defenses equal to 1/2 their level, whereas Monsters get a bonus equal to their level.

PCs overcome this difference by increasing their attributes and by gaining magic items.  The problem is that the mechanics assume that PCs will have magic items boosting their attack rolls and defenses by a certain amount by a certain level.  In fact, this is actually practically encoded into the system now by using ‘inherent bonuses’.

The problem is that this makes +X magic items rather mundane.  The PCs are expected to have them, therefore they’re not really getting a ‘bonus’ to hit…they’re just keeping up with what they’re attacking.  It wouldn’t be so bad if they could expect to get magic items of higher level (ie get +4 magic swords when normally they’d only be getting +3), but the exponential value in gold pieces of magic items would make these items attractive for selling.

The extra damage provided by magic items isn’t very significant (except for criticals, and even then it’s not a huge bonus).  It’s really the to-hit or to-be-hit chances that are important (as most conditions trigger on a hit).

The designers have already started down this path when they removed enhancement bonuses from shields, instead just giving them some sort of property or power.

Magic swords, implements, armor and amulets would become much like shields then.  It’s not a +2 flaming sword, but just a magic flaming sword.  This would also remove the issue of these types of magic items becoming ‘obsolete’.  In fact, this would allow a significant alteration in the magic item economy, and would eliminate the requirement for the value of magic items to increase exponentially.  Their level would dictate how powerful the power or property is, not just what plus it has.

[Edit - If you still wanted a magic sword that increased accuracy, you could easily have a 'Sword of Accuracy' which has a property of a +1 or +2 item bonus to attack rolls.]

Increasing attributes (by level)

This is a bit of a lesser sacred cow, in that it really has only existed for two editions.  Before 3e the only way to get attribute increases were via special situations like magic pools, crazy situations like the feast in X3 Castle Amber (which actually scrambled attributes), or via magic items like the Manual of Bodily Health.  Now, attributes are gained ever 4 levels (and all of them get a bonus at 11th and 21st level).

The problem is that again, this just allows the PCs to ‘keep up’ to the monsters.

When attributes were rolled randomly, there was an argument for wanting some way to increase them (especially when you needed pretty high numbers to get any bonuses), but now with a point buy system (which I believe most groups use), PCs have pretty much complete control over what their stats are.

The drawbacks of course are that some feats have attribute requirements,  it would eliminate one of the choices you have every 4th level, and vthat your attributes wouldn’t change without help of magic pools or magic items

However, there are several benefits. It makes magic pools and things like magic books a big deal! “We found a Manual of Bodily Health?  HECK YEAH!”  When was the last time you saw a magic pool in a 4e adventure give you a bonus to one of your attributes?  This would keep being Trained in a skill a big deal.  With the increases to attributes every four levels, the attribute becomes more and more important compared to whether or not you’re Trained.

One major advantage by killing the last two sacred cows would be that you could unify how monsters and PCs increase their defenses and attack rolls as they level up.  You could either have PCs get a bonus equal to their level, or as I would prefer, move the monsters down to a bonus of 1/2 their level.

This would allow a bigger spread of levels that a party of PCs of a certain level could handle.  Currently, it’s not wise to go much beyond 3 levels above or below the PC’s level.  Higher than that, the monsters get too difficult to hit, which leads to grind, and lower than that, the monsters have too hard of a time hitting the PCs.  By extending the spread of levels, damage becomes a bit more of an issue.  PCs don’t get scared by fighting higher level monsters because at 1-3 levels higher, they just don’t do much more damage…and damage is what scares PCs nowadays (without level drain and instant death being options).  However, by killing these two sacred cows, you could have the PCs fight monsters of 6-8 levels above them, and still have a chance to hit them…but they’d be scary.

I’d like to end with one other item though.  By killing these sacred cows, we could then resurrect a previously killed cow:

Attributes are in a range of 3-18

One of the things that does annoy me about D&D 4e is that an 18 in an attribute not only isn’t exceptional anymore, but once you get into Paragon, an 18 is actually fairly weak if it’s your primary attack stat.

18s used to be special.  It was a big deal if you rolled 18 for one of your stats.  Nowadays, if you don’t start with an 18 in your primary stat, you’re behind the 8-ball already.

It’s not like in 3e D&D where monsters had attributes, and it was important to have values above 18.  But now, the actual attributes a monster has aren’t too important.

By doing all this, the designers would also be able to bring back yet another sacred cow that seems to have died by accident:

Roll 4d6 six times, and re-order to suit.

’nuff said.


Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. I'm a 37-year old meteorologist. No, not one of those guys you see on TV, but someone who actually forecasts the weather. In my spare time (what I have with a toddler), I game. Mostly I run a D&D 4e game every two weeks, but also play Warhammer 40,000 and Warmachine. I'm a skeptic (not a cynic) and am interested in political topics. I can be followed on twitter @ArcaneSpringbrd


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About Arcane Springboard

I'm a 37-year old meteorologist. No, not one of those guys you see on TV, but someone who actually forecasts the weather. In my spare time (what I have with a toddler), I game. Mostly I run a D&D 4e game every two weeks, but also play Warhammer 40,000 and Warmachine. I'm a skeptic (not a cynic) and am interested in political topics. I can be followed on twitter @ArcaneSpringbrd
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17 Responses

  1. Random attributes are a sacred cow that I will grill up every day and enjoy eating, so long as it stays fucking dead. Random attributes (IMO) have no place in tabletop gaming. Not in D&D, not in any other game.

    • Can you elaborate? I can understand why some people dislike it, but to the point that you’d remove it completely as a viable option? Those of us who have been playing the game for a long time may _like_ rolling randomly for attributes. It can provide roleplaying hooks and force choices that you may not have had otherwise.

      The problem I have with the current system is that randomly rolling attributes has been completely punted to the sidelines.

      • I’ve been playing a long time too and I think rolling for attributes is a horrible alternative to players getting to pick and choose for themselves. Even your “4d6, drop one, reorder” is designed to let players play what they want, so why not skip the dice rolling and just get right down to it? Plus, point buy has the added bonus of putting everybody on the same level. You’re not going to have someone who has an awesome character and someone who has a crappy character in the same party. And contrary to some believe, having a character that is crappy mechanically isn’t necessarily fun or a roleplaying bonanza for people.

        As for roleplaying hooks, I think it’s better to ~choose~ what I want to roleplay and emphasize than have dice do it for me. I’m glad that the random generation has been punted to the sidelines in this edition and I hope it stays dead forever.

      • I for one think random attributes add realism, since your genetics at birth are highly random, and what heredity control you do have falls under racial attributes/abilities.

        • What you’re missing is that these are suppose to be Heroes,.with a capital H. Why would you expect a candle maker to sire a knight? Genetics are not random, they are inherited. And if you are from a sucky line like me, then you get fat easily, get diabetes,cancer,pick up every bug that someone sneezes on you. Gamma world even had the worthless character rule. IE. the weak die off and never made it to adventure.

          • I do think a candle maker could have a child who became a knight. I think your logic has a fundamental flaw. If you follow your reasoning to its end only football players would have children who could be football players and basketball players would have children who become basketball players. Genetics is only portion of how some one develops, not to mention the difference between phenotypic expressed traits and genotypic make up. Most parents carry 2 sets of genes or alleles for each trait and pass them on to their children randomly. This means their children might express traits they didn’t.

          • That said, writers don’t create their heroic protagonists randomly. If a character is to have a flaw, it is by design, not by random chance.

  2. When we first switched over to 4E, one of my players and I had the following converstion:

    Me: So, Mark, how do you like 4E so far?
    Mark: I really like it, now that I’ve accepted that it’s not really D&D
    Me: Howso? Sure, it’s a bit different, but it still has all the classic d&d elements like-
    Mark: Can a housecat kill a first level wizard?
    Me: Er…in 4th? Er, no, not reallya
    Mark: Then it’s not d&d
    Me: …
    Mark: Exactly

  3. Agreed with all counts but the Attributes range. I think point buy is the best method to create your character. Random attributes are only a little lottery that let “lucky” player’s PCs last longer than “unlucky” PCs. In the long run the PC’s that survive are the ones with the higher stats, so lets be fair and put that into the players hands and let him decide.

    • I’m not suggesting that the point buy system be eliminated. I would have explicitly listed that otherwise. That’s really a different point than keeping stats in the 3-18 range.

      However, I believe that by keeping the stats in the 3-18 range, and keeping the additions to stats to in-game methods, you can make randomly generating stats viable again.

  4. I would remove the connection between stats and Att/Dam and give everyone a melee / ranged and magic att/dam bonus. Stats would then be for skills and a numerical description of your character, it would be easier then to use random stats if you wanted too.

  5. XP and +X magic items are already being phased out of a number of game as you point out. XP I really feel like has lost enough meaning that it wouldn’t be that hard to jettison or turn into something much better. +X items are basically supplanted by the inherent bonus item rules.

    I like that stats increase as you go up in level just from the feel of it- in 2e it felt very static, and stuff like the Tomes you mention just became “must finds” instead of cool rewards. I do think the answer is to not make it as much of an arms race.

    However, the sacred cow I would kill for ability scores is the “turn score into modifier” system. Just make them flat modifiers already.

  6. I love random stats. For one thing, it is fun. For another, you can actually sometimes do well enough to put points where you aren’t “supposed” to … which can make your character more interesting.

    I’m theoretically OK with a point buy, but it just isn’t fun, and you never get enough points in a point buy to do something different without being gimped.

    The 4E matrix options are atrocious. If you want to do anything off the beaten path, forget it, and again as in most point buy situations, if you do anything interesting with an extreme matrix then you will totally gimp yourself.

    And again, rolling is more fun. Even when I roll total garbage, it is fun to gripe and then run with it.

  7. My understanding is that 3.x broken things are still broken in 4: full casters have too much power and melee fighters don’t have enough, especially at higher levels.

    Remove strength from hitting (keep it for damage) so that big meaty monsters aren’t incapable of not hitting their targets, as you will miss your +4 to hit a lot less than it will miss its +10; require spells to take 1 standard action per 2 levels of the spell (want that Chain Lightning? Then wait 3 rounds for it); and give fighter sorts a bonus to hit and damage equal to 1/2 their level, per other d20 games.

  8. I understand the balance of point buy, but there is something fun about 4d6. The anticipation of getting an 18, or trying to figure out how to make less optimal stats playable. That too, can be part of the social aspect of the game.

  9. I loved the way Gamma World did it. Make sure that you’re not useless in your primary stat, but otherwise, go to town on the randomness.

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