Sunday, January 29, 2012

D&D Experience: Class design, from Assassins to Wizards

Yesterday we had the second D&D Experience seminar about the future of the game. With the title “Class design: From Assassins to Wizards”, this one covered a very important aspect of D&D we had yet heard very little about. What exactly were the designers planning to borrow from each edition of the game? As it turns out, it appears that they really want to follow the aesthetics and presentation of 3.5 and older games, while borrowing some great ideas introduced by 4E, including at-will powers, a well defined mathematical framework, and an interest in balance.

On complexity:

  • Different levels of complexity for classes: There will be some clear choices for beginners, and more sophisticated stuff.
  • There was talk of labeling each class as common, uncommon or rare. This will be a function of how iconic a D&D class is (Fighters and Wizards are commons, Assassins are rare), and may also be tied to complexity (with higher rarities getting more difficult stuff).
  • Different levels of complexity within each class. Once again, the example of the fighter was given: A very easy to run fighter build will exist, but adding options and complexity to it will still be possible. The wizard is also explicitly mentioned as a not so complex starting build.
  • Buying complexity. By default, classes can get simple yet effective stuff when leveling up, like more damage or bonuses to hit. Players would have the option of trading these bonuses for new powers or features.

On balance:

  • Balance is  on their radar, and they seem to have put a lot of thought into it. They have a framework with estimates of average length of adventuring days and encounters, and at several times they mention figures for damage expectations of different classes.
  • That said, their approach to balance will be quite different from 4E. Whereas that edition had a common resource management system for all classes, this will no longer be the case for D&D Next. Expect wide differences in how each class handles its powers. Old school vancian magic for wizards and clerics has been mentioned as a prime example.
  • Another big change: It is no longer expected that all classes have to be equally effective in combat. Some classes may be weaker in combat but stronger in exploration or role play. More than anything else mentioned in these seminars, this seems to me to be the most dramatic change from the previous edition - though it remains to be seen how they will finally implement it.

What to include:

  • Initial goal is to have “Everything that has been in a Player’s Handbook I” from the start.
    Regarding classes, this means: fighter, rogue, cleric, and wizard (of course), but also assassin, ranger, druid, paladin and bard, as well as barbarian, monk and sorcerer (from 3E) and the more recent warlords and warlocks. That’s a lot of stuff!
    Psions are explicitly mentioned as being left for later.

On Magic

  • Vancian magic (the daily spell system used in all editions before 4E) is returning, and confirmed as the resource system for wizards and clerics.
  • No details have been provided, but I strongly believe that the system will mimic the classics in that there will be 9 levels of arcane spells and 7 levels of divine spells, and spell progression should look very much like this.
  • The main challenge for Vancian magic is preventing the “linear fighters, quadratic wizards” syndrome. The designers are aware of this, and are trying to deal with it.
  • One of the solutions implemented consists in removing spell scaling. As an example, Fireball (a 3rd level spell) will deal 5d6 damage regardless of caster level (when previous versions dealt 1d6/caster level, up to 10d6). The only way to gain stronger effects will be to use higher level spells.
  • For high level casters, instead of having dozens of lower level spells as in older systems, these slots will be replaced with higher level stuff. It is not clear if this will be the default behavior, or just an option, though.
  • Also, they are looking at average duration of encounters and adventuring day, and balancing around that.
  • Another crucial point: despite the Vancian system, casters will have access to at-will spells (so no more crossbow-wielding wizards!). However, these at-will attacks will be significantly weaker than their martial counterparts. Spells available per encounter also appear to be in the plans.
  • Ritual magic (useful but non-combat spells, like crafting, scrying or teleporting) is back. It looks like it will be open-ended and not as strongly tied to the wizard class as before.

On Aesthetics

  • The designers are carefully avoiding many 4E specific terms and definitions, in favor of older style wording.
  • Notably, there is no mention of “powers” for classes.
  • For the wizard class, at-will attacks are being called “magical feats”.
  • Power sources will no longer be explicitly mentioned.
  • Explicit class roles are very likely also gone (though this is speculation!)


  • Clerics are (finally!) getting split into two archetypes: the classic D&D holy warrior with heavy armor, mace and shield, which will be called cleric, and an unarmored divine character more focused on spellcasting, called the priest.
  • Magic items will be more rare, and no longer expected to be a part of character progression.
  • For multiclassing, they want it to be very easy and flexible, 3E style.


  1. Man, most of this just feel like the design is spinning its wheels, if not going backwards. The entire aesthetics section is ridiculous – when you give game mechanics names, it makes them easier to discuss and use!

  2. Seconded. It feels like 90% of this is going backwards.