One of the best feelings I have when reading new material is when I see an innovation which makes me think, “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?” I got that feeling when initially perusing 3E on two matters. The first was Armour Class scaling upwards and being the target number. So obvious – so brilliant. And the other was the 3E Wizard being able to use higher-level spell slots to cast lower-level spells.
I know I’m cheerfully ignoring that ascending AC had been suggested and used before. And possibly other systems that allowed the same kind of spell-casting as the wizard. Identifying true innovation is tricky. Ultimately, I tend to think ideas are innovative when they haven’t been done before in a particular system. What’s is ultimately really important for a game is to have the best mix of ideas, regardless of where they came from.
For the D&D Next version of the wizard, the “innovation” I like best is incredible. You have a number of spell slots of various levels (as in original D&D through 3E), but they’re independent from the spells you prepare at the beginning of the day. When you cast spells, you can cast any of your prepared spells, as long as the slot is high enough – and low-level spells may be more effective when you use higher level spells. So, if you have three first level spells and prepare sleep, magic missile and Tenser’s floating disk, you could cast three sleep spells during the day and nothing else, or one of each of the spells, or two of one and one of the other…
This flexibility, in a lot of ways, combines the sorcerer and wizard from 3E. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it somewhere before, but playing with it just confirmed how fun a mechanic it is. Of course, one of my biggest problems with D&D Next is I’ve never actually experienced it as a player, only as a Dungeon Master. And, let me tell you, being a Dungeon Master gives me a very different view of mechanics.
The game of D&D has two primary forms of balance. If you’re a DM, you’re very concerned by the balance between the monsters and the players. If combats are too hard or too difficult, you find out about it pretty quickly. Likewise, if the skill system doesn’t provide the right level of challenges for the party, you also discover that pretty quickly! One of the biggest disappointments about 4E for me was the Skill Challenge system. Why was it a disappointment? It wasn’t the basic idea of it, which works at treat. The problem comes from the mathematics behind it. Put simply, a skill needs a different chance of success if you need only one success to if you make five checks… and judging how difficult a skill challenge actually was is incredibly difficult. The mathematics are tricky even for people who understand them. The maths behind combat is even more complicated, but because you do a lot more of it, you get a lot more used to how it works.
Incidentally, the best innovation in 4E was identifying that challenge of monsters relies on both level and number. The Challenge Rating system of 3E falls apart horribly because large number of monsters are meant to be more difficult, but due to the quick change of AC and Attack Bonuses between levels, the maths falls apart once you get more than 4 monsters in a combat. A group of 8 monsters is likely to be unable to hurt the party. D&D Next deals with this by having flattened maths (bounded accuracy), which also is a good way of doing it.
The other form of D&D balance is the one the players will notice more than the DM. It’s the balance between player characters. If I’m in a game where my wizard can never do anything, but my friend’s fighter is always doing stuff, then I’ll notice. This isn’t to say that the DM won’t notice either, but it is hard to judge this from the other side of the screen. The players will most likely notice first.
4E had a very strict way of imposing balance, giving identical number of powers to characters of the same levels. Well, mostly. Previous editions were happy to have the characters work in entirely different ways, and that’s what Next is reverting to, although being a lot nicer about skills for the characters. The big question I have is how the Wizard is going to end up compared to the Rogue and the Fighter in usefulness over the course of a session. The initial signs are good – cantrips allow the wizard to contribute even when not casting their big spells, and the fighters and rogues have been very effective in combat. In the case of the rogue, perhaps a little too effective. It seems very easy to hide and snipe from cover… but that might be a too lenient interpretation of the stealth rules on my part.
D&D Next has wizards with a lot fewer slots, but it seems to keep those slots useful longer. Is this the right balance? At least Wizards do feel wizard-like to me. My first character in D&D (back when it was 1st edition) was a magic-user, and I keep an eye on the class. So far, so good!