So I hear D&D 5th edition is coming out. I hear there is a risk of it being called “D&D Next” but that seems too dumb to be plausible, so I’m going to assume it’ll just be called “Dungeons & Dragons”. I’m not sure why the ampersand is so important but it totally is. Anyway, if I ran the circus, here’s what I’d do:
Basically 4th edition is pretty decent but it’s got some issues, mostly flavor ones, so the question is how to fix those and get back to an older style without losing the reasonable stuff. I think the main issues that need something done with them in terms of flavor are magic, healing, skills, and character classes (but aside from that, everything’s great).
In 3rd edition magic was too separate from non-magic (you can affect non-magic with magic but not vice-versa), while in 4th it’s too similar (the arcane keyword means almost nothing, and you can’t look at a power and tell if it’s magic or not). The ideal is that magic and non-magic are separate but there’s still two-way interaction. So, magic can make somebody invisible in a way you can’t do without magic, but that invisible person isn’t undetectable to a non-magic person — they can listen for footsteps or throw flour or whatever, and a person of equal level to the invisible mage has a good chance (not just a chance) of spotting them, and with prolonged hanging around, they’ll definitely spot them. Magic can make somebody fly, but not in a way that puts them out of reach of somebody on the ground. Magic can lock a door, but somebody without magic can still pick the lock. And note that this all applies to magical monsters, too — medusae can turn people to stone and dragons can breathe fire, but not in a way that can’t be avoided by somebody non-magical with some skill. More about this later in classes, but this is the philosophy.
Healing. More about this later too, but basically I think healing during adventures is weak-ass and 4th edition’s expansion of it was a mistake. Like, you can see their reasoning: if there can be multiple encounters a day and the characters lose strength after each one, you don’t know how powerful the party will be for a particular encounter. But that’s D&D! Unbalanced fights are great! In fact, they’re a reward for skillful play earlier, or a penalty for non-skillful play. I’d go even farther, though — healing ought to be something that only happens during major downtime, like when you rest for the night, not something that can be handled easily with a spell (but 1e/2e went too far with non-magical healing being so slow — you shouldn’t have to sit around more than a week unless you got seriously fucked up; probably healing like 10-20% of your hp a night is the right ballpark).
Actually I think skills are mostly fine in 4e. I’d probably just cut the cord and make them a separate resource from combat stuff entirely, though — forget being able to spend a feat to get more skills. Just say you can learn N skills, and the GM can easily adjust N based on how skilled they want the characters to be. And put in an explicit rule that characters can learn new skills with in-game training.
Basically, look, skills in D&D have two points, flavor and niche protection. Flavor is where you put the skill on your sheet because you like what it says about your character — “my dude is a fast-talking gambler” — but don’t actually expect to use that skill in practice (though if there is a gambling situation you expect to be able to do well). Niche protection is where you put the skill on your sheet because it’s a situation that actually comes up in the game and you want to be the dude that people look at: “Hey, it’s a locked chest, time for Bob to step up”. For flavor picks, your skill in absolute terms doesn’t matter because it comes up so seldom and not generally in crisis situations, and in fact you’re probably not putting it down on the sheet unless you’re either 1) really good at it or 2) really bad at it. So just let people give themselves whatever skill level they want.
For niche protection picks, your absolute skill level matters, but you don’t want people to be able to get too far ahead or behind their level in, say, stealth for the same reason you don’t want them to get too far or behind their level in to-hit rolls — you have to be able to challenge the party as a whole in a skill, and you have to be able to have somebody fill in if the main guy is out. So for niche protection skills, that’s where you go with the 4e thing about they’re half your level +5 if you’re trained or whatever. So the dude trained in it is always your first choice, but if they’re gone or multiple people need to roll, things aren’t impossible. And you have some ‘aura’ rules for things like stealth where the trained guy can give everyone else a +2 or whatever.
After all these steps character classes fall out as pretty obvious. Mages stay pretty much the same as 1e-3e — they memorize spells and carry spellbooks and wear robes, that’s just how shit works in D&D. Keep the rituals from 4e because those are cool, but they don’t cost any gold to cast — things are just rituals because (basically) they require an adventure to be able to do because it’s cooler that way, or because they’re something you can only do back at base, not in the dungeon. They don’t get any spells that auto-hit except maybe magic missile because, hey, magic missile — normally all their stuff can be dodged, evaded, blocked, etc, by a skillful enough opponent (which means that against an equally skilled person, it’ll take multiple spells to get through their opponent’s defenses, just like a fighter takes multiple hits to down their opponent).
Clerics are the same as 1e-3e again, but they can’t heal, because as mentioned healing spells are lame. But they can still bless the party and kick ass among the undead and all that stuff (I realize this is another thing that unbalances encounters depending on whether you have a cleric or not, but unbalanced encounters aren’t bad*) and should still be cool.
*Unbalanced encounters are bad if you get xp for killing monsters, but that sucks, as does xp for treasure. 5e should go to totally mission-based xp, and if you (the GM) want to make the mission be “kill a troll”, then there’s your killing-based xp.
Fighters, now here we get a little different. As mentioned way back in the first point, non-magical folks have to have a way to cope with magical folks. So to start out with, fighters get a bunch more skills than they did before, so they can do all the athletic and acrobatic stuff you expect, and in addition they can spot invisible wizards and dodge lightning bolts and otherwise cope. Also we get rid of weapon specialization — fighters can pick up any weapon and be good with it because that’s what they do, and also they need to be able to swap weapons around to shoot down the flying wizard or hold off the dragon with a longspear or whatever. So weapons and armors are the fighter’s tools, and they get different moves with them that gives them something more interesting to do during combat (“hunh, this golem’s skin is harder than I thought, better switch to a hammer” is exactly what you want a fighter to be saying). If you want, give them the 3e thief’s sneak attack ability, which is exactly the right amount of tactical maneuvering for a fighter to be doing in combat.
Thieves are bogus as always. They’ve always been my favorite class but more for the flavor and the endless fiddling they allow (so many percentage points to allocate to thief skills!) than for actually being decent characters. Basically the problem is the theoretical model is Bilbo, who is atypical as an adventurer and hence not a good model. So instead pick somebody like the Grey Mouser or Zorro or Batman: thieves are small, fast, good at combat but can’t rely on brute strength, and dabble in other areas to pick up tricks. In other words, you build them off a fighter chassis, with the intent of them being just as survivable in combat, albeit with a different style (presumably lower hit points, no armor skills, more limited weapon selection, somewhat different set of skills although there’s more overlap than you’d think, and then they can pick up some bonus abilities in gadgets or magic or acrobatics or charm, depending on style).
So that’s what I got! Realistically, even if 5e was exactly like this I wouldn’t play it myself — D&D characters are too incompetent on the low end and have too many fiddly bits on the high end — but I think it’d do a decent job of pulling in people who liked older editions while being different enough to be worth making a new edition for.