Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Few More Observations on Next

One of the interesting things in RPG's outside of playing them is the turning of the wheel in how abilities, classes, skill systems, task resolution, and all of the different parts that go into a game change over time and sometimes end up curving back almost to an earlier point in RPG development. For example, so many of the things we were eager to shed about early D&D (like level limits) are now viewed as essential parts of those games by many in the OSR. Outside of the OSR I'm not sure if some of these things are retro or just cyclical but there's a big  "changeback" coming in Next.

In Next we witness the re-ascension of the Ability Score - something once so atrophied that M&M 3 dropped it entirely (making the bonus the "score" that goes on the character sheet) is now the primary method of task resolution in D&D Next. Conversely Character Level, which had become a dominant mechanical feature by 4th Edition seems to be declining in prominence with Next.

In Basic and AD&D we used ability scores for quite a few areas where the game was not specific. Between things like the old Bend Bars/Lift Gates percentages and Saves vs. Poison there weren't a ton of physical activities that demanded it but it did come up sometimes. Early on I know we used 3d6 vs. the score but this was quickly deemed to be pointless as there were so many 18's floating around in those days. We jumped to the d20 pretty quickly and stayed there into AD&D 2nd edition, which pretty much formalized that system with non-weapon proficiencies mostly being a similar approach - roll against the relevant attribute. 

Once Third Edition unified the bonuses and everything was modifier + a d20 vs. a DC some started to question whether we needed ability scores any more. With 4th Edition it evolved into modifier + level (or half level) + a d20 vs. a DC. and then especially with point builds for all characters it all seemed to point to the original ability scores disappearing. It escalated in 4th to the point that "Level" was the single most important number on the character sheet - even ability scores (and thus modifiers) went up as the level increased. In contrast, an AD&D fighter with 18/00 Strength  had a pretty strong signature feature regardless of level. 

Next appears to be de-emphasizing level in a big way and in a strong contrast to 4th Edition. Assuming that skill levels do not increase significantly with level (something we have not yet seen) and that ability scores do not rise significantly with level then it's definitely a flattening of the power curve. A 1st level character with an 18 score and the relevant skill could be just as capable (and possibly more capable) as a 6th level character with a 12 in the same score and the skill - this would not be the case in 4th. Also, Abilities are now used defensively as well as the game drops the triad of Fortitude/Reflex/Will and just uses abilities as saves against specific effects - Constitution for poison, Dexterity for lightning bolts, etc.

It seems like a pretty obvious path in some ways, but they could have gone the other way and dropped the 3-18 ability score altogether as some other d20 games have done. I never thought it was likely - one of D&D's stronger tropes is the 18 ability score - but I don't think any of us saw some of 4th Edition's mechanical changes coming either.

So I'm not sure where it will end up but Next is clearly heading down a different path than 3rd & 4th. Right now (despite my several posts) the detailed mechanics of this one aren't my primary interest as much as the willingness to embrace the past that I'm picking up in WOTC's communications. I'm interested enough to ride along and see what happens next.


Arkhein said...

I've noticed the same thing as well. I believe Mearls stated that they were dropping the automatic level increases from 4e. One of his posts - I don't remember which. I much prefer it, as it gives more 'life' to monsters for longer periods in the PCs adventures, and allows the spread of levels within a party to be wider, and still have the lower leveled characters feel effective. Well, in theory, at least. :)

- Ark

Blacksteel said...

I remember that comment too and it probably will help, but I don't remember low-level monsters being much of a threat to mid to high level characters in AD&D either. Next right now has a weird mix of retro flavor and current-thinking mechanics. It's still strange to me to see some 4E style concepts next to a statline that looks like it came from 1st Edition.