Friday, May 20, 2016

Vancian cows, part 2

So if after reading my preliminary post here, you were perhaps expecting a full, 20-level non-Vancian caster class for 5e, I may have to disappoint you. That would take some serious deconstruction, though I might actually work my way up to it (The warlock is a good start, fwiw). What I can do is share some ideas of how to limit daily resources without resorting to spell slots or "once per day" type limitations. Amazingly, 5e does a good job of sort-of implementing all these ideas, without ever committing to them fully. Maybe I was wrong in the last post; perhaps the folks at Wizards chafe against Vancianism as much as I do, but feel obliged to keep those elements for legacy reasons. Or maybe they just haven't realized what they've stumbled upon, or some combination of these things.

Anyway, here are some basic concepts for anti-Vancian homebrewers, with examples of how 5e uses them, plus some ideas on how to expand on them further.

1.) No limits!

I remember an observation about early console video game design, the gist of which was that it took designers years to get out of the mindset of designing for arcade machines instead of for the new console medium. You had things like lives and failure screens that made sense when you were designing for arcade quarter-grabbers, but less sense for the home market. It was a habit that was hard to shake even though it was bad design because that's the way they always did it.

I think sometimes RPG designers put caps on usage of certain powers for similar reasons; not because it is thoughtful design, but because it's just something you do. They should stop this! Luckily, a lot of 5e cantrips have broken this habit of design. You would almost never take something like Prestidigitation in 3e D&D because there were better ways to use your limited 0-level spell slots. But in 5e you can use it as often as you like, and I couldn't imagine playing a wizard without it. What you can do with the spell is just so neat!

One could take this a little too far such that one's power design really should use some sort of resource. But it's a good question to ask: does this power really need to be capped? And if so, how should it be limited?

2.) Skill check

This is a good limitation for short effects. 5e attack cantrips usually work this way: you make a "spell attack" check against AC, just like a combat class makes a regular attack. The limitation here is that you can always attempt an effect, but there is a chance it won't succeed.

This could work with some other concepts besides attack. Think of something like detect magic: in Pathfinder they made it a cantrip that worked automatically and made sensing magic trivial. In 5e it's a spell slot for that reason. But why not make it a specialized use of the Arcana or Perception skill? The wizard can always try to detect magic the same way a rogue can always check for traps; she just might not succeed. Or consider charm person: it already has a chance of failure if the target makes a saving throw, so why limit it further? It's no fun attempting to charm, failing, and losing a spell slot for your trouble. You can always include language like "if the target succeeds its saving throw, it cannot be charmed by you for 24 hours" so you can't just keep spamming it. And if you're worried about casters charming tons of dudes, just use...

3.) Concentration

I really like the concentration mechanics in 5e, the idea being that casters can only focus on one effect that requires concentration at a time. There are various ways one can involuntarily lose concentration, but I'm less interested in those; it's more the idea of a power being limited by the other powers in effect.

For example, picture a caster class whose spells all rely on certain zones he creates where his magic emanates. They could be summoning portals, teleportation portals, areas-of-effect, all sorts of things. He can cast any of these any time he wants, but he can only maintain so many at a time. Unlike the 5e concentration rules, he may be able to maintain more than one effect, but the point is he'd still have a reasonable cap on his powers. There's a little bit of accounting, but an order of magnitude less than if he were using spell slots or the like, because they are being managed round to round, not throughout the adventuring day.

4.) Stances

This is a little similar to point 3. You enter a stance or state of mental focus that grants you a certain power but keeps you from using other abilities. The classic is the Barbarian's Rage: you get bonuses to Strength and damage and some other things, but you can't cast spells (I think a few more limitations might be in order). Cleverly (I say, because I swear I had a similar idea years ago), Rage in 5e is maintained not by tediously counting the number of rounds you have raged, but by attacking something each round. This, coupled with maybe needing an action to resume your Rage after it has ended, I believe would obviate the need to limit the number of times you can Rage each day.

A few other examples of stances in 5e include the Dodge action, the Great Weapon Master feat, and the Sharpshooter feat. Pathfinder has a Stalwart Defender prestige class that lets you enter a stance that give you an AC boost and some control effects, at the cost of being unable to move. The stance concept has a lot of interesting possibilities.

5.) Free powers as resources

The playtest for "D&D Next" (i.e. 5e) included an interesting idea related to the Rogue's sneak attack, the classic ability where the Rogue gets bonus damage dice by exploiting certain tactical situations. In the playtest you could forgo using those dice to fuel certain powers; maybe you could attempt to trip a target, for example, or give advantage to the next attack against it. In other words, the Rogue can use Sneak Attack whenever she can, but she can also always choose to give up Sneak Attack in exchange for something else. I guess they decided the Rogue didn't need any powers like this, but that doesn't make the idea unsound. I wish the Battlemaster Fighter worked this way; instead of treating Superiority Dice like disguised spell points, have them deal some amount of damage every attack (or every round, depending on the size of the die). You can then use the Battlemaster's powers by forgoing this extra damage. It's a cost, but the resource is something that feels "free," so you can always try it without feeling like you're losing something.

6.) Time

This one may be a little controversial, or suitable for only the most dedicated anti-Vancian. So far we don't have a good way to cover high-level, high-power spells. Assuming we still want to include them, the best way to limit them may seem to be an arbitrary cap on their daily use; that is, the rules as written. In this case it even makes a certain amount of narrative sense; how many times have we seen magic-users in fiction "go nova" in some desperate strait and become exhausted or otherwise unable to cast any more spells?

But another possibility is using time as a resource. You want to perform a high-level scrying spell? Fine, but it may take you all day to focus on it. Want to cast a spell that can nuke a small army? Sounds good, but that might be all you do that day. This is also supported by fiction; picture the cabal of cultists trying to pull off some highly difficult summoning spell while the heroes try to stop them, or the heroic wizard maintaining a defensive shield while his allies in turn try to protect him from the enemy guerrilla bands that managed to sneak through before the shield went up. 5e already has a rituals system that could easily be adapted for this sort of thing just by increasing the casting time.

Again, maybe you don't mind the Vancian stuff at high levels like this even if you like some of the other ideas on this page. I totally understand that. Just be aware that there are other possibilities!

Epilogue on healing

The biggest challenge for the non-Vancian designer is how to handle healing and damage. From a mechanics standpoint, damage is a threshold of success. It represents how long an RPG party can perform poorly on a per-encounter basis and expect to continue their adventures without consequences. Not to mention that intuitively, unlike spells and abilities, damage is one thing for which one really feels ought to have an upper limit. If damage can always be erased by healing, what's the point of even tracking it?

There are ways to futz with healing so that it feels less Vancian, by making the ability to heal essentially unlimited but limiting one's ability to be healed. This is what 5e's hit dice are essentially about, and one could expand on that concept so that healing powers don't feel like as much of an exception to a generally non-Vancian powers system. But they still would be different, and it may be impossible to get around that.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

An intro, and an anti-Vancian diatribe

Welcome all! It's another RPG blog, hurray! This is a spinoff of my fantasy minis blog, where I had done some blogging of this sort before, but since I've gotten into D&D 5e and the homebrewing thereof, I've decided that this sort of thing needs its own bloggy space. So welcome old CFM friends, and welcome to new friends as well! In the near-term I'll start sharing new homebrew projects and reposting old Heartbreaker posts from the older blog, which will still have much to offer, by the way.

Now that the preliminaries are out of the way, let's really start things off by slaughtering a sacred cow.

A Cow Named Vance

I realize that many D&D fans don't mind Vancianism. For them, keeping track of the particular uses of spells and abilities for their characters and not being able to use them after a set number of times per day is like the air they breath. It's hard to even notice it as a thing, and if it's considered at all, it may even be gently approved. After all, it's a straightforward way to limit abilities that are too powerful for repeated use, and it's hard to imagine other approaches. What other options could there even be?

Before I answer that, let's define Vancianism. One of D&D creator Gary Gygax's favorite authors was Jack Vance, whose Dying Earth series became a model for magic in his new game. Gygax's approach was that wizards and other magic users would prepare a fixed number of spells each day, cast them once, and be unable to cast them again until the next day. It is as though each spell were a memory that casting the spell makes you forget. Usually in RPGs we think of "Vancian magic," but really any ability can be Vancian, whether mundane or arcane, if it has the words "per day," or "per encounter," or "before a short rest," or some phrase denoting uses limited arbitrarily by time.

It's pretty much the main way to limit power use in most d20 games. And it's simple enough idea, right? So why do I emit exasperated sighs every time I see the phrase "once before a long rest?"

It's Unrealistic

This is where someone says, "We're talking about a game where wizards and Shaolin warriors steal treasure from dragons, and you want to talk about what's realistic?" But yes, we can absolutely talk about "realism" in such games, if we understand realism to mean something like "behaving in accordance with the tropes and genre conventions of fantasy fiction." Now obviously something like Vancian casting works in the worlds of Jack Vance. That's basically a tautology. But any other fictional mages work this way? Gandalf, Merlin, Baba Yaga? The hedge mages of the Black Company, the Aes Sedai of the Wheel of Time, whatever idiosyncratic magic users Brendan Sanderson* is working on this week? They may be limited by time, resources, or other means, but none of them find themselves simply unable to use a spell they cast five minutes ago simply because they cast it. (*Okay, the Mistborn could plausibly be modeled by something like spell slots, especially how they are implemented in 5e. But there are other problems; read on.)

It's even worse for non-magic guys. If a sword slinger is limited in the number of times he can use a particular maneuver, it should be because of tactical considerations, not because he hit an arbitrary cap. Yes, you could argue that such a cap is an abstraction of these considerations, but this is often unconvincing in actual gameplay, and there are often more interesting ways to model such things.

It's Tedious

Maybe some people really like marking down every time they cast a spell or use some other per-diem resource. Maybe players of the 5e Paladin class, for example, find the epitome of playing a heroic shining knight of virtue is in counting spell slots, channel divinity uses, and hit points from their "Lay on Hands" pool. Maybe I'm grossly underestimating the appeal of such metagame accounting. But I doubt it. I suspect the reason players do this is because they know of nothing else, and would readily jump at the chance to try a better way if there was one.

It's Disappointing

Imagine entering the evil lich's lair, intent on upending his foul plans once and for all. This is your life's apotheosis, the moment you literally were created for (since you only really exist on a character sheet, after all). You raise your holy sword and utter a divine imprecation against this anathema as you prepare to smite him from this mortal plane. Only you can't, because you're out of smites for the day.

Vancianism says you can't do something cool because you've already done enough cool stuff today.

It messes with the narrative flow of a campaign

Perhaps you've heard of the "five minute adventure day." If a wizard runs out of spells, and the only way they can be restored is by taking a long rest, then he's going to want to take a long rest as soon as he can. The player is not being a jerk, or a min-maxer, or anything like that; he's behaving exactly the way a Vancian wizard would behave if he was thoughtfully trying hard to survive. This can really derail the sense of urgency that drives a lot of the sort of drama D&D is supposed to model. Of course, the DM can move the story in such a way that taking a long rest is impossible just when it would be optimal, but that's actually sort of cruel, plus I find that when the solution is "let the DM fix it," that's just another way of saying "we don't actually have a solution."

It's thoughtless design

I almost said "It's lazy design," but laziness implies knowledge preceding a preference not to act. If someone in the woods is starving but doesn't know how to hunt or forage, it isn't laziness that's keeping him hungry; it's ignorance. By thoughtless I actually mean "without thought," because with a few exceptions I really do suspect most d20 designers haven't even recognized these issues as problems, let alone thought about how to address them. And it's frustrating because there are lots of non-Vancian mechanics for limiting powerful abilities that designers could easily adopt if they ever thought to do so.

But, you ask, what might those mechanics look like? Patience, dear readers!