A (hopefully) comprehensive look at the pros and cons of Vancian magic

I know, I know, yet more virtual ink being spilled on the topic of Vancian magic. However, a lot of the blogs and forum posts I have read have either had very emotional responses, or have taken the conversation in different directions. I’d like to just keep the spotlight on the pros and cons of the system itself and its impact on players and playstyle. So here are some of the strengths of the Vancian system as I understand them and – in the interest of full disclosure – also some of my own ideas as to why I do not prefer it as a system (or at the very least, why I will not use it in my home game).

Definition of “Vancian Wizard”: To clear up any confusion, I use “Vancian wizard” to specifically mean “fire and forget” wizards who memorize most if not all of their particular magical spells  at the beginning of the day, casts them, and then forgets them until the next day. Those were the rules for wizards and some other caster classes in every edition of D&D up until 4e. They don’t have any kind of mechanism to swap or spontaneously cast any spell; what they cast is what they memorize at the beginning of the day, and that’s it. 4e happens to call this mechanic a “daily”. However, true Vancian wizards of the old school only had memorized spells available to them, without many fallbacks, and that’s what I am referring to. It sounds like D&D Next wizards are headed in this direction (depending what whatever feat trees they get for possible at-will powers).

In the recent DDXP seminar about classes, Monte Cook gave a couple of compelling reasons for going back to the Vancian system:

1) The Vancian wizard is iconic to D&D. The D&D wizard is unlike any other wizard. It is not Gandalf. It is not Dumbledore. A D&D wizard, among other things, is bound to their spellbook and uses it to their absolute fullest advantage. It’s been that way for nearly 40 years (especially if you play Pathfinder), and getting rid of the Vancian system would be akin to chucking AC, hit points, or any of the other little bits that make D&D distinct.

2) Vancian magic rewards players for careful forethought and planning. Wizards who knew where they will be adventuring for the day would (and should) prepare accordingly. If they will be delving in a tomb of some long-forgotten civilization, perhaps a Comprehend Languages, a Knock spell, or other exploration-focused spells would be useful. If they are fighting kobolds, some Magic Missles should do the trick. Tenser’s Floating Disc was a life saver in a dragon’s treasure lair. As the wizard goes on adventures and crafts his/ her spellbook, they constantly refer to their experiences in order to keep the very best spells in their book and, by extension, in their minds. How wonderful it was when the wizard prepared well and had the best spell at hand for the situation!

3) Vancian magic is a check against spellcasters getting too powerful. Mr. Cook did not mention this point in the seminar, but it definitely lurks in the background. Spellcasters who got too powerful really dwarfed other classes in earlier editions. Why have a rogue in the party when the wizard could cast Invisibility, Knock, Sense Traps, and all the stuff a rogue does? Why have fighters or other damage dealers when a wizard can nuke monsters before they knew what hit them? Rather, if wizards had to choose at the beginning of the day what they could do, then by definition they couldn’t do everything in a given day. It didn’t stop wizards from being able to do everything over the course of a week, but at least it gave other classes a chance to shine in an adventuring day.

I think that about covers the pro side. Here are my counter-arguments:

1) The wizard with a spellbook is iconic to D&D, not necessarily the Vancian one. I played a bunch of 2nd ed. D&D when I was younger, and I didn’t meet a single DM who used spell memorization right out of the book. My DMs usually used a spell slot system where a wizard could cast whatever spells in their book, or some kind of mana pool system (still drawing from the book), or a limited memorization system where the wizard devoted a spell slot to a certain school, like divination or evocation. Maybe I just didn’t happen to meet the many DMs who used it and loved it, but I think it is fair to ask whether spell memorization is truly iconic, or simply old school.

Similar to this point is that maybe D&D players want to play wizards from different fantasy genres. In the words of one poster on the official boards, it “fails to evoke the feel of the broader fantasy genre.” Maybe players want to be Gandalf, or Dumbledore, or Harry Dresden, or any other wizard from cinema, literature, or anywhere else. They all had limits and got tired, but none of them memorized particular spells before the day.

2) Vancian magic involves as much guesswork and getting lucky as it does planning and forethought. Sometimes adventures are straightforward, where the kobold cave is really just a kobold cave, or a social situation that could use an ESP or a Tasha’s Uncontrollable Hideous Laughter was on the plate. However, what if the day’s adventure defied expectation? What if the kobolds happened to be squatting in a tomb of ancient goblins who left inscrutable writings on every wall? What if a wizard was challenged to a magical duel to the death at sunrise, then the enemy pulled a fast one and made it a social challenge? There were LOTS of times when, if my 2e wizard had been stuck with memorization, I as a player would have felt really dumb and useless for memorizing the “wrong” spells. On the contrary, I LOVE when adventures take strange turns that I am utterly unprepared for – for me, that means the DM is doing a good job. Then when I pull out a spell that adjusts to the situation, I feel smart for being so adaptable!

3) There are other ways to limit the power of spellcasters.  The danger that a wizard did the job or a rogue or fighter better than those classes did is a very real one. However, I think the Vancian mechanism takes a hammer (you shall memorize these spells, and no other!) to a problem that might be better addressed with other tools. Limited spells per day, limited spellbook space, spell failure, the dangers of combat casting, some kind of fatigue system, or a hundred other mechanisms that others know better than me would seem to address the same problem.

Key Playstyle Question: So, is it more important for a wizard to be prepared before an adventuring day or adaptable during it? In essence, this is a playstyle discussion. There’s a ton that can be said about the “feel” of magic in D&D, the metaphysics of how it should work, and what not. But I am mainly concerned with the experience of my wizard players at the table, and also my own experience when I play a wizard (or cleric!). I am firmly in the latter camp, where I like to be adaptable and react to stuff in the moment. However, I acknowledge the good parts of the Vancian system, particularly that it appeals to older players of D&D who were put off by 4e, so I would settle for a core system of magic that embraces either preparation or in-the-moment flexibility, or somehow both!

I think that’s about it. Have I covered the pros and cons of the debate? Obviously I favor one side over the other, but I would like to represent the pro-Vancian side as faithfully as I can. I would love to know what everyone thinks.

Please, please keep cleric healing as a minor action!: An unbiased look at healing in D&D Next

(Puts on my player hat)

Full disclosure – I LOVE that the 4e cleric and other healers do their healing as a minor action. In every other edition of D&D, my cleric had to choose between healing and whacking something, or casting another spell. If the fight were particularly bloody, then I pretty much sat there and heal-botted. I hated that. D&D has always tried to make healing feel as heroic as swinging a sword or disarming a trap, but it really isn’t. It’s being a nurse, which I can do in real life very easily.  WoW gives the player a feeling of shooting shiny healing beams into a dude, which is satisfying in its own way, but in D&D I often feel like I’m just kissing somoene’s booboo. Sometimes healing is fun and exciting, but as an every-fight expectation it gets old. I especially hated that I had to use my whole turn for little old Cure Light Wounds. 4e has a wonderful mechanic where the ‘bread and butter’ heal is a minor action, and there were standard action options if I wanted to drop either a bigger healing bomb (i.e. Healer’s Mercy) or a heal that gives a buff (i.e. Defensive Rally). Maybe some of the minor action heal options got too good, but I’d rather play with scaled back versions of those heals than go back to the Cure Lights Wounds model.

The point is that I want healer classes to feel like healers, but also feel like adventurers. I don’t want to spend turns choosing between the two.

I recently spoke to someone about the other side of the argument, though, and they made some good points. Doesn’t healing as a minor action make clerics and whoever else more powerful? How many other classes get to do two things on their turn on a semi-regular basis? Also, in older D&D, healing was a lot rarer than it is now. By making healing a minor action, you are basically empowering groups to pound the door in and wade into combat with less fear of death. That might be good for some groups (and great for 4e players), but not everyone wants to play like that. Finally, one of the big criticisms of 4e is that the turns and the combats are too long, and lots of minor actions just added bloat to the turns.

Those were all great points, and I unfortunately didn’t think of a good reply until well after I finished talking to that guy (I hate when that happens). But I think that healing should be thought of as a class feature more than as an individual spell or power. LOTS of classes do two things at once on their turn, even in other editions. Imagine if a rogue had to give up attacking in order to apply sneak damage. Sneak damage and healing aren’t really that similar… or are they?

Maybe there’s a nice middle ground. Design small heals that can be done as minor actions, while keeping either bigger heals or heals that also provide some sort of buff as full round or standard actions. And encourage players with heals to take their turns faster! I know the game wants to recreate a retro feel, but even back then, I really, really disliked healing as a full action. Like I said above, I still want to feel like an adventurer, even when I’m healing. There’s lots that can be done to streamline the 4e heal-as-minor action mechanic without going back to the Cure Light Wounds bot. At least I hope so. Lastly, please have it be that way in the core game, from the beginning. Even at the lowest levels, healing should be a fun twist on being an adventurer in general, not just the main role. Id love to know what other people thought.

(Takes off player hat)

Inspirational Indexes for DMs, pt. 1 – Random Dungeons and Dungeon Templates

Wizards of the Coast has announced that they are re-releasing the original Dungeon Master’s Guide and other core first edition supplements. Those books have historical value with respect to the hobby, and proceeds from the books’ sale will go to Gary Gygax’s memorial fund. Both are awesome reasons to plunk down some money on them. Yet these books also have a functional aspect that has value even for DMs today – Appendices! Lists! Tables! Gygax’s old tables ranged from dungeon feature generators and random monster charts to lists of the herbs the PCs could find in a keep’s mess hall. DMGs of other editions included treasure lists if they had any adventure-specific indexes at all, but did not build upon Gygax’s idea much further than that.

As the Angry DM recently commented in an excellent blog over at the Critical Hits site, tables like these ooze with inspiration. They are grist for the proverbial mill, helping to kickstart a DM’s brain when they are stuck or providing a base upon which they may add any level of detail or complexity they wish.

With this spirit in mind, I would like to begin a series of lists to provides DM both old and new with idea fodder. I am currently pouring through supplements from all D&D editions as well as Pathfinder and a few other rpgs, and the result will hopefully be an informal master database of DM crunch that includes traps, terrain features, curses, diseases, etc. These indexes will be agnostic with regard to system and edition. They will also attempt to strike a balance between being detailed enough to distinguish entries from one another, but also general enough to make room for DMs to fill in their own details.

I could use your help! I’ll work on these lists and put them up as my time allows and as people demand (or not demand) them. But they will inevitably be incomplete. That is why I am actively encouraging the wonderful hive-mind of D&D DMs to contribute their ideas. Do you like the project? Are there similar lists like this somewhere in the interwebs that I may have missed? Do you have ideas to add to particular lists, or ideas for other indexes you would like to see?

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Inspirational Index – Dungeons and Dungeon Themes

For part one, here’s a starter index of random dungeons and dungeon themes. Even the most kick-in-the-door, combat oriented groups might remember their adventures more vividly if their chosen dungeon had some kind of history or personality. Raiding Dungeon X might be fun, but the PCs might be motivated to investigate the dungeon more thoroughly if it were the tomb of an ancient, powerful, and fabulously wealthy king. In addition, since the function of the dungeon usually reflects either the personality of the builder or an object(s) it is trying to protect, it will probably shape a DM’s choices of monsters, traps, etc. Pair these with some ideas for dungeon room descriptions, and you have the beginnings of an interesting dungeon without breaking a sweat!

Since dungeons change over time as events and visitors pass through it, I included some templates to lay over the dungeon. Nothing gives a sense of history more than layers of stuff reflecting the activity of different cultures or creatures. Maybe a crypt has been overrun by vegetation that exposes graves to the open air, or a coliseum is haunted by ghosts that eternally reenact a famous combat, or (my personal favorite) a ruined church has been taken over by a nest of vampires!

Comments, critiques, and proposed additions are welcome.

Organizing the Community for D&D Next

So WotC wants to make D&D Next an edition that busts through divisions in the D&D fanbase and unites us all in a common, excellent play experience. Because of my background in community organizing, my ears tingle whenever I hear about efforts to unite people, build communities and improve relationships. I’ll state my main point as simply as I possibly can: if WotC is truly serious about making the upcoming edition a “game for everyone”, then it needs to go above and beyond and do as much as it possibly can to build up the D&D community. Simply saying that they want more community involvement won’t necessarily get them there. The public playtests are a good step, but not enough. I believe that the goals and methods of community organizing can help WotC turn a real corner in its relationship with the fanbase.

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In a nutshell, a community organizer is an outreach worker that helps build up and energize communities so that they take some kind of collective social action. Our own esteemed President Obama was a community organizer. Traditional, civil rights-style community organizers targeted disenfranchised groups like unemployed farm workers, newly arrived immigrants, etc. Organizers empowered these groups to gather together, talk about their problems, develop political platforms, and eventually stage protests and do whatever they needed to do in order to change society.

However, a community organizer doesn’t have to restrict his or her work to politics. Their methods are useful wherever there are disconnects and fractures between community members, or between a community and some kind of powerful entity in their lives. In this case, the community is all of us D&D gamers, the powerful entity is Wizards of the Coast, and the ‘collective social action’ is buying, enjoying, and being fully engaged with WotC and their product. As evidenced by the fact that they are releasing a new edition, WotC is not entirely happy with the current state of their relationship with D&D consumers. And as a poll over at EnWorld shows, over 40% of the fanbase has either a neutral or negative attitude about this new edition. The fact that 60% of respondents like the idea of a new edition is a good thing, but WotC doesn’t only want to appeal to 60% of D&D players; they are (rightfully) trying to appeal to all of them. The ideas and methods of community organizers can help move that needle towards the goal of a happy, engaged, and self-motivated fanbase that truly feels that D&D is their game.

So without further ado, this is what I would do if I were community manager of WotC:

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I. The overall goal: Build relationships. This is absolute, non-negotiable, critical core of community organizing. It is what separates community organizing from corporate marketing. The D&D fanbase needs to trust that WotC doesn’t just want to sell us a bunch of stuff, but that it actually cares about our gaming experience and wants to deliver the best product possible. WotC is a business and must achieve certain financial goals to keep going. However, building relationships and selling merchandise are not mutually exclusive. For example, I am happy to spend money at Steve’s Bagels, my local bagel shop, not only because they make incredible bagels, but they also give me free coffee and let me read the newspaper for free while I wait in line. As an added bonus, Steve (who is indeed a real person) sometimes makes time to chat with me about life, the universe, and everything. I feel like Steve’s is my bagel shop. I’d like to feel the same way about the company that makes my favorite hobby game.

Another truism of community organizing is that good relationships breed motivation. When people feel like they are doing something in their best interest, which in this case is buying and playing the best game possible, they will do a lot of work themselves to insure that it is indeed the game they want to play, and that it spreads to as many people as possible. In essence, the goal is for the D&D community to sell WotC’s product to itself and to others. The active, engaged community is so energized that it becomes a de facto ambassador of the game, both to its own members and to outsiders. In the ideal world, community organizers don’t exist; communities are vibrant enough to get together and make things happen on their own. That’s a difficult goal, almost impossible to sustain. But having this goal in mind would shape how WotC approaches its customers, and how its customers approach one another.

II. The method:

a) One-on-ones: In reality, there is no such thing as a “D&D fanbase” apart from the individuals that make it up. A person or company can write articles, make speeches, and talk to “the masses” about building relationships until they are blue in the face, but truly deep and lasting relationships are built from a very personal foundation. If I were community manager at WotC, I would identify a cross-section of leaders and active members of the community and make at least 30-45 minutes with each and every one of them to see what they truly want out of their D&D. That could be in person, by phone, by skype… the point is to make time to insure that people’s voices are not just heard in a general way, but directly heard. The best case scenario is that the interviewee has wonderful insights into the game that can enrich the design process. But even if that person offers nothing new, they will remember and appreciate the conversation. Multiply that by however many hundreds, and all of a sudden, you have a group of people that feel a real connection to what’s going on, and they hopefully share their experience with others.

The key to effective one-on-ones is knowing that they are not tools to datamine for feedback on design concepts, like playtest feedback is. WotC’s current paradigm with that playtests is that gathering feedback to improve the game is a primary goal, and hopefully consumer trust gets built up along the way. I’m not knocking that. It’s a great thing. However, they should be paired with one-0n-ones and other similar conversations, where the main point is to build relationships.

As far as who should be interviewed, the recent December playtest of D&D Next involved some bloggers, media members, and industry insiders. That is obviously a great place to start. A dedicated community organizer, though, would try to go beyond the professionals and get a good cross section of the different D&D players at the grass roots level. That means having one-on-ones with local FLGS owners, frequent forum posters on the official site and elsewhere, organizers of D&D groups on sites like facebook and meetup, and finally, just regular old DMs and players. Getting to a number of interviews that is comprehensive yet manageable is very difficult. So is actually executing a good interview. Believe me, I know that all of that is a TON of work. However, there are no shortcuts to building good relationships.

(Connected with building dynamic relationships, I feel that either the D&D Next design team or people associated with it need to be more visible than the occasional newspaper article or post on the official site. Why aren’t they more involved in the official forum dedicated to D&D next, or in other informal channels? There might be very good reasons why that I do not know, so I’ll just float the idea out there and leave it at that.)

b) Tasking: At the end of a one-on-one conversation, a community organizer doesn’t just say goodbye. Instead, they try to get a commitment from the person to attend a meeting, or call a few friends, or do something else that insures their continued engagement. If you want to get people to do big things, get them to do little things first. WotC has done a pretty good job with promoting itself through public events like the living campaigns, D&D Encounters, and various conventions. Continuing to get people involved in those is a great thing. The playtests are also a perfect way to engage people. There are many other ways to engage people in this vein that, of course, depend on available resources.

Further, D&D players like to tinker “under the hood,” as Rich Baker put it in one of his last Rule of Three articles. The place for that level of engagement is traditionally within the pages of Dungeon and Dragon. Perhaps WotC can encourage more supplements and online resources that offer similar content that might engage creative, productive writers. Finally, there is the whole issue of engaging people’s creativity on a very deep level through the OGL. I’d rather not touch the individual pros and cons of the OGL, but the fundamental issue of OGLs in this context is that people will feel more connected to something that they’ve worked on, or that respects the work they do. If that doesn’t come through a pure OGL like the one that existed in 2000, then D&D Next should incorporate some other outlet to engage D&D players’ under-the-hood creativity a little more than they were able to in 4e.

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Phew, that was long! Hopefully you all made it to the end, and it helped that I put a lot of my main points in bold and italics. There are admittedly next-level ways to engage the community, especially the whole piece about one-on-ones. If WotC puts out a great product, people will come and the community will build itself naturally. However, I believe that a vibrant community is a meaningful end in itself. It doesn’t make sense to try to get the community to a certain level of happiness with the game and with the community, and then stop there. Good relationships are their own reward, and will sustain the brand through missteps and tough times as well as good times. All direct efforts with the specific goal of community building bear fruit in their own ways. At least, so says this community organizer!

An Ode to the DM

Let the DM be the center of attention once again, since that intrepid man or woman is why D&D is different than MMOs or any other video game.

Support the DM, that bearer of great imagination, power, and responsibility, through thick and thin so that they may craft the game that they want to play (and that they can get players for).

Give unto the DM advice for combat and tactics, ideas for world-building and storytelling, knowledge of the rules and how to break them properly.

Support old DMs and entice new ones.

Teach DMs to be good DMs, because bad ones are so poisonous to keeping good players interested in our hobby.

Help DMs develop the humility to respect the sacred social contract that is a D&D game group, the courage to make the final decision on each and every aspect of the game they wish, and the wisdom to strike a proper balance for their tables.

And finally, if ever there came a time where DMs rise up and say they are not having fun, let the earth shake, mountains fall, and valleys fill with the wrath of developers and game designers who set things right and insure that DMs continue to be the main reason that all D&D players have fun.

Yes, WotC, be excellent to your DMs.

What is a DM, really?

Over and above all the hats a DM wears, a DM is someone who provides D&D players with an immersion into an adventure. Various editions of D&D have tried to explain in a nutshell what a DM is, often within the confines of three or more DMGs per edition, but I believe that the absolute essence of DMing a D&D game boils down to those two words: immersion and adventure.

With regards to immersion, the 3e DMG distinguished kick-the-door-down dungeon delving from deep immersion storytelling. I get what they were trying to say, but I think that the whole spectrum of possible games should involve some sense of player immersion. When I used to watch a TV show called The Shield, or just when I heard the opening credits, I immediately wanted to go out and kick someone’s rear end. I don’t normally go out and punch random people in the face, and I’ve achieved mixed results at best in real fights, but man, did that show get me amped up. The point is that I would get so engaged with the vibe of the show – which was to kick a lot of butt – that I sometimes forgot myself. That’s what the best D&D games are all about – making players forget themselves and immerse themselves in their characters and in the adventures they are undertaking. Whether they are immersing from a story perspective or from a combat-tactical perspective, it all counts.

As the days roll by and the countdown to D&D Next keeps ticking, I’m hearing a lot about how this new edition will take advantage of something that no board game or online game can ever duplicate – the DM. I’m hoping that the new edition gives a lot more support to DMs than 4e did. In particular, as The Jester very eloquently put it in his 12 things 5e needs to do blog, the new edition needs to not just be open to roleplaying and story, but needs to actively encourage it.

From a big picture perspective, active encouragement means repeatedly emphasizing in the printed materials that the DM’s main job is to provide an immersive adventuring experience for his or her players. Ask any teacher – people learn by repetition, whether the repetition comes from practice or from hearing and seeing it over and over again. The 4e printed materials said all of the stuff that I’m saying about immersion, but it didn’t repeat it. In fact, 4e’s presentation inferred the opposite – there were so many rules that both players and DMs were afraid to touch any of it for fear of throwing other stuff out of whack. Besides learning how to DM, therefore, I think that there needs to be some direct engagement, deconstruction, and “un-learning” of some lessons that DMs and players got from 4e in the new printed materials.

From a nitty-gritty tools perspective, that means giving DMs specific resources and advice to tinker with their games as they see fit. Even for games that are 80% kick-in-the-door combat or above, there are ways to weave small details and storytelling elements into combats in such a way that the players forget themselves and become immersed in the experience. It could be through the skill challenge combat (kill the orcs while saving the princess), or through narrative descriptions of the action, or through rewarding players who want to do outside-the-box stuff (“My friend is about to die! Let me use my action point to jump in front of him and absorb the blow as an interrupt, please?” “Sure!”). Again, 4e never actively discouraged this stuff, and experienced DMs were able to do it naturally. But the education of new DMs as well as older ones is always ongoing, and a steady stream of tools, advice, and ideas are always welcome.

It seems like this is the direction in which the new edition is going to be, which is a good thing. I write this in the spirit of someone who wants to emphasize and continue the message so that it never gets lost in what I’m sure will be a barrage of new stuff to buy. D&D Next will welcome all players, from Shakespeare to Ceasar, and DMs everywhere should have the tools to dunk them all into out-of-body, escapist adventures that they (hopefully) won’t forget.

Where 4e Succeeded and Failed for DMs, and some suggestions for DnDNext

In one of the many articles about the announcement of DnDNext, Mike Mearls made a statement about the edition as a whole that particularly applies to DMs in 4e: “In some ways, it was like we told people, ‘The right way to play guitar is to play thrash metal,’ but there’s other ways to play guitar.” Maybe the analogy of thrash metal wasn’t the best one because it sounds like a very grognardy criticism of 4e – it is so mechanically loud and noisy that it’s practically impenetrable for those who want to chill out and listen to/ play something a bit more accessible.

I do believe, though, that Mearls hit the nail on the head that 4e was great for a specific and intentional ‘golden playstyle’ of games and DMs – the ones who liked to spend 50% or more time in combat, and who had PCs that were between mechanically terrible and highly optimized (what I call “solidly built” ). That DM could trust that a gang of at-level monsters was a decent challenge for those PCs, unlike in previous editions where a CR 10 monster could have been absolutely anything from a pushover to a world crusher. Monster roles made organizing monster groups really easy, and monster powers meant that DMs didn’t have to craft a bad guy’s spell list or do any of that kind of stuff. Further, there was p. 42 of the DMG that laid out all the relevant damage numbers, and also the chapter that made leveling monsters up and down really easy. DMing in 4e is fun, especially if you were an experienced DM that was able to weave together some RP elements into combats (like in-combat skill challenge). Poking around the blogosphere and podcasts, lots of long time DMs agree that DMing in 4e was a very user-friendly experience for them.

However, DMing became a lot more of a pain in the you-know-what if you weren’t in 4e’s specified wheelhouse. Specifically, for DMs who wanted less tactical complexity to make even more room for roleplaying, and for DMs who wanted more tactical complexity to keep up with optimizing PCs, 4e did not support either in any real way. It managed to come up short for both types of DMs!

For those who wanted a less complex combat system so that they had room for funky, interesting characters (cleric/ rogue, anyone?), or for those who wanted to do emphasize world building, exploration and other deeper roleplayer-type stuff, 4e didn’t provide a lot of help. Especially with 4e’s early books, there was so much crunch, so many rules, so many combat-lengthening options, etc. Granted, it didn’t intentionally hurt roleplaying and creativity as some contend, but the medium was definitely the message here. Plus, there is only so much time in a session. If most of it is spent calculating attack bonuses, figuring out exact movement to set up flanks, or arguing whether immobilized and grabbed were the same thing, that’s time not spent negotiating with the dragon that’s doing the grabbing, or imagining RP alternatives to the whole situation.

On the other side, I think that 4e didn’t do much to help DMs who were happy with the tactical end of things (or more accurately, who were happy that their players were happy), and wanted more options to help make better encounters. Player options spiked while monster options kind of stagnated. Players got wonderful online tools that kept powers, feats, and items organized, and forums both official and unofficial readily directed players to the best options, combos, and tactics. I think they finally got around to fixing the online monster builder about a month ago. I remember being overwhelmed while DMing for an optimized LFR party and then looking for the Monster/ Encounter Optimization board or something similar for advice on how to counter PC tactics. I found nothing. I will go as far as to say that official 4e DMing advice was very naive, almost dishonest, about the ways in which players could break 4e’s intended power curve. Increasing player power isn’t necessarily bad. I want players to be happy and feel powerful if that’s fun for them. But some real tools to help monsters keep up, or real advice on mechanical fixes to bring PC power back in line (for home games), would have been great.

Since we’re at the phase where lots of people are putting together their wishlists for 5e, and since we hope the powers-that-be are reading this stuff, here’s my DM-centric wishlist:

1) Keep what was good for DMs about 4e for those who loved it. As I said before, 4e was a huge success for that golden middle of groups. Please find ways to keep that good stuff.

2) Strip down the basic combat system for DMs and groups who want to spend more session time on roleplayer stuff, or on weaving together combat and RP. Once again, many experienced DMs have done this by instinct. But those DMs could always use more resources, and newer ones sure could use the help. Sounds like this is the direction D&D Next is going in, so no need to comment more here.

3) Release a book entitled The Dungeon Masters’s Strategy Guide that gives real advice about how monsters work, how to craft encounters, how to craft houserules, and how to adjust threat level up or down beyond just adjusting monster math. That resource could also have more monster themes and templates, more encounter templates, a database with traps, curses, diseases, terrain features, and environmental effects, (coupled, of course, with online resources that supplement what would be in here), and more. The DMGs of various editions had some that stuff, but they are necessarily and rightfully general, dealing with crafting good stories, managing interpersonal group dynamics, etc. That’s awesome, but please do not shy away from crunch from those of us who loved it!

4) Release more DM-centric content in general, especially in terms of online tools. Some of us are old hats and don’t need a lot of support. But if we want to grow the hobby, we need more tools for DMs to do the best job they can.

There are LOTS of DMs with LOTS of different tastes and styles. Get to know the full spectrum, and print stuff that supports all kinds. Please everyone. That is all.