don’t make me refuse the ice cream

October 12th, 2011 by paul

When you're asking me what I want for dinner, don't offer me a choice between, say, carrots and ice cream. And when I'm choosing a feat, don't make me choose between, say, improved Diplomacy and +1 to hit in combat. Combat is ice cream, and I'll choose ice cream every time. And I'll make myself sick.

Separate the combat and noncombat abilities into two different courses. Give me a main course, where my dwarf fighter can choose between, say, the ability to detect new construction or slanted passages. Then for dessert I can choose between +1 to hit or +2 to damage with my trusty axe.

I know a lot of people will say that overindulging on combat abilities is a player problem, not a rules problem. Sure, if you're disciplined, and you have a strong character concept, you might turn down the cool sword in order to pour money into your barony. And there are always a few people who genuinely prefer the carrots of character flavor to the sundae of combat optimization. But a lot of people are like me: given the choice, we'll choose the ice cream and then feel disappointed that dinner didn't feel nourishing at all. The perfect system would save me from my gluttony and force me to eat a balanced diet.

Given "Don't Make Me Refuse the Ice Cream" as a design principle, here are some requests for 5th edition D&D.

You shouldn't be able to buy combat-boosting magic items. Rory's excellent magic items article makes a lot of good points, this among them. If it's possible to buy a sword with a bigger plus, then that's the ice cream, sitting there ruining the rest of the menu. Versatility items, like wolfsbane, rituals, and flying carpets, and fun story items, like castles and battleships, shouldn't have to compete with +5 swords.

That's not to say that noncombat "story items" require loose, improv rules. Rules make D&D combat inherently rewarding, and that will be true with subsystems as well. If I invest in a castle and army, agonizing about whether I should get 50 knights or 200 spearmen, I expect my decision to matter. You shouldn't be able to buy a +5 sword, but maybe you should be able to buy, say, a +5 castle.

You shouldn't have to choose between combat and noncombat feats. "Linguist" is the veggies and "Weapon specialization" is the ice cream. They should be in separate courses: maybe you choose a combat feat at even levels and a noncombat feat at odd.

You shouldn't have to choose between a striker and a support class. Strikers are the ice cream. When playing Shadowrun, I noticed that my group tended towards one combat-weak character with social skills, and four combat-oriented street samurai. Clearly, it would be better to have five street samurai, each of which specialized in a different noncombat skillset. The same goes for D&D. Instead of choosing between an id-monster striker and a responsible but boring leader, every class should have striker abilities, as well as a useful secondary role: tanking, healing, range, or mobility. Each class might get its striker damage bonus in a different way: the rogue by flanking, the fighter by punishing someone who ignores her, the cleric by blasting those who ignore his divine commands, and the wizard by getting far enough away from enemies that she can concentrate on perfecting her spell.

Spells and powers are - uh - fine. 4e separated spells into attack powers, utility powers, and rituals. This fixed the "cleric only casts Cure Light Wounds" and "wizard only casts Sleep" problems that caused so many cool level-1 spells to languish unused. The only change I'd request is that utility powers be even more noncombat-oriented. Many utilities give bonuses to defenses and temporary hit points. These are only useful in combat. The coolest utilities grant abilities that are useful out of combat: high jumps, disguise, pickpocketing, stuff like that.

10 Responses to “don’t make me refuse the ice cream”

  1. Jason says:

    Paul,

    Great post. I’ve been considering magic items in my campaign a lot, especially after that Monte Cook post, and I’m happy to see the issue attract more commentary. The magic item system in 4e is easily the worst thing about the system, and the feat system is second. (I adore 4e, for the record.)

    Taking noncombat feats at even levels is an idea that has some support among 4e nerds – my concern about it, and TBH I have not examined it that closely, is that I’m not sure the system supports it well enough. Are there enough worthwhile noncombat feats to give players an equal amount of them? There are only so many times you can take Linguist, or Skill Focus, or Expert Ritualist, or so on.

    There are plenty of interesting, yet mediocre, combat feats that languish because nobody is ever going to waste a feat slot on them. I’d like to see them get some love too. One idea I’ve had about them is to transform them into alternate magic item rewards. A feat like, say, Luck of the Gods will be taken by absolutely nobody at level-up, but it could make for a cool bonus ability to be gained in-play via a divine boon, grandmaster training, or etc.

    I love your idea about a +5 Castle, and its unfortunate that a system like that, as far as I know, has never been successfully part of D&D. I believe Mearls feinted at something like that in L&L some months back, and I’d be very pleased if 5e had a fully implemented, rewarding stronghold system.

  2. Macrochelys says:

    In my experience, things like Carpets of Flying are the crushed nuts. Although to the DM they are meant to be put on the salad, every player is going to want to put them on their ice cream. Terrible analogy aside, what I mean is that any significant item that isn’t too big to take through a doorway will be used in combat. The wizard will never step off his flying carpet, the rogue will want to apply wolfsbane to his dagger.

    But otherwise I agree. I took Linguist with my first 4e character (after DMing the first few years) and after a couple levels I couldn’t stomach it anymore and swapped it out for Hafted Defence. Bland flavour, but it satisfied my desire to stop chewing carrots while everyone else had dessert.

  3. paul paul says:

    Jason: In 3e I planned to grant totally randomized feats as treasure, and/or as a level 1 bonus feat. That way, some never-used, weak-when-they-were-published feats from later splatbooks might actually get used, and push characters in interesting directions. I even wrote a script that chose the random feats. Never played with that rule, though, since 4e came out soon after. I still think it’s a good idea to give out bonus feats as a form of character-inherent treasure that’s more exciting than inherent bonuses.

  4. paul paul says:

    @Macro: Agreed, truly separating combat and noncombat is totally impossible. Even if 5e attempts it, some ability will come out halfway through the edition that lets a bluff check be used for an attack roll, and then optimizers will all pump their bluff non-combat feats. Still, noncombat features that have situational combat uses are possible to balance with out-of-combat benefits, I think, where “+1 to every attack” press their heavy thumb on the scales.

    If this system doesn’t stand up to the heavy optimizers, I don’t mind so much. I consider myself squarely in the middle ground between “unstructured roleplay” and “char-op board”, and I think this separation would benefit us moderates the most.

  5. aamedor says:

    I totally agree with this philosophy, the merging of combat statistics into a group of mainly roleplaying elements is a pain. Also I like the idea of the second course

  6. Jack says:

    I disagree that 4e did the powers right. I originally thought that 4e should have combat and non-combat powers available each level, but that’s the carrot/ice cream problem again. Now I think the problem is that characters don’t get enough noncombat powers. If utility powers are veggies, then increasing the number of utility powers is forcing people to eat their veggies instead of gorging on ice cream.

  7. Dave says:

    I agree with Jack that it’d be nice to have more non-combat powers. Unfortunately, I find most non-combat powers to be rather bland, as it’s mostly just, “you gain a +x bonus to some skill for one check or until the end of the encounter”. Can’t people come up with anything better than a numerical bonus? I’m looking at incorporating things like the “stunts” from Spirit of the Century.

  8. anaxetogrind says:

    I think 4e tried the combat/non-combat spell approach they called them rituals and are overlooked by players as much as it was during this discussion. Even adding Martial Practices to martial players hasn’t fixed the issue. I see hundreds of blog and forum posts trying to get players interested in the non-combat power in the form of rituals.
    In my own game giving rituals away with a once a day free casting without casting cost hasn’t enticed anyone to explore this non-combat option. Even eliminating the clunky system and obvious GP drain hasn’t encouraged my players to research and utilize them.
    Sometimes veggies are just veggies and no matter what players aren’t going to swallow them.

  9. [...] make me refuse theĀ ice-cream: Paul did a post on this idea. Basically, when presented a build choice it shouldn't be a decision between a crunchy [...]

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