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Scaling Complexity
Mike Mearls

A t the end of last week, we released the latest playtest packet. I wanted to talk a bit about the fighter class and how it fits into our overall plan to make as smooth a transition from simple options to complex ones.

For the fighter, the subclasses manage this transition. Take a look at the path of the warrior option in comparison to the path of the gladiator.

The warrior offers six special abilities gained over 20 levels of play, in addition to the fighter's core special abilities. They break down into the following categories.

  • Two of these abilities increase your chance to score a critical hit. These are fairly passive benefits that simply modify your normal attack. You don't make a decision to use them.
  • One benefit applies to the exploration rules. It makes the warrior good at keeping watch, helping to define the character's role when traveling.
  • Armor Focus is another passive benefit. You gain +1 to AC.
  • Devastating critical adds an additional wrinkle to your critical hits. It offers a choice of sorts, since the weapon you wield determines its effect based on damage type. This is an area where a player can decide to make this a choice by swapping weapons based on the situation. Players who don't care can just note the effect based on their favorite weapon.
  • Survivor is the final benefit, and it's the only one that requires round-by-round bookkeeping and tracking. Like most of the other benefits, it doesn't present a choice but is a static benefit in certain circumstances.

Overall, someone playing a warrior doesn't have many round-by-round decisions to make based on special class abilities. You still have all the freedom and flexibility that are part of an RPG, but your class doesn't introduce a lot of decisions to make.

In contrast, take a look at the path of the gladiator.

  • At 3rd level, you receive three maneuvers to choose from each round. Your reliance on superiority dice means you must weigh the benefits of using a maneuver against a standard attack.
  • Brutal display is another effect based off critical hits, so it doesn't add to the class's complexity.
  • At 7th level, you gain an additional three maneuvers from which to choose.
  • At higher levels, you gain more superiority dice and the option to roll multiples as part of a maneuver.

In contrast to the simple warrior, the gladiator offers a number of tactical options each round. If you like managing special abilities on a round-by-round basis, the gladiator is the fighter path for you.

Getting this part of the design right has been a major element of our work for the past year. It took several drafts and a lot of feedback, but I feel confident that we're hitting the mark.

It's important to remember that you don't pick a martial path until 3rd level. At 1st and 2nd level, most of your complexity comes from your background and your race. In essence, those levels give you the chance to learn your racial special abilities and bring your background into play as the key, unique elements of your character.

Compared to class, both race and background have more complexity early on but don't add any more at higher levels. As a player, your fighter features provide the basic distinction between you and other classes. In terms of your active abilities, though, your race and background play a much bigger role in terms of your total number of special abilities.

Ideally, your first two levels allow you to embrace your character's background and race along with the most basic functionality of your class. At 3rd level, you're ready to opt into a more distinct expression of your character class.

As you gain levels past 3rd, you gain more benefits from your chosen subclass and your class's core abilities. At this stage, you can also opt to choose between boosting your ability scores and selecting feats. We believe that most players will boost their scores first, then opt into feats as they max out their key abilities. In either case, players are free to opt for the complexity that feats bring or keep it simple.

Thus, you can imagine that the lifespan of a character looks something like this.

  • At 1st and 2nd level you learn the basics of your class, race, and background.
  • At 3rd level, you begin to specialize within your class.
  • At 4th level and later, you can decide to further customize your character or keep things simple.
  • At any point, you can decide to multiclass after 1st level.
  • Before you start play, you can also opt to design your own subclass, provided that your DM approves this choice. Subclass design won't be a science, but we can provide pointers and advice on which combos to avoid.

The really nice thing for new players is that they see only the transition between the focus on race and background and its transition to a focus on class. The other options are precisely that: options that they don't have to follow until they are ready for them.

One of the big issues that plagued D&D in the past was that running a long campaign holds a lot of appeal, but the rules inevitably pushed players to endure more and more complexity. That's good for some players, but not all players. Ideally, our design holds that at bay and makes it easier to keep gaming into double digit levels.

As always, all our work depends on your feedback. Keep your eyes open for our next playtest survey.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.
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I think that simplicity to start is very important, but the longer a person plays, the more comfortable they become at "rules-smithing". I have found as I sat around many a mean "table" that most are well above average intelligence, usually adept at math and memorization, and those same people went on to Pathfinder when 4.0 came out and it became much more "pew-pew" (simple)...too much so. I don't envy you in your job to balance complexity and ease of play, but each element, once a person becomes comfortable in their gaming skin has to be there to continued fun.
Posted By: Arunson (9/16/2013 3:36:16 PM)


I want to create a character in less than an hour, and when I level up, not have to read 8 chapters in 3 different books to keep my character from being a disappointing failure. Not everybody likes to read, and some of us have ADD too!
Posted By: RadperT (9/20/2013 9:33:34 PM)



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