The Magic Tree


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By James Treu


Ed Stark points out that 3rd Edition (3E) books often were rules heavy and flavor light, resembling textbooks.  They say in this edition they are trying to change that.

4th Edition(4E) is trying to give Dungeon Masters (DMs) “ways to tell any story you want to without having to work around the rules.” (p. 53) And also “to move away from bogus parallelism” in designing monsters and places. (p. 62) As well as “making every aspect of the game more fun, playable, and more compelling.” (p. 81) To avoid “games that push back, that drive the player away from fun or interesting possibilities.” (p. 91)  No more feats with the same small or bland flavor of Dodge, for example (p. 91)   “The rules aren’t there as straitjackets, but to help you build a party that works well together.” (p.  94)

Designer Mike Mearls is aware of the pitfalls.  Here’s his insightful comments:

“1. The designers fail to see the full impact of the rules they’ve made.  A rule in isolation might look fine, but combine it with other aspects of the game and it falls apart.  It sounds find that a Player Characters (PC) who tries to stand up provokes, but it falls apart when you add in Improved Trip and spiked chains.  D&D falls victim to this all the time.”

“2. Fun loses out to some other concern.  I hate games where it’s common for one player to lose a turn.  It’s a clumsy, un-fun penalty.  At least with a negative modifier or restriction the player still gets to do something.  And the best games make (even) losing fun.”

“3. Consistency trumps common sense.  People like to throw around the word ‘elegant to describe rules, but elegance doesn’t necessarily equate with good or fun rules.  Is chess inelegant because all the pieces move in different ways?  Too often, we equate elegance with consistency.  To me, elegance is using the minimum amount of effort to achieve the maximum of fun.”  Presumably without destroying willing suspension of disbelief, as that would impact the fun as well.


The new DnD “base world” is like Swords & Sorcery’s Scarred Lands setting in: 1) diminished emphasis on alignment conflict 2) primordials/gods conflict and the way the gods defeated the primordials, plus many primordials who are only dismembered or imprisoned and awaiting release or recovery by mad followers 3) reduced numbers of gods and much more focus 4) a central aspect of reincarnation 5) “points of light” in a dark world 6) focus on the heroes, not the non-hero NPCs.  Makes me feel a little vindicated for liking the Scarred Lands setting idea (even if I wasn’t always thrilled about the execution).

Key concepts (WotC calls them “conceits”)

1.. The DnD world has no real world analog, just elements of it.

2.. It’s ancient.  Lots of empires have come and gone. 

3.. There are “points of light” in a dark and mysterious world, and no one race rules the world, or really much of anything.  Most of the world is dangerous and relatively unknown wilderness, ruins, “phasing in and out” places from other dimensions, etc.  Any travel between the town and kingdoms that do exist “sticks to a small number of lightly used roads” (p. 14) (presumably used by adventurers and brave, well protected merchants). 

4.. Monsters are of course in the wilderness, but even in some civilized sections, like the griffons the dwarves ride.  The monsters all have an ecological niche and a decent backstory.

5.. Magic is not everyday, but is natural.  However, it “should never cross over into the silly or replicate modern conveniences: We don’t want ‘magitech’ such as aracane elevators and air conditioners, or flying sea serpents to put out fires.”  Minor magic might not be uncommon, “but powerful and experienced practitioners of magic are far from everyday.” (p.13)

6.. With alignment mostly gone for most people and monsters, and no spells to tell whether something is aligned or not or how it is aligned, you judge a creature by its actions or know its nature (e.g. demons are always evil).  Furthermore, if you ARE aligned good, you are an active champion for what’s right, not merely a “supporter.”

7.. Most gods are remote and detached from the world.  They might have exarchs and angels who act for them, but they aren’t usually over concerned.  The gods can be encountered, fought, and maybe even killed by epic class adventurers because they aren’t omniscient or omnipotent.  Yes, they grants spells to clerics and in some sense “hear” (and occasionally respond) to the prayers of their faithful, but since the afterlife is not a “system of divine reward and punishment,” their focus is altered. 

8.. The world has one sun, one moon, so players can easily relate to certain basics.

9.. Few to no general race attitudes between each other.  And humans are not dominant.

10.. The “Fantastic Locations” line that WotC has been putting out is going to be the norm in 4E.

11.. There is less evil fighting evil.  The blood war and other such aspects are drastically muted, as Wizards of the Coast (WotC) doesn’t “want to waste space on things players can’t use” and aren’t important or fun to the players.

There are two more concepts which are technically part of the setting, but special enough to deserve separate mention because they go to centralities of the design:

1.. Adventurers are exceptional, the “pioneers, explorers, trailblazers, thrill seekers and heroes of the D&D world.  Although some non-player characters might have a class and gain power, they not necessarily advance as the PCs do, and they exit for a different purpose.  Not everyone in the world gains levels like the PCs.  An NPC might be a veteran of many battles and still not become a 3rd level fighter; an army of elves is largely made up of nonclassed soldiers.” (p. 13) Makes one think, great, they’re the center of attention.  But “even the members of the smallest villages, fortunately for them, have a few capable individuals and a bit of magic at their disposal. (p. 19) Yet if it’s just minor (hedge) magic, which apparently it is, no sweat.  The players get to be heroes at the center of attention, not iconic Non-Player Characters (NPCS), and that’s terrific.  What is NOT addressed is how to control powerful PCs from running amok.  If no one can touch them in power, what’s to keep them from becoming dictators or abusers of whatever area they’re in?

2.. “It is generally harder to die than in previous editions, particularly at low level” but “when a heroic tier player character dies, the player creates a new character.  A paragon PC can come back from the dead at a significant cost.  For epic tier characters, death is a speed bump.” (p. 14) And monsters and NPCs almost never come back from the dead, unless the DM has a good reason.  No more of the throat slitting/corpse burning after battle modus operandi silliness to prevent your enemies from being raised/resurrected.  You don’t read fantasy novels where people, even heroes, continually come back from the dead, so with the new parameters you can have “classic storylines revolving around the search for immortality, soul bargaining, and the quest for a lost soul.” (p. 47) It’s the DM who decides if soul is still hanging around for being contacted or brought back, and where that soul might be. (p. 47)

The setting takes the burden off DMs to keep up with both politics and metaplot.  No significant realms or political boundaries.  And with so much of the world relatively unknown between those points of light, DMs are both relieved of the burden of planning and filling in every portion of the world map, and can instead just design a few and leave the rest for later.

The animus is the third element of existence, along with the body and soul, and is the bridge between the two.  It is the “seat of animalistic desires and survival instincts” and other strong emotions. (p. 53) Most undead, even so called sentient ones, are powered by this animus, although truly special undead will retain their souls.  It’s what speak with dead” talked with in 3rd Edition. 


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