Friday, June 1, 2012

You and me and 5e

We need to talk about the 5e playtest. We need to talk about...

  • Stonecunning
  • The Caves of Chaos
  • Which pieces of 4e we need to keep (hint: none)
  • The advantage/disadvantage system
  • Monster writeups
  • Endless Magic Missile
  • Stealth and Perception and Common Tasks
  • Always rounding down

That's plenty to consider. And that's before I've even run a session of it for the wife and kids; that may happen this weekend if we can fit it in between seeing The Avengers and playing Risk Legacy and watching Community from the beginning and... man, I live in the utopia imagined by my 12-year-old self. It's a good life.

But that still leaves us with stonecunning. It's not new to 5e; stonecunning is like a persistent ugly rash that manifests in every edition, and no amount of scratching or ointment can make it go away.

Why am I complaining about stonecunning?

Ya gotta grasp the inherent duality of existence. No matter how holistic you are, ya gotta grasp that the things you are is a list that doesn't totally overlap the things you learn. Nature is not the same as Nurture. You remember the Enlightenment, right? I'm not asking you to sign on to Locke's tabula rasa here, just to grok that what your body does is not the same as what your mind knows.

If a dwarf has wondrous abilities related to stones and earth and underground-ness, where did it come from? Is it some kind of Spidey-sense tingling, some odd biological/mystical thing that's inherent to being a dwarf, something that even an orphan dwarf raised on the high seas by dwarf-stealing pirates can do under the right circumstances? Or is it something that comes after being raised underground by miners and stonecutters, something that even an orphan centaur could learn if it was adopted by subterranean folk?

Stonecunning strikes me as #2, something you learn. That's how it works in the actual world. Sure, we can also posit some biomystico affinity for rockwork, but it's entirely possible to learn this kind of stuff through repeated exposure and practice, the same way that after 5 years of professional clerking I could cut a ream of papers to the exact page you wanted. Anyone raised by stereotypical dwarves could have stonecunning. It's cultural, not biological.

Why am I still complaining?

Because stonecunning has been something every dwarf gets. Balthazar the silk merchant, Applefeather the monk, Durgan the Axeblighter, Katada Demonbeard the wizard -- in a typical D&D game, all of them get some variation of this ability whether or not it fits. It's just what happens to dwarves. This means one of two things:

1) The designers believe that all dwarves have a fundamental affinity for stonework, something bred so deep into them that it's as dwarfy as shortness.

2) The designers just threw in a bunch of stereotypes that were swiped from Tolkien, possibly dressed up with a paper hat labeled "Traditions of D&D."

Neither of these is a compelling case for its presence.

Stonecunning is something that a character could have. No problem there, chief. We can bicker about the exact way the ability works -- letting stonecunning folk know "how to retrace their path" when underground is full of problems, especially in a game heavily influenced by the Dungeons Must Kill You crowd -- but it's legitimately something that could be fun. Stonecunning is NOT something that every dwarf and nobody else should have. That approach doesn't make sense the way that, say, a racial immunity to poison does make sense. It's just a lazy handwave in the direction of a pointless tradition.

In earlier versions, we fixed this by letting PCs swap abilities around until they got 'em right. Looks like that's what we'll have to do again. But a man can dream big dreams, dream of a game that takes things like stonecunning out of the "racial" category and puts them in a "background" or "training" category where they belong.

We'll talk about this again if we get to the playtest monster writeups. We may contemplate Justin Alexander's phrase "dissociated mechanics." The difference between simulation and emulation might even be considered at painful ponderous length. But the key thing is this:

Dwarf is something you simply are. Stonecunning is something you would learn. And if you'd learn it, it's not racially innate.

...unless, I guess, the intent has always been that stonecunning should be intrinsic to a particular race, and I'm just not reading the fine print closely enough to catch that. Which moves it from "wrong" to "stuff I think is kinda dumb." I guess we'll see.


  1. I'm fine with stonecunning being biological or inherent, I just don't like the ability because it helps trivialize mapping, which I think is an important part of some play styles. So putting it in one of the core races seems like a poor idea to me.

    In DCC RPG, dwarves can smell gems and gold. I think that is awesome.

  2. As written, it's going to cause some of the problems that the 3e spell Find The Path did. Sometimes getting lost, or the threat thereof, is important to an adventure (and fun to the players). If you've got a playtest dwarf handy and you're underground, that won't be an issue.

    Lots of things about the DCC RPG are awesome. The spell system is a lot of fun, as is character generation. I don't care for dungeons or high-lethality systems, so it's not a game I'd play very often, but it was fun to playtest. I wrote it up my thoughts on it last April if anyone needs even more of my opinions.