I’ve working on a little filler game of D&D, and I’ve run into an interesting little wrinkle this time around, in which a couple of the players want outside-the-box options, like moreso than usual. And while I’m happy to oblige, even if it makes more work for me, it has led me to some interesting thoughts on the role a character’s “kit” (or the abilities provided by their race/class combination) plays in the broader metagame considerations.
One of the players wants a 3rd-party race whose signature bit is wings. The ability to fly, especially at low levels, is one that tends to generate a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in D&D, because so much of what happens on a tactical level is dependent on your interactions with the map. A character who can fly bypasses pits, ignores difficult terrain, can go right over climbing/jumping obstacles, etc. This is expected behavior for 5th+ level heroes, but completely negates a lot of the initial “just learning to survive” challenges that 1st level heroes are expected to face. This is a powerful signature bit– but at the same time, 5E has an underlying philosophy of “let the players do the cool thing,” and so do I, so we bashed around the ability a bit until we got to a state where it was useful and cool but not game-breaking.
Another player, basically wants MMO-style crafting (which is an issue the same player was having in my regular campaign). Magic item creation rules are something that existed in 3.x/PF, but are conspicuously absent in 5E, and I think the real reason for that is that it creates a lot of “rules overhead” for the DM compared to the actual amount of use it’s likely to see at the table. Crafting of any kind (including the spaceship building rules from Traveller, the Summoner class from Pathfinder, or all the everything of Champions) is a fun game-within-the-game for a non-trivial segment of the gaming population, made of up mathy engineery geeks who love having systems to stress and break– but it’s something of a headache for everyone who isn’t among their number.
For this player, I suggested the Artificer class. This adds the crafting subsystem that they want, and makes it their “cool thing.” In my e-mail discussions with the player, I explained my thinking thus:
[5E is] written primarily to make life easier for the GM after decades of rules-heavy systems. (And really, the entirety of the OSR is kind of a reaction to the same issues.) GMs spend so much time coming up with NPCs, scenarios, neat images, etc., that they often don’t have the mental bandwidth to spend lots of time on system mastery beyond what’s absolutely necessary for the immediate task in front of them. Detailed magic item creation rules in that context only exist to keep the players from running amok and spamming the world with vorpal swords. The GM doesn’t need any such stuff.
I think we’ve talked before about how the real currency in any tabletop game is “face time”– i.e., who gets to do the cool thing when, and how often? To that end, I’d say, if you want crafting and fiddling around with the ins and outs of your items be what time in the game is spent on, that’s fine, but that should be where your character’s mechanics are (hence pointing at the artificer class). Somebody who doesn’t care about crafting and just wants to punch badguys, makes a fighter. Someone who wants to engage in all the social stuff, makes a bard. Their class choice defines how and where their face time will be spent. Adding on a whole subsystem to a game that only one player really gets into, while they also get the face time benefits of another class, is where the real “imbalance” would start to come in.
This led me to thinking in broader terms of a character’s kit, and how the choices a player makes when creating their character really inform the game that you will actually be playing once the group comes together. The character’s kit is where the concept (“a heroic warrior” or “a wily rogue” or whatever) interface with the game construct (the numbers you have to roll on the dice to achieve your desired story goals), and point to the sort of things the player wants to be spending their time in the game doing. The problem comes when your player’s mechanical choices don’t synch with what they actually seem to want to do.
In a game I had some time ago, I had a player who had a tendency to want their character to be able to fill every role all the time. Said player made a rogue who would immediately run up to the biggest monster in the fight and try to tank it; the same player made an archery-based ranger who was forever wading into melee, and a mad scientist in Deadlands who kept getting into one-on-one gunfights. In short, he wanted to be the one Doing The Cool Thing all the time, regardless of what his character’s abilities actually were.
This just doesn’t work in a group game, and in fact will pretty much always backfire. I kept trying to throw “Here’s your chance to do the Cool Thing!” moments at the player, but their character was either engaged elsewhere in a losing battle that didn’t match their kit… or dead, because they’d brought a rapier to a greataxe fight. When you build a character, you have to commit to putting that character into situations where they’ll be playing to their strengths! You also have to be able to sit back and applaud when some other player is doing Their Cool Thing. If you’re a rogue, and the group is being swarmed by zombies? That means it’s the cleric’s turn to do the Cool Thing. You’ll get your chance in the Chamber of Deathtraps.
Similarly, when building a character, think about what you want to be doing in the game and build a character to suit. If you know you want to be up front cleaving your foes and sucking up damage, then you should probably play a barbarian, not a bard. If you want to dynamically mess around with your character’s kit and have a something in your pocket for every challenge, you should probably play a wizard so you can tweak your spell selection. If you want to be Indiana Jones/Lara Croft, play a rogue, not a cleric. Think about what your character’s Cool Thing is, and build your character’s kit around that. (And let the other members of the group have their own Cool Thing. It’s not always your moment to shine!)