One of my goals in this little experiment is to demonstrate that at its core, 5e is just a bunch of mechanics. The reason this is important to me is that once seen as simply mechanics, there is a tremendous amount of freedom that we have as players of the game to describe those mechanics any way we want to.
At a fundamental level, this is why I prefer older versions of the game and the retro-clones that emulate them — they deal mainly with mechanics rather than the special effects those mechanics represent. It frees those of us who play the game to interpret those mechanics to look the way we want them to without all the effort that I am putting into this little project.
For someone like me, the level of detail that 5e goes to when it describes what their mechanics look like is an unending irritation. For example, one of the 1st level spells available to the TLoS fighter is Hail of Thorns. We are told that:
the spell creates a rain of thorns that sprout from your ranged weapon or ammunition
What if I want it to be a troop of fey that appear and fire their weapons with my character? Or what if I want the plants of the area to throw parts of their leaves and bark at the creature my character is firing at? Why can't the arrow hit the ground in front of the target and then explode into hundreds of little thorns into the face of the creature? There are all kinds of ways the mechanics of this spell can be described and rather than allowing imagination to run wild with the rules as written, I am forced to ignore hundreds of pages of fluff.
Enough whinging...here are a pair of .PNG files that redefine the 5e mechanics for the Ranger and turns them into an evocative version of the fighter, in the spirit of BX:
Having grown up in the 3rd edition era and only later discovered the OSR, my perspective on the nature of "special effect" descriptions in RPGs is apparently somewhat different to yours. Not necessarily better or worse, but perhaps more in line with what Wizards had in mind when they wrote 5e. At the very least, it means that to me, your "hail of thorns" questions above all have very natural answers.
As you're no doubt aware, modern editions of D&D contain a lot of different spells, feats, abilities, etc. (This is a conscious design choice in 5e, done as a concession to the 3e and 4e players who tend to enjoy having lots of options. It's a different style of play to OSR, and discussing what it appeal is would be beyond the scope of this comment. Suffice to say it's an unavoidable element if you want to appeal to 3e/4e players, even those like my group who lean towards the OSR in other ways.)
So 5e contains lots of content. Too much for the GM to really understand all of it before the game begins. Oh, you'll probably have a vague idea of how all the classes work, but...well, I've been running 5e for several years now and my players still cast spells I've never heard of every now and then. So you can't go through and figure out how every spell in the game will work before the campaign starts. (The only way to do this would be to pick out a small handful of spells and ban all the rest of them, as you did above. But this wouldn't be something a group with a more modern playstyle would want to do, and 5e is supposed to be fun for those players too.)
The official fluff is there to make sure the players and the GM are on the same page about what the spell does. If they aren't, there are two problems that can happen. First, the player and GM may have different ideas of how the spell works, and only discover this halfway through the game. At best, this will pull the player out of the game and break suspension of disbelief. At worst, a player might find they aren't able to do something clever with the spell which they thought they could (e.g. firing a hail of thorns arrow through a keyhole to explode the lock), or might miss an opportunity to do something clever because they didn't realise the spell was capable of it. The second issue is when neither the player nor the GM have any idea what the spell is actually meant to be doing. Both of these are quickly dealt with in OSR (there aren't many spells, so it's easy enough to work out how your GM is interpreting them. And there aren't any sorcerer-style spellcasters who have to choose all their spells before the game begins and then can't change them, so it's not a big deal if a spell turns out not to work the way you thought.) But in 5e there are too many spells for that, so we have to give an official description on how the spell works if I just write it down on my character sheet and try to cast it.
But that's all the fluff is there for - to make sure everyone has some consistent understanding of what's going on. So if you want to do something different, go ahead. Just make sure the GM and players are on the same page. So if you're the player, you ask the GM for permission before changing the fluff, and the GM will allow it if it fits the tone of the game. Ideally you do this when you first learn/prepare the spell. If you're the GM, and you're changing a spell the players can choose rather than just giving an enemy a unique ability, then let them know that the spell is changing and in what way.
To add to my previous comment: all three of the "alternate" hail of thorns you suggested would be fine in my game. (Well, strictly speaking the first one wouldn't because fey aren't really a thing in my setting. But eh, details.) But all of them would require tweaks to more than just the "special effects" sentence. To really work, I'd argue they all need tweaks to parts of the spell entry that you'd find even in a proper OSR game.
"What if I want it to be a troop of fey that appear and fire their weapons with my character?"
- Mechanically that makes sense, but the name "Hail of Thorns" alone carries the implied fluff that the extra damage is coming from thorns, not arrows. I think I'd want to rename the spell if I was fluffing it like that. "Faerie Arrows", perhaps.
"Or what if I want the plants of the area to throw parts of their leaves and bark at the creature my character is firing at?"
- As written, the spell can be used anywhere, not just when plants are around. Unless you want it to conjure the plants from nothing (like entangle does in 5e) you'll need to rewrite the mechanics to require plants nearby. As a player, I'd definitely feel unfairly treated if the GM told me halfway through the game that he visualised "Hail of Thorns" as being exploding tree bark and so I couldn't use the spell in the dungeon. Also, I'd say it should do bludgeoning damage, not just piercing.
"Why can't the arrow hit the ground in front of the target and then explode into hundreds of little thorns into the face of the creature?"
- I think that one is actually an option with the normal hail of thorns, per the spell's official mechanics and fluff. Just target the ground below your enemy. (I think the convention in 5e is that such attacks require you to hit AC5; or a generous GM might let you succeed automatically). This would mean you wouldn't need to hit the enemy's AC; on the other hand you'd miss out on dealing damage with your actual arrow. Technically the spell says it triggers when you hit a "creature", but I think most GMs would allow you to intentionally target the floor if you wanted to.
I really appreciate this approach to gaming, because there is an itch that can only be scratched by "mechanical builds," and I am just as guilty for scratching that itch as the next guy; however, my generation of gamer scratched that itch with games outside of D&D and often times with war games. I spent many hours building cars for Car Wars, for example. Personally, the main way I have scratched this itch over the years is Champions, which I chalk up to why I am such a stickler for pure mechanics vs. fluff. When building a Champions character, the fun part is trying to explain a concept mechanically and getting creative about it. Thus, even when the fluff is intended to get people on the same page about how a mechanic works, I still see it as getting in the way to my creativity and as a limitation.
Thus, when it comes to the way I like to play D&D (both as a DM and a player) I prefer to have severe limits because less is more. A world that uses these kinds of constraints (at least in my experience) really comes to life because even the surprises can be easily comprehended because of that "limited" framework. When I come across a spell, to use your example, that comes from outside a world's framework it shatters a very important aspect of literature, movies, and RPGs: suspension of disbelief. When a world has rules that explain why there are dragons and magic and wizards we can all suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in the story or the game. The "new school" splat book and the myriad of options (while scratching that itch for the mechanical build) makes suspension of disbelief nigh-impossible for me. I don't have the kind of fun you do paying in that sort of game and it isn't something I would ever want to do as a DM.
I kind of agree about not wanting to use D&D for that kind of thing. Besides anything else, it does kind of break the game if you optimise too strongly. There's a reason that "theorycrafting", making a character without any intention of ever actually playing them, is so popular over on Giantitp. Personally I enjoy using Pathfinder for optimised character building, but it's...at best a pain to run, especially if someone actually plays an overpowered character like that.
Out of curiosity, do you think you'd still feel the same about 5e if it relegated its fluffy descriptions to a "Suggested Fluff" line, and perhaps included two or three different suggestions?
Incidentally, have you heard of Spheres of Power and Spheres of Might? They're third party addons for Pathfinder, which presumably wouldn't be of particular interest to you, but there's a 5e version in the works which might be worth keeping an eye out for. I suspect you'd either enjoy it a lot or dislike it intensely, and I'm not sure which! It's quite different to normal class-focussed D&D. It seems like it's somewhat similar to Champions (disclaimer: this claim is based solely on what I was able to find out about Champions by Googling!) in that it lets you mix and match different choices to make your own powers and abilities, and is as light as possible on the fluff. Not quite so light as Champions, perhaps, but that's because of the system it's written for. But it also has a lot of easy ways for the GM to make sure the players' choices conform to a given theme, and codify what that means mechanically. Especially in the magic system. Whatever other flaws might turn you away from it, it will probably offer a way around your frustrations with 5e's fluff which is less irritating than rewriting pages and pages of fluff for spells!
Yeah...I've played enough 3.5/Pathfinder to know that on paper it looks beautiful, but in practice it is very frustrating to play and something I would resolutely refuse to Referee. I'd be interested in converting over some of Paizo's Adventure Paths to B/X or S&W to run, but not in their native system.
I actually would appreciate 5e a lot more if they had entries with bare mechanics and then a couple of examples of fluff to explain what those mechanics look like. That would have been a really clean and cool way to organize the books. As is, they are a bit of a mess and it makes running a game harder than it needs to be. Which reminds me...I need to pull out the Essentials book again to see if it isn't easier to navigate for running a game...
In terms of the Spheres of Might/Power: I'd never heard of it (but then, I was never much into Pathfinder, let alone 3rd party stuff for Pathfinder); however, depending on its presentation for 5e, my interest is piqued. Thanks for the heads-up.
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