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Rule-of-Three: 11/28/2011
Rich Baker

You've got questions—we've got answers! Here's how it works—each week, our Community Manager will be scouring all available sources to find whatever questions you're asking. We'll pick three of them for R&D's Rich Baker to answer, whether about the about the making of the game, the technical workings of our DDI studio, or anything else you care to know about… with some caveats.

There are certain business and legal questions we can't answer (for business and legal reasons). And if you have a specific rules question, we'd rather point you to Customer Service, where representatives are ready and waiting to help guide you through the rules of the game. That said, our goal is provide you with as much information we can—in this and other venues.

1 What is the design philosophy behind each power source? What unites each class under that power source?

Frankly, each power source is quite similar to the others in big-picture design philosophy. Each of the power sources of the D&D game is intended to accomplish very similar things—provide a variety of powers that can support characters of different roles, “feel” different at the table from other power sources, and to be consistent within itself. The specific unifying elements are really the only philosophical difference from source to source, along with a handful of “dos” and “don’ts” we try to observe in each one. I suspect that these common elements are pretty obvious to most readers, but here goes:

Arcane is actually the most “normal” power source, with no real unifying mechanic. If the arcane power source has any distinguishing characteristic, it’s the wide variety of energy types its powers employ.

The divine power source features more use of the radiant keyword than other sources. Most divine classes include a Channel Divinity feature.

The martial power source is the only one that makes use of the reliable keyword, and has almost no attack powers that aren’t weapon powers. We avoid using conjurations and zones in martial powers, because those almost always seem magical in origin. (However, there are occasions when zones are pretty useful design tech that say exactly what we want to say about a power, so there are a few exceptions out there.)

Primal powers include a number of transformations. Druids, barbarians, and wardens all feature powers that transform them into various beast-like or spirit-infused forms. Shamans don’t really stick with the theme, but of course they work with primal spirits directly.

Power points, augmentation, and the lack of encounter powers are the distinguishing characteristics of the psionic power source. These are of course nods toward psionic strength points (or PSPs) in earlier editions of the game. Psionics are *supposed* to feel different.

The shadow power source isn’t really a power source per se, so much as a corruption or replacement for another power source. For example, the shadow warlock blends shadow power with arcane power, while the blackguard combines divine power with shadow power. Of course, shadow oozes its own particular dark flavor, so you definitely feel different from other characters when you’re calling on shadow powers.

2 What was the design purpose for the power sources, and how do you think they've played out? What things have you learned and what would you do differently?

The purpose was pretty simple: Codifying what people already knew about how each class worked. Everybody knew that clerics used magic in different ways than wizards, and that fighters or rogues didn’t use magic at all. Power source is simply a shorthand that lays out these differences, and (in some cases such as the druid or bard) resolves ambiguities about *how* the class is doing what it does.

As far as how they’ve worked out, I think the answer is reasonably well. It’s useful to reinforce the fact that bards and wizards both draw on magic, while paladins and clerics rely on divine energy. In addition, the power sources pointed out opportunities for interesting new character types. While we never intended to try to color in each combination of role and power source, the combinations certainly inspired some class concepts we might not otherwise have tried. For example, the swordmage came into existence simply because we were intrigued by the idea of an arcane defender and wondered what one might look like. Likewise, the power sources helped to build conceptual separation between classes that perhaps were stepping on each other in previous editions. The assassin and the rogue are very similar characters when you don’t consider power source, but when you think of one as deriving its power from shadow-magic or death-magic and the other from purely physical skill, they’re much less similar.

One thing that I do miss in the 4E implementation of power sources is idiosyncrasy. I feel that D&D is at its heart a game of exceptions, and that a great number of players love it for its warts and knobbly bits—you know, strange things like minotaurs being immune to the maze spell, githyanki being the only people in the cosmos with silver swords, paladins only existing in the lawful good alignment, and so on. Power sources enforce a certain conformity in the game, which helps people to learn it at first but perhaps limits the uniqueness and simulation value the implied power sources of earlier editions possessed. For example, the 4E design and development team made a deliberate choice early in the process to avoid creating game effects that interacted with one power source (or group of power sources) but not others. That’s why the 4E dispel magic talks about conjurations and zones, instead of *magic.* I’m also sad that monsters make so little use of power source. I feel like there was a good story to tell there, and we really shied away from following the mechanics to their logical conclusion.

3 Through D&D's edition progression, initiative seems to have become more complex and threatens to pull people from the immersion of the game. How important do you feel initiative is to D&D and 4E, and what changes would you make if you had it to do over again?

I’m not sure I agree with that. I think initiative hit its maximum complexity in 2nd Edition, and then settled in at a moderate level of complexity in 3E and 4E.

A few months back, we took some time to play through every edition of D&D. (Every now and then it’s good to put the R in R&D.) When I read through the 2nd Edition initiative rules again I realized that I’d generally played the most complex initiative system presented, the “count-down” initiative system. My recollection was that many (even most?) 2nd Edition tables did the same thing. The count-down system was built to make combat go slow. You had to take your turn twice per round, once by declaring what you were going to do, and once by actually doing it. And of course adding an initiative roll to every single round of combat was tedious, too. Now, what I’d completely forgotten about 2nd Edition was that the count-down system was *not* the default; the first initiative system presented in 2E was a simple side initiative much like the one in 1st Edition. And playing through side initiative again after not looking at it for a number of years was eye-opening. Rounds went fast, there was no initiative order to track, and once the players got their heads around it, there was actually quite a lot of room for narrative control. Go ahead and throw your fireball, and *then* I’ll charge into the room!

The cyclic initiative system of 3E (and 4E) definitely improved on the count-down variant that was widely used in 2E. That was the clear superiority of the 3E to 2E initiative system that I remembered. It wasn’t necessarily better than side initiative—the two systems simply value different things. Side initiative is faster, but cyclic initiative is more orderly and balanced, and gives each player a turn to act. However, I don’t think I would try to change it now. Both cyclic and side initiative work, but we have a broad player base that is pretty used to cyclic initiative. Cyclic initiative might not be great for immersion, but the fact that so many players know it and know it well means that they’re probably not paying much attention to it anymore, and that’s a good thing. Initiative does a good job of getting out of the way at most 3E and 4E game tables, which in its own way is a boost for immersion.

(Personal preference alert.) The only thing I really dislike in the 3E/4E initiative system is the Delay action. I can accept the Ready action because sometimes it makes great sense, like “I fire my crossbow when a goblin pops up to shoot at me.” When you delay, you’re manipulating something outside the story of the combat, and that bothers me. It’s very un-immersive. True story: The Delay action is in the game because initial feedback on cyclic initiative showed that some players were spooked by the idea that a low initiative roll meant they’d go last for the entire battle. Offering players the option to delay and go first the next round was just a way to sugar-coat the concept of cyclic initiative, even though we all know that it doesn’t need sugar-coating at all.

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