A book of spells and arcane symbols.

Spellbook by Kees Koertshuis (license)

With the recent announcement of Dungeon and Dragons’ next edition, there has been a flurry of speculation on the changes it will bring. Given that almost nothing is known about this new iteration,* I figure now is the perfect time for me to come up with my own list of possible improvements to the game that could only come with an edition change.

1. Make Attributes and Spells More Intuitive

Mechanically, these are probably the least impactful of the changes I’m suggesting. 5E’s core attributes each have a raw number and a derived bonus, so 14 strength means a +2 derived bonus. The vast majority of the game’s systems use the derived number. The cost of this mostly useless raw number? A system that is needlessly obtuse and difficult for new players to understand. Removing this dual stat confusion would be nothing but upside for D&D from a design perspective, even though the legacy it represents is one many are reluctant to give up.

While we’re on the subject of removing confusing holdovers from older editions, let’s talk about spell levels. At what level do you think a wizard gets their 1st level spells? How about 9th level spells? In a better-designed game the answer would be 1st and 9th level, respectively, whereas D&D opts for the highly intuitive 1st and 17th levels.

This change could be something as simple as renaming “spell levels” to “spell tiers.” That’s still confusing, but at least it doesn’t reuse the term “level” in two different contexts. If the designers are feeling a bit more ambitious, they could tackle reworking the entire spell progression so it syncs up with character levels, but such a large change is outside the scope of an article like this.

2. Separate Flavor and Rules Text

Wrapping up the “language matters” portion of my list, we have how mechanics and flavor text are displayed in the rules. 5E favors mingling the rules of a feature with descriptive text of how that feature manifests in the game’s world. When rules are unclear, we are told to follow the “plain English.”*

The problem is that when rules mix with flavor, it can become very confusing where one ends and the other begins. An example of this comes from the Burning Hands spell, which includes the following.

As you hold your hands with thumbs touching and fingers spread…

Reading that line of text as rules would mean that anyone trying to cast the spell needs to have both their hands able to touch in a specific way. Following this train of thought, any effect that separates the caster’s hands or stops either from moving, such as the restrained condition, would prevent the use of Burning Hands.

The rub here is that nothing in the actual rules of the game supports the limitations I just described. According to the rules, Burning Hands has verbal and somatic components, meaning the caster needs to be able to speak and have one hand free.* There’s no mention of requiring both hands; that was simply one way you could describe the spell’s casting.

There will always be some amount of gray area in a game like D&D. There is simply no way to model every possible interaction that can take place. However, the game’s design could be changed to reduce this confusion. For an example of how to handle flavor in a rules-heavy game, let’s look at another Wizards of the Coast product: Magic the Gathering. MTG places a card’s mechanics directly below the card art with the flavor below it in italicized text.

This normal/italic split is a great way to let players know what they need to pay attention to when learning your game. Combine this split text with shared game terms and even a rules-heavy system like D&D becomes a lot easier to parse. The best part about this change is that you can keep all of the flavor, and even add some more. If flavor no longer needed to be written around rules, the designers would be free to do whatever they want with it.

3. Add Minor Feats and Items

When it comes to customizing a character, feats and magic items are two of the most common methods. Most characters can choose a maximum of five feats by level 20, and anyone who doesn’t choose artificer as their class never gets more than three attunement slots. Unfortunately, significant power variance coupled with this limited access means players must make a choice between what is good and what fits their characters’ flavor. A spear-wielding fighter is unlikely to pick Chef when Polearm Master is on the table,* and the Hexblade probably won’t stay attuned to their Charlatan’s Die when the boss drops a Staff of Power.

The solution to this problem is to divide these two option sets into different categories based on their power.* An archer character shouldn’t have to choose between Crossbow Expert and Actor. Instead, give that character a set of minor and major feat selections as they level, granting the mechanical strength they want without restricting their roleplay choices.

Items should receive a similar treatment. Instead of three flat attunement slots, there should be different types of slots so characters have a reason to use their minor items even after after finding stronger ones. While I’m at, it I’d also like to see all items require some type of attunement to discourage every member of the party having Boots of Elvenkind and a Sentinel Shield.

4. Allow Extra Attack to Scale With Multiclassing

It’s time to dig into my first character-focused mechanical change. I love how multiclassing has been handled in 5E. It’s a powerful option that adds meaningful decision-making to the character creation process. Unfortunately, in its current form, multiclassing favors spellcasters over martial characters. There are two main reasons for this, and the first is that spellcasting granted by different classes combines together to give the character an aggregated number of slots. The second is that cantrip damage scales with character level, so a 5th level monoclassed character and a character with 1 level in five classes both see their cantrips increase in effectiveness.

Martials need something similar to help bridge the gap between them and their caster counterparts. The feature that immediately springs to mind is Extra Attack. Every martial class, barring rogues, revolves around making additional attacks to increase their damage. There are a couple ways to modify how multiclassing interacts with the feature. The easiest would be to make it so levels of barbarian, fighter, monk, paladin, or ranger all count toward that level-5 feature. That way a ranger 3/fighter 2 gets Extra Attack just like a monoclassed fighter 5.

This idea could be expanded so Extra Attack works like a cantrip, scaling at levels 5, 11, and 17. This rework would require significant retooling of at least the fighter class, as they would be losing what is currently their core class feature. I’m not sure if this route is the right way to go, given how much larger an impact it would have, but it would be very cool if balanced correctly.

5. Include More Ancestries That Synergize With Martial Builds

Continuing on my quest to improve the lives of martial characters everywhere, let’s turn our eyes to ancestries. Simply put, there aren’t enough ancestry features that explicitly work best with martial builds. Spellcasters currently benefit from the new ancestry-based spell system where spells granted by a feature can be cast with normal spell slots alongside a single free cast. This is a good change, but it’s one that only improves casting builds.

I want to see more options that synergize with, or at least don’t hinder, martial options. Metallic dragonborn’s breath weapons replacing a single attack is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. I am somewhat hopeful, as the thri-kreen introduced in the recent Travelers of the Multiverse Unearthed Arcana gets an extra set of arms. This feature is good for just about any build, but it’s strongest for martial characters. Being able to wield a hand crossbow and shield or two light weapons and a shield simply hasn’t been possible before.*

I want to see natural weapons that synergize with a character’s unarmed features,* extra damage dice on weapon attacks, and defensive reactions that many martial classes lack. However the designers go about it, closing the gap of ancestry utilization between martials and casters would be a great boon for the next edition of the game.

6. Rework Vision and Obscurement

The way 5E handles vision and its effect on combat is one of the least intuitive parts of the game. Intuitively, two people trying to have a sword fight when they can’t see each other would result in a lot of missing on both sides. However, according to 5E, both combatants would fight as if they could see normally. This is because of how advantage and disadvantage work. Each combatant counts as blind, meaning anyone attacking them does so with advantage, but because the attacker is also blind, any attacks they make have disadvantage. The advantage and disadvantage cancel each other out, resulting in normal attacks.

This counter-intuitive interaction also means that some attacks can be made more accurate by passing through a source of obscurement. For example, javelins have a maximum range of 120 feet but suffer disadvantage against targets more than 30 feet away. However, if you throw your javelin through some darkness that your target can’t see through, even if you can’t either, the attack is made as normal. You get one instance of advantage from the target not being able to see you, which cancels out both instances of disadvantage you get from being out of range and not being able to see the target.

Obscurement can also be more of a headache for some characters than others. For some reason, attacks can be made against a target you can’t see, but spells like Toll the Dead specifically require vision. This unequal treatment can be frustrating for players, especially if the source of the obscurement is another character. I’m not really sure how to best address this problem, but I’d love to see them try.

7. Rework Readied Action

Last but not least, I finally air my grievances about the readied action. If you haven’t seen it for a while, this is the official text from the Player’s Handbook.

Sometimes you want to get the jump on a foe or wait for a particular circumstance before you act. To do so, you can take the Ready action on your turn, which lets you act using your reaction before the start of your next turn.

First, you decide what perceivable circumstance will trigger your reaction. Then, you choose the action you will take in response to that trigger, or you choose to move up to your speed in response to it. Examples include “If the cultist steps on the trapdoor, I’ll pull the lever that opens it,” and “If the goblin steps next to me, I move away.”

When the trigger occurs, you can either take your reaction right after the trigger finishes or ignore the trigger. Remember that you can take only one reaction per round.

When you ready a spell, you cast it as normal but hold its energy, which you release with your reaction when the trigger occurs. To be readied, a spell must have a casting time of 1 action, and holding onto the spell’s magic requires concentration (explained in chapter 10). If your concentration is broken, the spell dissipates without taking effect. For example, if you are concentrating on the web spell and ready magic missile, your web spell ends, and if you take damage before you release magic missile with your reaction, your concentration might be broken.

You have until the start of your next turn to use a readied action.

That is way too much text to cover what should be the relatively simple idea of “I want to do a thing but later than my current turn.” This iteration of Ready interacts weirdly with abilities like Extra Attack and trying to ready a spell costs the character’s concentration regardless of what spell they plan to cast. This version of Ready also raises issues of whether or not readying an action prior to a fight is allowed. Can the roomful of goblins all have shortbow attacks readied when the party opens the door? Or can the party’s wizard ready a Fireball for when that same door opens?

The main fix I’ve thought of is simply shifting the character’s turn to a later part of the initiative order. It could be written like this, and take up a lot less text:

Requirements:

  • If you have done anything this turn, you cannot take the Ready action.
  • You cannot take the Ready action more than once per round.

You ready yourself to take your action at a later time. You select an initiative roll lower than your current one, then your turn immediately ends. For the duration of this round, you act as if your initiative roll was the one you selected. Your initiative resets to its original number after taking this special turn.

Alternatively, if being able to lower a character’s initiative for just one turn is too powerful or requires too much bookkeeping, then the initiative change could be permanent rather than resetting after the character’s action.

If the designers really want to keep this style of “x triggers action y,” then simplify it. Make it so if the fighter readies an attack they can use all of their Extra Attack feature, and if the wizard plans to use Firebolt on the first enemy to enter their room, don’t force them to drop that Haste spell they were concentrating on. I favor the approach of shifting the character’s entire turn, but either of the approaches I outlined here would be a great improvement.

As I was writing this article I kept coming up with more changes or additions I’d like to see to D&D’s next incarnation. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone wants to read a list with 50 entries, so I tried to restrict myself to topics I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere. I agree that subclasses need updates and the game could use a new crafting system, but it’s important to look into some of the underlying design philosophies present in the game. Whether experiments that didn’t work out or holdovers from a game made forty years ago, nothing should be considered untouchable when making D&D the best game it can be.

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