I’m only in Rank 4 of Level 1 in Dungeons & Dragons Online, and already I’ve found a lot of things that DDO does well that could be translated directly to the tabletop D&D experience, all of which would improve that experience in my opinion.
Following is my list of 10 things as well as many suggestions for how to implement these ideas from DDO in your tabletop D&D game right now. Most of the suggestions are applicable for any edition of D&D – if not, I’ll try to note it.
1. Incremental advancement as well as leveling
In DDO, each level is broken down into multiple ranks. At each rank, you get to pick a small boost for your character. For example, as a Dwarf, I can choose to raise my saving throw bonus against magic by +1, or get another +1 against goblinoids. This is a great idea, especially if one is using the DMG-recommended leveling schedule, which has you leveling every few sessions, meaning you can go for 12 hours or more of straight gaming without character improvement, and then suddenly, DING, everything increases all at once for no in-game reason.
How to implement this at the table: This is going to be challenging and to require some work from the DM and the players to come up with a solution. One option, which I take, is to have the characters level every other session, regardless of XP. That means that even-numbered sessions involve leveling and, in my games, odd-numbered sessions focus more on loot and story rewards (hirelings, allies, rank, etc.) This way, every session, there is a payoff. As a player, I really like this method myself. Some players will not care as much, I realize, in which case they are probably happy with the leveling system as written.
2. A wide variety of incremental options
Not only can you advance incrementally between levels, there is also a lot to choose from. There were probably 20 options for my level 1 Dwarf Cleric. The theme they all had was their specificity – a +1 for saves against one kind of threat, or a +1 against one kind of creature, or a +1 to a single class skill. There were also powers one could use in exchange for sacrificing a use of Turn Undead, or my Cleric could choose to follow a particular deity or pantheon and gain proficiency in their favored weapon as well as a +1 with that weapon.
How to implement this at the table: One simple way to do this is to grant a skill rank or a hit point at the end of every session. Skills are not that big a deal, and they already have a level-based maximum, so these extra ranks will be used to flesh out a character with secondary skills anyway. The hit point is just there for players who don’t care about skills, or who just want the extra padding. A DM could add to the above list a specific bonus to one saving throw or to attack rolls – like the little bonuses that some races start with. So, after an adventure full of fighting Goblins, a character could take a +1 to attack Goblins, or a +1 to Will saves against Goblin magic, or poison, or whatever.
3. XP for quests completed, not monsters killed
I have a running joke with my old gaming group about the “experience gland” that every creature in every D&D setting has nestled in their torso. The experience gland must be eaten, or at least ruptured by physical damage, so that it’s sweet sweet XP leaks out to be absorbed by adventurers. This running joke is just in response to the absurdity of granting XP for every creature killed (or “defeated”, but come on, who plays D&D to nonviolently overcome their enemies?)
How to implement this at the table: This is also easy, and a lot of DMs do it. Most times, we give out XP at the end of a session anyway. Just give each section of the session an XP amount that the PCs get if they do really well, maybe reduce it by 10% if they make bad decisions or for whatever reason don’t really shine, and give that out at the end of the session. Let your players know you are doing this, and watch them suddenly sneak past guards, knock people out, talk their way out of trouble, and generally become more creative. They can still slaughter everything in sight too, there just isn’t an extra incentive to do so.
4. Minor magic items early and often
This is traditional fare for MMOs and I’m not sure it is a bad idea in tabletop as well. It doesn’t always have to be a big deal. My 1st level Cleric got to choose, already, between a mace that is masterwork and deals +1 fire damage and a mace that deals +1 damage against monstrous humanoids. That’s kind of cool – not a big-deal choice, but 1 damage makes a difference when you only do 1d8 base.
How to implement this at the table: These items could be along the same lines as the incremental awards between levels. A ring that gives +1 to saves against poison or a minor one-use magic item from the DMG or inspired by the DMG. One great example are the featherfall necklaces in the Sharn sourcebook for the Eberron setting. In a city of mile-high towers, this little 25gp baby is a priceless one-use magic item that will save you rolling up a new character. Weapons that deal +1 or +2 elemental damage aren’t as powerful as +1d6 weapons but still matter, especially at low levels. Armor that grants a few points of DR against elements, in the same way, is also cool.
5. A “Casual” setting for casual players
D&D requires a huge investment of time and effort to learn the basics of the game. It is a terrible game for beginner players or young children for this reason. I say this as the husband of a woman who has played D&D for more than ten years and still hasn’t wanted to put in the effort to learn most of the system. She has no interest in sitting down with 1000 pages of rulebooks, and I have trouble blaming her.
This is something that either an intrepid DM will have to take on themselves or WotC would have to just provide – a simplified version of the D&D rules for casual players who don’t want to have to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in opportunity attacks or arcane spellcasting. I know that WotC is putting out a new version of the original “Red Box” basic set for D&D, and maybe that will fit the bill.
How to implement this at the table: Given that this is a lot of work, there are a few things you can do. The 4E character generator that comes from your D&D Insider subscription is a step in the right direction – though I still saw one casual player take over two hours to level up her character using the software because of the bewildering number of choices. One option is just to hand new players a pre-generated character. I’ve found that for best results, make that character really good at 2 or 3 things, and just encourage the player to do those 2 or 3 things whenever they see an opening. For casters, just give them a short list of a few spells that fall into a theme of some kind.
6. A return to set-piece puzzles
With 3rd and 4th edition, there was a move toward systematizing traps so that they could be balanced and given challenge ratings and standardized experience. This was also a move away from what I think of as set-piece puzzles that I found to be more common in “old school” gaming. Things like colored levers or movable floor tiles in a room that you had to arrange somehow in order to move on, or get the loot, or weaken the monster enough to defeat it, etc. These were the kinds of puzzles and traps that challenged the players primarily, and they just don’t have much support in the published materials from WotC. Personally, I don’t enjoy these kinds of puzzles, but they are always the thing my wife, for example, loves most about a given D&D session.
How to implement this at the table: Pretend you’re playing AD&D and create a puzzle or trap. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look at video games in the ‘adventure game’ genre where the world around you has to be manipulated in order to solve problems, then steal, hoping that your players don’t play the same video games. If you have to give specific XP for the puzzle or trap, just pick an amount appropriate for the party level and how fast you want them to be leveling up (if you’re ignoring suggestion #3).
7. Increased HP at level 1
This one is simple. At level 1, my Cleric has 30 hit points and my Bard has 28. This means I can be pounded on by monsters a lot longer before I drop at level 1 which is necessary for D&D in my opinion. D&D is not a game about being threatened by a pitchfork-wielding peasant or the local stray cat. It is a game about detailed action scenes where you fight monsters and then take their stuff. It is in no way fun to play a level 1 Wizard with a Con penalty, giving him or her 3 hit points. For that reason, when I run D&D, I usually have a house rule about hit points or I start at level 3.
How to implement this at the table: One easy way in 3E or Pathfinder is to just add a starting character’s Constitution score to their starting hit points instead of their Constitution bonus. This gives the average Fighter (Con 14) 24 hit points and the average Wizard (Con 10) 14 hit points. You can easily do the same with all of the listed creatures, NPCs and monsters in the MM. If you want to import the rule from 4E, you can use minions as throw-away fodder – what would usually be those 4hp Goblins. 1hp Goblins are functionally identical, except that the dagger-wielding Rogue with the low strength bonus won’t accidentally deal negative damage to them (which is not fun).
One result of this change is that combats might last longer. Having used the above house rule or ones like it for years, however, I’ve found this incredibly easy to adjust for. Have a bunch of minions, a boss-lackey and a boss in a given fight and you’re golden.
8. Damage reduction from armor
Armor Class in D&D has never been anything but stupid, regardless of the edition. If you are in plate mail, you aren’t hit for either no damage or full damage. Wearing plate mail in, say, the 14th century, you were hit a lot, but the armor was designed so that the weapon slid off of it’s rounded edges, and you wore chain and a padded leather gambeson under the plates to help absorb the impacts. This is DR, people.
How to implement this at the table: Crack open Unearthed Arcana and use the “Armor as DR” alternate rule. As a rule of thumb, take the AC bonus from armor, divide it in half, round down, and you have your DR from that armor. To even things out a little, have the DR only work against physical attacks and not against magical attacks, spell-like abilities and so on.
9. The option of blocking in combat
I’m holding a shield. There’s now way to do anything with this shield that would improve my chances of survival. I might as well sling this shield around my neck like a huge Flavor Flav clock necklace and be about my business. Right? Because that’s how shields work.
How to implement this at the table: This one is tricky because it is another reason AC in D&D has always been stupid – why can I never learn to better defend myself as a D&D character? A simple solution that is in many house rules as well as Unearthed Arcana is to let the player roll an attack roll as a constested roll against an incoming attack. If the player’s roll wins, then their character successfully blocks the attack.
This still means a player is sacrificing a precious attack roll, though. Another option – make this a move action, and the roll is made at a -2. Then there is still a sacrifice, but the PC can stand their ground and pound away while having the extra defensive action from the move action they’re not using (particularly if they are a heavily-armored fighter type, or a Defender in 4E terms).
10. Spell points
This option is very work-intensive on the part of the DM. If you don’t share my pet peeve around Vancian spellcasting, feel free to avoid this one…but there’s a reason that all those MMOs out there don’t use spell slots.
How to implement this at the table: There are always the rules provided in Unearthed Arcana for 3E, and if you are playing 4E then your at-will/encounter/daily powers pretty much handle this issue nicely. Stuck in 3E land, though, it’s tougher. Honestly, I can’t think of a simple way to impelent this in 3E/Pathfinder. If I do, I’ll post it, or if any of you readers think of something (or already have a cool house rule in this area) please leave it in the comments with a link if possible.