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D&D’s Trope Overlay

Beastmaster Ranger: “I’m awesome, I can have an animal pet”
Beast Barbarian: “Ah wow I can get those animal traits myself!”
Moon Druid: “Hold my beer.”
Ardling: “Hold my beer… permanently!”

Wizard: “I have delved the forbidden libraries, labs, and vats and studied the stars and crystals for unspeakable power.”
Witch: “Nerd. I just charmed my way into doing it by making a deal with an entity that could just do it.”
Sorcerer: “You mean like me? Because I can just do it. I came out the gate drawing Mozart.”

Cleric: “I am the third oldest class in D&D, created to put draculas in the ground, wreak havoc on the battlefield and turn the undead, bashing skellies like roaring dawn.”
Paladin: “Uh. I think it’s me you’re looking for; divine warrior of mount and blade.”
Celestial Pact: “I’m literally oathbound to the divine beings.”
Divine Soul: “Well, actually, I’m chosen by birth with the blood of the angels.”
Aasimar: “j0”

Modern D&D has a coolness overlap problem where you’re constantly getting upstaged by some even purer expression of the trope.

This is made even worse with 5e’s frontloaded multiclass system. Like, a level 11 witch is a fantastic conduit of the arcane that can mess you up with three beams of d10+5 each. But a sorcerer dipping two levels in witchery for agonizing blast can spit six beams of the same power. Congrats, you’re getting schooled by a dabbler.

Jumbling it up can cheapen it. It becomes a matrix of all tropes × all tropes.

It’s also the result of the weaksauce compromise proposals. Like, that’s why there are so many half-hearted dragon types (draconians, dragonborn, draconic bloodline, half dragons etc etc). Because people wanna play dragons and D&D won’t let ‘em. Same for giants. “How about an, uh… a half-giant? Goliath!” Meanwhile on the DM’s side, you place many communities of elves, dwarves, and orcs, but you’d rarely reach for a goliath or a dragonborn when building an adventure. Why would you? You’ve got the monster manual, you’ve got the real thing.

Or it can happen through bad rules design. The sorcerer was created in 3e as a replacement for Vancian prepping. In 5e, no class does Vancian prepping; all classes work kinda like the sorcerer. (To be specific, 5e uses the magic system from the old Wizardry games, where each spell level has its own pool of points, called “slots” in 5e.)

The sorcerer no longer has any reason for existing. So in the playtest process for 5e, they decided to go way out there and replace the sorcerer’s spell slots with mana points like Final Fantasy. Except it was a compromised mess that the playtesters rejected (you can find it in the DMG as an optional system), and they pulled back on the sorcerer, making it a wizard variant with a smaller repertoire, some sprinkled metamagic, and a more multiclass abusable stat (cha, which the sorcerer has always used).

In classic APL vs Lisp fashion, I’ve seen two solutions to all of this:

Strip it down

This is what many OSR games do and I see the appeal. All three of the magic systems in 5e have the potential for cool worlds. A world of wizards like The Dying Earth, a world of warlocks like Hellraiser, a world of sorcerers like X-Men. Making a setting where only one—no matter which one—of these classes exist can get pretty hardcore. If I were making my own game, I’d wanna make it simple, too, so the core concepts can really breathe. I’ve got mad respect for D&D settings, like the 5e port of Talislanta: The Savage Land, that go this route.

Layer it up

This is more of a stories-upon-stories approach, your Gaiman, your Moorcock, your Claremont. The world is ancient with many past civilizations layered like a palimpsest. Tropes reflecting each other like a hall of mirrors, the same idea arising again and again in new forms, and the old expressions reawakening themselves to reassert their place on the throne.

The rebuilt world getting torn down again, from Futurama

This is what the DMG suggests:

The World Is Ancient. Empires rise and fall, leaving few places that have not been touched by imperial grandeur or decay. War, time, and natural forces eventually claim the mortal world, leaving it rich with places of adventure and mystery. Ancient civilizations and their knowledge survive in legends, magic items, and their ruins. Chaos and evil often follow an empire’s collapse.

They go on to affirm that you’re free to explore worlds that aren’t set up this way.

This solution is great if you’re running a maximalist campaign like my #boatmode game on the Crowded Sea. I can slot a Dagwood Bumstead layercake like Arden Vul and it fits right in, even enriching and adding nuances to the other elements in our game world.

Follow ups

Peter wrote in:

With regard to magic in particular, I tend to think not in terms of sorcerers, wizards, etc. having different mechanics for the sake of raw power. But instead representing different modes of access to represent a different general feel:

I never said you can’t make it work; I outlined the two most common solutions. I use the “layer it up” approach in my own campaign and I feel it works well.

It’s just that… I remember seeing (this was a tweet or something, some rando, I don’t remember) and it was a dad beaming with pride over how his son, this was in 2014 when the PHB had just came out, his son was like “dad, dad! look at this Beast barbarian, you can become sort of like a bear!” and I was like 💔 because I knew that three classes later there’s a moon druid that’ll upstage that class in the arktomorph department. (And it’s not nearly as accessible because that kid would need to know that “Starting at 2nd level, you can use your Wild Shape to transform into a beast with a challenge rating as high as 1” means that you can start bearing it outright.)

It’s not even about mechanical expression, it’s about the trope space. These three:

That’s already enough to upstage one another in a dysergic rock-paper-scissors loop from hell where no-one is allowed to be cool. Too little overlap in some ways and too much overlap in other ways.

I know that you can create worlds where magic gets to mean something again; in one of my own homebrew worlds, the schtick was that the world had used primal and divine magic, but “glitch” magic was a new incursion from another world. It had been a nature-vs-civilization world (with dinosaurs! but not monsters, those were products of glitch) for centuries and now glitch came in as a third alignment (the three alignments in the setting were civilization/nature/glitch). Sorcerers had gotten glitched by accident, wizards stole knowledge from the glitch (going into incursion zones and stealing documents), and traitors (“warlocks”) had made deals with the glitch beings. I had rules for how you risked getting increasingly “glitched” if you used your magic against nature or civilization. I put a lot of work into disambiguating the three approaches to glitch magic (four, since bards could dabble in it too). Paladins were banned in this setting.

I had another setting where I disambiguated clerics and paladins by making cleric power something available to everyone who had put in the effort. Your Quint, Belmont, van Helsing, Blade types who had made it through the school of hard knocks on nothing but faith and bitters. Paladins on the other had were literally one of twelve knights of the realm. Your PC was up there among Roland, Astolfo, Rinaldo etc. Golden gun in hand, and plenty of grace to fall from.

In my current setting I pretty much merged wizards and sorcerers in the diegesis, and heavily nerfed/houseruled their mechanics to map to specific elements or pairs of elements, while sha’irs (who deal with djinns and efreets) have a very different societal role and are based on the warlock class.

I’d tend to make some equivalent to each of those bullet points and then use mechanics to make them function slightly differently in ways i hope emphasize the themes.

Seems to me that that’s exactly what the 5e team is doing. I’m just nostalgic for a fantasy where magic wasn’t something they handed out at the gas station in three different ways with a side of fries. Where it was something you had to carve out for yourself of the oscillations of the Nth dimension with a sharpened spoon and tenacity.