Seminar Transcript - Reimagining Skills and Ability Scores
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    Seminar Transcript - Reimagining Skills and Ability Scores

    This is the transcript of the final seminar of DDXP 2012: Reimagining Skills and Ability Scores. The role of skills has fluctuated throughout the life of Dungeons & Dragons, and ability scores have been of varying importance in each edition. Find out what the design team has done to reimagine these aspects of the game, and how they arrived at a system to marry the two concepts more closely together. Seminar includes Monte Cook, Bruce Cordell, and Robert Schwalb, and is followed by a Q&A session.

    This transcript is paraphrased, with some responses shortened. It is compiled from various tweets (thanks especially to Critical Hits and Rolling20s for their live tweeting - I suggest you check out their Twitter feeds) plus WotC's live chat feed, and other sources.

    Greg: You've talked about the importance of ability scores in D&D in the recent past. What kind of things are you planning for ability scores for the next iteration of D&D?

    Monte: We wanted to distill down the essence of D&D. We wanted to make sure that the ability scores and their modifiers had a big influence. Looking at all the editions of the game, you can easily see that ability scores are really important. Often times, people will use ability scores to help them define their character, or they'll have an idea for a character and then look at the scores first to make them fit that idea.

    A couple of days ago I talked a little bit about how we want the core mechanic of the game to be the interaction between the DM and the player. And one of the great tools for that is the ability score. So what we want is to empower DMs and players so that if you want to attempt to do something "I want to open the door" then the DM doesn't have to even have you roll, he can just look, see you have a 17 strength and says "Yeah, you burst through that door". We want to get past some of the mundane rolls and not tie up a lot of table time with that and move on to the more interesting stuff and the table narrative.

    Bruce: An example I saw yesterday was a rogue going into a room and looking for traps. You can describe what you're doing and roleplay what you're doing. If he says I look in the jar and I know there's a gem in the jar, I'm not going to have him roll. However, if something is more hidden, like a secret compartment on the shelf I would look at their intelligence and see if he can just automatically find it or if he's looking in the exact right place. However, if he's doing that check in the middle of some other stressor like fighting, then I'd have him roll.

    Rob: Earlier this week I had some players fighting some kobolds in the room. One of the guys wanted to jump over a pit, he had a 15 strength so I let him just do it - it wasn't that big of a jump and it sped up combat. It's very liberating to be able to do that kind of thing and just keep the flow going.

    Greg: Another thing we've been talking about recently is saving throws and what you guys think about them and the future of D&D?

    Monte: Making a saving throw against something has become something that's really a part of D&D. So again, what we've done is tie those into the ability scores. For example you'll make a strength saving throw or wisdom saving throw against a certain effect and so far it's become a big part of some effects and abilities. The attacker makes a check and that sets the DC for your saving throw.

    Rob: Right now, Cha is linked to saves for fear and charm effects. However, if you describe it well, you could use different stat. For example the big monster is grappling you, you might use dexterity to save and get out. But you can also have some other ways of getting out that grapple. Maybe there's a gem on that creature's head and you can make an intelligence saving throw to realize that if you mess with it, the creature would die and let you go.

    Greg: How the the different ability scores matter for different characters or classes?

    Monte: Different ability scores will still be important to different classes, but there's also plenty of room to focus on all the ability scores. For example if you want to be a charismatic fighter, there's definitely room for that.

    Rob: What we want to do when looking at how we handling ability scores in D&D Next is to make sure that the ability scores have their own area carved out. It should make sense to the players why the ability scores are linked to the things they are and make sense in the world.

    Monte: Another thing that we're trying out is not only having races give you ability scores changes, but the classes also give you bonuses. It makes sense that if you're a cleric that you would get that bonus to wisdom - you've had training or experience that help you out there.

    Bruce: I also see it as kind of puzzle pieces or guiding. I can pick the half orc and lets say that gives you a +1 strength. I can then look at the classes and see that fighter gives me a +1 strength and see the synergy there.

    Monte: It allows you to make the weird choices, too. Half-Orc Bard gets Cha bump, so you're still a good Bard.

    Greg: Speaking of ability scores, how are you guys planning on ability scores generation?

    Monte: (joking) It'll be 2d6 -10.

    Rob: Looking at all the iteration of D&D, the classic way of doing ability skills is rolling. So the very basic we're working from are 4d6 drop the lowest for each stat. But since we're also looking at the modularity, those core books will also have options for other ability score generation which might be point buy, point arrays and other things.

    Monte: Or you can just buy your DM a pizza and get all 18s.

    Greg: Talking about ability scores leads easily into skills. What are you guys tossing around for skills and their uses?

    Bruce: Looking at the playtest characters here, you might have noticed that a class or a theme might have given you a bonus to skill, but you didn't have a skill list. Normally if you were to call for a check, you would just call for the ability score - like a dexterity check for sneaking up. But if you have a class or character feature that gives you a bonus to sneak, you would add that in. There are a lot of different expressions for skills. Trained, sneaking at full speed (stealth twice). Lots of options.

    Greg: Could you talk about some of the challenges you faced while building the current skill system idea?

    Bruce: What we started with was actually a lot like what we've come to now, but it didn't reflect your ability scores directly, it was a bit more derived. It was accomplishing its goals but it didn't necessarily look or feel like the heart and soul of D&D, which is one of the challenges we always bring ourselves back to. So we changed it and we're running with this idea now.

    Monte: With skills it hasn't necessarily been easy to pick how skills have iconicly worked in D&D, because each edition has changed the way those kinds of abilities work. So we really keep going back to how do we make this feel like the most D&D that we can. We're really looking forward to feedback on this one so we can see if people agree or if they feel something else has a better D&D feel.

    Rob: It's been a difficult problem for a while. In 3E and 4E skills were sort of the doorway to interaction with the world.

    Monte: In previous editions, ability scores played into skills. We want skills to play into ability scores. Maybe more open-ended.

    Bruce: If skills are not the portals to ability scores, but rather the tweaks to them, we can add interesting tiny skills. More flavor. Because the ability scores are the core, we can make any little skills we want.

    Monte: It means that if you're a DM and you don't even want to deal with skills, you can totally do that.

    Greg: So some players want to be able to use a bluff skill to say convince the ogre to join the party, roll and then bluff it. Other players want to come up with an elaborate story about working with the hobgoblins and acting as their emissary. What are you doing to cater to both of those different play styles?

    Monte: On the one hand you want to reward the guy who's done the RP to support his actions. But on the other hand, we don't want to train players to know how to use swords to attack in the game. In other words, you want to reward behavior but you don't want to penalize people for not playing a certain way. We shouldn't force players to be penalized because they can't be personally eloquent on the fly.

    What we've done now is we have this thing called "advantage" that a DM can hand out if the players set themselves up with a good description.

    Greg: Bring a real sword to the table, get advantage?

    Monte: (joking) Absolutely.

    Bruce: If you just want to roleplay, ignore the ability scores, and let the roleplaying win the day.

    Monte: Player/DM interactions is the most important thing. Interact first, go to making checks second. Yeah, the DM rules would focus on a few things. First you would look at the character and the situation and if it all fits, you don't have to look at the ability score or the dice. If it's not clear at that point though, then the next step would be looking at the appropriate stat and comparing it to the DC.

    Greg: So what's the current difference between feats and skills?

    Rob: As of *right now* skills specifically interact with your ability scores, outside of, and a little inside combat. A feat is bigger and chunkier and changes the ways you interact with the game. A skill would be something that's a reflection of a stat or a specific feature of a stat. A feat is more like a feature that is beyond that, more unique and not inherent to an ability score.

    Bruce: Adding to that, a feat might provide a bonus that is always on, or a power or ability. Feats are always on, (e.g. Toughness), skills are used situationally. Feats are the territory that lie beyond ability scores.

    Rob: Feats also cover stuff that would be like your at-will powers. For example if you saw the javelin of fire at-will in the playtests, that was from a magic feat.

    Greg: What about players who want to be awesome at potion-making, or blacksmithing?

    Monte: We have themes for that. Kind of like kits in 2E. They reflect your background and life before adventuring. If you want to continue to improve in that theme (with feats, etc), you can continue to express the story of your background. Or, instead of focusing on a theme, you can choose skills and feats to sort of customize your own theme.

    Greg: How do you envision building a character going?

    Monte: What we're working with now is that you pick you stats, class, race and then you also have a theme. So you might be a commoner, a noble, a knight, aprentice, etc. These themes would offer you skills. As you go up in level you could expand on that and express the story of your background and character by picking more options that support your theme. But if you want to get into a more complex character development system (modular option), then you could pick other features and things to basically build your own theme.

    Greg: Any favorite themes?

    Greg: Are there any themes you really liked or things from themes you've really enjoyed?

    Monte: We're doing a lot of really cool things with themes. For example, you could have a planetouched theme that would give you some extraplanar stuff.

    Bruce: This is on the edge of what we're thinking of, but maybe something like being a deva would actually be a theme instead of a race. There's a more basic one that I really enjoy is the pubcrawler. You're that guy when you walk into the bar everybody knows your name, and it has some other flavor like that. It doesn't really speak to the combat or some other character areas, but it really helps inform who that guy is.

    Rob: I like the idea of possibly taking what might have been classes in other editions and making them themes. For example, I love avengers, but an avenger themed Paladin is really cool too. It opens up the space for working with a class from a previous edition that there might not be space for as it's own class, but still has some great flavor.

    Monte: The themes work well with the open-ended skills system. We can make skills just for specific themes.

    Greg: It sounds like this is something that could be one of the options a DM could apply or not apply based on the way the DM wants to run it?

    Monte: Yeah, as I was saying earlier if you wanted to play the most basic version of the game you could ignore themes completely.

    Greg: Anything specific from previous editions that you really want to see in the next game?

    Bruce: I really like the warlock, that there are several different pacts that you can choose right out of the gate. The customization is a bit more complex, but being able to choose from a strong number of pacts is very important to me and I hope that as it exists in our current playtest, we can move forward with that.

    Rob: The electrum piece. I want to bring back the Great Wheel of cosmology. That would be awesome to have back.

    Monte: There really are a lot of things. I want the ritual system to be expressed in some way. I love the idea of magic existing in a lot of different forms in some way. Part of D&D is those really classic magic items that we all know, the flame tongue, the holy avenger, the wand of wonder. All of that has to be in the game for it to really feel like D&D to me. The Ritual system expressed in some way (magic in many different forms), and iconic magic items.

    Greg: You've talked about a scale of running a game with a lot of magic items or no magic items. Since we're talking about ability scores today, how do you see magic items affecting/not affecting ability scores?

    Monte: There will always be room for stat-boosting items. But they might play a different role. Maybe a hard cap on non-magically augmented ability scores. Mortal limits. Can boost with magic. I think there's definitely room for a things like the gauntlets of ogre power and have items that could affect stats, but we're looking at having caps on what those items could raise your stats to.

    Greg: How will mundane equipment be in the game - more the standard? How will that affect the game and what else goes along with that?

    Monte: Mundane equipment is important and we're trying some different things there. For example, at this point nobody starts with the ability to have plate armor.

    Bruce: One of the things we're doing is moving things more to a silver standard instead of a gold standard. We also have mundane implements for some caster classes that are their equivalent of a fighters sword or their slightly better armor. This opens up space for some interesting magic items that help you in rituals. but if you have a magic item, maybe it's a totem that has a little creature in it that is summoned to help you and do other cool things. A mundane wand might be 100sp, like the fighter's scale mail.

    Greg: To what degree do you see weapons playing a roll in D&D? Should you have to change weapons for fighting different foes - how do you see weapons playing out in the next interation?

    Monte: Something I'd like to see is characters that are good with weapons become more broad with a number of different weapons or maybe any weapon he comes across. We're defining weapons not by specific names, but but their categories. So you wouldn't say I'm really good with a battle axe, you'd say I'm really good with axes. So you could be good with axes, swords, and bows for example.

    If a fighter is good with swords, and they find a really good axe in a dragon's horde for example, I'd love for him to be able to just pick that axe up and be good with it - not have to worry about ignoring it because you didn't make the choice to be an axe guy.

    Greg: What kind of transparency are you looking for when it comes to Monsters and abilities. Should players know what they're facing when they see something, or is some of the information hidden?

    Monte: We were just talking about throwing in some extra abilities to monsters. So you might have a normal orc, or you might decide to make him a vicious orc that would add an attack that to a nearby creature when the monster dies. That kind of thing could be added in by a DM on the fly because it doesn't really change the challenge too much or make you rewrite anything. It might give you a little bit of an experience bonus if/when you defeat it too.

    Greg: Alright, we're opening the floor up to questions.
    What is going to be the differentiation between weapons? In previous editions it could have been keen, two handed, damage die, etc. In the playtest, classes had critical features, not weapons.

    Rob: We're looking at accuracy and damage expression right now. In addition to the damage type, we're also looking at damage types like slashing, piercing, etc. In addition the plan right now is that we're going to have some weapon specialization benefits. So if you're specialized in a certain weapon type, it opens up all sorts of neat little benefits, some of which are the at-will kind of attacks we've seen in 4E.

    A couple days ago you were talking about having different iterations of the cleric - with the cleric being a class that is melee and casts some healing, but having the priest be more of a guy channeling holy magic and being a cloth wearer. Do you have any plans to have a magic class that caters more to people who don't like the Vancian wizard - maybe some other arcane casting option?

    Monte: Yes, definitely. We're interested in magic classes that handle their abilities or magic differently than the Vancian style wizard.

    Are races going to have positive and negative ability mods or just positive?

    Monte: We're looking at having both positive and negative modifiers for races.

    What kind of things are going to change or advance in your character as it levels?

    Bruce: We think that there's a lot more, if you don't scale things quite so dramatically, there's a lot of room for interesting things to happen. For example, equipment stays interesting for longer, monsters stay interesting and challenging for longer. There's a lot that opens up when you don't boost abilities scores as much through progression.

    Monte: Not having ability scores advance as quickly also makes magic items more relevant at higher and lower levels. Because level will mean less dramatically for things like attack bonus, those things will scale a lot less, we can play around with you having other options to improve your ability scores or skills so those choices really matter instead of just having them advance as you level. The current playtest system allows us to do fun things with scaling. Attack bonus scales less, so ability mods mean more.

    Sounds like D&D Next puts a lot of work on DM. What are your thoughts on bringing in new DMs?

    Monte: We want to work hard to provide actual meaningful guidance on how to be a good DM. We want to embrace the 4E idea of quick prep time. New monster, 5 mins. High level NPCs in 10 minutes. Lots of 4E ideas. Decoupling the idea that NPCs have to advance or be built in the same way as PCs.

    Bruce: By giving power to the DM and a very robust rule set we can make it easier for the DM to make a calling and not feel like he's lost at sea. This will keep the game going and improve things for everyone.

    Monte: We're not just giving more power to the DM, we're giving more power to the players. In a way we're giving more power to the players, and not just the characters. We're giving the player the ability to come out with his crazy ideas and say I want to do this. And instead of giving the DM lots of concrete rules, give him rules for making calls and keeping the action and roleplay going. So when a player goes I want to jump up onto this table and kick the magic helmet off the monsters head, the DM will know that he can just let it happen because of the ability score and/or require a roll for some of the things that are going on.

    How is XP going to be rewarded? XP for gold, or alternative advancement mechanisms?

    Rob: We want to provide a bunch of different options for how DMs can reward the players for doing different things. So yeah, we'll have an experience table for the monsters, but we'll also have information for doing things like giving XP for quests, or giving XP for exploring a whole area, or give experience for finding the hidden treasure. There are things we're doing so that you can reward your players for what you or they are trying to accomplish in the game.

    Are the themes limited to certain classes?

    Bruce: Simply, no. Whatever makes sense.

    I'm very interested in how race will interact with ability scores. Can this be explained?

    Trevor: What we're running with now is that a race might grant something like a +1 bonus to a specific stat. This could change of course.

    Will you be using themes to limit class sprawl?

    Bruce: Yes, we can use themes to express non-core classes.

    Rob: It's useful to take classes that are mechanically similar, and differentiate them with themes.

    Will we see a return of the "gritty" low levels?

    Trevor: I've heard a lot of people talking about how at first level they are concerned with their characters dying. Probably not the lethality that original or early D&D had, but surviving at low levels and beyond is something that players will be careful of it they're doing more dangerous tasks.

    Monte: We're looking for a lot of feedback on this idea. Is this theme better as a class, or vice versa? Give feedback!

    Ritual and magic components - do they have a place in the game?

    Bruce: As we're looking at it right now, rituals are the only thing that really have magic components. We think they have a place in the world that's archetypical but rituals might be the best place for that.

    Rob: We assume that when a Wizard is casting, there are gestures and components, but they're not explicit.

    Monte: One of the great things we can do with a ritual system, is that we can have the components for some crazy ritual to be actually a quest - go find this rare component so that you can use this ritual. It opens it up to be important to the story.

    Will gridded combat be something that groups need to have in mind in order to plan their characters? How are you going to include tactical combat and class features that care more about tactics than the theater of the mind style games would provide?

    Monte: In every edition of the game, the DM has had the ability to play out the the combat in a theater of the mind style, or pull out a grid and miniatures to be more more precise. Nothings changed with that - a DM will still be able to do that. But if you want to make things more tactical, then the DM would choose to apply the tactical rules module. The DM would let his players know that when he's setting up the campaign, and then there are certain options that would or might be flagged as specifically useful in a game using the tactical rules module.

    Bruce: Those options would also still be useful in the theater of the mind kind of games as well. While an option might be flagged to make it easy to find and use if your game is using the tactical rules module, it's just as useful in other game styles as well.

    Monte: And this tactical rules module that we're envisioning would be covered in the initial book release.

    Will the open playtests only be in stores, or available for home play?

    Trevor: We're not really set in stone for how the open playtest would work, but it sounds like it would be available for home play.

    How do you feel about skill challenges going forward?

    Rob: (jokingly) I really want skill challenges to die in a fire. The plan was great for those, but I always felt it subtracted too much from the narrative. I think we can do complex skill checks within the narative and provide a robust amount of information to help the DM just weave them into the story.

    Monte: The only thing I would add is that I don't want to take away from the idea of a player saying "I want to do this thing". And the DMs response isn't just "well make the check and you do it". Instead I want to encourage or empower the DMs and the players to describe what they're doing and what happens in response. You see a lot of interesting story and conversations at the table when someone comes up with a cool way to cross that pit.

    Greg: Do you think there's room for that player or players who might not be comfortable with really roleplaying out what they're doing when they do these kind of skill interactions.

    Monte: Oh yes, if you want to roll the dice and make your check, you can still do that. But I think that once that player dips his or her toe in that water and starts describing their actions, things will open up and that kind of activity will continue. You see it happen at tables all the time

    Alright all. That ends the coverage of the last of the seminars. The designers are packing up and doing a bit of mingling. Thanks much to all of you for joining our live coverage and putting your questions out there. For those that we didn't get to answer, we are gathering the questions and we will get them in front of R&D to see which ones we can answer in future articles and other areas. Stay awesome everybody.
    Last edited by Morrus; Monday, 30th January, 2012 at 02:39 PM.

  2. #2
    Hmmm... Just as much excites me as disappoints me.

    I like themes being integral parts of the game. I like the idea of a lot of things being taken care of without a roll (though sometimes those rolls can be hilarious when they go poorly, but I also understand the chance of that discourages many players from doing certain things), I like the new take on saving throws, and getting At-Wills through weapon choice sounds like it could be neat.

    I'm worried that the Avenger will be reduced to a theme, I don't like rolling for ability scores and don't feel that should be the default (especially after the results of the poll; point buys had the clear majority), and I'm not sure I like the way the intend to handle the skills, by making them little more than tweaks to ability score rolls.

    I'm starting to wonder if maybe what maybe my best approach to D&D in the future is to strive to be a Renaissance Man of D&D editions - Be willing to play any, because each has its own niche... Though I get the feeling that for all its flaws, 4e will continue to be my favorite.

  3. #3
    Thaumaturgist (Lvl 9)

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    I'm a little worried about the "at-will feats" bit - I hope every class gets at least one for free. Otherwise it'll feel like too much of a feat tax. First house rule? I dunno. Gotta see the playtest first.

  4. #4
    Superhero (Lvl 15)

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    Two things concern me:

    1) With the new emphasis on stat importance, rolling is a horrible idea. To always be second best to the guy that rolled better than you did for the life of your PC? No thanks. Point buy absolutely has to be the default for this.

    2) Feats. It sounds like feats will be incredibly important to customize your PC beyond your choice of class and theme. So how fast do you get one? Considering it sounds like bonuses won't advance much, I'd like to see a feat EVERY level. And you should start with more than one or two.

  5. #5
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    My favorite part is that NPCs/monsters do not need to built like PCs. It makes game prep and designing so much easier.

    I also think themes sound interesting.

    Seems like taking 10/passive skills are the default. Which I'm good with.

    The abilities/skills reminded me of how Dragon Age works. Everything is an Ability (skill) check (I.e. Strength [Climbing]). If you have a bonus in that Skill (called focuses in DA) you get a bonus, otherwise its just an ability check. It seems to work well in Dragon Age.

    The part that I liked the least was that for one attack you roll an attack and a saving throw. I'm okay with attack rolls for spells, I'm okay with saving throws against swords, but having both just slows the game and increases swingy-ness. (Pathfinder changing opposed grapples to rolling Combat Maneuver Attack vs. Static Combat Maneuver Defense was a good thing.)

  6. #6
    Superhero (Lvl 15)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Siberys View Post
    I'm a little worried about the "at-will feats" bit - I hope every class gets at least one for free. Otherwise it'll feel like too much of a feat tax. First house rule? I dunno. Gotta see the playtest first.
    Exactly! If feats are as important as they sound when it comes to customizing your PC, then you need to get them pretty frequently, otherwise you pretty much are paying a feat tax.

    If feats are few and your precious few feats have to be spent on things you need as opposed to things you think would be cool from a story aspect, that would be frustrating.

    Multiple feats for 1st level PCs, plus a feat every level sounds good to me.

  7. #7
    Superhero (Lvl 15)

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    Going back to feats, perhaps they have different types of feats. Like Major feats that you only get one every two levels and Minor feats that give smaller situational bonuses and such but you get those every level.

    It sounds already like there will be class specific feats. Like Arcane feats that give casters at-will attacks and such, so maybe having different types of feats that are acquired in different ways is a model they are looking at.

  8. #8
    Superhero (Lvl 15)

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    Oh and racial penalties need to die in a fire!

    I get that some races are naturally better in some areas and providing a bonus acts as positive reinforcement when playing classes that use that particular stat. So playing a halfling fighter as opposed to say a rogue is already a sub-optimal choice.

    Therefore, having a racial penalty is like being double punished for playing against type. I'd like to make more races viable to play more classes, not less.

    Let's not mechanically punish players more than necessary for trying to be creative and playing against type.

  9. #9
    Dracolich (Lvl 29)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dragonblade View Post
    Oh and racial penalties need to die in a fire!

    I get that some races are naturally better in some areas and providing a bonus acts as positive reinforcement when playing classes that use that particular stat. So playing a halfling fighter as opposed to say a rogue is already a sub-optimal choice.

    Therefore, having a racial penalty is like being double punished for playing against type. I'd like to make more races viable to play more classes, not less.

    Let's not mechanically punish players more than necessary for trying to be creative and playing against type.
    I've always been of the opposite school of thought. I've always wanted race to be more important than it is.

    Usually, it has a bit of an effect at first (not much) and by 5th level there's no difference to note between a hafling and a half-orc. But I WANT there to be a real noticeable difference between those two choices for the entire character life. A half-orc should be big and strong, and halfling should not (unless you do some weird stuff).

    I'd go further. I'd make the usual modifiers +/- 4. You KNOW that's a half-orc. He's big and strong, whatever career he chooses. The halfling is never going to be as strong as a half-orc.

    I think I'm in a minority there. Certainly Monte Cook doesn't agree with me.

  10. #10
    Gallant (Lvl 3)

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    Quote Originally Posted by MatthewJHanson View Post
    The part that I liked the least was that for one attack you roll an attack and a saving throw. I'm okay with attack rolls for spells, I'm okay with saving throws against swords, but having both just slows the game and increases swingy-ness.
    Are you sure you have that right? Saves vs melee attacks?

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