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3E/3.5 Jonathan Tweet: Third Edition and Per-Day Spells

On the Third Edition design team, we were tasked with rationalizing the game system, but there were some big elements of the system that we didn’t question. We inherited a system in which spellcasters get better in three ways at a time as they level up; they get more spells per day, higher-level spells, and more damage with spells of a given level. In retrospect, that problem is easy to see, and we didn’t fix it. We also inherited a system that balanced powerful class features, notably spells, by making them usable once per day. The problems with that system are less obvious, and we didn’t fix this system, either. But the 3E system laid bare its own inner workings, and so soon enough designers saw that there were issues with this system, and over the years several of us designers have tried to address it one way or another.

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In classic dungeon crawling, the default best strategy is to take each room one at a time and regain your hit points and spells after each one. That’s no fun, so people usually don’t play that way. For 3E, we spelled out that the game was balanced for four average battles between heal-ups, but actual practice varied. Whatever per-day powers are balanced at one rate of fights per day are necessarily unbalanced at faster or slower rates. Classes with lots of per-day power are too strong when there are one or two fights per day and too weak when there are five or more. Individual Dungeon Masters might be able to schedule the action in such a way that they maintain the sort of balance they’re looking for. If that works, it represents the DM’s efforts and not anything we on the design team could accomplish through system design. Many Dungeon Masters might find the per-day rules convenient precisely because they allow the DM to modulate the threat level up and down. DMs rule on how many encounters the party has in a day and whether they can suspend their mission long enough to reset their spells and other per-day powers. A dynamic I’ve seen over and over again, however, is that players with spellcasting characters are adept at talking the DM into letting the party rest. When the spellcaster is out of spells, they need a night’s rest a lot more than the other characters in the party need to press on. When a mission goes south and the encounters burn up more per-day resources than the DM figured they would, the party often simply camps out for the night and sets out the next day with spells reset to full.

Limiting spells by day also means that a spellcaster’s power level is different when they’re in a preliminary skirmish compared to when they’re in a climactic showdown. When it’s a high-priority battle or when the player knows that there’s a long rest afterwards, the spellcaster can use their best spells without worrying about holding back. This effect is something of a game-wrecker when the party arranges to jump the big bad guy after prepping up to full. With a well-placed teleport, the party’s spellcasters can unload all their best “per-day” spells for the one battle that matters that day (an “alpha strike”). Classes with at-will powers can’t “unload” the way spellcasters can.

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The per-day system also changes up balance for NPCs. Generally, when a party attacks an NPC boss of some sort, that NPC is in a fight for their life, and they cut loose with every per-day power they can manage. Fighter NPCs aren’t particularly dangerous because they have no such resources to unleash. In my campaign, I found the psionicist NPC the most dangerous because they could use the point system to cast at full capacity every round. As player-characters, psionicists have all the balance problems of the wizard and then some.

Seeing the issues with per-day powers, the designers started experimenting with per-encounter powers in supplemental material. The psychic warrior, for example, had a “focus” that they could expend once in the battle in order to have a special effect. At that point, designers were still in simulation mode, and encounters that were “per-encounter” by fiat seemed too artificial. The psychic warrior had a believable, in-world reason for their “per-encounter” abilities. Tome of Battle: Book of the Nine Swords (2006) introduced special, limited-use powers for martial classes. By 4E, the designers fully embraced per-encounter powers.

Fourth edition established balance among the classes by giving all of them per-day and per-encounter powers. That’s one way to solve the balance issue. 4E is so well-balanced that it’s hard to make bad choices in character design. This approach had the unfortunate effect of making the classes all feel sort of the same.

With 13th Age, Rob Heinsoo and I took a different approach. We turned 3E’s four-fights guideline into a hard rule. You get your spells and hit points back not just by resting but only if you have engaged in a minimum amount of fighting. After your fourth fight (or after four fights’ worth of fighting), the party gets to reset to full. Alternatively, the party can admit defeat and get a heal-up without “earning” it, but admitting defeat entails a “campaign loss,” as determined by the GM. This system creates a lovely rhythm, with characters feeling flush and confident in the first fight, feeling hard pressed in the last fight, and then feeling good again when they heal up. I play a cleric in a 13th Age campaign, and the last fight before a heal-up is tough going. The last fight is so tough that we player all know that the decisions and rolls we made in the earlier fights all mattered in terms of what we have left for the last one.
 
Jonathan Tweet

Jonathan Tweet

D&D 3E, Over the Edge, Everway, Ars Magica, Omega World, Grandmother Fish


JeffB

Legend
Sadly this has become the issue again in D&D, where a huge step was taken back in design. Even as a huge Gygax disciple and someone who started playing in the 70s, I'd prefer Vancian casting to go the way of the dodo or receive some heavy modification (like Spellcasting Checks instead of Saves). it's fictional element is fantastic, but in practice it's just a game within a game that is often abused and way more trouble than it's worth , IMO.

Again thank you for 13TH Age- It does a great job of handling these problems though the class design and "refresh" mechanics for PCs. I have had to use the Campaign Loss rules a few times-frankly it makes for a better adventure going forward as the characters decide to scrape by with what they have, or take the loss which add some fun complications that drives the narrative/story elsewhere.
 

dave2008

Legend
Thanks for the article. I really like a lot of the ideas 4e brought to the table and wish some of those had been integrated into 5e better / more.

Personally, I am not a fan of the 13th age approach of hard coding the 4 battles. I think there might be a middle ground. @JeffB had a thread about what if everything was HP based. Similar to that i am wondering if everything was HD based. So healing is HD based (like 4e), at-wills are free, but encounter (martial and spells - if you have them) cost a HD and daily powers cost 2 HD or something. Then you have resource that is really tied to exhaustion (and healing) and makes sense in the narrative and as a balance feature.
 
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SkidAce

Hero
Supporter
Great article, thanks for the insight.

Everything you lay out makes sense....but I just can't...

I will be one of the DMs that balances things by "might be able to schedule the action in such a way that they maintain the sort of balance they’re looking for. "

Bottom line for me, after a long rest everyone being wide awake, charged, and ready to go "simulates" actually getting rest and recovering, which is what "rest" is for.

Same reason I can't change long rests to a week. I have a hard time setting an arbitrary limit (or game balance limit).

I completely understand the balance issues, and again thank you for a great article. (I do like 13th Age).
 

SkidAce

Hero
Supporter
Thanks for the article. I really like a lot of the ideas 4e brought to the table and wish some of those had been integrated into 5e better / more.

Personally, I am not a fan of the 13th age approach of hard coding the 4 battles. I think there might be a middle ground. @JeffB had a thread about what if everything was HP based. Similar to that i am wondering if everything was HD based. So healing is HD based (like 4e), at-wills are free, bout encounter (martial and spells - if you have them) cost a HD and daily powers cost 2 HD or something. Then you have resource that is really tied to exhaustion (and healing) and makes sense in the narrative and as a balance feature.

Wow, solid idea.
 


Sadras

Hero
We actually started doing that in 4e, but now I am thinking it can be a universal mechanic for 5e too. I think there might be a method to use the idea to keep some of the variety (and nostalgia) of 5e, while implementing some of the best ideas of 4e.

Funny enough I started theory crafting along those lines in 5e, in the end it became a little too much overhead as I began equating all the powers/spells/features along a HD mechnic. So I scrapped that and changed the rest mechanic instead tying it to the exhaustion track. But I like yours and JeffB's simplified system! Maybe for my next campaign. ;)

EDIT: Love these designer-insight articles
 

RSIxidor

Adventurer
I love this train of thought. I think it might be a similar train of thought that led to the Focus spells in Pathfinder 2E. These are the encounter powers to match the standard spells (the daily powers). But some classes only get at-wills alongside their encounter powers, and some don't get encounter powers at all and only have their at-will abilities. I do think it allows for the classes to feel distinct from each other, but I'm not sure that they've solved the 15 minute work day issue. It does allow casters to go a bit longer but they're still going to want those daily spells back, I think. I haven't gotten much chance to play PF2E so I'm basing this solely around what I've seen of the system, would love for someone who's played more to comment on how well it's worked there.

I haven't played a lot of 13th Age and it's been some time since I've played, but what I did I mostly enjoyed (I never liked the randomness of needing evens/odds/15+ whatever on the rolls to sometimes get effects, felt like it took away player agency to me). I don't think I realized at the time some of the other little bits about the system that are really interesting, like the 4 day rest, the way it feels tactical without having to use a grid. I should give it another read sometime.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
Excellent article.

Personally I think the Pre 3e prepared Vancian casting doesn't work anymore. Too many settings don't rely on straight long dungeon delving anymore. 4E was a step in a step in the right direction but it didn't go far enough in justification. 13th Age's 4 encounter days solution is cool but I can't get my head around it working for other setting.

I wholeheartedly agree that a major problem in fantasy gaming is that Nonmagical characters can't "Nova" the BBEG down. As a guy who grew up with anime, it's just so strange to me that the warrior can't just break out the limiters once or twice a day and turn into a superhuman beast. As I see more people entering fantasy gaming scene, I see more ideas coming in and being accepted on giving warriors and scoundrels more resources to burst down a foe.
 

A very useful change I employed in my 1E games was how healing works, especially from spells, which I determined to be a significant source of the problem.

First, after every fight, PC's can recover at least 25% of their hit points - IF they can rest for at least 10 minutes after the fight. Those hit points are then assumed to be fatigue, but you can't recover fatigue if you can't/don't rest long enough or if you drop to 0 hit points or lower. Second, individuals can only benefit from a limited amount of spell healing per day; an amount effectively equal to their maximum hit points. Mostly, that healing takes place as a RITUAL which can't be done in combat. Clerics and other healers also have limits on the amount of healing they can hand out. Healing spells that can be cast in combat also draw against these limits. All healing is done in terms of hit dice of the PC receiving it. So fighters get d10 dice from healing sources, but magic-users only get d4's.

Choosing healing spells then is a matter of mostly keeping people alive in combat and then finishing what healing can be provided in rituals outside of combat. The 15-minute workday is at least less effective a strategy because the amount of healing that can be provided AND received are both reduced. Yet PC's who manage to rest regularly after fights CAN risk continuing on longer, albeit with more limited hit points.

It wasn't a complete fix-all but it was a significant step in the right direction.
 


dave2008

Legend
I wholeheartedly agree that a major problem in fantasy gaming is that Nonmagical characters can't "Nova" the BBEG down. As a guy who grew up with anime, it's just so strange to me that the warrior can't just break out the limiters once or twice a day and turn into a superhuman beast.
Actually, the 5e fighter's action surge is exactly this type of mechanic. I even expanded it and allow my players to double damage instead of double their actions.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I'm a huge fan of how 13th Age does it. 5e, a fantastic system otherwise, really causes me dissodance with going from the 3ed assumption of four encounters to 6-8 in order to balance (non-HP) resource attrition. Regularly running that number of encounters does not fit my DMing style.

That's why 13th Age was such a good fit. Two week exploration trek in the Underworld with just a few encounters? One full heal up. A day delving a living dungeon. One full heal up. A frantic midnight run from the Orc Lord's troops after their bombing the encampment from an airship and getting shot down? One full heal up. I can fit it easily to what I need to do.
 

Jer

Adventurer
That's why 13th Age was such a good fit. Two week exploration trek in the Underworld with just a few encounters? One full heal up. A day delving a living dungeon. One full heal up. A frantic midnight run from the Orc Lord's troops after their bombing the encampment from an airship and getting shot down? One full heal up. I can fit it easily to what I need to do.

All of this. My only issue with 13A is that the vocabulary of "daily" is still in the rules and it's taken me a while to train my players to understand that "daily" means "when we've hit a full heal-up point" and not "when you've chosen to camp for the night". They like it now, but they still occasionally complain about the use of the word "daily" in the rules when it doesn't mean it.
 

slobster

Hero
I like the elegance of 13th age's "heal up after a number of encounters" design, but it still picks at the raw spot of my simulationist tendencies enough that I prefer the 5E "rest" mechanics in play even though they can be very inconsistent to plan around. I'm always looking for a compromise that gets the benefits of the first mode without gamify-ing to such a transparent extent, but I've never come up with anything better than "rest mechanics and then try to push the PCs into a time crunch" to accomplish that.

Great article!
 

dnd4vr

The Smurfiest Wizard Ever!
I can't get behind 13th age's mechanic, personally. What if you have an encounter one day, two the next, and then nothing for a week? I could easily be missing something because I don't play the game, but if I am not I don't really like the idea.

It is arbitrary and to me makes no more sense than recovery after a short or long rest o daily or whatever. My favorite mechanics are always at-will with a cost. In terms of DND that might be HD (I enjoyed that thread as well I thought it was going in a nice direction) or HP (I like the "Vitality" used in SWSE to fuel force-powers) or something else. That is why our table uses a homebrew spell point system and I am working on a spell drain system as well.
 


dnd4vr

The Smurfiest Wizard Ever!
TANSTAAFL.

Elegance in a game is a conserved property. There is only so much you can have, and you have to figure out where you want to put it. Fixing some problem almost always comes at the expense of creating a new one.
LOL So true!
 

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