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General Psionics, Spell Slots, and Game Design: Why Every 5e Problem Can be Solved by a Spell

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
The pending release of Tasha, and the multiple threads discussing psionics, had me reminiscing about the psionics system that was presented in the appendix of the AD&D PHB (1978), which builds upon and codifies the earlier appearance in OD&D (Eldritch Wizardry).

But not just about psionics! Psionics can be a divisive topic; some people don't like psionics because they don't want "sci-fi" in their D&D (don't cross the streams!). Others don't like psionics because the rules have often been over-complicated or difficult to implement. Still others don't like psionics because they have often been added, or additional rules that come after the base rules (in an appendix, or in a separate guide) and it's never neatly integrated into the standard D&D adventuring model .... it's hard to account for the psionics when, for example, most published material isn't taking them into account.

Instead, I was marveling at how complicated and fiddly the AD&D psionics system was. And I contrasted that to the raging debates people were having over psionics in 5e; that the mystic or a dice pool was too complicated (for example) and that's why they went to a spell system.

...Complicated? The mystic and a dice pool was complicated? HA! Back in the day, we had to deal with casting times and weapon speed factors just to determine when your first level illusionist would die so you could sit in a corner and read Dragon Magazine the rest of the afternoon. Don't talk to me about complicated.

But no, that's not what I was thinking about. Instead, I was thinking about the difference in approach to design embodied by the two systems.

AD&D is a codification and expansion of OD&D; a set of rules that arose organically, and was customized to individual situations.
This is the bespoke suit. The suit is tailored to you, now. If you gain weight, lose weight, or someone else wants it, too bad. But boy, it looks sharp!

5e prefers simplified and universal resolution mechanics.
This is the leatherman multi-tool. It may never be the best tool for any particular job, but you know you can use it for most things.

I thought I'd briefly explore why I think that, and then have a conclusion explaining why I think this leads to the rampant "spell equivalency" design model in 5e.


A. It is better to look good than to feel good.

One of the most entertaining thing about getting five OD&D/AD&D players together, is that you'll get six opinions about how the rules work. Partly this is because of the amount of DIY as well as table and regional variance in interpreting and applying the rules. But partly it is because the rules and the rule subsystems are confusing and contradictory at times. The rules might say no resurrection for elves, because they have no souls. But the DMG might say, "Hey, the rod of resurrection works on elves." And if you want to know about how surprise works, well ... there's a page in the DMG that explains it, but it's wrong, and certain things have different rules maybe (Rangers and some monsters for example) and dex counts, except when it doesn't, and some monsters have dex (but most don't), and certain items and monsters determine surprise on different dice except that surprise is rolled on a d6 because it can effect the segment count in a combat and ... ahem.

The point is certain things can get complicated. And the reason for that is that AD&D (1e) essentially is a codification and expansion of OD&D and articles from The Strategic Review and Dragon Magazine. And as the game was growing, and situations came up, rules were added. A lot of the these rules made sense for the particular situation that they were being applied to! They were created because they "felt right," and in isolation, they do. If you need to create a new rule to handle, say, grappling and pummeling because you wanted some non-lethal bear hugs and hit, you just created a subsytem for it ... that involved percentiles, and math, and then you needed to break out the tables, wait, is guy wearing a helmet? Oh man ....

So there is a reason that this system is appealing; it grew organically. It often has satisfying solutions for individual rules issues (grappling being a notable exception). And it allows for a lot of flexibility in terms of abilities and differentiation; after all, if everything is custom, what does it matter if you add something new?


B. Teamwork means you always have someone to blame.

5e, on the other hand, is very much more modern in its design. Unlike 1e, you can be reasonably certain that most things can be resolved through the application of a d20 roll, instead of wondering if this will be a d6, d20, d00, or something else entirely. Attacks, saves, ability checks, and skill checks are standardized and roughly equivalent. While people can (and do) argue about rules interpretations, often because of issues related to either the use of natural language (various uses of 'melee attack' or 'attack' or 'unarmed strike' or 'melee weapon attack' etc.), or the intersection of "fluff" and "crunch" (how big of a mess does it make when a druid explodes after putting on metal armor).

But regardless of some complications (....hiding....stealth....), 5e is designed to be simple, robust, and flexible.

Side note- this isn't a Rod of Lordly Might measuring contest with other TTRPGs. It is entirely possible for other games to be more simple, more robust, or more flexible. We are just discussing D&D in this post. :)

This means that instead of creating multiple new and different subsystems to deal with variant issues, it is expected that you will use the systems provided within the world. You don't need a new subsystem for dealing with each and every animal you encounter; you simply apply the rules for "animal handling" with appropriate DCs and/or modifiers. And so on. Even when presenting a whole new section of rules (such as ships and water combat, as in Ghosts of Saltmarsh), the usual approach is simply to apply the current rules with a few extra guidelines (give ships initiative, give crews a quality score, and proceed on with the usual rules that tables are familiar with).

....and I would assert that this approach has an effect on the design of classes and player options as well.


C. My next trick will be to be a really happy guy. I'll just go around on the internet being really happy until some jerk says something stupid to me.

There is often a complaint about too much magic in 5e, or about the ubiquity of magic in 5e; both points that I happen to agree with. But I think that this ubiquity is not just because of design decisions made, such as scaling attack cantrips, but reflect a fundamental design process. Simply put, 5e was designed with a spell-equivalency basis in mind.

While 5e is not perfectly balanced, it does try hard for balance. And one primary way that it is balanced is by using spells for everything. If you look at the design of almost everything in 5e- from monsters, to magic items, to classes, to subclasses, they are designed in terms of spells. Why have different rules for a magic item that allows you to fly when you can reference the spell? Why have different rules for a class ability that lets you teleport when you can reference a spell that lets you do that? Why have a special monster ability that lets it levitate when you can ... you get the idea.

Spells work. The spells have been tested. It is, for lack of a better word, easy. Do you want to create a new subclass quickly? Give it abilities that (with some "fluff") provide a spell equivalent, and an expanded spell list.

In other words, because this spell equivalency and use is so baked into the 5e system, it is likely to continue. Spells are one of the most basic building blocks of design in 5e.



Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject. Curious to see what other people have to say.
 

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DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
You make a lot of valid points here, which I appreciate. But as I read it there is just one thing that struck me as probably off.

5E doesn't use "spells" for everything. They use "features" for everything (especially regarding balance) but some of those features are just CALLED "spells". The problem is... people can't get past the fluff of what "spells" are and thus they just see spells/magic/spells/magic/spells/magic.

I mean let's be honest here. Evasion is a "spell". That's right. I said it. Evasion is a "spell"... it is a certain leveled thing that a particular character class can do only at certain times and only in a certain amount. The only reason it isn't considered a spell is that its narrative fluff isn't written down as a "spell". But you can easily take Evasion, put it into a spell block format, and thus have it become a spell with no issue whatsoever.

Wildshape? A "spell". Rage? A "spell". Indomitable? A "spell". All of these class features are absolutely NO DIFFERENT than spells except in how they are presented in the book. These are all nothing more than class features that are given at certain levels, have a certain amount of power, and it's only how they are fluffed that determines whether it's "magical" or not, or a "spell" or not.

As I said in a different thread... if anyone wanted a "Non-Magical Ranger"... all they had to do was take the "spells" of Hunter's Mark, Find Traps, and Longstrider... never change them out... and treat them as nothing more than extensions of abilities Rangers can already do. No "magic" need be involved. Voila! You have your non-magical ranger... because class features and spells are virtual interchangeable so long as you can get past the fluff of one of them appearing on a class's "spell list".

But no one will do that. Because everyone is beholden to the all-powerful fluff that WotC has written for all of us, and they are completely unwilling to just ignore it. Instead, they will scream and shout about how the designers at Wizards of the Coast are talentless hacks who don't have an original bone in their bodies. Don't believe me? Take a look in thread after thread after thread.

The fact that the Fighter and Rogue has a single subclass each that can cast spells.... a subclass for each that was made for no other purpose than to make multiclassing easier for some tables... all of a sudden has turned both of those classes into "magic using classes" and thus we hear constant bemoaning about how there aren't any "non-magical classes" in the game anymore. For pete's sake! You could have 37 different non-magical Fighter subclasses in the game, but because WotC made just one that HAD magic... to some people Fighters are now no different than all the other magical classes in the game. Honestly... it's ridiculous.

So no... I don't think the game is designed around "spells". I think it is designed around "features" that are meant to be taken a certain class levels, and it's only how they are divied up to people that determines whether they fall under the spell slots chart or not.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
As I said in a different thread... if anyone wanted a "Non-Magical Ranger"... all they had to do was take the "spells" of Hunter's Mark, Find Traps, and Longstrider... never change them out... and treat them as nothing more than extensions of abilities Rangers can already do. No "magic" need be involved. Voila! You have your non-magical ranger... because class features and spells are virtual interchangeable so long as you can get past the fluff of one of them appearing on a class's "spell list".

But no one will do that. Because everyone is beholden to the all-powerful fluff that WotC has written for all of us, and they are completely unwilling to just ignore it.
I don’t think it’s so much about the fluff of the features being spells, as it’s about the fact that they use the same resource mechanic as spells. Same reason people insisted that every 4e class felt like a spellcaster despite martial powers not being called spells. I’d be willing to bet most folks who want a non-magical Ranger would be perfectly satisfied with said ranger having a class feature that let them cast hunters mark Proficency Mod times between short rests. Because the problem isn’t the “cast a spell” language, it’s the spell slot resource system.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
So no... I don't think the game is designed around "spells". I think it is designed around "features" that are meant to be taken a certain class levels, and it's only how they are divied up to people that determines whether they fall under the spell slots chart or not.

I apologize if I didn't make this distinction clear enough in the introduction.

In 1e (for example), most classes had "abilities" (you would call them features). Many magic items had "features" as well. Same with monsters.

In 5e, these are usually replaced with spell equivalents.

Now what you are saying is that you can find a way to balance these with spells (ignoring side issue like, "is this magic for purposes of the rules"), and I agree! There are still some class abilities (for example). But the point is, by using the spell equivalency for so many things, they don't; that's the primary design point.

If you don't see it, that's cool too.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
I apologize if I didn't make this distinction clear enough in the introduction.

In 1e (for example), most classes had "abilities" (you would call them features). Many magic items had "features" as well. Same with monsters.

In 5e, these are usually replaced with spell equivalents.

Now what you are saying is that you can find a way to balance these with spells (ignoring side issue like, "is this magic for purposes of the rules"), and I agree! There are still some class abilities (for example). But the point is, by using the spell equivalency for so many things, they don't; that's the primary design point.

If you don't see it, that's cool too.
I think I see it mainly that because there are more spells than there are features, it's "spells" that you are using as the equivalency. Which is fine for the most part, it doesn't really matter for your point... except that by using the term "spells" it becomes the buzzword that will drive a certain segment of the D&D populace apoplectic. Because there's just "too much magic in the game". Your post was designed to drive certain players up the wall (purposefully or not.)
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
If you don't see it, that's cool too.
5e has way too much 4e DNA in its system for that to NOT be really obvious. Mechanically, a 5e "spell" is just a bundle of a specific rules exception that's player facing. The other class features are very similar, but 5e changed them from 4e both by formatting and by not having an obvious equivalence between spells and other features because features don't have levels (a very important distinction, as it makes features not interchangeable with spells.)
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
5e has way too much 4e DNA in its system for that to NOT be really obvious. Mechanically, a 5e "spell" is just a bundle of a specific rules exception that's player facing. The other class features are very similar, but 5e changed them from 4e both by formatting and by not having an obvious equivalence between spells and other features because features don't have levels (a very important distinction, as it makes features not interchangeable with spells.)

I thought it was exceedingly obvious as well; but as can be seen from the first response to my post, I was wrong.

That's okay, it happens all the time. Just ask my spouse.
 

NotAYakk

Legend
DEFCON, there are mechanical hooks that the "spell" part of ranger hangs on.

Hunter's Mark, Find Traps and Longstrider all use the same "slots", are restricted total per long rest, can be dispelled, use the spell rules for bonus vs action use, can be countered, etc etc.

---

Now, you can make a Feature-based ranger, but the mechanics of a feature-based rider would not be the same as a spell-based ranger.

You could even steal many of the Ranger spells and turn them into Ranger features. But that transition should give them different mechanics, if only on the margin.

Like:

Hunter's Mark: A Ranger's bond with the Primal spirits lets it mark a creature to be hunted. As a bonus action select a creature within 90' the Ranger is aware of. The Ranger has advantage on Perception checks to detect that creature, Knowledge checks (such as Nature) to determine its properties, and on Survival checks to track it. Whenever the Ranger hits the creature, deal an extra 1d6 magical damage of any one the the attack's damage types.

If a Ranger uses Hunter's Mark on a different creature, the effect on the first creature ends.

---

That is a "featurized" Ranger Hunter's Mark.

We can do the same for Longstrider and Find Traps:

---

Longstrider: The Ranger and creatures within 50' of the Ranger who the Ranger considers allies gains 10' of movement speed.

Trapsense: The Ranger can detect the presence of traps within line of sight. The Ranger is not told exactly where the trap is, only that it is present, but you do learn the general nature of the trap you detect. A Trap is a device deliberately designed to hurt, be it mechanical or magical, not just accidental poor construction or weathering. The Ranger has advantage on all saving throws triggered by traps and attacks on the Ranger by traps are at disadvantage. Once a Ranger has sensed a Trap this way, they don't sense that particular trap again until the Ranger completes a short rest.

---

The core effect of these abilities is the same as the Ranger spells, but the scaffolding around it is not.

---

I might go a different way. Give the Ranger Hunter's Dice, a pool of d6s, that grow with level.

Each Hunter's Die can be used to apply a hunter's mark, or fuel "ranger spells".

So Lightning Arrow might be

Lightning Arrow (At least 3 Hunter's Dice) As a bonus action, you imbue a piece of ammunition or a thrown weapon with the primal power of lightning. When you make a ranged attack with it before the start of your next turn. The target takes the expended hunters dice on a miss, and twice that on a hit.

Hit or miss, each creature within 10' of the target must make a dexterity saving throw, taking a roll of your hunter's dice used damage on a failure and half as much on a success.

The weapon or ammunition then loses it's charge of primal lighting.

---

The Ranger gets 1 hunter's die for every 2 class levels (round up), and they recharge on a short rest. You can only expend half of your max dice on a single ability.

At this point, this is basically a short-rest spell-point spellcaster. But there are still subtle differences.

---

And "even" in 5e, those differences matter. 5e was a response to 4e, where almost everyone had powers, and those powers where labelled "spells" "exploits" "prayers" etc. Mechanically, they where almost completely uniform, and the power source was fluff.

5e as a response makes certain things spells and it being spells matters. Not boundlessly, but it does matter.
 
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Undrave

Hero
I don’t think it’s so much about the fluff of the features being spells, as it’s about the fact that they use the same resource mechanic as spells. Same reason people insisted that every 4e class felt like a spellcaster despite martial powers not being called spells. I’d be willing to bet most folks who want a non-magical Ranger would be perfectly satisfied with said ranger having a class feature that let them cast hunters mark Proficency Mod times between short rests. Because the problem isn’t the “cast a spell” language, it’s the spell slot resource system.

There's also the issue of Counterspell and Dispell Magic and Anti-Magic Zone. All those spells that could easily be class features would need asterisk to make them immune to such thing.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
There's also the issue of Counterspell and Dispell Magic and Anti-Magic Zone. All those spells that could easily be class features would need asterisk to make them immune to such thing.
True. Personally I would be willing to accept that, even if it wouldn’t be my preference.
 

Undrave

Hero
True. Personally I would be willing to accept that, even if it wouldn’t be my preference.

the problem with treating all features as spell is that 'Spell' is basically a keyword that interact with other element of the games based on its fiction. It's really no different than if 4e had ability to counter powers based on their power source really. You could easily rewrite a ton of 5e stuff as 4e power in format.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I think this is where Savage Worlds got things right. They decoupled "powers" (termed Trappings) from their source, so that you can add in a new way of doing things without having to come up with a whole new subsystem. Invisibility has the same mechanical effects, whether it is granted by Faith, a Demon Pact, Psionics, Superpowers, Mad Science or some flavor of Arcane Magic.

D&D 5E almost did it right, but started with the premise that all this stuff is a magical spell, rather than leaving it open to being from a Martial, Supernatural, Divine, Pact, etc. source where the mechanics would be the same but might be from a different source - and that source could have have its own distinct methods and/or "Trappings" (such as bargain rules for Pacts, faith and devotion rules for Divine, study & prep mechanics for Wizardly Arcane, blood power points for Sorcery, focus & meditation rules for Psionics, training for Martial, etc.)
 

NotAYakk

Legend
I think this is where Savage Worlds got things right. They decoupled "powers" (termed Trappings) from their source, so that you can add in a new way of doing things without having to come up with a whole new subsystem. Invisibility has the same mechanical effects, whether it is granted by Faith, a Demon Pact, Psionics, Superpowers, Mad Science or some flavor of Arcane Magic.

D&D 5E almost did it right, but started with the premise that all this stuff is a magical spell, rather than leaving it open to being from a Martial, Supernatural, Divine, Pact, etc. source where the mechanics would be the same but might be from a different source - and that source could have have its own distinct methods and/or "Trappings" (such as bargain rules for Pacts, faith and devotion rules for Divine, study & prep mechanics for Wizardly Arcane, blood power points for Sorcery, focus & meditation rules for Psionics, training for Martial, etc.)
That was 4e. Really, that was 4e.

5e is a response to the rejection of that part of 4e (among other components).

There is a D&D game, and it is a good one, that does what you are asking. But that isn't what 5e does.

5e takes some of the design math of 4e, massages it (4e had more rapid scaling; a max level (30) PC was on the order of 100 to 1000 times stronger than a level 1 PC; in 5e, it is closer to 10-50 times stronger), and explicitly removes uniformity of class mechanics (that 4e had at launch, and experimented with tweaking towards its end).

I encourage you to go play 4e. It is a great game, with good bones.

I think making 5e mimic that part of 4e isn't a good idea. The rejection was solid, and sneaking it back in through the back door isn't a good idea.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I think this puts the cart before the horse. WotC has shown in quite a few UA playtests the willingness to try something different than just reiterating the spell system. The customer base said they didn't like it. So, the new psionics is going to be spell system based, not because that's how WotC designs for balance, but because the customer base, as a whole. said they didn't want to have a different system. Perhaps they said this because they do want a different system, but no consensus of thought on what that should be could be reached and the spell-system was always second best? Some kind of instant runoff or weighted choice voting resulted in spell-system being the most universally agreed upon even if it didn't win in the first round of voting (or second)? Regardless, the OP seems to suggest that it's a design intent thing, when, to me, it appears to be a customer base is happy with the current design and so want new things to fit in rather than stick out.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
I think this is where Savage Worlds got things right. They decoupled "powers" (termed Trappings) from their source, so that you can add in a new way of doing things without having to come up with a whole new subsystem. Invisibility has the same mechanical effects, whether it is granted by Faith, a Demon Pact, Psionics, Superpowers, Mad Science or some flavor of Arcane Magic.
Yea, I don't think that's really what a lot of people want. I think that cleric Fireball and wizard Fireball being pretty much the same thing is viewed as a regrettable simplification by many players, not a feature.
 

Eric V

Hero
Yea, I don't think that's really what a lot of people want. I think that cleric Fireball and wizard Fireball being pretty much the same thing is viewed as a regrettable simplification by many players, not a feature.
Can't speak for any group but my own, but this here was one of the top 5 reasons we stopped playing 5e. It really was too bad.
 

Yea, I don't think that's really what a lot of people want. I think that cleric Fireball and wizard Fireball being pretty much the same thing is viewed as a regrettable simplification by many players, not a feature.
The cleric shouldn't have fireball to begin with.

The spell mechanic works fine for pretty much any supernatural power. In fact I dislike when they invent overlapping mechanics to do the same thing. Like how in the fiction cure wounds and lay on hands are different? Why is one spell and another isn't? And the same class being able to use both makes it even weirder.

I don't feel that the spell mechanic itself leads to sameyness, it is that there is too much overlap in the spell lists.
 

I think this puts the cart before the horse. WotC has shown in quite a few UA playtests the willingness to try something different than just reiterating the spell system. The customer base said they didn't like it. So, the new psionics is going to be spell system based, not because that's how WotC designs for balance, but because the customer base, as a whole. said they didn't want to have a different system. Perhaps they said this because they do want a different system, but no consensus of thought on what that should be could be reached and the spell-system was always second best? Some kind of instant runoff or weighted choice voting resulted in spell-system being the most universally agreed upon even if it didn't win in the first round of voting (or second)? Regardless, the OP seems to suggest that it's a design intent thing, when, to me, it appears to be a customer base is happy with the current design and so want new things to fit in rather than stick out.

So it's supply and demand then? Makes sense to me. If you tell WOTC that their new subsystem sucks and that being "magical" is cool, eventually an all magic system is what you get!

Remember marking? It was a distinct mechanic and everyone hated that! How about kingdom management? It didn't make it past 2E but most of the spells did!
 

Halloween Horror For 5E

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