Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Churn, Baby, Churn

An interview with Matthew Sernett, the developer of the new Tome of Magic supplement from Wizards was posted to the official D&D site yesterday. I haven't seen the new book, and frankly everything that I've seen about it has left me lukewarm at best. This excerpt from the interview pretty much sums up my problems with this sort of supplement:
Wizards:Tome of Magic looks to be three entire concepts rolled into a single sourcebook: pact magic, shadow magic and truename magic; in fact, each section has its own layout. Essentially, are these new magical elements that can be incorporated by existing spellcasting classes and with exiting systems (core spellcasting, psionics, incarnum)? Or are these separate systems, with their own core classes?

Matthew: Each is a new system with a core class yes,...

Sernett goes on to say that all of the systems in the new book can be integrated into existing characters without bending over backwards, but doesn't offer any concrete examples of how this would work. Hmm.

When TSR brought out The Complete Psionicist back in the day, there was a whole essay in the front of the book devoted to "Why does D&D need another magic system anyway?". The author's conclusion was: "It doesn't. But this is something altogether different. We swear." They got the first part pretty much right; the second half was a bit of a punt, from where I sit.

Psionics has never settled too well into D&D, from what I've seen. The Darksun campaign setting did the best job of it, and did so by pushing psionics into the forefront of the setting. That's been pretty much the only real attempt at integrating them solidly into the core of D&D. Coverage of psionics in the present iteration of the Forgotten Realms setting has been minimal; the new Eberron setting placed most of the major psionics in the world on a yet-to-be-detailed continent, finally making a geographical divide out of the metaphorical one that has existed for years. Browse advertisements for new online or local games on the Internet, and the 'no psionics' restriction will peep out at you time and again.

The problem is that despite what The Complete Psionicist said back in the day, psionics really is just another form of magic in most D&D games. 3rd Edition made that more explicit than usual by having saves and other magical effects work identically with psionics, rather than burden down the core game with psionics-specific rules. And then the question returns: why does D&D need another magic system?

The answer: in most people's eyes, it doesn't. Learning a new system takes time and energy that most gamers have in short supply, and most of these new systems don't offer that much more bang for your considerable mental and literal bucks. In a bookstore one day, I found myself flipping through Magic of Incarnum, another book similar in flavor to the new Tome of Magic. Partway through the introductory pages, my eyes were glazing over. Chakra points? Soulmelds? Essentia? No thanks. I don't want to have to learn a whole new vocabulary just to drop a new resource into my game. And even if I did spend my time learning how to use these new systems, what would I do with them then? Most DMs have had at least one nightmare about players constantly trying to squeeze new expansions into their game, forcing furious attempts to make sure that the new system doesn't open gaping new holes in the rules or upset the delicate balance of their campaign- meaning that 'no incarnum' is soon to join 'no psionics' on the 'Most Popular Character Creation Restrictions' short list.

Wizards seems to think that there is a market for this sort of expansion. I certainly prefer it to bumping the version numbers on rule systems, but I don't think it will be finding a place on my shelf anytime soon.

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