I thought that with the truly terrible Star Trek reboot sequel name, I should try something similar for dealing with my current project. After all, this could seriously be a debacle, more or less like the coherency of that film. Back when DnD 3.5 was still a thing, I picked up the Black Company Campaign Setting. I read a bit of it, promptly moved, didn’t plan any table top games for a few years, and more or less forgot about until I had a conversation about the book series and commented that I possessed the table top 3.5 setting. The feedback I heard wasn’t positive, and I got sad, and shelved the book. By then I was playing in a regular 4e game, a semi-regular 4e game, and Black Company was the furthest thing from my mind game-wise. To say that Black Company isn’t suited to the gonzo play of 4e is an understatement. I loved 4e for what is was, but without significant modification it was not suited to anything with the “grit” in it.
Enter DnD Next. Now, I know it’s not released, and I don’t particularly care for some of the directions of the final draft, but along the way has been some pretty interesting stuff. Early on, there was a version that had you choosing a background, a specialty, in addition to your race and class. More recently, the skill system was very fun to utilize, if somewhat limited in its implementation. As DnD Next has continued, we have seen less and less innovation in terms of core design, and seem more variations on past themes. All of the old classes are rearing their heads, leading once again to an extremely high amount of class bloat, often carrying over problematic immunity design. Most recently, we have seen their idea for feats. This is a much bolder approach, as the feats include a wide variety of features with each choice, but at the cost of ability scores. Some of the feats further compound this issue by making you take penalties for use. In a game of bound accuracy, one of the talking points of DnD, this is a double whammy and it really appears that someone wasn’t thinking this through. To be fair, many packages such as feats and probably the older implementation of skills will be optional rules modules that you can use for your game running. This remains to be seen. Despite all this, DnD Next does has a much more scaled back sense of fantasy that it is trying to impart. This got me thinking about the Black Company campaign setting once again.
For the last few days now, I have been re-reading the Black Company Campaign Setting, and, honestly, I am still incredibly intrigued by what I see. However, I’m daunted by the fact that I haven’t played 3.5 in a decade, and I forgot just how fiddly that system was. The skill system is absolutely a mess, and things like a new crafting system, emphasis on languages, in depth research, a bevy of company command skills, and an array of magical skills, not the least of which is the incredible important and complex Magic Use skill. Then there are the feats. Oh jeez, I had forgotten what a quagmire the feat system of 3.5 was. In some cases, feats were absolutely critical in order for your class to function well at all, and in other cases your class might not care much as all. This is definitely true when you look at the classes of the Black Company Campaign Setting. The Academian is based solely around skills, while the Fighter, Jack-of-all-Trades, and to a lesser degree the Scout and Weapon Masters are all about feats. This sort of niche building was definitely a thing in 3.5, but one that I’d like to see done away with overall. Caring about all parts of the game is something that contributes to table attention.
This has led me to realize that I need to just take the parts of DnD Next I like over the various iterations, and apply that to what’s in the Black Company Campaign Setting. The general model I will be working with will be something like this:
1st – Pick Class, Theme, and Ethnicity.
2nd – Class Feature Choice
3rd – Theme Feature Choice
4th – Class Feature Choice, +1 to an ability score
5th – Theme Feature Choice, + 1 to an ability score
6th – Pick Additional Class and Theme. This may be the same choice as at 1st, or entirely different.
Repeat until 20th as appropriate. You will notice the presence of something called theme on the table. This is a combination of background and specialty that you also increase over the course of the campaign. It’s not really appropriate to just call it background if it’s a living, breathing thing. Some of the aspects of specialty also roll into the classes, leading to various decision points at each level. I will likely stay away from paths, but rather present new abilities at each point, with the possibility of going back to pick up a previous feature you missed if you care to do so. When starting out, an ability score modifier is linked to your class and your theme. Ethnicity only impacts your starting language, which is straight out of the book. The Nar, those ebony gods among men, have a height/weight modifier in the book, and I’m in favor of preserving that flavor but a randomized modifier seems a bit much.
Theme features will almost certainly be to be skill based, though I sorta dig the default feat options that come with some of the packages. I might reflect this in some additional choice along the way. In previous editions of DnD Next, being trained in a skill granted you a bonus die of either 1d4 or 1d6. As weird as it sounds, this extra die kicker actually made skills a lot more intriguing. Active is always better than passive, and even if it only averages out to 2.5 or 3.5 as a bonus, the feeling of doing can’t be overstated. However, you didn’t have any other way to get additional skills, or become better at the ones you have. The idea behind themes is to correct just that. When you select a theme, you immediately gain three skills of your choice from a list of probably five or six skills. These skills start off at either a d2 or a d4, I haven’t yet decided, but you may increase one skill by a die size each time you hit a theme feature level. When you select a theme later on, even if it’s that same theme, you to again select three skills, just as if you are picking a theme for the first time. To make things a bit more interesting, there is likely to be some sort of associated active ability that you can choose instead. An idea for that would be something like:
Add an additional die of the same size to either a Diplomacy or Intimidate skill check once per day.
That’s obviously not a finished product, but you get the gist. This will end up being a fair bit of work with all of the various backgrounds the book possesses, as there are 24 in total.
Classes present an interesting challenge for the same reasons. In true 3.5 fashion, there are prestige classes in addition to normal classes. I might include these, or I might roll these into the appropriate base classes as higher level abilities. For example, Artificer might start showing up as skill choices in the Wizard class at around 9th or 10th level in Wizard. The problem is that not all are one to one class upgrades. Deceiver and Nightstalker both require stealth, but there is no reason that if you picked up those skills, you couldn’t take abilities from those, so it’s weird. I might just leave them as options for all melee/ranged classes as selections after a certain point, and just let it be governed by people who want it. I mean no one would want Deceiver or Nightstalker if they can’t hide or sneak anyway. The main problem is that this might end up with a tad too much homogenization. I don’t think it would really be an issue, but it might be. The best option might be to just leave them as prestige classes and let them be picked up as a package like any other class choice. It’s just an issue of class bloat.
Of course, this is a problem with the base classes too. You have fighter, weapon master, scout, ranger and thief. I’m still not convinced that it’s necessary to have this level of specificity in terms of classes themselves. You could simply roll the weapon master stuff into fighter. There is also little or no difference in ranger and scout. I mean they are incredibly similar and you could just set those up together. Thief is a little weird, and might need to be stand alone. Jack-of-all-Trades might be the best thing to combine with it, if I was going to do so. Noble is also a very strange class, and could either roll into fighter or academian. Of course, maybe I don’t need to combine things and the packaging mechanics take care of themselves. I don’t want to get too complicated with this if unneeded, but the modular, highly customizable character is a big draw for me in 5e, or at least it away in various drafts.
The magic system also needs a pretty drastic overhaul. The problem here is that I need to balance the very unique feel of Black Company magic against actually having fun in game play. The best thing about the Black Company system to me is that multiple wizards are extremely desirous. However, this has to be weighed against having something to do every round that isn’t just “I see if I continue to cast this spell”. Group actions are also neat, but I’d want to make it so that both players have input. It’s just another thing to consider.
As you can see, this is a lot of work to get done. My plan is to post something every day until I work my way through all of this. Manageable bites. Fingers crossed.