Monday, September 14, 2020

#Zendikar #DnD Take 2: Mana in D&D!


Previously very excited about the new Zendikar Rising set in Magic: The Gathering, I was starting to write my update on Zendikar's geography, but I now see it all a bit moot, considering the little lore that came out about Zendikar, whether within the cards or as stories/articles.

I am now of the opinion that if following the original lore, I will just end up with many contradictions, geographical inaccuracies/holes, and personal disappointment, due to how little the interest from the creators seems compared to mine.

So I am taking a break from sticking to the source, and doing something else: a mechanic for D&D characters to use the five colors of mana in-game!

I was previously very contrary to this, when adapting the setting for 4e D&D. But 4e was a difficult beast to home-brew rules for: while incredibly fun IMO, it was like a complex piece of machinery: difficult to take apart piece by piece and improve on.

So I had this rule of thumb: role-playing in Zendikar should not use any concept from Magic: The Gathering. Only the setting should be used, and for the rest we are looking at regular D&D.

The Roil was still possible to implement following this line (it would have been just an environmental hazard like many others, if a tad more extreme), but thinking again about it, mana is really central to Zendikar as a concept. The point of Zendikar is its lands producing very potent mana. And this would have fallen flat in RPG campaigns excluding the concept of mana entirely, or relegating it to plot-device only.

This thought, combined with the fact that 5e D&D is much easier to customize, led me to think how mana would work, and I think I got the right idea now.

Proficiency Dice are dead, long live Mana Dice!

Proficiency dice were a mechanic I loved during the "D&D Next" playtest, which became just an alternative rule in official 5e, and one I never heard being played (although I don't follow the community much anymore. Don't even know what should eb the go-to forum for D&D these days.)

Now, why would Mana Dice (my new mana mechanic) replace Proficiency Dice? If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Hear me out.

  • In the world of MtG and by extension on Zendikar, mana is not only used for magic. Warriors use it as much as wizards. You could argue they are just summoned by it, but then again many creatures are "mana-infused" even if not overtly spell-casting, and moral, ethical, or just rational concepts are domains of some color of mana or others.
  • This means that any character, magic or not, could use mana for anything governed by that color.
Now the big question is: since mana colors are associated to concepts that don't directly translate to anything codified in D&D, if not in fringe cases, how do we create rules for it?

Rules or rulings. Not mutually exclusive!

I am usually all for rules against rulings, but rulings can also be fine if following very clear guidelines. They basically become like very broad rules, and for mana colors, they would make a lot of seense.

Mana colors ruling: you can roll Mana Dice instead of applying proficiency if you are attempting an action within the domain of the color of the Mana Dice in question.

Simple and effective!

The problem is how much this would influence gameplay. Characters would try to use this at any possible chance (although as you will see later, there are risks to using this), and it would start to feel like a default, losing the special feeling of doing something extraordinary.

Therefore, I think for each Mana Die (coming to the rule about them in a second) one should choose only a few key areas where it can apply. This will help a sense of progression and uniqueness, which I always think as central pillars of what make RPGs fun.

So here are the first rules:
  • At first level you gain two d4 Mana Dice 🎲
  • You can choose them to be both from one color, or different colors, and choose two benefits for each, chosen from the respective Mana Color Benefits list.
  • You can choose the same benefit multiple times to gain a free 🎲 recovery when using it for the chosen action/roll, for each time you have chosen it.
  • When your proficiency bonus increases, you gain a new 🎲 (with two associated Mana Color Benefits) and all 🎲 improve by one step (from d4 to d6, and so on, up to 6d12).

I know, emoji. I think they can convey/imprint mechanics much better, though.
The Mana Color Benefits lists would be like this:

  • Skills: Persuasion; History; Religion; Insight; Medicine; Athletics.
  • Saving Throws: Wisdom; Charisma
  • Tactics:
    • 🗡️ Attacks of Opportunity; 
    • 👨‍👦‍👦attacks made when adjacent to two ore more allies.
  • Spell Types: 
    • 🛡️ spells that protect; 
    • ☀️ spells that relate with life or light.

  • Skills: Deception; Arcana; Investigation; History; Perception; Stealth.
  • Saving Throws: Intelligence; Wisdom
  • Tactics: 
    • 🤺 Readied attacks; 
    • 👥attacks made when the target can't see you.
  • Spell Types: 
    • 💫 spells that mesmerize; 
    • 🌬️spells that relate with air or water.

  • Skills: Deception; Intimidation; Arcana; Religion; Sleight of Hand; Stealth.
  • Saving Throws: Intelligence; Constitution
  • Tactics: 
    • 🩸 Attacks dealing extra damage to single target; 
    • 😈 attacks that would affect an ally negatively.
  • Spell Types: 
    • 💀 spells that damage single targets; 
    • 👻 spells that relate with death or darkness.

  • Skills: Persuasion; Performance; Arcana; Nature; Acrobatics; Athletics.
  • Saving Throws: Dexterity; Charisma
  • Tactics: 
    • ⚔️ Attacks against multiple targets; 
    • 💨 attacks made against enemies with lower initiative.
  • Spell Types: 
    • 💥 spells that damage, charm, or support more than 2 targets; 
    • 🔥 spells that relate with fire or lightning.

  • Skills: Survival; Nature; Perception; Animal Handling; Medicine; Athletics.
  • Saving Throws: Strength; Constitution
  • Tactics: 
    • 🐻 Attacks made against enemies with higher initiative; 
    • 🏹 attacks made from lower ground.
  • Spell Types: 
    • 🐸 spells that change the body of the target; 
    • 🌳 spells that deal with plants or animals.

Admittedly, it's hard to equate skills with the other benefits, especially on a one-by-one basis, so I would be tempted to lump the choice of two skills as one benefit, especially considering every color gives 6 choices.

I am also very proud of the "Tactics" chosen for each color, as they seem situational but the kind of situational one can often find in every encounter.
With spells, not so satisfied, because they end up being very generic, and since 5e spells don't (officially) have tags/keywords, it becomes basically a ruling. But that's why I say that rules and rulings shouldn't be mutually exclusive. A player might come up with a very good case for associating a skill to their chosen mana color, maybe by applying the bonus only when the skill is used in a way that is typical of that color, and I think it would be great to allow this.

Now back to the rules, to show you how I would use these dice in-game, to differentiate them from Proficiency Dice.

  • Whenever you roll a die that benefits from your proficiency bonus for an action or roll that you chose when selecting your Mana Dice 🎲, you can roll the 🎲 and apply the result instead of the proficiency bonus.
  • When rolling the maximum on the 🎲, you also expend the die, while if you roll minimum, a Roil Spot 💠 of the same color of the 🎲 appears within 30 ft (DM's discretion).
  •  If applicable to the same roll, you can roll multiple 🎲 and take the best result, but this will automatically expend all 🎲 rolled.
  •  After a long rest, you recover all spent 🎲 of a color provided by the land/location you rested at.

Seems elegant to me! It gives a reason to choose wisely when to use the dice and when not to, it gives more fun and dangerous Roil effects, and, as you may have noticed, works exactly like the newly described Psionic Dice from Unearthed Arcana: a daily resource that is potentially reusable at will, until you use it "too well" (expenditure on maximum roll).

Note as well that it makes the characters mote motivated to find specific terrain types to rest in, which I think is really Zendikarian in flavor. Some Background features or feats might of course interact with all these rules, making them more lax in certain conditions, or giving new uses for the Mana Dice etc.

Also a nifty reason to have specifically-colored dice at the table... :)

What do you think?



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