... now with 35% more arrogance!

Monday, January 9, 2012

The D&D Solution

I'm sure everyone will be posting and talking about WotC's announcement of playtesting for 5e (and the New York Times article about it.) (EDIT: I wrote this post before I read the blogs, so I can confirm: everyone is talking about it. The best round-up to date is this list by Tim Brannan.)

What WotC does, of course, is not all that big a deal to me or to other OSR gamers. But I'd like to quickly point out that one of my personal goals with Liber Zero (quickly becoming the central goal of LZ) is to strip the game down to easily-memorizable elements so that the game can be played without reference to books, whereas the WotC goal (and late TSR goal) is the opposite: define as many elements as possible in as much detail as possible to create official resources to be used during play. There's certainly a bit of business-exec-think behind that decision (create as many products as possible,) but I think there's a lot of hobbyist publishers who think the same way, for non-marketing reasons. They think RPGs need to be strict, rather than loose. And it's going to be very hard for WotC to appeal to both extremes of gaming and "unify the tribes" again.

Just about the only way I can see of WotC accomplishing this goal of creating a core game that can be expanded to meet the needs of those who prefer 4e, those who prefer 3e, those who prefer AD&D, and those who prefer OD&D, as well as weird variants, is to make the core game truly core. Not "core" in the sense that the multiple, big books of 1e and 3e were core, but truly stripped down. What you have in 3e, for example, is a  character built by setting ability scores, selecting one of 8 to 12 classes, selecting one of several races, selecting skills (weapon and non-weapon proficiencies, in AD&D,) and selecting feats. But if OD&D players want to play OD&D with 3e rules, they may have to drop skills and feats to get the right experience, because they aren't core. And they may even have problems with some of the classes, or the way races are written, because they're designed for more elaborate needs, not core needs.

What WotC needs to do is not write a game book with a substantial number of classes and races (selected according to popularity,) plus skills and feats, and later publish supplements that add more of each. Instead, they need to write a game book with minimal classes and races, selected so that they illustrate how classes and races work, and define simple ways of accomplishing stuff, but with no skill system or feat system... THEN publish a skills supplement that introduces an optional system, and publish a feats supplement that introduces an optional feat system, and other supplements: a class book, expanding the way classes work and detailing how to modify the original classes; a race book, doing the same for races; alternative magic systems; alternative experience and challenge systems that emulate different styles of game; and of course alternative settings. You can even have multiple class books, geared not towards "power sources" but towards different approaches to using classes (heroic classes with a couple extra abilities, epic classes with 4e-style power trees.)

This makes the core rules much smaller and the supplemental books more numerous, but it also makes the whole thing more modular, especially if the setting books and the magic system books do not depend on the skill system or the feat system. You can have old school players buying just the core book plus a point-based psionics-style magic system book plus a setting book, to meet their specific needs, and new school players buying a different set of books to meet their specific needs.

Of course, WotC will not do this. Despite all their talk about making the game modular, the execs are absolutely terrified that they won't sell as many books as they could. What if someone buys just the one core book and makes up their own setting? Never mind that other people are buying many more books; you're losing a sale!

(EDIT II: ... And before my scheduled post went public, someone else also suggested that a core book needs to be more core. Although I don't think he'd agree with me about putting the entire skill system in an optional book. I guess that makes me "hard" core.)

(EDIT III: Another Hard Core D&D proponent: Jason Vey of Elf Lair Games.)


  1. I totally agree that things like skills and feats should be optional systems that can be added on by those who desire them. But they shouldn't be part of the core rules.

    What I meant to say in my post (but forgot, in the heat of the moment) was that the game should be about playing the game. Building the character should be preparation, not the game itself.

    And the core book should stress that. Let people add on options (such as skills) if they want to -- but don't ram it down their throats.

    (And if you have to have feats, don't allow 3.5's power creep, which made half of the feats in the Player's Handbook irrelevant within about 2 years...)

  2. @Will: I kind of pitched an idea for feats already in a post about "High Five Adventures" (a 5e "pre-clone".) Take the list of game features from that post, drop the skills and feats comments, and that's pretty much my idea of what a D&D core system should be.

    The skills book would add the concept of bonus to the more general ability checks, a couple skill lists (basic, advanced, maybe "extra-advanced",) optional details on some skill mechanics (like persuasion rules,) and rules to switch D&D from class and level to skills only. The feats book would do the same for feats.

    Skill and feat expansions could be DDI add-ons, unless a particular expansion seemed potentially large and detailed, like maybe a stand-alone skill-based alchemical magic system.

  3. Wasn't that called GURPS? Or one of its less-crunchy offspring, FATE or FUDGE or Savage Worlds?

    ...OK, with a little less levity: aren't WoTC in a hard place to think about doing something like that, because the property they're selling already has a particular fan base and flavour(s)? Aren't they trying to sell a uniform experience that they can mass-market to a whole generation of new fans? I would imagine they've looked at something like this and noticed that they already significantly outsell any of the generic/modular systems out there by dint of being That Game With The Beholders (or whatever bit of IP is considered critical this week).

  4. If 5th ed is a grid based game I don't think I can bring myself to even try it. For me since 3rd ed D&D hasn't been the same (though somehow I've been suckered into playing the game for years on end ... I just have never had quite as much fun with it). So all the other rules details are less interesting to me ... will 5th ed be grid based ... if so the rest is meaningless to me. I know most people who have played heavily in the 3.0-4e era probably don't care about that at all though.

  5. @Lord of Excess: I seem to remember one of the Mike Mearls columns talking about the need to be able to switch to gridless play, so I assume that's a design goal.

    @richard: The press release sounds like they *aren't* aiming for a uniform experience, but for a standard core. Of course, we won't know until we see the final product.

    And no, if they included a skills-only variant, they wouldn't be copying GURPS. They'd be copying Runequest. -)

  6. Ha! Good point about RQ, I'd forgotten that.

    Now I've actually read the blurb it does sound like they're going for a customizable design - maybe they've concluded that nothing sells a game like internet chatter, and nothing generates chatter like rules controversy, so 5e should be able to support its very own autonomous edition war!

  7. @Will Douglas

    What I meant to say in my post (but forgot, in the heat of the moment) was that the game should be about playing the game. Building the character should be preparation, not the game itself.

    I agree with you here. And I think this is the biggest divide within the community of D&D players. Some players want to have the most important choices before the game and some want the most important choices to be during the game. The character builders (before-the-game people) like being able to optimize, plan their character, and find the synergies between different parts of the rules (e.g., the correct feats to make their halfling thief really good at something or other). In fact, many players that I know see that as the definition of player skill. This is the pre-game game of character builds. Kind of like building a deck for Magic: The Gathering.

    Personally, I think such investment in a character prior to ever actually playing is inimical to satisfying play, and corrupts (or at least heavily modifies) many other aspects of the game (it leads to a focus on balanced encounters, and lots of other features geared towards keeping precious characters alive).

    I'm not sure these two styles are reconcilable.

  8. @Brendan: I agree that 'focus on build' vs. 'focus on play' is a powerful divider of RPG players. Alexis at Tao of D&D actually said something I pretty much completely agree with for once on the very topic today: it's a fundamental philosophical difference in how we view characters, between "what you do" and "who you are".

    I think the only way to reconcile the two within a product line is the core + "character builder book" approach, with the character builder book designed to be scalable according to what other components are in play.