Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, June 06, 2012
An alternative explanation of D&D Next

Critical Hits has a very interesting post on D&D Next. It states that human minds tend to fill gaps in what they see, so we filled the gaps in the "pre-alpha" version of D&D Next, and thought we knew how D&D Next would work. But it is possible that these gaps aren't there by design, that D&D Next is not in fact designed to rely on the Dungeon Master making up the rules on the spot; the gaps might simply be areas which haven't been filled in yet. The final version of D&D Next could possibly be very much rules-based, and not so much rulings-based. Which would be fine with me, but somewhat upsetting for those who already hailed D&D Next as the best thing ever due to having so much freedom.

Fact is that you don't need rules to roleplay. Every group of young kids can come up with a game of cops & robbers, or cowboys & indians, without needing a printed rulebook. But rules are what separates games from toys: You need rules to play Monopoly, but you don't need rules to play with your Barbie doll. If I was snowed in with friends in a log cabin, I could easily create a roleplaying game for us to play, making up rulings on the spot for everything. But most people would feel more comfortable with a more reliable rules framework, something they can discuss also outside their regular group because it is a shared experience of many players.

I've been listening a lot to the Dungeons & Drogans video podcast on YouTube, a recording of a group of D&D 4th edition players. Sometimes I disagree with how that group handles the rules of D&D 4E (e.g. they never use healing spells to revive fallen comrades, apparently believing they first need to do a Heal skill check to save the character from dying before they can use a healing spell), but for most of the time the game they are playing is definitively Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition. Everybody who played 4th edition is easily able to play with other people who learned the same game from a different source, because the reliance of 4th edition on rules for just about everything makes different groups compatible with each other.

The more minimalistic the rules are, the less compatible are two different groups: Players, but mostly the DM, in each group make up house rules to fill the gaps. Thus two groups interchanging players will run into problems of players being used to different house rules, having different answers to the same questions of how to handle a situation. Even worse: A more minimalistic rules system allows for much larger variance in quality. A bad DM can ruin any game, but his influence will be felt much more strongly in a system where it is him who makes up all the rules. And the far more likely case is a mediocre DM, who would probably still do okay with a rules-heavy system, but could very well flounder with a rules-lite system.

As written I found the playtest rules for D&D Next horribly bad: The simplistic fighter class, the lack of even the most fundamental tactical rules, the apparent lack of balance, all this did not impress me. And the "just roleplay the missing rules" / "just rely on DM rulings instead of rules" solutions that was widely touted on the forums made me wonder whether we weren't all playtesting a million very different versions of D&D Next instead of one game. The idea of the missing rules being made available in "optional" rulebooks appeared like a very bad solution, and expensive for the players. But the Critical Hits interpretation of these rules not *deliberately* missing as a design decision, but simply not having been done yet, sounds possible to me. Maybe D&D Next will have balanced classes of similar complexity and tactical combat in the core rules (not as "optional" rules). Maybe what we saw is really "pre alpha", and not representative of the style of the final game. Maybe. I could only talk about what I saw, and give WotC my feedback on the playtest rules as written. For me to like this more, it will need some significant improvements in future versions, and I can't say with certainty where exactly in the development process WotC is.

You might like Monte Cook's latest post, Logic in RPGs.

He addresses precisely the opposite point of view as you.
Actually Monte Cook and me agree on a lot of the facts, e.g. he writes: "One reason to design a game tightly and seamlessly is to insure that gameplay from table to table does not vary much.", which is pretty much the same I said in my post. Only he thinks that this doesn't matter much, while I do see some value in having this unity.

He also lists some of the same points as pitfalls of a rulings-based system, e.g. the "GM, may I?" problem, consistency, and GM quality. So the analysis is the same, but the opinion on how to weigh the different elements is different.

P.S. Monte Cook stopped working for WotC in April. I hope it was because WotC decided that they need a more rules-based system, given how they are in the business to sell rules. A game with few or no rules is perfectly playable, but difficult to market.
You might find the most recent DnD Podcasts interesting on this point. They talk over the playtest, and some of their design decisions.

One design decision they talked about early on with DnD Next was the idea that it would be modular--that they would have a base system, and then things would be added on to it. From what they were talking about, this is still the case--and it seems that what we are testing is that base system. They even talk explicitly about the idea of needing to make rulings about how your game should play.

Their intent is to get a system that can be considered simple enough to play by original DnD standards, then offer optional complexity as add-ons for gaming groups interested in including it (such as those happier with 3rd and 4th edition.)

Only time will tell what this brings, but I am still uneasy about this change, and think I may stick with 4th edition, or even translate some of my DnD time into games like Descent.
Thanks for the link!
Honestly, I can't imagine how a designer with this point of view could have worked for WotC nowadays. Monte Cook's ideas seem, at least to me, to be contradicting everything that D&D is (or at least was from 3rd ed, I'm late to the party).

I wouldn't be surprised to hear such things from, say, John Wick, but not from D&D designer.
Thanks for the links!
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