Tobold's Blog
Friday, June 29, 2012
D&D Next modularity

In yesterday's post Anjin put a link to the latest D&D Next developer's blog entry in the comments. It talks about modularity and combat subsystems. The goal appears to be to provide options for different playstyles. Specifically mentioned are "narrative combat", with guidelines of what bonuses and penalties to apply to dice rolls when a player wants to roleplay stunt moves in combat, and rules for tactical miniature combat. So what can we learn from this post?

I think the essential part of the combat modules is that they try to be balanced compared to vanilla combat. This is not 4th edition, where using a power would always be better than using a basic attack. Instead you get options like "Increased Damage: Take a -2 penalty to attack, deal +4 more damage". If you do the math, you will realize that such an option can either end up being positive or negative. If you have a low average damage and high attack bonus, the Increased Damage option makes your average damage go up. If you have high damage and low chance to hit, the same option will make your average damage go down. If applied randomly, this option is in fact pretty much balanced. But if clever players do the math and only use the option when it increases their damage, players with the optional module will be stronger than players without. So I'm not convinced that their attempt to balance out combat with options against vanilla combat fully succeeded.

I think the bigger danger of these optional modules is that they risk being perceived as WotC pedaling back on their free-form "DM may I?" style for D&D Next. In a system without many tactical rules, a DM has a lot of options when one of his players says that he is trying a move to sweep the legs out from under an opponent. He can apply varying penalties to that role, as well as determine what exactly the negative effect on the enemy is from falling down. If you have an option rule saying that such a move gives a -5 penalty, and another rule defining what prone means, this anchors the expectations of players, even if the DM says that he isn't using those optional rules modules. A DM making a rule very much different for the same situation that is already covered with an optional rule risks some arguments, much more than if that optional rule didn't exist in the first place.

I still think the most likely outcome of D&D Next and it's optional modules is that the attempt to please everybody ends up with a system that pleases nobody. Frankly the better option would be for WotC to admit that 4th edition is a very different and incompatible beast with its own set of customers. They would make more money by continuing supporting 4E as a separate product from D&D Next, and keeping D&D Next strictly old school. Trying to make a hybrid product that pleases both the old school players and the 4E players is bound to fail.

I agree with you that WotC should publish both systems seperately. INitially I returned to D&D this summer having become rather bored with much of the MMO market out there (WoW being the main one). 4th edition I did not care for at first being an old school player from D&D's humble beginnings. However after playing six sessions in a D&D Encounters group, my opinion has changed. I am now enjoying this system and feel it would be sad to see it go away. Keep up the excellent blog sir.
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