Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fear and Loathing in the Free City of Greyhawk

A Pre-emptive Critique of D&D Next, part 1:

The next edition of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game is coming, announced by its owners a few weeks ago. The name 'D&D Next' has adhered itself to this change like an opportunistic barnacle, all the better to avoid the negative connotations already associated with the phrase '5th Edition'.

It doesn't matter what you call it, though. I'm pretty unexcited about the new edition, despite all the current announcements meant to excite gamers just like me:

- We're uniting the editions!

This is a wonderfully emotional statement, meant to evoke positive feelings from people who've played and enjoyed D&D at any age. Whether you loved the original White Box, or the classic AD&D hardcovers, or edition 3.5, this rallying cry suggests that you'll find something in D&D Next to love.

Problem is, the entire idea of 'uniting the editions' is vague and undefined, despite World Famous Professional Game Designer Monte Cook's articles intended to explain just that. (Big piece of evidence in favor of my point: the final paragraph of the first of these pieces ends with the words, "A lot of sweeping generalizations? Sure.")

- We're having a two-year public playtest!

This one seems to me to be particularly cynical and ill-advised, though I'm pretty sure I know why it's in here.

4th edition D&D was polarizing -- there were many gamers who enjoyed playing 3rd edition D&D, had spend a fair amount of money and time purchasing and learning the various game sub-systems involved with that version of D&D, and didn't really see the need for change. Another chunk of gamers became vociferously upset at the changes made to the Forgotten Realms setting, a setting which isn't the oldest setting for D&D but is probably the best loved and certainly the best selling 'brand' D&D has.

During this transition, Paizo Publishing, who once had the rights to publish the long-running Dungeon and Dragon magazines, announced that they would be taking advantage of the Open Game License published alongside 3rd edition D&D to produce what they called the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, but what most of its devotees call 'D&D 3.75'. Paizo held a pretty visible (for D&D) year-long public playtest, where the core game materials were available for free download, before finally releasing the core game books as hardbacks. Pathfinder, surprisingly, is now selling very well -- in some circles, Pathfinder is seen as selling nearly as well as 4th edition D&D itself -- and this 'year-long public playtest' has thus entered gaming lore as one of the keys behind Pathfinder's success.

Ergo, if a year-long public playtest led to a good-selling game, a two-year-long public playtest should lead to an even better-selling game! Right? Right??

- We want you to be able to play the game the way you want!

Again, a wonderfully vague and positive marketing message, but in this case at least there's some small amount of crunch underlying the fluff -- the way that the folks at Wizards of the Coast (WotC) seem to think they'll deliver this 'you can play the game any way you want' experience is by providing a core game, plus lots of 'optional rules modules' that can be plugged into the core game or not based on player and DM taste.

I'm not sanguine about the odds of WotC's designers succeeding in this goal. It's a tough goal to begin with (ask anyone who has worked in a 'universal' role-playing system like GURPS or Savage Worlds), and WotC's decision to focus on player feedback will make what I consider the core element in creating such a modular system far more difficult to achieve.

One could argue that I should give WotC's designers more slack -- after all, they did successfully transition from AD&D to 3rd edition over a decade ago, and that was a monumental effort that changed much of the core game system. But the example I see as 'best transition to new modular game system' isn't D&D 3E, but rather the change from 3rd to 4th edition Champions back in 1989.

Iron Crown Enterprises owned a number of games loosely categorized under the name 'Hero System': Champions, Danger International, etc. Each setting had its own core rulebook, and while many of the concepts between games were similar, each game had enough unique elements that were difficult to translate to other Hero System games that it was hard to really justify the grouping of games as a single System. The Champions 4th edition design team chose to tackle this problem, and succeeded so well that 4th edition Champions became the most popular of the Hero (now HERO) System games, and despite over 20 years and two new editions, remains essentially unchanged from that 1989 first printing.

One of the team's great successes was the structure of their character abilities. Character abilities, in HERO, as in many other games, characters have characteristics, skills, powers, and what HERO calls 'talents'. While these different sets of abilities can interact, they are for the most part independent -- if you want better permanent characteristic attributes, you spend points on characteristics, but if you want temporary characteristic bonuses, you buy them as powers. If you want to represent your ability in a particular area of physical or intellectual activity, you buy ranks in the skill associated with that activity, but if you want an ability that represents a particular aptitude with a whole class of physical or intellectual activities, you buy a skill enhancer talent.

HERO developed a system by which character abilities were constrained based on the kind of ability under consideration, and then did its best to keep those constraints in place. One could argue that the places where Champions 4th edition were weakest were exactly those places where the character ability structure was blurred or started to break down: martial arts were defined as skills, even though their practical effect was to combine bonus combat damage and skill levels in such a way that they would have made more sense as powers, while 'special senses' (radar sense, x-ray vision, etc.) were defined as powers even though they were inexpensive and mostly non-combat related to the point where they would have made more sense as talents.

Where the system worked, and it worked in most places, it allowed a game master to say 'okay, we're playing '20s era gangsters -- no powers' or 'we're playing superheroes, everything is in play with a 300 point limit'. You can plug in and unplug different character ability elements without feeling that you need to micro-manage precisely what's legal and what isn't within each game element you're allowing. (Of course, you can still do that if you want to -- it's just not required prior to play.)

For D&D Next, though, there are two equally disastrous routes that could be followed, and it's not clear which of them the designers will take (or will be directed by Hasbro Corporate to take, if this is a project mandated from 'on high'):

The designers could fail to define the game sub-systems specifically enough to allow for a truly modular experience.

Or the game designers could define the sub-systems so parasitically that each module is usable only as a defined unit which has little to no interaction with other modules, limiting the modules' utility.

Next time - a more detailed discussion of these two pitfalls, including examples.