September 27, 2013

Last Words on Next

I will buy the D&D Next Player's Handbook.

I wanted to get that out of the way before I continue.  Wizards just released the final public playtest packet, and Mike Mearls discussed some of the rules they'll be working on with internal design and playtesting.  That tells me that now is the last chance to comment on D&D Next before Wizards starts setting things in stone.  With no currently supported edition, they're under pressure to complete Next and release it, so they're going to be committing to system soon.

So this post is going to be harshly critical, but not intentionally mean.  That's the point of that first statement.  I'm loyal to D&D, and will at least buy the core product, but whether I buy much more than that depends on how good the system is.

Process

Most of the time, when designers make an RPG, they use one of two processes.  First, if it's a new edition of a past game, they take an old edition, add a few smart new mechanics, and fix problems with the old mechanics.  This is how AD&D Second Edition came out of AD&D First Edition, or how the God Machine Chronicle rules update arose from the Storytelling system.

More often, even with some new editions of old rules, the designers build an entirely new game first.  With new editions, the new game often resembles the old game and uses a similar core mechanic, like how 3rd edition D&D replaced 2nd edition AD&D.  The process for designing a new RPG system is pretty clear -- I follow lots of these guys' blogs and twitters.  I'm friends with the Asylum developers.  Their process seems pretty logical:

1. Draft a functioning game system
2. Playtest the draft
3. Poll the playtesters and assess the market
4. Present the game based on your new idea of its essential nature

Mike Mearls, for all his love of D&D, sort of did this process backwards for D&D Next.

1. Present the game based on your new idea of its essential nature
2. Playtest the draft
3. Poll the playtesters and assess the market

And presumably, according to his latest post on the design process...

4. Draft a functioning game system

D&D is a core system with a lot of emergent elements.  I'm not just using those words to sound smart.  The game is a basic idea of a 20 sided die rolled, modified by one of six attributes, and compared to a target number.  As players progress, their characters advance in level, which adds hit points and emergent system elements.  Emergent elements are rules options (such as bonuses, spells, weapons, items, etc.) that emerge from a core system.  A well crafted game has a set of rules-about-rules that can be used to generate emergent elements.  By having a system for creating emergent elements, a "meta-system," you're not just pulling them out of your ass and playtesting them to see if they're unbalanced, you're actually being intentional and goal directed about design and balance.  Playtesting is still necessary because nothing's perfect, and combinations can have unexpected effects.

Next does not seem to have been built with a meta-system.  Each playtest packet to date has been immensely different from the last.  Classes and abilities seem to come out of nowhere, and trap choices and overpowered options abound.  The "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" method may actually work for D&D because of the vast number of playtesters, but depending on your playtesters is dangerous.

D&D Next resembles AD&D 2nd edition Player's Option.  Forum posters are calling it 2.5.  Mike even said in that last post that the tactical combat rules will resemble Player's Option.  Depending on feedback from your players is dangerous because their idea of what is "iconic" about D&D is based on nostalgia, for those that have it.  And for most players old enough to be nostalgic about D&D, the edition they played first or most was probably 2nd edition AD&D.

I'm Being Unhelpful, I Know

If I were the D&D Next Design Team, I'd be pretty pissed about this blog post right now.  To this point, I'm guilty of not providing constructive criticism - just gripes.  "OK, if you say it's bad, what do you suggest we do about it?"  I apologize.  I'm afraid I can't give advice like "make all fighters use the Gladiator mechanic" or "return feats to 3rd edition style" or whatever.  The flaw is that there is no backbone "meta-system" that generates and regulates all the emergent elements.  What math balances wizards with fighters?  What's the target number of rounds in a combat?  What's the target number of encounters in an adventuring day?  Is it based on a sense of the encounters/day in actual past modules, playtests, or surveys?  How much damage does a paralysis status effect equate to?  What is the ordinal or tier of power of every status effect?  What math keeps monster ACs bounded by level?  What math is used to determine a monster's damage output and other numbers based on its level, and what system is used to introduce balanced variation to that?

Here are some particular recommendations:

Recommendations

Keep Magic Items
You have a great system for magic items.  Keep it.  I hate the way 3.5, Pathfinder and 4e make magic items about as special as a trip to the grocery store.  Your bonded items system is great.

Ditch Vantage
Throw out Advantage/Disadvantage (Vantage).  The idea is smart -- rolling two dice at the same time requires less arithmetic.  The problem with these is that they don't stack.  If you use Vantage too much, one bonus will cancel a stack of penalties, or vice versa.  If you reserve it for just a few effects, you've still got to use arithmetic for most modifiers, and static modifiers and Vantage interact very poorly, especially in a system with bounded accuracy.  I recommend that you keep Vantage as a GM-supplied situational modifier.  That is, don't include spells, class features, etc. to allow the players to reliably cause Disadvantage or gain Advantage (such as Bardsong).  Let the GM hand it out as she sees fit.

Throw Everything Else Out
Throw out your monsters, classes, etc.  Go back to the drawing board and build a meta-system that you can use to generate your classes, races, monsters, spells, attacks, weapons -- everything.  It's pretty clear that the 15 minute workday isn't a problem except when some classes have daily abilities and others don't.  That needs to be addressed, and giving casters fewer spells won't do it.  At the very least, explain that once the game hits level 7 or so, every adventure needs to be under time pressure to keep the PCs from resting every encounter!

Design for the Game; Write for the Icon
Instead of building a game out of the fans' ideas of what is iconic about D&D, build a great game, and then present it in a way that evokes the fans' ideas of what is iconic about D&D.

Include a Narrative Mechanic if That's Your Goal
You might want to build a more narrative-focused version of D&D.  That's great, actually.  I mean, the game has moved toward a simulation / game focus in 3rd and 4th edition, so it may be time for a narrative edition.  Building a lighter, easier, more narrative version of D&D is great...  if!

If you're aware of the light, narrative games out there.  If you make design decisions based on putting players in more of an author or even director stance.  If you make design decisions based on giving players more narrative control.  If you involve mechanics that help the GM build hooks into every session (13th Age's icons, FATE's aspects, a replacement for Alignment that involves story hooks, faction association baked into character creation like in Vampire, etc.).  That's a big if, and the playtest editions of Next so far fall very short.

So adapt, borrow, or design some narrative mechanics or stop telling me your game supports GMs telling a story instead of rolling dice just because the rules are less tactical.

Start Supporting Every Line
Dear WOTC:  It's your worst nightmare.  The small market that fantasy tabletop RPGs serve is divided up between Pathfinder, 3.5, 4e, and Next.  But that's the reality.  Even if Next is fantastic, the market will still be divided.  Personally, I'm in a 3.5 game, two 4e games, and a Pathfinder game -- so even a single gamer can be divided!  Publishing Next isn't going to fix this.

So, WOTC, you're going to lose money unless you start supporting every line.  Maybe even Pathfinder.  Go ahead and publish Next with or without my advice (probably without -- you don't have time to read every little blog); but if you want to make any money, you're going to need to support every line.  Actually, you might already know this.  I recall Murder in Baldur's Gate is just such a product...

These are my last words on Next until it's published.  See you then, PHB in hand.