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D&D Next Goals, Part One

Posted in Indies & More

It looks like we’re in for a series of posts on the goals of D&D Next, which lines up nicely with my preoccupation with the business of RPGs lately. In this post Mike spells out the two guiding principles of D&D Next:

  1. Create a version of D&D that embraces the enduring, core elements of the game.
  2. Create a set of rules that allows a smooth transition from a simple game to a complex one.

The first goal is the one that I have the most trouble with. The stated goal is “D&D Next should deliver the primary strengths that each edition brings to the table” which assumes that the primary strengths of every edition are compatible. I’m not entirely sure they are.

The example that springs to mind for me is comparing two of my favorite editions: Moldvay and 4E. They’re both great games for what they do, but what they do is considerably different. I play Moldvay to play an overwhelmed adventurer surviving by (my) wits in a world were fighting is a last resort, as it often means death. I play 4E to play a tactical adventurer who will survive by carefully combining his tactics with that of his allies in complex combats.

Those strengths are tough to combine. It’s a bit like asking for a meal that’s both spicy and mild. The feel of combat in them, the level of deadliness, the way things outside of combat are handled, even the very setting assumptions are different enough that they can’t be easily combined.

For Moldvay and 4E that’s a good thing. If 4E played exactly like Moldvay I wouldn’t have any reason to play it. For a new game however that’s a bit of a problem. The core D&D audience that just goes with the latest edition is likely to get along fine with D&D Next, but the gamers with a heavy allegiance towards one edition or another are going to be a tough sell: “here’s a game that does what the game you already like does” is not a compelling argument.

The second point is more solid and a clearer reason for a game to exist. The most interesting bit is the assertion that new people are coming to D&D:

Do a lot of new people try D&D every year? Yes. In fact it attracts far more people than you would guess. The real strength of D&D has always been in its ability to pull in new players. But what we noticed starting a few years back is that even though people were seeking the introductory product, fewer and fewer players were moving deeper into additional material such as the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual.

The good news here, the thing that Mike emphasizes, is that people are still interested in D&D. The other part, which he puts less emphasis on, is that people aren’t continuing past their first contact with the game.

The reaction to this is to make a game that can be both simple and complex. I have no clue if that’s a good idea or not.

Here’s why it could be a good idea: people get eased in and can stop at whatever level of complexity they feel like. The game can support everything from a casual session to see if your mom likes D&D to the kind of time-devouring rules colossus of 3E with as many supplements as you can buy. It’s kind of the Linux model of a system: make sure that it can cover everyone’s needs, then make the easy parts easy.

Here’s why it could be a bad idea: people who don’t want to get into the complexity feel like they’re missing out, and finding the right level of complexity for you likely means overshooting it at least for a while. Since everyone has to find their own level of complexity nobody uses everything. Finding your personal level of complexity means work for you to get the game you want. It’s kind of like why Mac OS has been a big success: it makes the easy stuff easy, then worries about the power user.

I can see arguments either way on this one. The current RPG audience is the kind that would jump on set-your-own complexity, but I don’t know where any potential new audience falls.

We also get the clearest description of modularity yet: an unchanging core with addons. That’s slightly less ambitious than modules originally sounded, and works around some of my biggest concerns with how modules might work. From this description, especially in the context of complexity, it sounds like the main purpose of modules is to provide more detail. This is more or less the Burning Wheel model, which I’ve talked about before. The design of it in Burning Wheel is solid, but anecdotally it sounds like most people default to using as many of the modules as possible (some modules may be for parts of play that just don’t come up in their game). I wonder if the same will be true with Next?

It’s worth commenting that, a year into the public portion of the D&D Next process, they’re still sticking to their goals. I wouldn’t have been surprised a year ago to hear that modularity or the something-for-everybody approach had been left behind. The fact that they’re still aiming for the same things probably means that they’re seeing progress on them, at least enough to make them believe that they’re possible. While what we’re seeing still doesn’t appear to hit some of those goals, they have the real information, and presumably like what they see. 2013 is going to be an interesting year for D&D Next.

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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