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D&D Next Goals, Part Two

Posted in Indies & More, Games, Thinking

This week’s Legends & Lore continues the in-depth look at the design goals of D&D Next, this time with an emphasis on the basic rules.

The most interesting bit here is that the design team is aiming for three different levels of rules: basic and two unnamed others. This week is all about basic, so I bet we can all predict what the next two weeks of Legends and Lore are going to be about. The basic rules, as Mike invisions them at present, looks like this:

  • Ability scores (rolled)
  • Race (chosen)
  • Class (chosen)
  • Specialty (not chosen)
  • Class abilities (not chosen)

Notably absent are skills, or at least any character sheet mention of them. It sounds like while there won’t be skills listed, the idea of skills will still be present. Instead of skills being listed (or chosen) each class might just have a bonus to checks of a certain sort—essentially broad skills. A fighter wouldn’t have a skill called climb, but would get a bonus to all checks (presumably non-combat) using strength.

It actually sounds like a pretty decent system, if done well. I’m obviously biased, but it sounds pretty close to Dungeon World, which I kind of like. The idea that the default experience is to quickly make a few choices that give you a fighter who’s pretty much an archetypal fighter is a wonderful way to get new people involved. There’s also an emphasis on what Mike calls GM judgement and I’d call fictional positioning: applying simple core concepts based on what’s happening within the game.

For me, this is a D&D I’d play. And that’s the intention:

Even better, people who don’t care for complex rules, or the new player you’re introducing to your campaign regardless of the rules you’re using, can create a character using these rules with a minimum of fuss.

This is a great benefit: a simple ruleset that can be played right out of the box. The potential problem is how to make this a product.

Once this core is just a part of a larger product it gets weird. Making the core just a section of a larger book means that all the people who just want the core game have to buy pages and pages of stuff they don’t care about. Making them separate books will (I’d guess) make the add-ons sell at reduced rates, plus it adds the challenge of clearly labeling which products are for whom. If I see a new product how do I know if it’s for the core game I like, or if it’ll be add-ons I don’t want.

The actual goals of the basic game are strong:

  • Easy to learn, especially for new players and DMs. In an ideal world, a group of new players can pick up the game in about the same time it takes to learn a board game such as Settlers of Catan. The basic rules are at the forefront of recruiting new players, whether they’re 10-year-olds trying their first RPGs or DMs coming back to the game after 10 years away. Adult D&D fans should feel that this is the best way to bring their kids into the games.
  • Focuses on what makes RPGs unique (imaginative play, lack of limits, unbounded possibilities, and the fun and random stories about the game that groups share).
  • Quick to start play, whether creating characters, reading an adventure, or rolling up a dungeon.
  • Teaches DMs how to make rulings and use the core mechanic to resolve anything that comes up in play.
  • Quick to play, with complete adventures playable in an hour. A group should be able to complete a simple dungeon with five or six rooms in that time span. Obviously, you can build bigger dungeons for longer sessions, but it’s important to reduce complexity and therefore reduce the minimum time needed to play an adventure. A quick start time and fast play are key to recruiting new D&D fans and making the game accessible for people with ever busier, hectic lives.
  • In terms of a product, you could imagine something along the lines of a set that covers levels 1 to 10 and includes an adventure of the size and scope of Temple of Elemental Evil. Keep in mind, though, that our specific product plans aren’t close to being done, but the example gets at the scope of what we’d like to do.

Of course the game isn’t there yet. The work items Mike points out are:

  • Simplify expertise
  • Keep balance
  • Simplify opportunity attacks
  • Emphasize abilities
  • Remove some combat options
  • Build core class options

These are all great ways to approach the goals, but I think the single biggest missing point for me is teaching DMs. Currently the Next docs presume a lot of DM knowledge; they’re very far from being Catan-like.

Making Next easy to DM and a helpful text in explaining how the DM might be the single biggest contribution it could make to the success of D&D and gaming in general. There are many approaches here, from giving the GM mechanical tools that push adventure (Marvel Heroic), to providing a lengthy behind-the-scenes explanation (Burning Wheel Adventure Burner), to giving the GM instructions and tools that are less clearly mechanical (Apocalypse World), and many more. Getting any of these things right isn’t going to be simple, so it seems like that would be a top area of focus.

To test advancements in teaching DMing also requires testing with inexperienced players and DMs. Hopefully this is already happening within WotC, since outside all we see is the existing-gamer-oriented open playtest. Wizards is one of the few companies that could really do user testing on a large scale in controlled environments, hopefully they’re leveraging that ability.

The basic game, as Mike see it right now, sounds like a wonderful product. There are still challenges that remain to making the current rules match that vision, and even a game matching that vision may be tough to product-ize in the context of a scale of complexity, but the core idea is strong.

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

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D&D Next Goals, Part One