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The D&D New World Order

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Last week at work we had our bi-weekly gaming meetup. Usually we plan a game to play and discuss, but this time we chose a designer instead: Richard Garfield. While most of the actual play was King of Tokyo, Netrunner, and RoboRally, I did talk with Adam Blinksop about Magic a bit, and he pointed me towards something I never knew about: the New World Order.

If you have even a passing interest in Magic it’s worth a read. Otherwise, a quick summary: Magic had a fundamental problem that over time the complexity of the game was rising. The number of concepts a new player needed to just make use of the bread-and-butter cards kept going up, making it harder for new players to get started. It wasn’t just the strategy of the game that was growing, it was the complexity too. So how do you keep satisfying the hardcore while making it easier for new players to get started?

Magic’s answer was to change where you see complexity. Pre-New World Order all cards were equally complex, but rarer cards were generally more powerful. There’s a few types of complexity to keep track of, but generally tough-to-grok concepts like Suspend were everywhere. In the New World Order, the complexity of cards was tied to rarity. That’s not to say that common cards are simple, just that common cards had to be easy to understand both in how the rules worked and how they were valuable. Uncommon and rare cards can be more complex—involve more rules, be tougher to see the immediate value of, etc. The point was to make sure that simple cards were fun to play and useful, and it seems to have payed off: variants like Peasant Magic based predominantly on commons are fun and rewarding ways to play.

These changes have, over time, reinvigorated Magic. Not that Magic was ever dead, but new sets have, anecdotally and based on sales numbers, drawn old players back in in a way that wasn’t happening before New World Order. As a relapsed Magic player myself, I have to say it appears to be working.

What does this have to do with D&D? Based on recent Legends and Lore posts, I think D&D is trying to instate it’s own New World Order.

Over the past two weeks the Legends and Lore posts have revealed the idea of Basic and Standard rules, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw something like Expert in next week’s post. The approach seems to be to make complexity non-essential: you can play Basic easily or mix-and-match as you see fit, using elements of Standard or all of Standard. Roughly like making a deck of all commons, of commons and uncommons, or of just uncommons.

D&D is taking the concept much further. Enough further that I’m not sure how well it will work. Magic’s approach is subtle enough that without someone pointing it out to you it might not be obvious. D&D’s approach has much clearer delineation. Some of the examples we’ve seen so far, like multiclassing, customization, and explicit rules for grappling and swimming are going to only occur in Standard. In Magic, by comparison, the extra complexity in uncommons and rares tends to come from the obvious usefulness of the cards and the complexity of the effect they have on the state of a game. As far as I know, there’s no actual mechanic that only appears on uncommon or rare cards. (Correction: miracles only appeared at uncommon and rare.) Instead these cards use the same mechanics in ways that take more thought to understand and use well.

While Magic’s New World Order may be an inspiration this certainly isn’t new to D&D. BECMI had a similar approach to scaling complexity as adventures moved from dungeon crawls to hex crawls. What Magic does differently from Next is the elegant approach to how this complexity is introduced.

Since Magic cards are distributed based on rarity a new player is likely to have mostly common cards. As they play and gain more cards they’ll slowly and organically play against, and then with, more complex cards. BECMI has a similarly organic progression where players move from dungeons to wilderness to ruling to immortality. Part of the success of the New World Order is that it makes increasing complexity a part of how you encounter the game.

Next, at this point, isn’t approaching complexity in the same way. Complexity in Next is a matter of taste: the design team assumes (probably correctly) that some people don’t want a game that’s simple. That’s a huge barrier to overcome. It increases the range of complexity that the game has to cover considerably. Magic just has to bring a new player from knowing nothing to knowing enough to play well, D&D has to also cater to people who want complexity for complexity’s sake.

The other challenge that Next faces is the role of the DM. Magic doesn’t have to teach a similar role and there’s a pretty high bar for basic DM competency. Next has to make being a first time DM at least as successful as being a first time player to really defeat the complexity curve. If it’s easy to introduce new players but it requires an experienced DM the ability of D&D to spread will still be bottlenecked.

Again, there’s a genius in BECMI here. Dungeon crawls covered in Basic are simpler for the DM to run—a constrained environment, a limited number of factors. As you move through the sets the DM’s job gets more complex, building on what they’ve already done.

Wizards has often seemed to take less useful lessons from Magic, in particular with regards to randomized content and collectability. The New World Order is actually applicable to D&D, and something you can already see in its roots. Hopefully they can pull it off.

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

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