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D&D Next Design Goals, Part 4

Posted in Indies & More

Just as expected, this week’s Legends and Lore is on Advanced D&D Next… or D&D Next Advanced? D&D Advanced Next?

Anyway, wherever they stick the adjective, the idea of Advanced D&D is customization; the reference point is Unearthed Arcana. Mentioning UA as a point of reference is interesting, as the two UA books have generally appeared later in editions with an emphasis on reinvigorating an existing game.

The idea of Advanced D&D is that the rules become customizable. The customizations fall into three categories: dials, modules, and core changes. Dials are smaller changes: how healing works, or what gives XP, for example. Modules are bundles of rules that add detail to some subsystem, combat or hirelings for example. Core changes go beyond dials or modules to actually change the core elements of the game (instead of just sitting atop them).

Now that we have a complete picture of the flavors of D&D Next (I’m not holding my breath for the announcement of Master D&D next week) the flow between them emerges: simple to complex to customization.

Calling it a flow may be overstating the case for existing gamers, as I’d expect Advanced to be targeted at them. Most existing D&D players are likely to opt-in to higher complexity right off the bat, especially when it’s called “advanced.” Who doesn’t want to be advanced?

For new players though, and some existing ones, this will be a flow. You start with basic, move to standard, and then start mixing in elements of Advanced. Customization isn’t just in advanced, as we saw last week: many groups are expected to find their own custom mixture of basic and standard.

The challenge with this presentation is that customization is one of tabletop gaming’s greatest strengths along with improvisation. The differentiator from, say, World of Warcraft is that in D&D my character and my game can be fine tuned to exactly what I want. If my character becomes blessed by the god of slimes we can find a way to reflect that in the rules. If my game takes place in a different part of the world we can find or make rules to reflect that as well. The message of customization as “advanced” will have to be carefully presented to not cheapen the simpler versions.

Really, making customization easy and simple and basic would be a huge win for Next, taking it in the opposite direction of this Advanced. If every D&D player feels like they have the knowledge and tools to make cool stuff then the community is a powerful force and D&D is clearly different from a boardgame or computer game.

The bigger problem I see is that Advanced is hugely ambitious in what these dials, modules, and core changes can do.

Just from the dials category—the simples and easiest to use—Mike mentions options like changing what awards XP or how healing works. These are indeed simple changes to describe, but in emergent systems like games the effects are far-reaching and non-obvious.

Let’s take healing as an example. Standard D&D healing has characters back in action in minutes or days, depending on the exact edition, amount of damage, and circumstances. Making healing a longer term process—weeks or months or years—has some obvious consequences to begin with: while an individual fight may not be too much tougher the players are more likely to get worn down. Wounds will tend to linger. The exploration of a dungeon might take many times longer in fictional time than it would otherwise.

The thing is, effects beyond that keep piling up. Once adventurers need years to explore a dungeon evil plots take on a whole new dimension—an evil wizard can work spells over phases of the moon and be safe knowing that the wound his owlbear did to the fighter will keep them at bay. Old age becomes a very real factor in an adventuring career. While the player characters are tending to their wounds others are likely plundering the same caverns. Faced with a career that may include only a handful of adventures procreation starts to enter the picture. Even if you didn’t get to the bottom of the Caves of Despair your kid might, right?

And now we’re looking at something like Pendragon. Pendragon is a wonderful game, but when wounds take significant time to heal the entire game shifts. The GM needs to run things differently. In a world where healing takes time monsters and NPCs are likely to take on different strategies. Dungeons start to look different, certain spells become more or less valuable, player choices shift dramatically.

Designing an adventure that works for both of those is nearly impossible. In fact, I’d argue they’re entirely different games. They might share some other mechanics, sure, but the things that the players and GM do, the way the world works, and the way adventures happen has changed drastically. And that was just a simple change in healing.

And, to his credit, Mike knows this: “Running a campaign without healing and limited recovery is much different than a game with the standard rules.” The idea that a designer or publisher could do both games is completely reasonable. The problem comes from making these both the same game and not the same game.

Having a variety of games under the D&D umbrella is something I’ve been a fan of for a while, but doing it this way seems less than optimal. Playing Advanced D&D Next is basically designing your own game from pieces of what others have done. That’s a great way to make a game, but not something that every person wants to do or is any good at. It leads to the balkanization of the D&D as each Advanced rule option further divides the audience without any clear way of communicating what your D&D is short of detailing every house rule.

Take our long-healing D&D game above. That could make for a great game, and some people will certainly play it, but how do they describe the game they’re playing relative to short healing D&D and magic-less D&D and D&D with fate points and whatever else? Even GURPS, with it’s huge amount of material, allows for some shorthand to saying what your GURPS game is relative to all others: this is GURPS Reign of Steel plus the magic rules from GURPS Magic.

One of the functions of the rules of a game is to be a lingua franca between the participants. Ideally that lingua franca serves to make their custom contributions easy to make, understand, and use. When that lingua franca is broken into narrow dialects without a simple way to indicate which dialect is in use, it’s usefulness diminishes.

As an example let’s look at two wonderful successful games: Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World. Burning Wheel has been around for years with the most recent revision being published just a couple of years back. So far as I know the only BW-derived games have been designed and published by Luke Crane, who wrote BW itself.

Apocalypse World is more recent, but has at least 5 published games by other authors based on its system, along with countless new rules, classes, and smaller hacks.

The difference between these (great) games in partially in how easy they make the conversation about how your game differs from the norm. Apocalypse World’s rules are easy to encapsulate and while their interactions are complex, differences can be isolated to some degree. Burning Wheel also has complex interactions, but the rules are more distributed and harder to decouple from each other. AW works better as a lingua franca (not even counting hacks).

The challenge for Advanced D&D Next is in how it presents customization and complexity such that customization is still a feature at all levels and the dialogue between different games is maintained.

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

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