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Common Tongue

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The direction of D&D Next is to expand ‘story’ not ‘mechanics’:

After the core rules for the game are done, we really want to stop adding so much stuff to the mechanics of the game and shift our emphasis to story.

I knew when I read this that I was going to have a hell of a time writing this response. The false dichotomy there glares at me: why can’t mechanics and rules be one-in-the-same, or at least complementary?

That’s not the real core of Mike’s post though. The core here is D&D as a common language:

D&D is a shared language. The rules serve to make it easier to talk about the game and make stuff happen. They take abstract concepts and give them clear meaning. When we say “5th-level wizard,” we know what you can do and how you do it. We know that because we play D&D. Someone who never played the game would be utterly lost.

I’ve got a shameful admission to make: when you say “5th-level wizard” I have no clue what you mean.

Sure, “wizard” I’ve got. There are touches of Gandalf and Harry Potter and Dr. Strange and Rincewind in there, but thanks to years of playing D&D I tend to focus on a spellbook, making stuff blow up, arcane secrets and study.

“5th-level,” though, I’ve got no clue about that. In a general, non-D&D context it makes no sense at all—at best it reminds me of arguing with my best friend in high school about if Final Fantasy and Dragonball Z ‘levels’ meant the same thing (and therefore how Cloud and Picolo compare). With D&D as context I’ve got a vague idea that they’re not as weak as 1st level, but not as strong as 10th, and even that is stupid—a significant number of incarnations of D&D didn’t have 10th level (or even 5th). I can’t tell you what spells they’re likely to have, or how many they have, or what they do within the fiction of the game.

What’s even worse, I don’t think I could tell you what a 5th-level Dungeon World wizard looks like. I really have no clue what a 5th level D&D or DW wizard can do. I think they might be able to do fireball in DW but not in Pathfinder, but that’s pretty much pure speculation.

Basically, if you say “5th-level wizard” like it means something I’m going to be confused.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. Even if I did have a clear vision of what a 5th-level wizard is, it’s almost certainly tied to one edition or another. Using 3rd level as an example (since Moldvay is the handiest PDF for me as I write this and it doesn’t go to 5th level for PCs), let’s take a look. A 3rd level Moldvay wizard1 can use their shiny new 2nd level spell slot to detect evil intentions and objects, but otherwise can’t do any more damage than they could at 2nd level. A 3rd level d20 wizard can throw an acid arrow that is basically two magic missiles in a row, but can’t (and will never, without multiclassing) detect evil.

This isn’t to say that one or the other of those is wrong. I just imagine these two wizards meeting in a bar and the Moldvay wizard being utterly amazed that his friend can shoot an arrow of acid from his fingers which apparently requires the same amount of arcane proficiency as detecting evil. They’re two different definitions of what being a 3rd-level wizard is.

D&D has meant so many things to so many people it’s tough to call it a language. Consider Dragonborn—to some D&D players they’ve been a core part of Dungeons & Dragons for as long as they’ve played, to some they’re a modern abomination.

It seems to me that any given version of D&D is a common language to those who play it, but across versions it’s more like a family of languages: moving from one to another is easier than going someplace entirely different, but you can’t speak one and expect someone who speak’s another to get your exact meaning.

These languages are not entirely based on the numbers we write down and add and subtract and so on. They’re based on the system in the larger sense. It’s easy to consider the “game” to be just the math, but it goes far beyond that—the tone, presentation, art, procedures, even culture around the game. Mike suggest that “the most resonant elements arise from outside the game, in the myths and stories that we’re all exposed to,” but those elements are as much a part of the game as the math. Just because they’re not numbers doesn’t mean they’re less systematic in how they convey how to play the game. See, for example, the infamous Appendix N: the collection of fantasy works included as “inspirations” by Gary Gygax in AD&D. That appendix is as much a part of the system of AD&D as the names and abilities of the classes.

To think of ‘rules’ and ‘story’ works against creating a common language for D&D. For Next to really make a mark it has to be a complete system, not just math or ‘story’ or ‘elements outside the game.’

  1. Okay, not a wizard, a magic-user, if we want to be technical. 

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

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