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The Right Tool For The Job

Posted in Indies & More

While Mike tackles three different topics in his post, there’s a theme to it: complexity.

The first venue for complexity is spells—particularly the complexity of choosing which spells to prepare. The different rules for preparing spells are practically a microcosm for how D&D has changed over time. In early D&D, choosing the right spell was essentially key to playing a wizard—a strategic choice that could make the difference between being a human pin cushion and the party’s MVP. Fast forward to 3rd Edition and preparing spells was more or less a balance for a little extra flexibility, since if you just wanted to fling some magic missiles you could play a sorcerer and skip the whole ordeal. By 4th preparing spells was a minor class ability that allowed the swapping of powers, more a nod to the concept than a core conceit.

The degree to which picking spells is a challenge to the player helps define what the game is. Moldvay focused on tactical and strategic choices to get into and out of a dungeon while maximizing profit, so spells are a real test of player planning. 3rd Edition focused on making the game consistent and broad, so preparing spells is one more balance of power. 4th Edition focused on cool abilities and complex balanced combats, so preparing spells was minimized to allow consistent battles.

The case in 4th edition is particularly interesting in contrast to early editions. In Moldvay the sleep spell can effectively bypass a battle with a little luck an planning, and this is utterly all right—if you’re maximizing profit from a dungeon you don’t want to fight any more than needed. In 4th edition putting together a fight was a non-trivial investment of the GM’s time, so player abilities tended to be unable to bypass them.

Next is striking for a middle ground, with each spell being fairly narrow, but with some flexibility around what spells are prepared. The wizard doesn’t have to commit to spells so directly, so the strategic planning is diminished. Mike gives the example of fog cloud—if the wizard doesn’t have much flexibility in preparation it needs to be a broadly useful spell, but when the wizard is able to swap spells more freely it can be more focused.

For once it’s a clean statement of what Next does: it’s not as much about the careful planning of an AD&D wizard, but preparing spells is more than a holdover. Choosing what spells prepare is complex in that choosing just the right spells can be rewarding, but everyone has a fallback.

If spells are the wizard’s tools, the Next wizard gets only a few specialized tools, but can dig deeper into the tool box if they need something else.

This balance of complexity plays over to class abilities too. Practically there’s a limit to how many abilities you can pile into a character before they become too much to manage, so D&D Next classes will always get something cool at each level but that cool thing may just be an improvement to an ability they already have.

Really, there’s not a lot to say about this. It’s a solid design decision, one that’s existed in many other games (including 4th Edition). It may be interesting to balance—it’s easy to end up with a situation where generalists are punished—but the D&D team are good designers, they’ll work around it. The other challenge is to make improving something you have as interesting as getting something new, but again that’s a matter of implementation—the D&D team should be up to it.

The last section of Mike’s post is maybe the most interesting:

Giving people the ability to easily jump into the game without guidance from an experienced player and to make the transition from a simple game to a complex one is a key part of a design.

The idea of designing levels of complexity is great, and I’d talked about it before. The interesting bit that struck me when it came up this time: why does D&D need to be a complex game?

I can guess at a few reasons, which may or may not be accurate or good justifications:

  • Players expect/want it
  • More complexity == more places to supplement
  • Complexity is required to fully present whatever vision(s) of D&D they’re aiming for

If we drop the idea that D&D has to be complex—if none of these justifications hold—then the goal is not to make a beginner-friendly facade, but to make D&D itself straightforward and easy to use. This has certainly been the case at times in D&D’s history, where a simple booklet was all you needed to play.

Hopefully this has all been thought out and complexity really is a necessary part of D&D Next. They’re investing a lot of time in managing complexity, which is wonderful if that complexity is needed, but a waste of time if the easier solution is to just make a simpler game.

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

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