Thursday, February 1, 2018

D&D Redeemed

This is a strange sight to see on the desk of of a man
who has spent decades deriding D&D.
The 90's was a great time to be somebody who hated Dungeons and Dragons.  West End Games made the best Star Wars RPG.  Mage: The Ascension showed us how magic could be fun. Legend of the Five Rings was one of the most beautiful RPG's ever made -- to all who disagree, I offer a "gift" after the tradition of the Kakita.

Then the dark ages happened.  In the early turn of the 21st century, Wizards of the Coast would unleash the behemoth that was the D20 system and the OGL.  It was like a tarrasque that would roam the gamerscape, devouring all other games, and pooping out the same, soulless rules-set that would clash with the most fundamental charm of D&D.

Most RPG's advertise themselves as being one of two things:

  • General-purpose rules that can be used for any RPG (which is always a lie)
  • Rules tailored for a single game-world
But D&D was always cool because it was neither.  The rules were wholly inseparable from the narrative of D&D and were pretty much useless outside of the context of D&D.   But D&D is not a single setting in the same way Shadowrun is.  It's not even a single collection of settings (though TSR tried their darndest to make it so).  The whole D&D "multiverse" is a set of rules and a set of universes all bound together by the common thread of dungeon crawling.  Where other games built a setting and tried to build dice mechanics that were suitable to that, D&D built a gaming culture and built all its settings around that culture.

People complained that AD&D2e was an incoherent mess of arbitrary rules.  This was true.  It's because TSR just canonized the accumulated rulings and folklore built up in the culture.  Something so unplanned is sure to be disjointed and have a high learning curve for newcomers.  But for all its faults, that common law patchwork of made-up stuff was ours.

The central theory to D&D3e was simple:  Roll a twenty-sided die, add any relevant bonuses, compare the sum to some target value (called either DC or AC, depending on context).  That was a far cry more convenient than the multitude of arbitrary rolls with arbitrary dice we'd had in days past.  It was as if gamers were trapped in Plato's Kyklos; felt the pains of their anarchy, and were begging for the order of a dictator.  This central theory, however, came at a cost.

Mechanical Cost

The fundamental flaw with the D20 mechanic is that it operates in guarantees.  By flatly adding numbers to die rolls, you ensure that somebody with an attack bonus of +4 is basically never going to hit an AC of 30 (that 5% chance to roll a natural 20 is mostly irrelevant) and that somebody with a +10 attack bonus is never going to miss an AC of 11 (that 5% chance to roll a natural 1 is also irrelevant).  Because of this bonus, you create a narrow window of AC's that are even worth rolling against.  As your character advances smaller AC's fall out of that window and larger AC's enter.

Player motivations are impacted by these guarantees.  They adopt the infamous "murder hobo" behavior simply because they know their AC's are beyond a monster's reach or because the monster's AC is beneath their notice.  This puts pressure on the GM to fill the world with whatever monsters fit into that narrow window of potentially suspenseful fights which trains players to rush into fights so they can get XP and hopefully push that window higher.

Having AC's reach into the stratosphere has the secondary consequence of hyper-inflating hit points on all the monsters.  If you guarantee that players won't even hit a monster until they reach a certain level, you similarly guarantee that once they can hit that monster, they're going to be dealing out a ton of damage.

In order to properly reward players for their commitment to the game, a GM naturally wants players to feel more awesome, to deal more damage, to score more hits, and experience more overall effect.  So this eternal arms race ensues as the players chase down more and more flat roll bonuses and the GM's scour deeper and deeper for more dangerous monsters to keep the rolls interesting.

At some point, you're going to find play-groups painting themselves into a corner where the GM is arbitrarily giving random street thugs AC's of 30+, or the game leaves the entire mortal world behind as power levels hyper-inflate into higher and higher guaranteed roll minimums -- which puts a creative strain on the entire process that simply doesn't need to be there.

As is inevitably the case when people find themselves in an arms race, designers tried to find sideways answers to the ever-inflating damage and AC values.  They came up with monsters that would damage ability scores to try to make players afraid of getting hit again.

Those who know the way Fiend Wake's handicaps work might be tempted to call me a hypocrite for criticizing this but hear me out.  The problem was not that there was ability damage.  The problem was that the game was not already designed assuming ability damage was going to happen.  At no point could a player's character build optimize against it.  It was just a "gotcha" that forced players to study the monster manual so they could avoid those crazy fights by the power of the meta-game.

Cultural Costs

Because D&D had spent nearly three decades brow-beating us with bad mechanics and because gamers are creative, problem-solving people, we'd grown accustomed to having a good time and playing good games in spite of our mechanics.  We looked at the mess that was D&D and the fun we had in spite of it and began to believe (fallaciously) that "system doesn't matter."

When D&D3e came out, with this misconception firmly in our minds, we took its generally more sane and adaptable mechanics and started applying it to every last damned setting we could imagine.  They even sullied Legend of the Five Rings with the "Oriental Adventures!" 

Game publishers became intimidated by the idea of using a system that players didn't already know -- and there's only one system you can guarantee that players already know.  Players started thinking that it was possible to have one true system for everything.  Because of the OGL, Wizards actively encouraged people to duct tape any random setting to this mechanic.

Looking back at TSR's hilarious mismanagement of their brand, WotC decided that they shouldn't actively compete with themselves by printing a jillion different game-worlds.  So instead they decide to only print one.  The most boring and banal of them all: Forgotten Realms.  Maybe a few token supplements but nothing to really advance the unique and compelling side of D&D's culture.

The consequence of all this was that every other game was becoming D&D mechanically and D&D was becoming more like every other game thematically.  It was no longer a culture of gamers unified on their love for dungeon crawling and creatively solving game-play problems, it became a bunch of different universes that had nothing to do with the dungeon crawling culture that chose to express itself in a mechanical system of guaranteed hyper-inflation of numbers.

So players started demanding familiar systems rather than thematically appropriate ones or they started bellowing that system was arbitrary and accepted some remarkably bad systems because "it all depends on the game master."  This harmed our culture in a very real way and we might still be reeling from the effects of that damage.

Fourth Edition came along and solved none of these problems.  They decided that everything should be more annotatively unified mechanically and narratively.  They assumed that the "D&D Multiverse" was supposed to be a narratively-acknowledge collection of settings that connect somehow.  They went so far as shoe-horning Dark Sun into the official cosmology.  Also, the very notion of an "official cosmology" is repugnant to my sense of the D&D multiverse.

It's not clear to me whether this is a fortunate turn of events but D&D4e was also the point where the sins of the past came back to haunt Wizards of the Coast.  Their shenanigans with the OGL and subsuming the rest of the RPG landscape into one rules theory had gotten people so addicted to familiarity that whatever improvements may have lurked in Fourth Edition were rejected with a discontented hiss and a snarl.  The D&D landscape could no longer handle novelty.  The wild success of D20 had guaranteed that.


One of the first things the D&D5e design team did was to "listen to the fans."  This precept can backfire but surprisingly didn't.  Even though people may have wanted it for bad reasons, "bounded accuracy" ended the arms race of AC/HP hyper-inflation.

By containing the entire game in a sensible range of target numbers, players could suddenly start making judgment calls based on probabilities rather than simply memorizing the monster manual.  Game Masters could start asking which monsters are appropriate to the situation in narrative terms without worrying if those monsters are too mighty or too puny for the party.

The rules in this current edition of D&D have eschewed the meticulous and rigid approach that Third and Fourth editions had spiraled into.  Loosening the grip on the rules brings us back to the old days when the GM had tools to entertain rather than obstacles to navigate.  That means anybody who wants a game made out of obstacles has to go play Shadowrun and D&D can resume its status as a cultural phenomenon and not a bucket of rules.

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