Tuesday, January 8, 2013

D&D Next and the Ultimate Criterion of a Good Game

For me to adopt a roleplaying ruleset it must meet my ultimate criterion: non-gamers can jump into a game quickly and not have to spend time between games reading rulebooks.

Why? Practical experience. Many of the most enjoyable, creative, and engaging players I've had in sessions are not gamers per se. They are people who would likely never think of buying or reading a roleplaying rulebook, even in the depths of a regular campaign. I've found that a player's previous experience playing RPGs is a fairly weak predictor of how fun he or she will be at the table. Behaviors that are much better predictors of player quality might better include... say... daydreaming, frequent laughing, weeping in the cinema, doodling in margins, appreciation of telescopes, the ability to identify mushroom genera, playing fiddle, or staring at clouds.

Thus, the rub is that rulesy games risk precluding great players.

I'm a gamer and I have no problem with rules. In fact I pride myself for my ability to absorb and teach rulesy boardgames very quickly. But take my friend the biogeochemist, take my friend the puppet maker, take my friend the insect taxonomist, or take my friend the thirty-something lapsed gamer. There's no way these people are going to sit down with me to play the current flavor of Dungeons and Dragons, even though it's an amazingly cool game for what it is. But, hell, I want them to come over to my place, enjoy a stout, and pretend to be elves.

One of the wonderful things about the original D&D boxed sets and their retroclones is that they meet my ultimate criterion perfectly. In 15 minutes I can have a non-gamer cheering, talking in a funny voice, or trying to communicate with a goblin in sign language. This is remarkable if you think about it.

After the original announcement my hope was that D&D Next would fit my criterion. It would be a simple, intuitive set of core rules with the complexity level of Monopoly or Settlers of Catan, yet, because it's called "Dungeons & Dragons", it would still sport name recognition and commercial reach such that there would be significant interest in mainstream gaming circles and no dearth of would-be adopters.

My reading of the first D&D Next playtest packet made it seem like this could quite possibly happen. With sadness, however, I just browsed the newest playtest packet released Dec. 17. It's now crystal clear this isn't going to happen.

D&D Next is becoming too too too complex. Like the edition(s) before it, it's a game targeted at gamers. There are too many pages presenting lists of formalized special powers with capitalized names. There are too many categories of these abilities, specializations, and so on. There are too many formal actions a character is permitted to make in combat. Simply, if a session were to go smoothly a player would have to know a lot of rules before coming to the table. Players couldn't simply describe in plain English what they would want to do - they would have to present a list of capitalized code words that would permit reference to highly specific formulas in the text. There is just no way I could have a quick session of this game with my non-hardcore gamer friends or family. For a session to work, all players would have to have read the rules in some detail beforehand and would constantly be consulting books during play. This is antithetical to the fast-moving, intuitive style of roleplaying I prefer.

Having just moved to a new town I was toying with the idea that eventually I could get a group together where we could start by playtesting D&D Next, then ease into the final published version. Not now. Too bad, really.