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.

14 comments:

  1. I'll have to agree with you. My early play testing went very well. But what appeared to be a good base game morphed into - some type of committee designed monstrosity. I think they stopped listening. Depressing, really.

    But it's good to see you posting! :)

    - Ark

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    1. Also, consider who they are getting feedback from.... Who are the people that would download a packet and playtest a game? Experienced gamers.

      Is this really the audience that will lead to stability and a commercial breakthrough? Probably not.

      Thanks for the note, Ark! I don't know how sustained my posting will be. It's more fun to blog when I'm actually gaming, and I'm not really gaming right now. We'll see...

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  2. I think a version of D&D can be complex at the level of the established campaign but at the game table can be introduced to new players in a very simple fashion on a need to know basis. Players don't even need to have the same kinds of character sheets. You could start a newbie with nothing and let him listen to the other payers and just ask him what he wants to do and adjudicate his character's success differently.

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    1. Yes - you're right, and this is how I ease new players into gaming anyway. D&D Next makes this a little more challenging, however, because you have to come to the table knowing the defined set of actions available to you in certain circumstances. For example, there is a list of exactly 15 different actions you can do in a combat round. Thus for a new player the DM can either "translate" the players English commands into game commands, or the player can sit and thumb through the book each round to look at the options. Sure this can work, but why fuss?

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  3. That's too bad. One reason I play the games I play is because the experienced players can easily turn the real-world action descriptions and character details of casual players into game terms. You don't need to really know the nitty gritty rules to play. Knowing helps, but doesn't unbalance the characters. The guys who plan out every aspect of their character from cradle to grave don't do any better than the guys who just show up and play casually.

    I was hoping D&D Next would allow for more of that kind of play, not need to learn jargon to play.

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    1. Well, it' still in playtest. Maybe they'll end up toning down the boardgameyness a little.

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  4. I have no interest in D&D Next, as I cannot imagine any product that would woo me away from Labyrinth Lord at this particular point in my gaming career. I agree 100% with your comments about ease of play and tapping into (and encouraging!) player imagination rather than rules-knowledge, especially since I am now running a public game. The extreme ease with which a new, neophyte, inexperienced player can leap whole-hog into an LL game frequently astonishes me. Huge fun!

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    1. I agree - LL is great! I've played it a lot and introduced many new players to the game using it.

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  5. I think D&D Next will, ultimately, be a generally well designed game and I will almost certainly play it. However, I've been struggling to describe to myself why the most recent play test packet turned me off. I appreciate your comments, they helped me define what it was that turned me off.

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    1. Yes, I think D&D Next will be a very good game and I hope to play it. I just don't see (1) how it would fit in with my normal gaming life, or (2) what commercial niche it will fit into. I can't distinguish what the motivation to switch from Pathfinder would be, and I now I don't see how D&D Next would open up any new cross-over audiences to roleplaying. Maybe they're aiming to pick up new players from the board game or card game circuits...?

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    2. I think pathfinder is a good product, but I've yet to really adopt it and I'm not convinced it meets your ultimate criteria. I could be wrong, just not my experience.

      The commercial niche you mention likely deserves it's own post (that I encourage you to write). If your guess that they aim to draw players from board game or card game circuits is correct, I'm at a loss to see how. I don't see the connection between those and the current playtest. It's not that I disagree, I'd very much like you to unpack those thoughts a bit.

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  6. I share your criterion for a good game, but I think it's important to note that the play test packets are supposedly testing elements from "advanced" modules and not just from the core system.

    From Mearls' latest column (Jan 2013), it sounds like having a simple "basic" version of the game is still a primary goal:

    Back in the early 1980s, the game rules were accessible and play was supported with a lot of adventures. Since then, the game has become increasingly complex. New editions have added more rules, more options, and more detail. Even if one area of the game became simpler, another area became far more difficult to grasp. We need to reverse that trend and make a version of D&D that new players can pick up with ease and that existing players can continue to play by utilizing a wealth of world-class adventure content.

    -- https://www.wizards.com/dnd/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4ll/20130107

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  7. I'm in agreement. The more that I see, the more I feel that Type 5 greatly would benefit from Basic/Expert and Advanced(sound familiar?) sets at this point. It seems to be losing focus by trying to please everyone. A Basic set would be more than enough for OSR fans to have a very good time, while an Advanced set could have all the crunch that a 3-4 edition player would ever require.

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