Posted by : David Guyll December 17, 2013

Last week Mearls talked about "feel", stating that good feel leads to player immersion. As with design elegance a few weeks ago he gave some examples that by his definition lacked good feel, but then clarified that it did not matter anyway because it is much more important that they just keep doing what Dungeons & Dragons did before. So, as with design elegance it makes me question why he even brings it up in the first place if all he was going to do is set the bar exactly where he needs it to be in order to justify his decisions.

Anyway, although he opens this week's feel-good thesis with magic, one of my most hated aspects of Dungeons & Dragons, since the other parts of the article are shorter and a bit more positive I am going to talk about them first.

Complexity in Strategy, Simplicity in Tactics
In terms of speed I actually kind of agree with this: combat in Dungeon World and Numenera is a lot more fast-paced than 4th Edition, but still way more interesting than 3rd and 5th Edition. I also think that players would accept taking longer to make decisions that have a larger impact than round-by-round damage and such.

I disagree that "nothing messes up feel and breaks game immersion" like extra rules. I think that a lack of rules can break immersion, like how in 3rd Edition when you were hit by an ogre, giant, or even a dragon you just took damage and stayed in exactly the same spot. Adding a push or prone effect not only makes the monster more dangerous, but also evokes mechanically what is going on: either you were getting slapped around or having to leg it to avoid getting smashed.

Additionally a contributing factor to 4th Edition's lengthy combat times—because we all know he is talking about 4th Edition—was not just adding effects like +x to y, secondary attacks, or forced movement; you often had an extensive list of options available at the start, and even Monster Manual III monsters had a good chunk of hit points for you to hack through. Try reducing the options, hit points, and monster defenses and see what happens.

Choices and Consequences
I agree that decisions and consequences should match player expectations. Characters in heavy armor and wielding big weapons should be harder to hurt and deal more damage respectively, but that is just one factor that a player might be taking into consideration when choosing her armor and weapons. For example, I often use greatswords because I think they look cool, or—if we are talking 4th Edition—maybe it meshes with a certain race (like githzerai monks) or exploits (many fighter exploits got additional bonuses if you were using certain weapon categories).

Traditionally Dungeons & Dragons is not very good at this sort of thing. 4th Edition made it much harder to make the "wrong" choice, but earlier editions were not as forgiving. One of my first 3rd Edition characters was a gnome fighter that dual-wielded daggers because I thought it would be cool and different. Turns out despite having a high Dexterity and being Small I was not going to be dashing around underfoot larger enemies. Not that fighter anything was a really viable choice, but I could not even make two attacks without taking a massive penalty to my attack rolls.

There was also the issue of exotic weapons almost always being worse than normal weapons. I am not sure it makes sense for anyone to burn a feat to wield a kama or nunchaku. I mean, I would not even use them as a monk because my unarmed strike was just as good (and got better pretty quickly).

Narrative Cohesion
Ogres are stronger than orcs, and are mechanically represented fairly well: Strength of 18 instead of 14, and their damage is on average 5 points higher. That is pretty good, but what about hill giants? They are Huge, but their Strength is only 21 (2 points higher than an ogre, increasing their Strength modifier by 1), and their damage is only one point higher. If you have ever seen a Large and Huge mini side by side, there is quite a bit of difference, there.

Also, none of the giants can knock you prone. A cyclops can with a thrown rock (that not only keeps you prone but you somehow survive), as can a minotaur can with a charge, but no giants. This kind of plays on choices and consequences. As a player I would expect to get golfed around pretty handily, but none of them actually knock me around, so imagine how surprised I would be to find that a minotaur can knock me over with a charge, or that a stone giant's rock can deal half damage on a miss.

Another good example is the rogue he talks about. He describes a rogue that is devious, preferring ambushes and only fighting out in the open when she must. The problem? That is not how rogues work. Since 3rd Edition at the least they have been up in the thick of things, flanking with other characters in order to benefit from their Sneak Attack damage.

The only rogue I can think of that acts as described was from one of 5th Edition's earliest iterations. You had to spend an action hiding, then pop out and make an attack on your following turn. It worked out pretty well because the bonus damage was not only about twice as much as your normal damage, but you also had advantage on the attack. To me this better represents a rogue waiting for an opportune moment to strike.

And Then There Was Magic...
Apparently Mearls thinks that magic only seems out of sync with what most people expect when they think of magic, because it was inspired by how magic works in Tales of the Dying Earth. The problem is not that Dungeons & Dragons relies on a very unique magic system from a book that I am sure many have never read, but that the game only loosely borrows from it. It is the parts that they add—namely spell slots, spell levels, and a daily limitation—that screw it up.

The closest thing you get to slots is when it mentions that Turjan (from Turjan of Miir) can only retain about four at a time, which I guess is pretty badass, except they are not divided by levels and it does not matter what the spell does: he gets four. Also it does not seem like it takes very long to prep them at all. In the same story Turjan cracks open a book, flips to the spell he is looking for (Call to the Violent Cloud), and...that is it. After what seems like a very short period of time he gets up, gets dressed, memorizes some more spells, and then heads out.

Speaking of memorization, I do not recall the book ever mentioning that the spells are memorized and forgotten when cast. In Mazirian the Magician it takes Mazirian great effort to force five(?!) spells upon his brain, which to me reads less as memorizing them and more like Johnny from Johnny Mnemonic overloading his brain with too much data.

With these important factors the magic system remains distinct, but actually starts making sense. In game mechanics you could very easily represent it by making wizard magic encounter-based, so when a spellcaster has some downtime they crack open their books and foist another spell or two upon their mind. I have pitched this idea before as a kind of "true-Vance" system, and while it is still not my first choice it is still much better than what Dungeons & Dragons defaults to, partially because it would help get rid of the 15-minute work day, and partially because I could actually see a wizard explaining it to someone else.

He then moves on to claim that magic "delivers the game's feel in spades" because you need to carefully consider what spells you want to cast...which is also true in any game that features magic I can think of. I think what he is getting at is that as a player you need to guess which magic will be useful in a given situation, which means that your character does, too, which means by his own self-fulfilling definition, hey, good feel. Of course this is also true of any other game with magic, as is his claim that you can use these choices as an opportunity to express your character's personality.

In other words there is nothing going on here that other, more sensible magic systems do not also do, and I would even argue that they do it better.

He finally wraps things up by stating that you can use the language of the rules to precisely describe your character's mindset and approach to spells which is still something that you can do in other games, and also, again, the only difference is that it generally has the added benefit of making sense.

I find the example, like the rogue before it, ironically serves to illustrate just how flawed it is. What about when you are down to a bunch of 1st-level slots but for some reason cannot use them all to cast a spell of a higher level. Why not? The example makes it sounds like that the wizard is just using up packets of energy. Is each level its own pool of somehow limited magical energy that can only be used on lower-level stuff?

 Can the wizard even begin to explain what slots and spell levels mean in the context of the game world? How come some spells can be cast whenever you want, and others can be cast whenever you want if you have enough time? How come when you use a slot to cast a lower level spell nothing is retained? How come you can spontaneously regain just one slot?

The thing is that Dungeons & Dragons does not need to keep using a pseudo-Vancian model. 4th Edition almost got away, and I wonder what kind of magic system we would have ended up with had the designers continued to move forward. But hey, why innovate when you can just recycle the content you already have on tap? As Mearls says, it is important for them to stick to their guns and maintain the game's identity, no matter how little sense it makes or how much it fails to match up both with what players who are not familiar with older editions expect, but his own standards of good feel.

{ 2 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. I had never heard of Tales of the Dying Earth or Jack Vance until fairly recently; I thought Vancian magic was just the name for the form used in D&D.
    A magic system somewhat analogous to what the psionic classes used in 4th edition could make for a good change as well: you can cast most spells at will, but with little effect, or you can burn say hit dice to up their effect.

    For fights that involve larger creatures, it'd be simple to add a general rule along the lines of something like "an attack which hits a target creature at least 2 sizes smaller pushes the target 5 feet per point of size difference" with exceptions for things like bite attacks and so on.
    And if you're noticeably smaller than your opponent, say a gnome fighting an ogre, you can pass through their space when moving.

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  2. I listened to the audiobooks a year or so ago, and was surprised at how much sense it DID make in comparison to what D&D uses. I wish I could remember who suggested that I actually read it and see the differences for myself, but if you can give the books a read.

    Dungeon World does things pretty simply by giving monsters a Forceful tag, and in Numenera you can just add a knockback effect whenever the players roll badly, or even by giving them some XP. I am sure FATE has a way of handling it, possibly by giving a player a Fate point or something.

    This is what I mean by innovation: I feel like there are many games taking strides forward, and D&D could do well by actually checking them out and see what makes them work.

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