Posted by : David Guyll December 10, 2013


For the past few weeks Mearls has been talking about design elegance, citing criteria that 5th Edition does not meet in order to I guess help justify his decisions and direction (or at least sway us into thinking that he is doing the right thing), instead of taking the best mechanics from previous editions and building upon them, and perhaps even looking to other games to help innovate something better.

This week he moves the goalposts from elegance to the "ever-elusive feel". According to him the feel is correct when it matches your actions, thoughts, and decisions to that of your character. In other words it is good when the mechanics help immerse you in the game, and bad when it reminds you that you are just playing a game and causes you to think purely in terms of mechanics.

Before I get into his example on orcs and armor I want to know why, if "good feel" leads to immersion, you are still sticking with a pseudo-Vancian magic system? Spell slots, spell levels, per-day usage, and components with arbitrary gold piece requirements are not immersive, because there is no in-character explanation or rationalization for any of it. What do spell slots and levels represent? How come you can only memorize/prepare spells once per day? How come some spells can be used whenever you want, others have daily limitations, and still others can be used whenever you want if you have enough time?

Everything about the magic system resonates bad feel: it is artificial, clunky, predictable, unimaginative, and so very, very safe. I imagine it would be incredibly easy for them to come up with a magic system that both makes sense in the narrative and actually evokes the feel you normally get from fiction, but because of tradition it is still with us many editions later. Kind of like the orc in plate armor, actually: his argument is that it would not make sense for an orc in plate armor to be easier to hit, but are they sticking with a largely binary attack mechanic because it makes sense, or because of tradition?

Maybe the orc should be easy to hit, but because of the armor it should be hard to damage. Think about it: normally you roll to hit and if you succeed you deal some damage, but if you miss absolutely nothing happens despite hits and misses representing a variety of things. This might make sense for a goblin or perhaps even a human, but what about a minotaur? Or an ogre? Or a dragon? Do you really expect me to believe that a fighter can withstand the brunt of a dragon without any ill effect? Like, does wearing heavy armor magically help him evade everything, because he should at least be getting tired from having to dodge so much.

This is ironically one of the strengths behind the bizarrely controversial damage-on-a-miss mechanic. Imagine a Dungeons & Dragons game where massive monsters could deal damage even on a miss. Big monsters would be more dangerous, it would convey that you are getting worn down despite not taking a direct hit (which would reasonably kill you), and it would not even have to be anything particularly complex; just add in a Miss: x damage to the unorganized wall of action text, or a Brutal x trait.

Another simple rule that would better model how armor protects you? Have armor grant damage resistance, like in Dungeon World and Numenera. Not the half-damage resistance they have going on now, but something more granular, like what we had in 3rd and 4th Edition. This way you have an orc that is easy to hit but harder to hurt, and it could be a much needed step forward for a game that does not require magical healing to work (especially if classes have the option to boost their armor rating).

But of course it does not matter that there are clearly better suited mechanics for getting the job done (or making existing rules work better) and immersing players, because the real qualifier is that they fulfill, in Mearls's own words, the "much more important criteria of evoking the feel of Dungeons & Dragons". Or more accurately the feel of a certain edition of Dungeons & Dragons, because after all that is all the game really needs: not innovation, not refinement, not an evolving game, but just slightly rehashed mechanics that they can charge you for all over again.

In the second part of the article he does his best to try and convince you that the new model for classes is somehow better than 4th Edition, claiming that it takes the middle ground between 3rd and 4th Edition, when really it is more like 3rd Edition with a just a bit of added flexibility, which is still not much. The funny and sad part is how he uses early arguments from the anti-4th Edition camp to sell his points, namely how roles somehow restricted you and the so very, very tired complaint of, "I do not want to play a ranger, I want to play a fighter that can use a bow like a ranger and use lots of ranger skills!"

Seriously, he describes the "dilemma" of the poor gamer who wants to play a fighter that is "a cunning archer and survivalist", but had to "settle" for a ranger, because of course it was totally possible to play a survivalist fighter when most of the skills you wanted cost twice as much as the ranger would need to spend, and your budget was all of two skill points. Yes, I am so very sure that fighters pretending to be rangers were commonplace back in the day, and that that complaint was not created to try and prove how bad 4th Edition is because, despite it giving you a class that did exactly what you wanted, it had the wrong label.

He also tries to claim that 3rd Edition was open ended and that all the parts acted as doors to near-infinite options, when the fact is that not only did many of those so-called options and combinations not play well together, some of them did not even work at all. Stuff like fighters in general, multiclass spellcasters, and numerous feats that players would never take and seemed only to exist to justify things that NPCs and monsters could do. Frankly I found 4th Edition to be both more flexible and functional. Not only could any race and class work just fine, but that issue of players interpreting fighters differently? Yeah, they can all be represented with minimal effort.

A strong, tough half-orc fighter just needs a decent Strength and Constitution, an axe or hammer, and martial exploits that give you bonuses when using an axe or hammer (which often were based on your Constitution, so it did more than just give you more hit points and a better Fortitude defense). A lightly armored, agile elf warrior just needs to have a decent Strength and Dexterity, some hide armor, a spear or sword, and martial exploits that let rely on your Dexterity modifier (which were generally heavy blades, light blades, and spears). For added effect there is even a variant class feature called combat agility that lets you chase enemies down and prone them.

Not that characters need to be as complex as they were in 4th Edition. No one is saying that, and I think that even the most diehard 4th Edition fans would prefer a streamlined game where, among other fixes, players choose fewer things at the start, but still have that ability to adjust and readjust their character as they progress instead of making a choice early on that locks them in for the rest of the game. You could even cater to players who want pre-built concepts by just making builds. That is all subclasses are after all, except that you cannot change your mind later and most of your other choices are made for you.

In the end I think that Mearls is indeed getting the feel from previous editions, but I do not think that it is a good or even right feel. He seems to be trying really hard to convince us that it is not only the right direction, but the best one, and I disagree. I disagree with all of it. I think it is lazy and uninspired, especially after all this time, and it shows in these more recent Legends & Lore columns. I know that there are people who do agree with him, but I have to ask: do you agree with it because it is the best mechanic and design for the job, or because it is what you grew up with?

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

  1. You're assuming that Mearls believes what he says, that he's honestly concerned about this stuff, that, bottom line, he's not simply trying to throw a sop to the hardcore 3E/Pathfinder crowd. I think the later is much more likely, and that anything you read from these guys, especially in terms of motive, ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

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  2. @Dan: While I agree that Mearls is attempting a sales pitch, I don't really think there's much intentional deception going on. He might be deluding himself though, because I suspect that Mearls actually believes most of what he says.

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    1. "If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself."

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  3. I do not think he believes what he is saying. The last few weeks he setup criteria for what he considers to be design elegance, criteria which 5th Edition does not meet (A second opportunity attack trigger is too complicated, let us just create an entirely new rule!). Now he is talking about feel, sets up criteria for "good feel" (leads to immersion), but then just says that the most important thing is getting "the D&D feel" (often does not).

    Now maybe he IS deluding himself, maybe he DOES believe it, but I do not think so. The article comes across as someone trying to convince you that he is doing the right thing, or at least what makes the most sense. I just have a hard time believing that Mearls is looking at stuff like D&D magic and thinking "Yep, this is both very immersive and elegant, no need for changes, here."

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  4. With other games out there like Pathfinder and 13th age, along with some smaller games with cool ideas like Dungeon World, I think 5E is going to have a hard time getting it's footing with established RPG players.

    With new players, it might get a decent foundation to build off of. One failing of marketing 4E was that too much of the initial push was towards established players. Face it the 1st boxed set was bleah. If 5E hits the shelves with a nice set of core books and a stellar introductory boxed set, it might be able to get enough new folks in to give 5E a serious go for a few years before moving onto something else.

    Now it seems to be too tied to older editions, or can't bring something new to the table that stands out from many other excellent games out there (and in Pathfinder's case, very well supported). I guess they feel having a game that some 40 year old can pull out their original copy of Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and play is some kind of feature that 5E should strive for. I just wish more focus was on trying to entice new players rather than trying to rekindle dead love from older gamers.

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  5. If you are talking about Keep on the Shadowfell, yeah it was fucking horrible and I only ever ran it once "by the book".

    I wish they would judge mechanics on their merits, adding, removing, replacing, and modifying them as needed instead of just sticking with them out of tradition. Like, I think defenses are superior to saving throws, but are either of them the best mechanic for the job? Maybe there is a third option that conveys what they are trying to represent even better.

    Same thing with hit points and spells. I think there are much better alternatives out there, but damned if we will see them because that was not what we had in 2nd and 3rd Edition. It reminds me of Nintento or Paizo, never innovating too far from their established properties.

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  6. This insistence on traditional Vancian magic bothers me just because it's an awful, clunky system that I hated even back in the day, or that it's a failure of imagination on the part of the designers, but because as far as D&D is concerned, the world of fantasy pop culture stopped somewhere around 1982.

    It made a lot of sense for 1E D&D to attempt to emulate Howard, de Camp, Vance and Harryhausen, because those were common reference points. I'll be honest, I'm out of touch with what the kids are reading these days, but I doubt that it's Conan paperbacks. I suspect that for many, the default assumptions about how fantasy magic works come from Harry Potter, and good luck emulating that with 3.5.

    I know that the purists howled, but for me, one of the smartest things 4E did was to look to the MMORGS. The conventions of roles (healer, tank) and cool-down times should've been very familiar to younger would-be players. Far more so than Jack Vance.

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  7. The irony is that every edition of D&D has failed to emulate Vancian magic, not that I think that any edition aside from 4th Edition is particularly good at emulating anything on Appendix N.

    I find it funny that the designers continue to refer to it as Vancian magic, when if they read the books they would realize that they are not very close. Honestly if it WAS actually Vancian magic I would not have much of a problem with it: it would not be an ideal magic system, but it would at least make sense and be interesting.

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  8. For nearly 30 years I've been a D&D loyalist having played, and enjoyed every version/edition of the game. By the time they announced the Next playtest my group had already began to move on to other things, mostly Dungeon World and Numenera.

    Unfortunately when I take the time to look at the state of D&D Next I keep thinking the same thing; this is a conglomeration of all things D&D in an attempt to please fans of every edition but just seeming to fall flat. For me the proposed game seems like one that I would have loved back in 1995 or so, now it already seems dated.

    I want to play D&D again, but to be honest times have changed, games have changed, and most importantly, I've changed and D&D Next just seems like a massive step backwards in an attempt to be everything for everyone.

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  9. I do not think they are trying to please fans of every edition, at least certainly not equally. I do not even think that it is a good idea to try. Instead they should look at all the mechanics and make a case as to why they should or should not be retained, changing and creating new ones as necessary to ensure an actually elegant, functional game instead of listening to all the vapid article commentary.

    I agree that back in the day I might have enjoyed it, but time has moved on and thanks to Kickstarter and digital publishing there is no shortage of games to choose from, and little barrier to creating your own, and that is the thing: back in the day I played D&D and enjoyed it well enough, but I think a major factor as to why I stuck with it was because of lack of exposure and variety.

    They do not have that luxury nowadays. It is incredibly easy to find new games, and thanks to G+ is it also incredibly easy to find new gamers. I do not have to stick with D&D, and if the best WotC can do is pull the same stunt Paizo did I have plenty of other games to choose from.

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  10. @David Guyll: You hit the nail right on the head. There is so much out there and as I'm exposed to newer games and different ways to play, D&D looks increasingly antiquated.

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  11. Tinfoil hat warning:
    If D&D Next fails, it is likely that D&D will be boxed by Hasbro for 10 years.
    If that happens, then Pathfinder becomes the only major publisher in town.
    If that happens, then Piazo will probably be looking to hire more staff.
    The ex-WotC employees are ideally experienced to join Paizo.
    Piazo treat their staff much better than Hasbro/WotC, specifically the whole "layoffs before Christmas" job security thing.
    (Conversely, if D&D Next works, the current staff are likely to lose their jobs anyway, and not have anywhere to move on to afterwards.)

    ...So, it looks to me like it is in the interests of the D&D Next team for them to arrange for D&D Next to fail.

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  12. I do not think they are arranging for it to tail. I think that Mearls thinks he is improving the game, or at least adjusting it to make as much money as possible.

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