Legends & Lore: Design Folly

"Elegance means that your game not only works, it works well."

Going off of that definition I would have to say that Next is not elegant. "Well, no duh," I hear some of you saying, because apparently people have this idea that I venomously hate Next for the crime of merely being different, as opposed to legitimate reasons or criticisms. Hell, according to some this hatred even extends to the flavor content: it is not because it makes no sense or is silly, it is obviously because it is in any way associated with Next.

Hate is pretty strong. I do not hate Next, though I will admit that I am disappointed with it. It seems like much of the design is just rehashing old mechanics, which is fine for some but to me comes across as lazy and uninspired, especially considering that there is a design team on the job and they have been at it for over a year, and this article is actually a pretty good example of why I feel that way.

First, in the section of the article on solving a problem by removing it Mearls states—immediately after misquoting daleks—that early on they had an issue with saving throws, namely that calculating and tracking Fortitude, Reflex, and Will "added time to character creation and placed an extra level of detail on every monster".


I...guess technically they did add more time, about as much time as it takes to add two small numbers together, which is frankly not an unreasonable or even meaningful amount. Given that you still have to add two numbers together due to proficiencies I assume Mearls agrees, which just makes this entire statement strange, almost as strange as when he goes on to say that saving throws are "obviously important" to the game. Are they? Are they really important for any other reason than "tradition"?

Would it not be more elegant to have contests and conflicts resolved in a uniform manner like, oh, 4th Edition, 13th AgeNumeneraFATE, and Dungeon World? Or is it really more elegant to tell a player that if you want to hurt something, you roll a d20, except when they roll a d20? I think this is exactly the kind of thing that should be removed, but despite his statement of "putting everything on the table as potential fodder for the chopping block" obviously they will not because, again, tradition.

Mearls claims that he loves the solution of simply removing a problem, as it is "the experienced designer's way out of even the thorniest corner". He is even willing to remove any problem, except when tradition rears its ugly head: rather than "delete" the saving throw rule, weigh it against non-Armor Class defenses from 4th Edition or 13th Age, or even pitch an alternative idea he simply alters it so that, thanks to proficiencies, we still get essentially the same thing as we had in 3rd Edition.

Of course this is not the only inelegant part of the game to persist for tradition's sake:
  • Classes: The class structure and advancement works if the concept you have in mind is exactly like the ones that have been arbitrarily constructed. It does not provide any sort of flexibility or organic progression, which is why I will concede that it technically works, but it does not work well. There are many other games with simple character creation procedures that still allow you to make decisions and alter your character as the game progresses.
  • Healing: Is it really elegant to require groups to have magical healing on tap just to keep going? I get that even to a point 4th Edition demanding a leader role to help ensure survival, but at least you had a lot of classes to choose from, and it was mostly necessary in combat. Does it assist the story and pacing, or does it hinder it? Given all the games out there that do not require magical healing, do you think that Dungeons & Dragons is doing something beneficial by bucking trends, or would the game be better served if you found a way to just remove the need for constant magical healing?
  • Monsters: Traits and actions are basically formatted as paragraphs. In some cases they are not so bad, but some end up looking like walls of text. This is much less elegant that 4th Edition's formatting, which made it a lot easier to pick out the details. Same goes for spell-like abilities; is it considered elegant to have to refer to another book to figure out what a monster can do?
  • Magic: So...some spells can be cast whenever you want, but others are divided into levels, and you can only cast a certain number of a certain level of spells in an entire day. Some spells can be cast whenever you want without using a spell slot if you take a longer time to cast them, once per day mages can regain spell slots, but no higher than 6th for some reason, and you can slot spells into higher level slots to make them inflict more damage. Is this the best magic system they could come up with? Of course not, but neither will they create a new one because tradition demands that the game adhere kinda-sorta to the works of Jack Vance.
The second part of the article explains that in an effort to simplify bonuses, they created the advantage/disadvantage mechanic to "devour huge swaths of fiddly modifiers". I find this mechanic to be inelegant because as written there is no need to try and pool together as many assets as you can to help ensure success, despite that being precisely what someone would naturally do: no matter how many sources provide advantage or disadvantage, you only roll 2d20 and take the highest or lowest result respectively. Also, no matter how many of each you have they utterly cancel each other out, so for all your advantages it just takes one disadvantage to ruin the whole package.

Another issue is that it only increases your reliability, not your capability: if you need to hit a DC of 25 and only have a +4 bonus or less on the roll, all the advantages in the world mean nothing. What about changing it so that instead of having a variety of modifiers, that assets and complications just give you a +1 or -1 respectively? You would just need to tally up all the advantages and disadvantages, and apply the net result as a bonus or penalty. It sounds simple to remember and utilize.

Not really related, but his description of action points in 4th Edition makes me want to question if he has ever played 4th Edition. I mean obviously he has, so I am confused as to why he would claim that "most often" you would use action points for rerolls: most encounter and daily powers were expended on a miss, so you could not use them for a reroll. In fact most players spent action points to set up combos, get to where they really needed to be, to use second wind and still do something, etc.

Really the only case you would use an action point to reroll an at-will is if the enemy was under the effect of some ability that did something extra on a hit and you were out of encounters and dailies, or if you were out of encounters and dailies and really needed to drop a monster.

So, there you have it. That is why I think Next is inelegant, lazy, and uninspired, especially when this is all they have to show for their efforts after all this time. Of course I think that much of the reason is that they are afraid to push some mechanics and discard others is due to traditionalists, which is a shame because I believe that by challenging the design and mechanics of older editions—4th Edition included—that it would result in an amazing game.


  1. I agree. The Wizards team is too constrained. They are trying to make a new, modern game, but are also trying to make everyone happy. I think Next will be playable and not a terrible experience, but it doesn't look like it'll be a move forward from 3.5/Pathfinder.

  2. Yeah, the way it is shaping up it will be very underwhelming. Nothing worse than we have already seen, but also nothing better.

  3. I think the Action Point use depends a lot on the group. In my experience, it probably is true that it's used most often to redo an attack. But my players are (apparently, from what I read everywhere) unnaturally conservative. They open combat with At-Wills and only bring Dailies and Action Points to bear if they know it's a heavy hitter; it's not uncommon for them to take an extended rest and still have all their Dailies and have two or three Action Points. I have started to see more Action Points spent in order to use Second Wind and attack in the same turn, but the most common usage is after a miss in order to attempt another attack (or the same one).

  4. It depends on if by redo you mean repeat the same attack, or to just make another attack. In the article Mearls specifically states to "make that same attack again", which outside of at-wills is generally impossible as most encounter and daily powers are expended on a miss.

    In my experience players rarely used them to lump on another at-will unless the enemy was affected by something that triggered on a hit, they were out of other stuff and they would probably rest anyway (since action points reset on an extended rest), really had to take the monster down (and again were out of other things already), were going to get another action point (milestone), or some other corner case scenario.

  5. I agree with pretty much everything you talked about, especially that the removal of the non-AC defenses results in things getting more complicated, rather than simpler. Now if you want to, for example, knock someone down, you have to contest or have them make a saving throw rather than compare a check to a simple score; both methods take away from the player and force more work on what is usually an already busy DM.
    The only thing I really found bad with 4th edition's defenses were the level scaling aspect; a good, simple option for Next could be Defense = 10 + sum of the two associated ability scores' modifiers. Makes it really simple for monsters too.

    The advantage/disadvantage thing is a good point as well; if you get advantage, there's no point trying for more. Mathematically, rolling a second die works out somewhat mechanically equivalent to a +3ish bonus, so getting a simple bonus/penalty for each advantage/disadvantage would push players to use more complex tactics.

  6. Yeah, they could have the monster's level (because it does not need a bunch of stats) inform what its base DCs are (kind of like how it works in Numenera) so that players can just roll and get results.

    The automatic global scaling in 4th Edition bothered me too, and is one reason I am a bit leery about 13th Age. I would prefer having set numbers increase, or have some numbers increase and force players to choose.

    1. The global scaling in 4E is definitely a problem. It leads to a mostly artificial advancement, where you have bigger numbers but it's still just as easy or difficult to hit an enemy or succeed at a skill check. It comes across as bigger numbers for the sake of bigger numbers, at least from behind the DM's screen where I can see the math at work more clearly. And this ends up with bizarre situations where either the town guard are high level NPCs that can instagib the PCs, level alongside the PCs, or are quickly out-leveled and are helpless to stop the PCs from pillaging the countryside.

      Maybe it works ok if you only fight monsters, but I primarily use NPCs as enemies. This then leads to defeating an Orc chieftain at level 2 and level 8. Where was the level 8 one before? He could have wiped the floor with the PCs. Oh wait, he's only level 8 because math. :/

  7. As others, I agree with most of what David said. 5e has some good concepts but its failure is in not taking heed to the good mechanics that were found mainly in 4e and applying mechanics for the sake of nostalgia. As a tinkerer, I currently see Next as a tool to house rule the edition i love.

  8. Honestly, I think that at this point WOTC would be better served by chucking the entire thing, buying out Pelgrane Press and slapping a D&D logo onto the 13th Age rulebook. The latter feels more like an evolution of 3rd/4th Edition than does Next.

  9. @Svafa: To me it feels just as artificial with monsters as NPCs. My 4E hack would just remove virtually all forms of global advancement so that increases mean something, but stuff like goblins can still pose a threat without having to be the same level as the characters.

  10. Actually, I like the advancement, and strongly dislike the bounded accuracy.
    If I'm still fighting a goblin chieftain and 8th level, like the ones we were fighting at 2nd level, then personally I would not feel like I had advanced. I'd want to be fighting goblin kings at 8th level. But of course YMMV.
    Or, in more IRL terms: at 1st level I am in the college archery team, whilst at 20th level I am competing in the Olympics.
    Or, in film: Legolas doesn't look like bounded accuracy to me.
    If I were to attempt anything, it would be bounded hit points & damage.

  11. To clarify I am only talking about stuff like Base Attack Bonus, Armor Class, defenses, skills, and Initiative. Hit points would still increase, as would your damage in some way. That way when you fought goblins and they hit you, you would barely feel it because of all the added hit points, and when you damaged them it would likely be an outright kill.

    You would have to make choices at a level-up to determine what you improve outside of that, which would function more like talents from d20 Modern or Star Wars Saga Edition.


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