D&D Nexus: Introduction

Hello, and welcome to "D&D Nexus", the first in a series of blogs dedicated to exploring the design choices behind the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and finding connections to 5ed. It is in the vein of "D&D Before", a similar blog series written by the late Mark Monack (http://community.wizards.com/content/blog/809716 ). Instead of examing the articles freely available on-line from WotC's website, I'll be looking at the preview books sold in store in 2007. Wizards Presents: Races and Classes, and Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters.


Why "D&D Nexus"? Nexus means connection or link, and that's what I want to do here. I want to examine the design choices made available to us from both editions so far, and look at how they do things the same, and how they do it differently.


What do I want to do with this series? Learn, mostly. I have been active in D&D for a decade, but in this time of change, I feel some reflection on where the game has been (and where it is going) might benefit me. And if you can learn things about D&D you didn't know before, all the better,


Is the point of this series to declade a "winner" in the edition wars? No. There is no strictly superior edition of D&D, and most of my (and your) feelings towards any edition is based on personal experience. Thus, I cannot sway anyone's emotions with facts, so I will not try. As much as I can, I will try to present the facts, and present the two different editions in the way they want to be taken. From that, you can make your own judgements.


How will this series progress? It will be a long one, nearly a year of weekly blogs. I'm dividing it into 3 general categories of blogs. The first will be the flavour choices: which world(s) are assumed to be in the initial support of the edition, and how monsters are presented in-game. The second will be the mechanical choices: how classes, races, and action resolutions work in each edition, and why they were made that way. Lastly, I'll look at the developers who contributed to the Wizards Presents books, see where they are now, and examine how their views on game design have (or have not) changed.




Let's start with the big picture. How did the 4ed design team view D&D? What did they think D&D is, and could be in 4ed?


In a 2005 e-mail, Bill Slavicsek (R&D Director at the time) laid out what the 4ed design policy would be.


1) It must be Medieval Fantasy Roleplaying

2) Dungeon Master as Storyteller

3) Cooperative Play Experience

4) Base Mechanics

5) Three-dimensional tactics

6) Options, not restrictions

7) Improve the game

8) Make the game easy to design for, develop, and edit*


The first three tenets seem obvious things for D&D, but it shows the layers to which Bill was willing to peel back. Stuff like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is D&D, but also includes a lot of sci-fi in it. He's on record as stating that it and Gamma World are fun, but not part of the D&D experience proper. Considering that he okayed Gamma World 7th edition, I'd say it was nothing personal.


The other two show that Bill actually considered whether or not D&D should be a competitive game, where the DM was literally out to get you, and other players may not necessarily need you around to "win."  As blaphemous as that may read to you, keep in mind that Bill has previously worked on the Paranoia RPG, which is exactly that: every player is out for themselves and trying to do in everyone else. He's familiar with that, and at least considered that as a possible solution to inter-player conflicts that rise up in D&D.


We've all experienced groups where DMs are out to get us, and other players don't care about your fun at the table. Bill looked at D&D, and wondered if the game could resolve these tensions by embracing them. As it was vetoed in the first 5 months of design, that went nowhere, and well it didn't. I believe that by cementing the "storyteller" and "cooperative" parts of D&D, the team really brought those parts of the game to the forefront.


Tenet 5 is all about miniatures: "We want to continue to using miniatures in 5-foot squares. We want to to design minis game to work with the RPG." Remember, at the time, the D&D Miniatures line was an important part of the finances. In fact, it had just launched a year earlier, so one could see the design team wanting to incorporate the new minis line into the new edition. Was 4ed designed to be used for miniatures? I'd say yes, it was designed to be used that way. However, it is not a miniatures game, like Chainmail or DDM. The system simply assumed that players would use standard-sized minis for it, and designed rules like "Close burst" around the assumption that a close burst could never hit more than 9 targets.


4 and 6 are mostly continuations of mechanical policies started in 3ed, and kept in 4ed. In contrast, 7 and 8 are where 4ed moves away from the previous edition. It flat-out states that the game is difficult to design and balance around, and needs to be improved mechanically. It is here where many specific examples are given. "3.0/3.5 is a monster to design for, from stat blocks to encounter balance. Let's fix that this time out and make it easier for us to create products in the future."


I love 4ed, but I can see how people who felt 4ed was missing hard-to-define qualities might have been forgotten by these tenets. A lot of the big picture is focused on the little things. Specific rules are noted more often than how the game will feel to play. The only ephemeral parts of the 8 tenets are "D&D is fantasy" and "the DM is your friend." I'm glad that the design team focused on the most difficult problems, problems that have been plaguing D&D for decades, but I think that there should have been more director-led flavour considerations from the get-go.




A brainstorm by Andy Collins a few days later got a good list of priorities for the new edition that built on what Bill put out.

- All classes effective at all levels

- Game is fun and playable at all levels.

- Dungeon excursions last through many encounters

- Game rewards tactical play: smart decisions are "right" (and vice-versa)

- Defeat is meaningful but (usually) not final.

- Game's expectations are clearer to players and DMs.

- Character classes provide compelling archetypes

- PC team is a collection of interchangable parts

- All characters can participate meaningfully in all encounters.** 


I'll be talking about many of these ideas in their own blogs, but I wanted to point out what ties this list together. You could view this as a laundry list of complaints about 3ed, looking for solutions. Five minute workdays, linear fighters & quadratic wizards, save-or-die, and all the regular complaints levelled against 3ed were being made by the people who made the game, and wanted to change it.


For a first draft, it's quite remarkable how many of those suggestions made it through to the final product 3 years later. Whether or not you agree that they were good design tenets, one can admire that they knew what they wanted, and found a solution for each problem they were testing (YMMV if the cure was worse than the disease).




And what of 5ed? What is 5ed supposed to be built around, and accomplish?


Well, given how much WotC has used playtest feedback in their design, you could say that this was the public's decision, that it is a system made by the fans, for the fans. However, we all know it was not a free-for-all, and that Mearls made a list for what 5ed would be, similar to Bill's list for 4ed.


"I'd like to share with you a draft of the earliest documents I put together to help shape the new iteration of D&D. I distributed this document to the D&D team about a year ago (in 2011). It lays out the case for the basic approach we should take with the RPG. Note that this document doesn't mention any specific rules, mechanics, settings, or so forth. The idea is to lay down a short list of inviolate design principles to get things rolling. None of the points below surprised anyone on the R&D team. We had been talking about them for quite a while. If anything, this document put down in writing a set of goals that had been forming in the team for some time." http://www.wizards.com/DnD/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4ll/20120409


What strikes me first is that this DDNext design document was made in 2011, based on cubicle chatter that had been forming from at least 2010. Whether or not you think that 4ed "failed", it's quite amazing how quickly its design team started questioning it (something I'll explore deeper in the autumn).


While Bill had 8, Mike had 3 design goals.


1) Reunification through Common Understanding


2) Reunification through Diversity


3) Reunification through Accessibility


Obviously, "reunification" is a big theme here, which is interesting from the perspective of WotC. In 2005, the talk was about how difficult it was to design for 3ed, and how 4ed could be a system that fulfills the company's needs. In 2010/11, the talk is about reunification, that the community is splintered and needs to be brought together. Clearly, priorities shifted.


Now, Mearls specifically doesn't give any specifics on how to do that, which is unfortunate. I criticized Bill for focusing too much on the little mechanical things in his list, but at least he accomplished those goals. What he and Andy decided were problems that needed fixing, they got fixed. The problem was that the nebulous big picture stuff didn't get solved as well.


And here, Mike Mearls has a lot of nebulous big picture stuff. It's not even concrete big picture stuff, like "D&D is medieval fantasy". They are wishes for what Mike wants, without a plan of how to get them. It's what he wants D&D to become, not what D&D is. It's not stated outright, but Mearls seems to have very few personal qualms on which direction the game goes. "That experience is more important than the specifics of the math. In other words, if the math works but the game doesn't feel like D&D, we've failed."  He wants it to follow popular sentiment, if that leads to unity. He wants to rule out as little as possible, so that it divides as few people as possible.


I'm glad that Mearls dreamed big, because his three goals are good ones. If they can all be done, he practically guarantees D&D will make 50 million a year, and will single-handedly revitalize the industry. However, like his predecessor, he is at risk of failing through the goals he didn't make (in Mike's case, taking care of the little things).   




tl;dr version 4ed was made to address the mechanical failings of the previous edition (failings in the eyes of the design team of the day), and 5ed was made to address 4ed's failure to unify the community (failings in the eyes of the current design team)


Next week: Bill and Mike make a sales pitch for their new edition!


*WP:R&C pg. 13

** WP: R&C pg. 12

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