Wednesday, 30 May 2012

D&D Next: Two Worlds of Gaming

Slowly through conversations with players I'm getting a feeling for what happened in gaming around 1980 and around 1995, and how the legacies of those watersheds affect people's reactions to game innovations now.

Neither of these dates is exact, but they each represent a middle point of a process of change. There are plenty of intentional throwbacks after, some unintentional look-forwards before. But in general, games have evolved (devolved?) toward:

I have to roll a 6 to get out? What?
Low death, low frustration. Before 1980 or thereabouts frustration was an acceptable part of a game's modeling of life. This was just as true for computer games, as board games, as role-playing. OD&D's 1 hit point characters = Nethack's play-until-character-death = Dungeonquest's brutal, random death at every corner. "Stay in jail" mechanics were OK in board games back then, too (Source of the Nile, Mystic Wood...).

The AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide removed much of death's sting through a "death's door" rule covering survival from zero and negative hit points (not at all evident in the earlier Player's Handbook). Save-or-die poison took longer to go, being finally purged for good in 3rd Edition. Computer games have shown a similar exorcism of frustration, moving from no saving of game state, to save points, to continual saving. State-of-the art design today for many casual games even gives progress for failed attempts, so that eventually the game will be defeated. Time is the commodity here, as always, but the message is "you didn't succeed" not "you failed."

"Activate Mrs. White's Rolling Pin Flurry!"
Character powers for all. This broadly refers to things a character can do distinct from other characters, but more specifically combat moves that can be customized. The move toward this feature in 3rd and 4th editions usually gets blamed on computer gaming, but plenty of computer games in the 1980's and 90's used the standard D&D paradigm, where classes without spells only get to bash, shoot and hack using the standard combat procedure.

The origin of feats and the like in tabletop gaming can probably be traced to the prevalence of special character moves in fighting console games, and to increasing modularity and customization in the gaming world under the influence of collectible card games.

On to the present day.

D&D Next, as much as it draws from the old school, also has strong representation from these two concerns in the system. It's obvious that hit points are numerous, the margin of safety for low-level characters is great, and healing remains as available as in 4th edition. It's also obvious that classes, races, and "paths" each come with an addition to a suite of powers that can leave a 3rd level character looking at 3-5 different combat traits and moves.

And now my confession: My campaign players expect these features to some extent, steeped as they are in MMOs. And so on both counts I have gone about half the way that D&D Next appears to have done. I used a "death & dismemberment" system at 0 hit points or below that is scary, but in practice merciful. Save or die poison is a bridge we haven't had to cross, but I'm inclined to offer multiple saves on poison (one to be seriously incapacitated and one to die.) Meanwhile, class powers and fighting feats in my game are running about half the count of D&D Next, but still give enough of a sense of things to do.

To put it shortly: In order to compete with my homebrew, D&D 5th Edition is going to have to give me the option to cut down on the bones it throws to millennium-era gaming, and let me run a game at my desired level of "old world charm and new world convenience."


  1. "Low Death/Low frustration" is a really good observation that puts words to what I think many of the longer-time gamers are feeling and struggling to find words it stands right now, I found #DnDnext mindbendingly easy for players to exploit, and I can't see switching what we're doing for it either if it stays like that.

  2. Good review of the developments. I believe I read another post somewhere a while back fingering Oriental Adventures as the culprit for Feats and Powers...

  3. Very illuminating. I find retrospectives like this help me make sense of my own 1980s-90s gaming experience...

  4. Frustrated by low-frustration? Weird, but yeah.

  5. Good post. In console video games, at least, high frustration was more or less the rule until well into the late 80s. By 80s standards most modern console games are very easy to finish, which is probably due in equal parts to a broader market now and awful game design 25 years ago.

  6. Mike - The Internet also set a higher bar for fun-to-time ratios in entertainment, I think.

  7. I was gaming in 1980, some of what they are doing with 'next is stuff I was already doing back then. There seems to be a divide between the old school "let them die a horrible death" and "let's fudge the dice so they don't die in the first five minutes." In one of my first attempts at running a game (I had just purchased the red box) the PC's we had just spent almost an hour creating were killed by poisonous giant spiders or something. I never allowed the use of poison again, after that. The person to whom I was attempting to introduce the game to at the time never played again, at least, not with us. Food for thought, anyway...

  8. Roger, I would recommend you borrow someone's copy of the 5E DMG and give it a gander. It does exactly what I want my DMG to do, which is give me a plethora of options to make my campaign the game I want to play. Among other things, it gives you options that allow you to bring more elements from your favorite edition into 5E -- tactical play elements, healing and hit point variants, and so on. It also has options for paring the game down; for example, I found the bit interesting where you can eliminate skills and use a simple ability check, and there's a chart for the classes to show what abilities each class gives proficiency in (I think barbarians get Strength ability proficiency, for example).