D&D: Working the Rules

Last time, I wrote about how gameplay is enacted as a negotiation at the table, with the rules serving as one component of the common grounding for negotiation, a means of abstracting tedious or low-player knowledge negotiations, and furthermore as a wagering game that is fun in and of itself. I was planning to write a follow-up about that last part, but before I could, Wizards of the Coast announced the next Dungeons and Dragons, with generally favorable articles in The New York Times and Forbes. Most interestingly, they’re inviting participation from the community to design and playtest the new edition. While I haven’t yet decided if I want to formally be part of the process, it seems like a good time to throw in my two cents.

The last edition change, from 3.5 to 4e, was a little bit of a disaster. While I thought it was a major step forward, many players didn’t like the how all the classes in the new edition had the same core structure (at-will, encounter, daily, and utility powers) compared to simple fighters and complex spellcasters, the mandatory use of a battlemat, the length of combat, or just the aesthetics of the books and character sheets. While some of the complaints were fundamentally off-base, D&D4e is not an MMO, it is not ‘dumbed down’, and it is just as viable to roleplay in as any other edition of D&D, and other complaints were corrected by Essentials classes and new math for monsters, the damage had been done. The D&D community split into 4e players, a solid core of 3.5/Pathfinder fans, and the new Old School Rules movement, which leveraged digital distribution and a vibrant community to create cleaned up versions of the first editions of D&D.

Wizards claims that 5e will reunite the scattered fans and become the One Edition to Rule Them All. Personally, I’m doubtful. People have diverse tastes, and the only common ground is that they like what they already know. I’m also not sure how much participation the community will have, or even if the community actually knows what it wants (A common joke in the RPG industry is that to make a successful game, you should look at what RPG.net says and then do the exact opposite). All I know is that right now the geekier corners of the internet are exploding with speculation, demands, and manifestos. So without further delay, this is what I think about rules, and how to write good ones for D&D.

Pretty much every RPG relies on some random element, usually dice, for a core task resolution mechanic. The exact details of this resolution mechanic aren’t particularly important, you can use XdY+modifier vs a target number, percentile roll under, dice pools, or pretty much anything that can be imagined, but at the end of the day the player will declare some action, with probability P between 0 and 1 of success.

Finding the right P is an important part of game design. Too low, and plays will miss frequently, leading to a high whiff factor. Too high, and players will be rolling simply to see if they fail, which is irritating. Casinos are the experts in balancing probabilities and payoffs, ensuring enough winning to keep players hooked, while the law of averages drains their pockets. Personally, I find a chance of success at p=0.6 for an average task is most satisfying (coincidentally, this is what D&D 4e uses). Easy tasks can go up to about p=0.85, and hard task should be p=0.4, with extremely difficult or desperate tasks at p=0.2.

But rolling and trying to get above an 8 isn’t a game that’s likely to hold a person’s attention for long. So what else is there? I’m going to refer to Greg Costikyan classic essay, “I have no words and I must design”, which you really should read in full.

The thing that makes a game a game is the need to make decisions. Consider Chess: it has few of the aspects that make games appealing -- no simulation elements, no roleplaying, and damn little color. What it's got is the need to make decisions. The rules are tightly constrained, the objectives clear, and victory requires you to think several moves ahead. Excellence in decision making is what brings success.

Negotiation is fun, but decision making is also fun. The rules tell us what kind of decisions can be made, what the option space is, and what outcomes are. And to describe what makes rules fun, or good, I’m going to have to pull in a couple of other theories.

The first one is the Paradox of Choice, which I’ll use to talk about building a character. Having too few options makes us unhappy for obvious reasons-we are constrained from doing what we want to do. Having too many options also makes us unhappy, as the energy involved in coming to a decision outweighs the benefits gain by making the best decision. We become obsessed with alternatives and missed opportunities. In a competitive environment, like a game, the feeling like you’re not making good choices is equivalent to feeling like you’re lost, like you’re losing. It’s not fun.

With that in mind, D&D4e (and 3.5 before it) simply has too many options. At first level, the player has 44 classes, 50 races, hundreds of backgrounds, themes, feats, and powers. In play, every turn a player has a choice of the two At-Will powers, one encounter, one daily, and perhaps a power or two gained from class or background. This is about the limit of most people’s working memories (conventional wisdom is that most people can remember about seven things, so that’s your powers, your HP, and the general state of the game).

At 30th level, this elegant structure has totally imploded. A character has 20 feats, selected out of a list of over 2300, 12 core attack powers select from a list of hundreds, and perhaps a couple dozen more miscellaneous class abilities and magic items chosen from a list of thousands. If you’ve grown organically into that 30th level character, you might understand its full capabilities, but most players are overwhelmed.

And worst of all, there’s not much too clearly evaluate many of these choices. Powers can play very differently, but there are lots of powers of the form “deal 2[weapon]+stat damage and push 1 square”, or the like. Now, I like the power system introduced in 4e, I think it goes a long way towards distinguishing different characters of the same class, and one class from another, but the power system needs to be toned down so that even a high level character doesn’t have more than 12 total. As for feats and magic items, they need to be seriously curtailed. Group similar feats into Themes, or Packages, or Kits, and give each character a choice of one. Magic items that simply fix the game’s math should be combined with the character’s intrinsic skill. Instead, magic items should be singular, rare, and synergize with the characters. A warrior will have a weapon of legend, a mage might have a staff that defends the user on its own, a rogue might have a Ring of Invisibility. Either way, I’d like it if even top level characters have no more than three magic items, and each one was a significant part of the character.

The second theory is the OODA loop, developed by fighter pilot John Boyd. OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) is the process by which people make decisions in a strategic or tactical game. You observe the enemy and try and figure out what their capabilities are, using your past experience you orient yourself, make a decision, and execute. In warfare, the trick is to get inside the enemy’s OODA loop, to move with the chaos of combat and direct it at your enemy until they make a mistake that can be capitalized on.

What a player observes is what the DM shows and tells them: A description of the monsters, where they are on the battlefield, how they move and act. But in D&D 4e, and other grid based systems, this description has two parts, the verbal side of what the GM says, and the visual side of what the map looks like. And if the rules and GM are not well coordinate, the descriptions will begin to diverge. Players will be constantly switching from a verbal-negotiation cognitive frame to a visual-puzzle solving cognitive frame.

There are good reasons to represent combat on a grid with some kind of figurines. People are usually fairly skilled in visual puzzle solving. It allows decisions to be very finely grained-precisely how far to move, where to drop that fireball, which rewards players that are using tactical maneuvers to their advantage. Without a map, players have to hold the entire encounter in their heads, and with about 10 combatants on the board (the player, 4 allies, 5 enemies) that can get tricky, especially when people begin to disagree about who was where.

But the downside of using a map is that it focuses attention on this visual puzzle, diminishing attention on the verbal aspect of the game, or to use the phrase of gamers, “immersive roleplaying”. I used to think that this was a silly complaint, but thinking about players having to switch between cognitive systems, it makes sense. Most of us are lousy multitaskers. WotC design Mike Mearls has indicated the next edition will be grid-optional. “The new edition is being conceived of as a modular, flexible system, easily customized to individual preferences. Just like a player makes his character, the Dungeon Master can make his ruleset. He might say ‘I’m going to run a military campaign, it’s going to be a lot of fighting’… so he’d use the combat chapter, drop in miniatures rules, and include the martial arts optional rules.” It’ll be interesting to see how this modularity works out in practice.

Finally, there’s one other issue I want to bring up: pacing and flow. Flow, in games studies, is the sensation of full immersion in the activity, and of playful challenge. One of the major complaints against D&D 4e is that the fights take too long, a critique which I agree with. The length of a fight depends on the total number of rounds, and the time it takes each player to take their action. In my experience, a fight in 4e lasts about 5 rounds. On the one hand, this seems like a good number—it prevents fights from being decided in the opening action, and gives the players time to recover from bad luck.

The problem is that it’s slow. I haven’t taken a stopwatch to my group, but it seems to take about two minutes for a person to take their turn. Multiply by six people (five players + GM) and five rounds, and you have an hour long fight. I think turns could be speeded up by reducing the complexity of the decisions that people have to make, even in 4e there’s too much referring to the character sheet for rarely used powers, and reducing the number of dice rolls. It takes about 10 seconds to find, roll, and do the math on a single die. Powers with multiple attacks and multiple damage dice, which are pretty common, can easily take two minutes just to crank through. Thinking and remembering also add time, every situational modifier bestowed by a power or position adds another few seconds to the turn, and few minutes to the fight. Interrupt actions are even worse. I like big set-piece battles, and the interactivity of 4e turns, but they’re not suited for every situation. It’ll be interesting to see what the designers come up with to speed up play. This is really my biggest open question.

I’ll close with a quote from John Boyd, “The second O, orientation –the repository of our genetic heritage, cultural tradition, and previous experiences –is the most important part of the O-O-D-A loop since it shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act.” D&D has nearly 40 years of history. Pretending to be elves and casting magic missile on the darkness and unearthing horrors and then running away are part of our gaming DNA. The biggest reason why 4e failed was not that it was poorly marketed, but that it required a different orientation from gamers, one that they didn’t want to learn. Hopefully, people wiser than me are figuring out what the D&D player’s orientation is, and designing rules that work with it, instead of fighting against it. If they can do that, everything else from the modular rules, to tactical depth, to combat speed, will fall into place.


  1. Can I graft the writing part of your brain onto mie? ....... Anyway, very interesting! I had heard about this new edition/D&D greatest hits from my current GM (he pales in comparison, don't worry). I agree that fights are far too long. Should an extra person show up and we have any new players at the table, heaven help the poor shop proprietor who kindly waits for us to finish before closing. But I'd hate for the decision-making aspect of the game to be made too simple. All that time fighting is time spent making a decision to maximize my character's usefulness. It's only ok to take a million years per turn in chess (is that actually ok? I don't play chess). Anyway this attempt at making D&D customizable seems like a great solution, but also a very daunting one to execute.

  2. Anonymous12.1.12

    fun fact : Biff dreams in text.