This article is being written in advance of reading any material concerning the actual content of DnDNext from WOTC.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, the odds are that you’ve heard the announcement of D&D… well, no-one’s quite sure what it’s going to be called yet. The most common handle seems to be DnDNext. As it happened, I was on Twitter when the news broke, and when the official announcements were made a little later.
Kudos to those like @Morris of Enworld who kept their professional integrity by not jumping the gun on the announcement the way others did – who should have known better. Brickbats to those who succumbed to temptation.
There were a lot of reactions, ranging from skepticism to celebration, but overwhelmingly the prevalent emotion on display was one of cautious hope. The goals announced for the new edition in that initial press release were certainly laudable, and even if Wizards only come close to them, the final release will be cause for celebration.
You can read Morris’ write-up of how Wizards told him about 5thEd – which is another term that’s been extensively used to describe it – at the Enworld Website.
Possibly the biggest jaw-drop for me came when Wizards openly admitted that they had completely and deliberately ignored feedback from playtesting of 4th Ed D&D. This was something that had long been suspected, but no one expected them to come out and acknowledge it. At the time, I could only wonder who much of the pain of the edition wars could be laid at the doorstep of that decision. Well, they certainly reaped the rewards of that misguided policy – half of their market feeling abandoned and unwanted, and ripe for someone else to capture – and well done to Paizo for doing so with Pathfinder. The reason Wizards came clean was to explain why they were going to take an extra year or two in development of the new edition – they were deliberately setting out to do what they didn’t the last time around – and again, Kudos to Wizards for that. Well, there will be more on the playtesting regime in due course, I’m sure. At the moment, all I can say is that I know more than I can say.
The sentiment that I expressed at the time was that Wizards were putting their credibility on the line with the announcement of that policy. If there should even be a hint that playtesting feedback is ignored this time around, it will lie in tatters. There were those who felt that Wizard’s credibility had already been lost, and were not interested in taking part; but most people seemed willing to give Wizards a chance to put their money where their press release was. They say they’ve learnt from their mistakes? From where I stand, they deserve the chance to prove it, from where I stand.
But the key announcement was the objective of unifying fans of all editions behind the new one. Most people were asking “how can that be possible” – or even making declarative statements that it was pie-in-the-sky. But within ten minutes, I had conceived of an approach that would permit it to happen, based on the thoughts that I had made public in a previous blog post (Top-Down Plug-in Game Design: The Perfect Recipe). I’m about to share those thoughts with you, readers, and hence with the wider world beyond – and, specifically therefore, with the powers-that-be at WOTC, in the hope that they will be helpful in clarifying their thinking.
That’s where the disclaimer at the top of this article comes in. Aside from those published at the time of the announcement and it’s immediate aftermath, I’ve avoided any blogs describing their author’s thoughts on the subject, and I’ve avoided reading any playtesting material that may or may not be in my possession – all because I want to offer this perspective uncontaminated by reality or by anyone else’s thoughts on the subject, and definitely wanted to avoid violating any confidences.
Only once I have these thoughts off my chest will I feel free to delve into the thoughts of others on the subject.
In adopting this course, I run the risk of everything written here being old hat; if it’s all been said before, then I apologize in advance for wasting everyone’s time! But it’s my hope that I have something here to contribute….
A note on terminology
I learned my pattern of thought as a computer programmer, and from time to time that leaks out. I’ve tried not to use esoteric jargon, simplified terms where possible, and coined new ones where they might prove more familiar.
The Goal: A Universal D&D System
So, what’s the objective? It’s not just to take the best from all the different editions and blend them into some sort of homogenous whole; I doubt that would satisfy anyone. The objective has to be to combine everything that’s been learned through the various editions and package it in such a way that a single set of rules can be used to play any edition of the game. The only way to do that is by making it modular.
If there’s one thing that they seem to have gotten right in 4th ed, compared to any other edition, is that characters are not only more equal in capabilities but the operational need for teamwork seems to have been better integrated. It’s my understanding (possibly inaccurate) that this was achieved by abstracting uniform character capabilities and then varying the specific implementation of each capability to make each class unique. Every advantage received a matching vulnerability to someone else’s advantage, and so on. It seems to me that this is the correct foundation of a unified game – defining a “Player Character” as a template which is adapted to the description of each level of each character class.
This goes beyond a unified stat block; it would specify that at a given character level, a character can achieve an effect that does X (it might be an extra dice of damage, or a greater chance of success at a task, or whatever, but each character type would have their own X received at that particular character level. This approach, defining the base mechanics of the game in terms of what a character can do, should preserve the game balance that most of those I know who have played 4th Ed report as the best attribute of that version of the game, and makes it possible to extend it to all the other editions.
Using the character as the basis of the system, its starting point, permits a system skeleton to be crafted – a list of all the things that a character might want to do, from examining an object to paying a bill. To be comprehensive, this will need to be abstract in nature, and fairly simple. “Look Around You”, “Hit a target”, and so on. These should be divided into tasks until they meet the minimum requirements of the simplest version of the system, but how these tasks are to be achieved should be left indeterminate – for now.
In addition to defining the system at the broadest scale – the skeleton – the design should define the system at the smallest possible scale. These routine tasks should specify how standard system interactions are to take place; how to resolve a skill check, and so on. The library of these procedures forms the standard routines, the abstract “how to’s” of the game system. There will be surprisingly few of these, in my opinion, because so many tasks – when abstracted – are basically the same, or should be. That was one of the big advances of D&D 3.0.
Each entry in the skeleton thus becomes a “Black Box” with defined inputs – the information to be provided – and a defined output, or result, with the transformation between the two defined – at an abstract level – by the standard routines. Laying these entries out as templates permits the construction and integration of additional “black boxes” as necessary.
Each Black Box contains an essential game system or subsystem. Each would come in a variety of styles, one for each of the varieties of game system to be encapsulated. In fact, there are only four styles that I can see as being necessary to achieve Wizard’s objectives:
- Martial, and
though, perhaps, a fifth would be worth considering, if the authors had the inspiration:
This is the simplest acceptable rules design, giving only an absolute success or absolute failure from straight die rolls. A simple check that gives a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ideal for younger players.
This is not much more complicated than the minimalist design. The primary difference is that there are two new concepts to be incorporated at this level: “floating” targets, where a characteristic value of the target defines the number to be achieved, and characteristic bonuses.
A step forward in sophistication. For each black box there is an overall difficulty assigned by the referee according to an overall general impression of the difficulty of the task, each of which corresponds to a fixed difficulty number by character level. This still gives straightforward “yes” or “no” results, and is therefore comparable to both 4th Ed and 3.x – but (hopefully) with some of the problems discussed in the past ironed out (refer to my Sept 23, 2010 article, ‘How Hard Can It Be’ – Skill Checks Under The Microscope for a discussion of some of those problems).
Finally, there is the ‘detailed’ standard, which operates with a base target number based on the overall difficulty of the task, a series of modifiers which adjust that target by specific amounts for specific factors, as listed in a table, and a check for success that contains an explicit adjustment for the character’s level and another range of modifiers. Depending on the task, there may be rules (to be applied when the GM deems appropriate) for partial success, or for delayed success (where a task simply takes longer to achieve a result of character-specified standard). This is the version of the rules that is compatible with AD&D and with 2nd Ed.
By packaging each task into it’s own little “module” and presenting mechanisms of increasing complexity and sophistication as “black boxes” that can fit into that module, the game contains not only all the previous versions, but it permits a GM to mix and match with complete confidence that the game will still play properly. That means that an individual GM can choose to default to the Martial Level, for example, except for specific modules like “examining a scene” where the Detailed Level can be employed. Or a GM can change from one level to another depending on the circumstances then operative within the game, permitting it to be cinematic when desired, combat-oriented when that is appropriate, or extremely specific when that is most useful. This would confer a new standard of gameplay to the rules that uses the greatest asset of each generation of rules when it confers an advantage to the game system and ONLY when it confers that advantage.
Even more usefully, it permits GMs to homebrew their rules as desired while containing and encapsulating the changes, making it easier to integrate different game settings and optional rules as desired. There could be a specifically “Eberron” set of Black Boxes, for example, or a specifically “Forgotten Realms” set. This extracts the influence of the game setting from the rules and makes it explicit. By including such a set within the core rules as a fifth standard, the rulebooks would define how GMs are to approach creating their own campaigns, what is permitted and what should be tinkered with only after careful consideration because it could have undesirable consequences.
One of the biggest areas of incompatibility over the years has been in defining “what a character can do that’s extraordinary”. The first couple of editions did this with Magic Items, Class Abilities, and Race Abilities and modifiers. 3.x abandoned the racial modifiers but introduced an additional mechanism, Feats; and 4e did away with Feats and replaced them with something else again. Straightening this confusion out will be one of the greatest challenges for DnDNext, but it is something that must be done if it is to succeed in being compatible with all previous versions of the game system. But, in fact, it’s easier to achieve than you might initially think; only two additional concepts are needed.
The first is Defined Progressions which essentially state how many abilities a character or a monster/encounter gets, according to their Hit Dice.
The second is a standard template, or set of templates, that define what an acceptable ability/feat/power can do – in other words, a set of rules for creating a power. The differentiation between sets of templates would be in terms of requirements – if you can only select an ability if you have already taken a lesser ability, for example, and can only use that lesser ability as a basis for a single higher ability. Higher abilities could be more powerful, or could be used more frequently.
These templates become the models for everything from Feats to Class Abilities to Magic Spells – making it easy for GMs who want it to replace the standard Vancian magic system with something else without risking game balance.
What will the reality hold?
Will I be disappointed if the reality of what WOTC are offering bears no resemblance to this structure? Not really; I’ll only be disappointed if whatever they offer doesn’t work and isn’t fixed.