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DnDNext: Is this REALLY how you should design a game?

The next iteration of DnD is coming to open play test soon. Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford held a chat Q&A earlier today. I put a transcript on our forum. It’s not making me excited about the product, which happens to be the gateway drug to one of my favorite hobbies.

This is mostly because of the questions they chose to answer (or maybe it was the only questions they got). Some of them were typical procedural questions about the play test, what materials it will include, what’s changed since the demos over the past few months, etc. The rest of the questions pretty much had to do with combat. It was either, “what cool stuff are you including for the class I like to play?” or “are you getting rid of this rule I hate.” (I’m paraphrasing)

Let me step back for a moment and unfairly generalize about those who play DnD exclusively (at least assuming the questioners in the Q&A are representative): You are a bunch of min-maxing twinks, and it shows in your questions. The fact that WotC is using your input to develop the next rules set terrifies and depresses me.

I have to wonder if this “we’ll make the game you want” approach is a good design philosophy. I get the whole “give the customer what he wants” attitude, I really do. But what you’re getting are the angst-ridden min-maxers who want to make sure their favorite class is as powerful as they think it should be. You’re getting the most VOCAL enthusiasts, and as we all know, the “most vocal” aren’t representative of the whole.

Or at least I hope they aren’t. I would like to think that most DnD players (and Pathfinder players too) run awesome games with lots of role-playing, awesome stories, interpersonal conflict, drama and epic success and failure. I would like to think that most of the stories collaborated around most tables are more that “we kill it and take its treasure.”

The story, the character development, the conflicts and friendships of the characters are more than just window dressing between the combat encounters, right?

Who knows, maybe most people play DnD games that are structured like porn movies. “Yeah, we’ll throw in a little dialogue here, then we get to the next sex scene.” But in this case it’s a combat encounter.

Regardless of my opinions, assumptions or questions about the average DnD player, it sure seems like the lowest common denominator of the RPG hobby is providing the most input. And that, at least to me, doesn’t bode well.

Mearls mentioned something about an “advantage and disadvantage” mechanic. Questions about that? What it means? Nope. More questions about “tanking” instead. Are these character advantages and flaws? Ways to turn a stat block into a character with depth? I hope so. I’ll find out when the play test packets go out, I suppose.

This whole “we’ll make the game you want thing” gives me pause, though. WotC has some damned creative people working there. Seriously creative people. I know this because some of their 4e fluff books were awesome, and and stole stuff from them liberally for my own games.

But what’s it like to be compelled to take the game you’re designing, and have it bent to the wills of a bunch of loud min-maxers?

Makes you wonder if that might be the reason Monte Cook left.

When we interviewed Steven S. Long, the guy behind Hero System 5th and 6th editions, we asked him a question about min-maxing and Hero.

For those who don’t know, min-maxing in Hero is as easy as pie. It’s not even a challenge. It’s probably the easiest system there is to min-max.

Steven’s answer? (I’m paraphrasing again) “We don’t design the game for them. They don’t get it.” By this he meant that the char gen rules were incredibly flexible so you could turn literally any character concept into a game representation of the character, without shoe-horning or compromising your concept. This also made the game incredibly susceptible to min-maxing.

So what happens when a company hands those min-maxers the reins of game design? How do the creative people in the game design department feel about that? Do they still feel like they have ownership of the design? How enthusiastic would you feel if your project got turned over to a committee of these folks?

I hope someone from WotC reads this. I really do. I WILL give DnD another try — at this point, only because there are some glimmers of hope for me: the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic, a move away from the slavish “game balance” of 4e. Who knows? It might rock. I hope it does.

On our podcast, we have tons of listeners who write in saying “I started with DnD, then moved on to X system.” There are a lot of us out here who started with the game you inherited. We left for various reasons: some mechanical, some because of genre, some because of design flaws.

If you hold out any hope of winning us back — if you even want us back — you might wan to temper the feedback from the min-maxing splat book addicts with some feed back from some of us.

Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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14 Responses to "DnDNext: Is this REALLY how you should design a game?"

  1. @RA_WhippleNo Gravatar says:

    [ Glad my eMail won’t be published 😀 ]

    I went to a party once to pick up a bunch of easy sex-crazed teenage schoolgirls but was given the address to a sex-crazed transvestite prison farm. I ain’t never going back there again. The trauma of being told what to do and how to do it and doing stuff I really did not like…. It wasn’t for me. Like some MMO rulebook! And the guy who sent me, his name was Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t believe him anymore either.

  2. SiskoidNo Gravatar says:

    One Q&A does not a design direction make, hopefully, but yeah, at least ever since World of Warcraft’s success (if not before, as video game RPGs have grown more sophisticated), the hobby has seemed full of players who approach role-playing from a video game perspective. The problems I found with 3rd on up, at least cursorily (I won’t pretend I read and invested in the games, just second-hand talk and quick looks), was that this computer game ethos had leaked too much into the game. By then I was into more rules lite, non-fantasy games anyway, and had enough AD&D 2nd product to carry me through any revived interest in D&D play.

    What Wizards will have to do if they have a real committment to open play-testing is find players that hate certain classes and force them to play it. How can the class you hate become a class you love? They need to find players who have never played before. Can they learn the rules easily and does their unexperience play reflect what the designers what the play to be like? Find experienced players with a strong background in other games and game styles. Are so-called narrativists enjoying the new game?

    If they only talk to the same old players they’ve had for the past couple editions, then 5th ed. will be the same game, just with a run through a blender. D&D might as well just keep pumping out 3rd and 4th. It’s a major problem when dealing with niche hobbies (comics are the same) that all your feedback comes from an increasingly small group of people, and you’re soon playing a game of attrition as fewer and fewer people get into the hobby.

  3. MaliferNo Gravatar says:

    I don’t really understand the point of 5th edition. I watched the PAX panel on youtube and it was 55 mins of “Can I play X edition in D&D Next?” or some derivative like will there be 4e powers or Vancian Magic.

    To which nearly every reply was “modularity” and how you’ll be able to do it all. If you want to play a modular rpg why not play one that has been play tested already and gone through revisions like Gurps or Savage Worlds. If everyone will just revert to there preferred edition it would be easier just to make all the old stuff Print on Demand.

  4. justaguyNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve said it elsewhere, but the reason people will get 5th edition is because they find something lacking in their current game, and hope the new edition will fix it while being familier. Same reason why they won’t just go buy Gurps or Savage worlds (or they may have and found those lacking as well).

    I like the idea of a lot of games, and yet keep running into something that doesn’t sit right. 3x was interesting enough for me to give the DnD brand another shot after I became extremely disillusioned with 2e, walking away for a few years. I then moved from 3x, to Pathfinder, to 4e every time hoping for a fix to what I disliked in the previous. And often I did, but it came with something I didn’t like. I’ve tried Savage worlds and found it lacking… something. FATE is interesting, an I love in concept, but in application my group has some trouble utilizing it. I’m willing to give 5e a shot, to see if I can make it work with what I like.

    1. MaliferNo Gravatar says:

      Yes, but there was one thing the that 4e did right. It made something new that brought new people into the hobby.

      I’m just not hearing anything “new” that will be in 5e to bring in fresh faces. Modularity doesn’t necessarily mean ease of use. I’m still too intimidated to pick up the Hero System and I love reading game books.

      In the end if 5e is just the rules compendium of 0e-4e, I think it could confuse new players and might be harder to teach them how to “roleplay” when they have 4 different combat systems, skill sets, and magic systems to “rollplay” with.

      1. StuNo Gravatar says:

        There was actually a little glimmer of hope that DnDNext might move away from 4E’s slavishness to balance:

        Mearls: “The biggest thing is making it OK for one character to own a particularly encounter. If the wizard casts sleep and KOs a group of six kobolds, that’s OK. In the next encounter, the rogue might sneak up on the kobold shaman and gank him, or the fighter blocks a doorway and takes down a wave of attackers. Same goes for characters with good social abilities, and so on.”

        This is a MAJOR difference from the design philosophy of 4E.

        I hope it survives the play test.

        1. MaliferNo Gravatar says:

          Excellent. Now only if enough people complain about armor class… MUAHAHAHAHAHA

  5. callinNo Gravatar says:

    Pathfinder did essentially what WotC is doing right now (or rather WotC is copying Pathfinder). They had a public play-test and took feedback and used some of it and blatantly did not use some of it. It worked wonders for Pathfinder and was the groundwork that elevated them to where they are now. WotC is looking to “enable” D&D players in much the same manner, hoping to draw them into 5E before it is even released. The key thing Pathfinder did was to ignore certain feedback. I can only hope WotC is gutsy enough to do the same thing with 5E.

    1. MaliferNo Gravatar says:

      I think it will have a lot to do with the playtest material. But Wotc still seems pretty stuck on the balance issue. I’m of the opinion that a 20th level fighter should not equal to a 20th level Wizard. But I also think they could have just done away with classes in general.

      But I’ll see in a week.

  6. Philo PharynxNo Gravatar says:

    People are talking about rules issues because that’s what playtesting is about. As always, the roleplaying part is the part that largely takes place outside of the books. Heck, you can have lots of role-playing, awesome stories, interpersonal conflict, drama and epic success and failure when playing Monopoly if you’re of a mind to. I read the transcript and it didn’t seem particularly min/max to me.

    As for specific questions, remember it was a moderated chat. Somebody might have asked about “advantage and disadvantage” and we didn’t see it. Personally I think they glossed over it because it’s going to be similar to combat advantage in 4e.

    @Malifer – you don’t want balance. Other people do. When you are designing rules, it’s much easier to design a balanced game and then bolt on rules to make wizards more powerful than it it to design an unbalanced game and bolt on something to make it balanced.

    1. MaliferNo Gravatar says:

      I am not against balance. I think 4e was just a little too balanced and it made every class feel too similar.

      But I’m willing to give it a shot.

  7. BrainonthebeachNo Gravatar says:

    Statisticians call this “response bias” in their sample. Those with a very strong opinion will answer the survey. In this case, min-maxers tend to be the most vocal, anxious and opinionated.
    I wonder if WotC really randomly sampled their players for input, or have just listened to their loudest players…?

  8. […] DnDNext: Is this REALLY how you should design a game? ( […]

  9. Philo PharynxNo Gravatar says:


    In the realm of public opinion you have to address the loudmouths at least somewhat. There are loudmouths on both sides and they’ve pandered a lot to the old school on this one too. Both sides seem to be a little mollified and a little upset.

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