All righty then. I know I promised an article about adapting the three tier result mechanic of Apocalypse World style games to the Savage Worlds system, but that’ll just have to wait. It’s time for another D&D Next rant. I’m obviously a masochist because I can’t stop reading the development articles on the WotC site, despite knowing they’ll just send me into a mouth-frothing, crimson-visioned, RPG fanboy rage. Here we go.
Stop wasting my time!
Mike Mearls started his “Class Design Concepts” Legends & Lore article (published on 12/3/12) with this little gem:
Overall, we had a slight downturn in satisfaction with the latest packet. We expected the potential for a drop in happiness, as we knew we were pushing things a bit with the rogue’s role in combat and the number of spells available to casters. The good news is that we’re a bit ahead of the curve in terms of fixes, so it shouldn’t be long until we apply some of the updates I’m going to talk about below.
OK. So you “expected the potential” for a drop in happiness? What the hell does that even mean? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of potential is “existing in possibility” and “capable of development into actuality”. So everything that can possibly happen has the potential to possibly happen. I could potentially love the next iteration of the D&D Next playtest and be a total convert, forsaking all other systems for eternity. I could potentially trip on the stairs and break my neck as I’m leaving work today. I could potentially find ten million yen just lying in the gutter tomorrow morning. All those things are within the realm of possibility. What matters here is the amount of potential something has, not just that the potential for something exists.
If you expected there would be a chance that your audience would be unhappy with the rogue’s role in combat and the lower number of spells available to casters, then why did you release the playtest packet? Why not just wait until you had a playtest you were fairly sure people would be happy with? Other people have pointed out that negative feedback about why your target audience doesn’t like something is just as useful as positive feedback about why they do. Which is a totally valid argument. I’ll buy that. Perhaps WotC and Mike Mearls expected the potential drop in happiness would be a very small one. If they expected more people to like it than to dislike it, then I can totally see why they would release that particular version of the playtest.
Except that wasn’t the case. Mike Mearls reminds us that the in-house WotC playtesting is always two to three version ahead of the playtests they release to the public. He then goes on to state that they are “a bit ahead of the curve in terms of fixes” and that “based on initial comments, we had a good idea of where the wind was blowing and had already started to change our approach.” Did you get that? Right there Mike Mearls says that the in-house playtests (that are two or three versions ahead of the public one) had already addressed the issues they saw with the most recent public packet. In other words, the designers identified and then fixed the issues with the rogue’s role in combat and fixed the issues with the number of spells casters had access to back when they were working on that version of the playtest. And as the designers are always two to three versions ahead of the public, that means they identified the issues at least one version before we got a chance to see the iteration WotC knew we’d be “potentially unhappy” with.
Which brings me back to my original question. If the WotC designers “expected the potential” for dissatisfaction to be so high that they addressed those problem areas before they even got the feedback, why release that packet at all? You’re wasting the playtester’s time by giving them a version of the rules you strongly anticipate will not be used. Additionally, you’re potentially wasting the designer’s time as well. What would’ve happened if WotC’s prediction had been wrong and the majority of playtesters loved the packet you expected them all to be dissatisfied with? As the designers are two to three version ahead of the public, they had already addressed the problem areas you identified. If these turned out to not be problem areas, would you have changed the rules back to the version the public liked so much? That would waste the time and effort the designers put into addressing those issues, and in business time is money. This approach really makes absolutely no sense to me.
What WotC should be doing is handing out playtest materials they are fairly confident the public will respond positively to. Offering us a playtest that you are pretty sure the public will respond poorly to is just stupid. Unless you are intentionally giving out a crap version so that the next version you hand out will seem that much better, even if all you do is put things back the way they were originally. You know. The way Coca-Cola made New Coke back in ’85, found out most people hated it, and then quickly switched back to Classic Coke resulting in a huge sales spike. I imagine that Mike Mearls will go to his Hasbro bosses with the results of the next playtest packet survey and gleefully point to the huge spike in positive responses. All because they put out a packet they were expecting most people to be unhappy with. Bah.
I’ve got a bad feeling about this…
In addition to the idiocy I’ve pointed out above, the article also discussed a new approach to rogues and skill uses in combat that we’ll see shortly.
A rogue can essentially use weaponized ability checks in combat. A rogue might lure an enemy into charging forward, dart into the shadows and disappear in the blink of an eye, distract a creature’s attention away from the wizard as he or she prepares to cast a spell, and so forth.
You can think of these as nonmagical effects that would still require a saving throw or an ability contest to resist. For instance, Shalandra the rogue might contest her Charisma against an ogre’s Wisdom. If Shalandra wins, she can trick the ogre into charging forward and blundering into a trap. She might contest her Dexterity against a creature’s Intelligence to lure it into making a wild opportunity attack that actually targets its ally.
This is a slippery slope we’re treading now in regards to character actions. In my opinion, any character regardless of class should be able to lure an enemy into blundering forward with an opposed Charisma vs. Wisdom contest or be able to trick an enemy into making a wild swing with an opposed Dexterity vs Intelligence contest. The current version of the playtest rules allows this to happen, though the effect of a successful contest is left entirely up to the DM. I have no problem with this, as I’m a fan of narrative games that allow the GM a lot of freedom. However if these actions and their resulting mechanical effects get hard coded into the rules as rogue “special abilities”, you are hamstringing player creativity and putting the DM in a really tough spot.
Let’s say the rogue does get access to a bunch of nifty little abilities that are essentially “weaponized ability checks” as Mike Mearls suggests. For example, imagine a Maneuver such as this:
Mocking Taunt: Target a creature that can both see and understand you. Contest you Charisma vs. the target’s Wisdom. If you succeed, the target must Hustle as it’s next action, moving directly towards you.
OK. But what happens when a character that is not a rogue wants to try and lure an enemy forward? If the DM allows them to use the same mechanic with success producing the same effect as the rogue’s ability, the DM is punishing the player who is playing as a rouge. Why bother to spend character resources on an ability that everyone else has access to for free? If the wizard can initiate a Charisma vs Wisdom contest to get an enemy to charge blindly forward, why should the rogue be forced to take a Feat, Maneuver, or class option that does exactly the same thing?
However, if the DM disallows characters from making these “weaponized ability checks” unless they have a Feat, Maneuver, or class feature that specifically says they can, they are preventing player creativity. Why shouldn’t the cleric be able to taunt an enemy into taking a wild swing at them, opening them up for a counter attack? Why shouldn’t the wizard be able to con an enemy into rushing forward into an ambush the rest of the party set up? Of course they should be able to do that. The whole point of having a living, breathing person for a DM instead of a computer program is so players can do unexpected things and have a human judge whether the things being attempted sound reasonable or not. By nailing down the mechanical effects of certain actions, and then only giving certain types of characters access to those effects, you are killing player creativity. A DM can’t allow a non-rogue’s action to have the same mechanical effect as a rogue’s action because that makes the rogue’s special ability mundane. But they shouldn’t prevent a character from doing something simply because their character sheet doesn’t specifically say they can attempt that action. It’s something of a lose/lose situation for the DM.
What WotC needs to do is find a way to make the different classes better at different skill-related actions without presenting them so they are only available to certain classes. Instead of creating a special Maneuver or class feature available only to rogues that allows them goad enemies forward (thereby denying the other classes access to that action), give the rogue an ability that causes the enemy to move farther when successfully taunted. Or give the rogue an ability that makes the target more likely to fail it’s ability check. Or maybe give them an ability that makes the rogue’s ability check more likely to succeed. In short, give the rogue a bonus to something everyone can do, rather than restricting it to a single class by presenting the mechanics only in that class’s description.
Otherwise you’re going to end up with what are effectively 4e-style Powers in D&D Next. But hey. Maybe that’s what Mearls and crew are actually going for.