Mearls On D&D's Design Premises/Goals
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    Mearls On D&D's Design Premises/Goals

    In a longish Twitter thread a week or so ago, D&D designer Mike Mearls talked about D&D and its overall design goals, and how that changed from previous editions. It covers the "who" of who D&D 5E is designed for, the styles of play it encourages, and more.

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    When designing a game, consider the personality traits and behaviors the game encourages in its player. Then ask yourself if you want to make a game for a community that embraces what you’re encouraging. That tweet is a nicer way of saying: If you make a game for &$&%*(@, be ready, willing, and able to deal with &$&%*(@. It’s also why D&D got out of the business of trying to “fix” obnoxious people.

    3.5 and 4 were very much driven by an anxiety about controlling the experience of the game, leaving as little as possible to chance. They aimed for consistency of play from campaign to campaign, and table to table. The fear was that an obnoxious player or DM would ruin the game, and that would drive people away from it. The thinking was that if we made things as procedural as possible, people would just follow the rules and have fun regardless of who they played with.

    The downside to this approach is that the rules became comprehensive to a fault. The game’s rules bloated, as they sought to resolve many if not all questions that arise in play with the game text.

    At the same time, 3.5 and 4 were driven by the idea that D&D players wanted as many character options as possible, presented in a modular framework meant to encourage the search for combinations that yielded characters who broke the power curve.

    These two aims play together in an extremely terrible way, at least from a design perspective. Your core system has to cover everything... meanwhile you are adding more cases and content to your game. Good luck with keeping those things in balance!

    IMO, the basic design premise suffers from a fatal flaw. It misses out on a ton of the elements that make RPGs distinct and doesn’t speak to why people enjoy D&D in the first place.

    With 5th, we assumed that the DM was there to have a good time, put on an engaging performance, and keep the group interested, excited, and happy. It’s a huge change, because we no longer expect you to turn to the book for an answer. We expect the DM to do that.

    In terms of players, we focus much more on narrative and identity, rather than specific, mechanical advantages. Who you are is more important than what you do, to the point that your who determines your what. In broad terms - and based on what we can observe of the community from a variety of measures - we went from a community that focused on mechanics and expertise, to one focused on socializing and story telling. Mechanical expertise is an element of the game, but no longer the sole focus. Ideally, it’s a balanced part of all the other motivators. If balanaced correctly, every has their fun. Enjoyment isn’t zero sum.

    As D&D is descriptive rather than prescriptive, individual groups had different experiences. However, that was the design trend and what we saw in the community as a whole. It’s been interesting to see things change with the change in rules and the flood of new players.
    Last edited by Morrus; Friday, 21st September, 2018 at 12:40 PM.

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    First of all, thanks @Morrus for collecting this. I generally avoid Twitter because, frankly, it's full of a$$holes.

    That aside: this is an interesting way of looking at it, and underscores the difference in design philosophies between the WotC team and the Paizo team. There is a lot of room for both philosophies of design, and I don't think there is any reason for fans of one to be hostile to fans of the other, but those differences do matter. There are ways in which I like the prescriptive elements of 3.x era games (I like set skill difficulty lists, for example) but I tend to run by the seat of my pants and the effects of my beer, so a fast and loose and forgiving version like 5E really enables me running a game the way I like to.

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    Great post.

    It should be bookmarked for future conversations on the forum.
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    Interesting. I do like most of what he’s saying, but I also wish they would embrace the fact that a lot of players still have a strong desire for mechanical options. Focusing on narrative identity is great, and the goal of those specific mechanical advantages should be to express a character’s narrative identity rather than to break the game’s progression curve. But 5e still offers so little in terms of ways to mechanically differentiate a character. He paints mechanical options as if they’re at odds with the design philosophy he describes here, but I don’t think they are at all.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Charlaquin View Post
    Interesting. I do like most of what he’s saying, but I also wish they would embrace the fact that a lot of players still have a strong desire for mechanical options. Focusing on narrative identity is great, and the goal of those specific mechanical advantages should be to express a character’s narrative identity rather than to break the game’s progression curve. But 5e still offers so little in terms of ways to mechanically differentiate a character. He paints mechanical options as if they’re at odds with the design philosophy he describes here, but I don’t think they are at all.
    A couple of days ago, I was creating a 17th level barbarian as a test case for a high level one shot I want to run. It took less than a half hour. To create a 17th level character. In D&D. I was flabbergasted.

    Sure, if I had been making a caster I am sure it would have taken a bit longer, but even so. I had expected to spend a couple hours on the process at least. So, yeah, there are fewer options, but at the same time the ease of character generation is almost back to BECMI levels. That's kind of a win.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Charlaquin View Post
    Interesting. I do like most of what he’s saying, but I also wish they would embrace the fact that a lot of players still have a strong desire for mechanical options. Focusing on narrative identity is great, and the goal of those specific mechanical advantages should be to express a character’s narrative identity rather than to break the game’s progression curve. But 5e still offers so little in terms of ways to mechanically differentiate a character. He paints mechanical options as if they’re at odds with the design philosophy he describes here, but I don’t think they are at all.
    These two aims play together in an extremely terrible way, at least from a design perspective. Your core system has to cover everything... meanwhile you are adding more cases and content to your game. Good luck with keeping those things in balance!
    ...
    In terms of players, we focus much more on narrative and identity, rather than specific, mechanical advantages. Who you are is more important than what you do, to the point that your who determines your what. In broad terms - and based on what we can observe of the community from a variety of measures - we went from a community that focused on mechanics and expertise, to one focused on socializing and story telling. Mechanical expertise is an element of the game, but no longer the sole focus. Ideally, it’s a balanced part of all the other motivators.


    So, one thing that many people don't understand unless they are designing things is that there is no such thing as a "free lunch." And this applies to, well, pretty much all design choices.

    Or, if design is too abstract, think about going out to eat. There may be 500 wonderful entrees and appetizers on the menu, but you can't order them all. You have to pick and choose what you want to eat, instead of devouring all of them, unless you end up like Mr. Creosote (wafer thin!).

    We all want more of what we like. But I don't think we can get a much more clear statement of design intent than we have here. They specifically chose to go away from more mechanical options, and mechanical complexity, and did so for reasons of balance (more of a 3x issue) and narrative/identity (perhaps more of a 4x issue). Again, this isn't a normative judgment about what is good, or bad, but instead it is an emphasis on design.

    But yes, it is clearly explained that this design philosophy is at odds with what you are describing, and why. That doesn't mean your desires are less valid, or your preferences are "bad," just like the preferences and design decisions inherent in anything (iOS v. Android, Audi v. Toyota, Gehry v. Liebskind) are "bad."

    Moving back to your point, adding additional mechanical complexity has to be balanced against this design goal; because, at some point, the added PC crunch will be that little wafer thin mint, causing the whole design to explode and we end up with 6e.
    Last edited by lowkey13; Friday, 21st September, 2018 at 06:01 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Charlaquin View Post
    Focusing on narrative identity is great, and the goal of those specific mechanical advantages should be to express a character’s narrative identity rather than to break the game’s progression curve.
    Bolding mine. In that bold is the basic problem.

    Players have goals. Designers have goals. Mechanical advantages do not - in the same way that a hammer does not have a *goal* of hammering nails. Chunks of steel on sticks do not have will or desire, and have no goals. The hammer can be used to tear down drywall, if that is my goal, no matter that the designer of the hammer had a goal of making a thing to hammer nails.

    The designer cannot set the player's goals. The designer can only choose designs that support particular goals more, or support them less.

    Having lots of strong mechanical choices supports power gaming, whether you want it to or not. All players have to do is take on the power, and not role play the matching narrative identity - it is the old "role playing restrictions are not a reliable way to balance mechanical strength" issues of Paladins in 3e. And, having supported power gaming, then you are back in the 3e/4e power-curve-breaking mode, because having supported it, it becomes a major way to get rewards as a player.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Charlaquin View Post
    Interesting. I do like most of what he’s saying, but I also wish they would embrace the fact that a lot of players still have a strong desire for mechanical options. Focusing on narrative identity is great, and the goal of those specific mechanical advantages should be to express a character’s narrative identity rather than to break the game’s progression curve. But 5e still offers so little in terms of ways to mechanically differentiate a character. He paints mechanical options as if they’re at odds with the design philosophy he describes here, but I don’t think they are at all.
    While I am certainly in agreement with you that I enjoy more mechanical options, it would be remiss not to point out that a surfeit of mechanical options exist outside the boundary of WotC published material. I have more classes, subclasses, and feats in my personally vetted collection of homebrew material than exist within the combination of all of the published WotC books.
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    True words. I think it’s important to look at your DMing style, too, and see what kind of play style you are encouraging.

    I would say that controlling the experience of the game goes back even further to 1e. If you look at all the “punishment” items, and the idea of capricious and omnipresent death, I think there was very much a backbone of “having to keep the PCs in line” there, too. Just not necessarily through an overabundance of rules.

    As for not being able to fix obnoxious people, yeah. Either you put up with them for various reasons, or you let them go. D&D is big enough that there’s no reason to have a player just to have another PC at the table. It’s been hard for me, unlearning the old ways of needing every player you could find, regardless of fit for the table or quality. But I am learning.

    Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
    [hq]When designing a game, consider the personality traits and behaviors the game encourages in its player. Then ask yourself if you want to make a game for a community that embraces what you’re encouraging. That tweet is a nicer way of saying: If you make a game for &$&%*(@, be ready, willing, and able to deal with &$&%*(@. It’s also why D&D got out of the business of trying to “fix” obnoxious people.

    3.5 and 4 were very much driven by an anxiety about controlling the experience of the game, leaving as little as possible to chance.
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    Well, those tweets pretty much explain why I prefer 5e way over 3e or 4e. Maybe it's because I've had an artistic background since I was a kid, so I've always enjoyed the creativity part of D&D, and 3e and 4e made me feel more shackled by the rules, especially since I mostly DM.

    I've always held that no game should try to fix broken or disruptive players because that's a human thing, and it's up to the group to handle those issues. It's part of the social contract when you become a group of people. If someone is being disruptive, I don't expect a rule to keep them in check, I am expected myself to address it and worst case, advise them that this table isn't the best fit for them. The trade off of that in order to have gaming tables be able to more easily mold their session to the style they prefer is well worth it.
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