David Noonan on D&D Complexity

Glyfair

Explorer
In the latest Design & Development column, David Noonan discusses designing the GenCon Dungeon Delve. This installment focuses on designing the dragons in order to work in the delve format.

That’s a lot to keep in the front of one’s mind. Here inside the walls at Wizards, we often talk about the “processor load” on a DM’s mind. Dragons will take all the processing power you have, and then some.
To be blunt, I think dragons are overdesigned. They’re eighty gallons of fun in a forty-gallon barrel. And the most troublesome aspect of dragons is their potent spellcasting. Those big sorcerer (and sorcerer/cleric) lists certainly make dragons more effective, but they also add about 20,000 moles of complexity.
Dragons have lots of great options for grappling, but nobody—nobody in the world, anywhere—likes the grapple rules
To give an idea of complexity of D&D, he points out that he was looking for a way to speed up casting of restoration. James Wyatt pointed him to a feat in the Complete Divine, a book David Noonan had designed!
 

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Nyaricus

First Post
Glyfair said:
To give an idea of complexity of D&D, he points out that he was looking for a way to speed up casting of restoration. James Wyatt pointed him to a feat in the Complete Divine, a book David Noonan had designed!
Okay people, stay calm. The ship is going down. I repeat, the ship is going down.

:lol:

cheers,
--N
 

Glyfair

Explorer
Nyaricus said:
Okay people, stay calm. The ship is going down. I repeat, the ship is going down.
Nah, I think this is just the flip side of those who say "WotC design has lost touch." They realize the weaknesses and strengths of the game (and sometimes they are the same thing).

One thing I find interesting is that there solutions to these issues moves the game more towards the miniatures game. Given a lot of peope who complain about D&D complexity also complain about the game being "dumbed down" to the mini game...
 

Pants

First Post
Glyfair said:
Nah, I think this is just the flip side of those who say "WotC design has lost touch." They realize the weaknesses and strengths of the game (and sometimes they are the same thing).

One thing I find interesting is that there solutions to these issues moves the game more towards the miniatures game. Given a lot of peope who complain about D&D complexity also complain about the game being "dumbed down" to the mini game...
I certainly think there's a way to lighten the load without turning it into a mini-centric game.

Then again I'm not that big of a proponent of the 'D&D is too complex' line of thought either.
 

Glyfair

Explorer
Pants said:
I certainly think there's a way to lighten the load without turning it into a mini-centric game.
I'm specifically referring to those who whenever something is simplified they refer with a comment like that. Even for simplifications that have nothing to do with minis (although it is the sort of thing they do in the mini-game).

Then again I'm not that big of a proponent of the 'D&D is too complex' line of thought either.
My personal POV is that D&D can use simplification in some areas of the game. I'm all for that. However, I'm also for having lots of options and using my "intelligence guided by experience" (a a fictional detective used to say) to limit those options in my game appropriately.
 

Wik

First Post
To come back to Noonan's article, he does mention how much it sucks for Dragon's to be spellcasters, and I fully agree - Dragons should be centred around breath weapons, melee attacks, snatch attacks... not spellcasting. I handle dragon spellcasting a bit differently (they lose sorcerer spells, but get some sorcerer abilities factored into their stats, so that a dragon might have a permanent Obscuring Mist effect on it, and gets some fireball damage factored in with a breath weapon or something).

Like him, I don't like the idea of a dragon waving his claws and casting a spell at the group before wading into melee. Dragons should be above that.

I personally think most monsters should have only a few abilities associated with them; too many abilities makes them a pain to run. A dragon, for example, has a lot of different rules associated with it - frightful presence, multiple attack forms (tail slap? Wing buffet?), a plethora of feat choices, spellcasting, breath weapons.... And while those might be fun, I feel it's sometimes too much.

I'd rather have a monster that has, say, three attack types (I can power attack to deal a lot of damage, a breath weapon for area effect damage, and some sort of defensive buff... okay, I can keep that in mind) over a stat block that is a page and a half and I know I'm not going to effectively play.

I'm all for simplification of D&D whenever I can.
 

Glyfair

Explorer
Wik said:
Dragons should be centred around breath weapons, melee attacks, snatch attacks... not spellcasting.

There is definitely a certain amount of support for dragon spellcasting in legends. However, there is certainly support in the game already to give them spellcasting classes, so I would support the default dragons (at least the core ones) not having spellcasting ability. Keep the spell-like abilities, though.
 

Hussar

Legend
Perhaps removing the class spellcasting abilities from dragons but add on a ritual based sort of spell casting specific for dragons. That way dragons can still have all sorts of magical toys around them, but, they aren't going to buff up and blast away in combat.
 

Plane Sailing

Astral Admin - Mwahahaha!
With the 3e setup though, if powerful dragons don't have access to powerful magics, they are going to get quickly destroyed in the magical arms race that D&D can turn into - if they can't scry, buff, teleport, Heal and do other fancy stuff.

Spells for dragons is a way of giving them a little more configurability, survivability and extensibility, really.

Personally, I might be tempted to replace some of the dragons spells with spell like abilities, building on the capabilities already included in that fashion.
 

delericho

Legend
Interesting article. In particular, I noted that he denied both the PCs and the dragons any ability to dispel magic. Conversely, he left Energy Drain in (although I think that decision was addressed in the previous column). Both of these can cause havoc at the table, as the DM has to radically refigure the stats for his critter. The worst, of course, is when the PC wizard successfully dispels some but not all of the BBEGs suite of buffs.

I wonder if perhaps the Dispel Magic spell should be split in two: have a standard-action Counterspell Magic spell which has the counterspelling utility of the existing Dispel Magic, but can't dispel operational spells (perhaps set at 2nd level), and increase the casting time of the regular Dispel Magic to 2 (or more) full rounds. That way, the ability to dispel magic exists, but is probably not a combat option. I'm not sure what impact that would have on the game.

As for Energy Drain... I'm not sure. In general, spells that provide a bonus to friendlies are easier to deal with than spells that provide a penalty to unfriendlies (and personal buffs are easier still). So, where possible, I would like to see these emphasised. Where a penalty must be applied to the other side, it should be as simple as possible. So I think Energy Drain needs rethought. At the very least, a fixed number of negative levels per casting is probably a good idea.
 

Thomas Percy

First Post
If you don't see any bright side of D&D-minatures, now you have first reason to like (or even dislike more) it: they will cut fly spell and large-plus-size monsters, because they don't fit in 5 ft.-squares grill.

But seriously:

1.
I don't use dragons in my own adventures, because I don't have a patience of reading and reading again these three pages of dragonmaking in MM1.

2.
Dispel magic is terrible spell, because you must prepare two set of stats for most spellcasters.
 

delericho

Legend
One other thing that adds a lot of complexity is durations measured in rounds, and generally a small number of rounds. Where only one or two such events apply at a time, this isn't so much of a problem, but once you get to high level, it's not uncommon for a character to have half a dozen buffs, effects or conditions in effect. And, since these were probably applied one per round by a spell-caster, and since each probably has a duration of one round per level, this means that they'll each wear off at a different time.

I wonder if perhaps it would be better to state the durations as 'one encounter' for most such effects, or 'one encounter or until discharged' for spells like Invisibility. You could also put a statement in the magic chapter of the PHB to the effect that "spells with a duration of one encounter, if cast outsider of the initiative sequence, last for five minutes".

That way, the DM can have his enemy spellcaster buff up before the fight, without having to work out exactly the order in which the spells are cast for maximum effect.
 

Gold Roger

First Post
I agree the game could take a reduction of some of the complexity.

There may be people that have no problem acounting for all the effects, especially at higher levels. But I know my group is not among these people and I'd say from what I've seen that there's a whole lot of others that aren't either.
 

Kid Charlemagne

I am the Very Model of a Modern Moderator
I agree with the concerns over Dragon spellcasting. In my games, I've eliminated that as an ability and replaced it with more options for the breath weapons.
 

Cor Azer

First Post
delericho said:
One other thing that adds a lot of complexity is durations measured in rounds, and generally a small number of rounds. Where only one or two such events apply at a time, this isn't so much of a problem, but once you get to high level, it's not uncommon for a character to have half a dozen buffs, effects or conditions in effect. And, since these were probably applied one per round by a spell-caster, and since each probably has a duration of one round per level, this means that they'll each wear off at a different time.

I wonder if perhaps it would be better to state the durations as 'one encounter' for most such effects, or 'one encounter or until discharged' for spells like Invisibility. You could also put a statement in the magic chapter of the PHB to the effect that "spells with a duration of one encounter, if cast outsider of the initiative sequence, last for five minutes".

That way, the DM can have his enemy spellcaster buff up before the fight, without having to work out exactly the order in which the spells are cast for maximum effect.

I would fully endorse an idea like that (spell durations measured in encounters) - not only does it help the the "when does it wear off", but it helps prevent the "rush-rush-rush before everything wears off" mentality that was (apparently) an issue with the 3.0 buffs, without completely ruining them. And it's not like it is without precident - a barbarian's fatigue after raging is measured in "encounters" rather than a strict length of time.

I also like the idea of reducing dragon spellcasting, but perhaps beefing up their stats to compensate against the "scry-buff-teleport" strategies. It's simple enough to add a class to a dragon if I want it to be a full-bore wizard, cleric, or whatever.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
The biggest turn-off to mature players in my own experience, is that quantitative complexity invariably results in the weakening of other areas of the game.

The high-level spellcasters case is terrible: with all the spells a dragon or a wizard could cast, paired with their very high Int scores, should result in making them tremendously powerful adversaries, ready to face most of the possible threats.

But when a human DM has to roleplay them, it's all too common that she cannot remember all the spells available, and the villain is suddenly playing much below its own potential.

I've been a DM for years, and still I have to spend a lot of time in preparing a session to make sure the villains are going to be smart. Incidentally, playing monsters below their real strength also results in having to use higher-CR creatures, which is turns give the character a faster advancement, moving more quickly towards scenarios with more spells and more abilities :p That is why I try to make sure to play my monsters smart, so that even when the CR is equal to the party's level, it is still a tough fight.
 

Plane Sailing

Astral Admin - Mwahahaha!
Cor Azer said:
but it helps prevent the "rush-rush-rush before everything wears off" mentality that was (apparently) an issue with the 3.0 buffs, without completely ruining them.

Your memory is playing tricks on you (bad memory! No biscuit!).

This was the complaint that Monte Cook levelled against the reduced duration of buff spells in the 3.5e revision. In 3.0 buff spells lasted for 1 hour/level.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
THANK YOU! THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU, Dave Noonan! :)

Something I've been mentioning for a while, and it's good to know that a few on the WotC team are running into the same problem.
 

Mark Hope

Adventurer
I was interested to read that spellcasting is seen as adding unwanted complexity to dragons. Dragons in earlier editions had little or no spellcasting abilities at all. I remember reading several letters in Dragon's Forum pages (and even a few articles) that bemoaned the fact that dragons were just big scaly flamethrowers with claws and teeth. Along with the whole movement to have them presented as intelligent, ancient opponents who would more often act from behind the scenes than jump out from behind a rock and eat people, came a movement to have them become better spellcasters.

So dragons in 1e were more magical than in the original game, dragons in 2e were better spellcasters (and bigger) than in 1e, and 3e dragons have racked size and spellcasting power up another notch.

I had the impression that this upscale was happening in response to fan desires for a more spell-casting dragon, and I think that it's interesting to read that this is now being seen as a design-problem. Be careful what you wish for... ;)
 

Jedi_Solo

First Post
I agree with most of this article (and the last one).

I like the idea of simplifying large dice rolls. Sure, seeing the reaction on player's faces when you roll massive amounts of dice can be fun - but by the time you've rolled 24d4 four or five times the effect has worn off and you just want the total to move on with the fight.

I also agree that dragons shouldn't be spellcasters - or at least not ALL of the big dragons. Make some of the dragon's spells into spell-like abilities. Making the odd dragon into a real spellcaster will make it stand out ('where did THAT come from?'). Dragons range in personalities and interests just like we do. I do not why all dragons will shun magic but I don't see why all dragons would pick up magic either. Dragons are naturally powerful fighters. Why have a brute style dragon actually contemplate casting a spell? If you have an obsene number of attacks a round you should be using them for something other than a large flashing neon sign that says 'don't get into melee with me'.
 

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