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General "Hot" take: Aesthetically-pleasing rules are highly overvalued

I think subclasses sit in a different conceptual and mechanical space than prestige classes and paragon paths. The former is a built-in part of your class, while the latter offer an avenue of advancement separate from your class.
5e's subclasses get a bit more in the direction of a PP though, since you pick them several levels into your character's career. Not to say that they're equivalent or anything, just that it slides some in that direction. Frankly I think 5e would have benefited a lot from PPs. Maybe something slightly more flexible, like an 'overlay class' where you get one choice, you can take it at any point in a range of levels, and it just gives a bunch of 'swaps' and access, perhaps, to some kind of thematic mechanic or something. This could be very similar in execution to PPs, but would avoid the one awkwardness they had, which was "you are now an X" when suddenly the whole party's chosen path became manifest (EDs have this issue in spades).
I think the "it happens at a fixed level" actually would have worked FINE in AD&D, where there was no expectation of a fixed advancement of all members of a fairly stable party roster all at one time.
 

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This isn't targeted at any specific game, though I'm likely to criticize both 3.x/PF1e and 5e because they are (in some sense) the "old guard" and "new hotness" on this topic.

So, there are a lot of motives when designing a game, and I do not mean to comment on the spectrum of reasons one might consider. That's well above my pay grade. However, something that I don't think is so far above my pay grade is arguments in favor of rules elements, structures, or principles because they make the rules look/feel nice, without regard for the potential costs this can have to designers, DMs, and players. I'm not talking about a desire for good art/presentation, nor for flavorful descriptions or concepts supported by the rules. Rather, I'm referring to a desire for rules because they have satisfying aesthetic features like symmetry, one-stop-shopping reference lists, brevity, and (possibly the most controversial on this list) natural language. The former things are just regular aesthetics, whether aesthetics of the physical materials or aesthetics of the play experience. I'm talking about "meta-aesthetics," for lack of a better term: aesthetic concerns purely at the design level, in some sense "before" the aesthetics of the materials or play-experience.

I see a lot of arguments that, in effect, treat these meta-aesthetics as one of the most important features of game design. Many people trying to "fix" 4e, for example, are incredibly keen on condensing all powers down to either a per-source list, or to even a single list for all classes. The reasons given rarely have much of anything to do with direct design concerns like effectiveness or testable mechanics, and almost always ignore stuff like "what about powers with subclass-based riders?", instead focused almost entirely on the bald assertion that a single, repeatedly-referenced list is always superior.

I don't think I'll surprise anyone by saying that I disagree with this, and with most other meta-aesthetic arguments about the ways we structure our rulesets. Meta-aesthetics are NOT an invalid reason to design something. They can, in fact, be great! My arguments for why it was good that power sources existed in 4e (re: it gave us some really cool classes like Avenger and Shaman) are, at least in part, based on meta-aesthetics. What I find frankly a little disturbing is the axiomatic insistence that (some) meta-aesthetics override effectively all other concerns. This belief, asserted without defense and indeed with an implication that it needs no defense, that sacrifices of balance, at-table experience, design space, and indeed pretty much any other element of game design, are almost always worthwhile if they produce rules that have "better" meta-aesthetics. That it takes a LOT of serious problems for even a small meta-aesthetic gain to be put off the table.

Now, it's entirely possible I'm just not hearing what's actually being said--it wouldn't be the first time. I am, as always, open to having the record set straight. I'm also open to people defending why these meta-aesthetic concerns should have more weight than I've given them up to now. But either way, I think we can benefit from dragging this implicit assumption out into the open and having a talk about what weight "rules that look nice on paper" etc. should be given.

I'm surprised that people are having difficulty getting this, because to me it's obviously true, and yes it's a real problem.

Another example would be the desire for needless symmetry (an absolute constant in "improvements" to RPG rules design), or needless consistency even when the consistency is actually harmful to the balance of the rules. Really though, thank you for writing this, because I think of a lot of kind-of-terrible rules and generally problematic attitudes re: rules stem from meta-aesthetic concerns that people aren't even consciously processing.
 

You are still talking about a class of items, without naming any particular concrete examples. Can you quote at least one 5e rule that you feel is given in natural language, that cannot be understood the way it is written?

Not the OP and I can't think of ones that "cannot be understood", but I can think of some where the language gets in the way of the rule making sense, or where the meta-aesthetic desire to have a rule function in a particular way, even though it doesn't really make sense except on an aesthetic level, hampers understanding. Surprise comes immediately to mind. No single subject in D&D has had so many angry threads where people INSIST often quite rudely that there's no possible way to interpret surprise except as functioning this way or that way, and that people understanding it differently are intentionally engaging in malfeasance. It was practically a cliche on the 5E reddit for a while that there'd be a thread about surprise, and it would be full of people saying "Here's how it works I can't believe any human is stupid enough not to understand it, duh!", often with contradictory opinions about how it actually worked, naturally. Oddly this has been less hotly-fought here and I hope it stays that way. To this day some people don't even seem to get that there's not actually such a thing as a "surprise round" in 5E.

But almost all the issues with it relate to the way the surprise rules are written, and the fact that they're at odds with how previous editions worked and at odds with how some proportion of people (which seems to be significant) can understand surprise to work. I think if they'd been written in purely clear, mechanistic language, and it was made obvious that this was a gamist concept, not a simulationist one, and that it was done for balance reasons (to avoid overvaluing surprise), then people would be a lot clearer on it.

Btw I point-blank refuse to engage in any argument over what the surprise rules actually mean, I'm merely pointing out that they're ones where it's an issue. I know your question was honestly meant, but I think the danger with providing examples is that, as much as some, like you, will engage with them merely as examples, a lot of other people, will, without meaning to do anything wrong, instead try to argue the toss on what they do mean, and suggest they're not good examples because what they mean is "obvious" (I'm not sure I can convey appropriate levels of rolling my eyes at this use of "obvious" of course).
 

jgsugden

Legend
Take away all the fancy words.

We want rules that are simple and clear. We want them to be balanced and fun.

Stop worrying about the labels we apply to describe how we assemble the rules. Labels are there to summarize a concept, but the rub is that most people frame the concepts tied to a label differently, resulting in people arguing about definitions more than they work together to find solutions.

5E was a step forward because they moved towards simpler rules. They made the rules more clear than prior editions (in most places). The balance is better in 5E than in 3E or prior editions (and worse than 4E, but 4E's balance was achieved through too much uniformity). I've had incredible fun playing it. Could it be better? Yes. Hiding and skills could each use a bit of work, as could some of the classes, but overall we should be grateful and enjoy it for what it is - a great game.
 


Take away all the fancy words.

We want rules that are simple and clear. We want them to be balanced and fun.

Stop worrying about the labels we apply to describe how we assemble the rules. Labels are there to summarize a concept, but the rub is that most people frame the concepts tied to a label differently, resulting in people arguing about definitions more than they work together to find solutions.

5E was a step forward because they moved towards simpler rules. They made the rules more clear than prior editions (in most places). The balance is better in 5E than in 3E or prior editions (and worse than 4E, but 4E's balance was achieved through too much uniformity). I've had incredible fun playing it. Could it be better? Yes. Hiding and skills could each use a bit of work, as could some of the classes, but overall we should be grateful and enjoy it for what it is - a great game.

I think the OP's point is well-made, though.

5E is mostly a step forwards, but in the places that it isn't, it's sometimes the result of the desire to use natural language instead of being really obviously game-y. I would hope any future edition would learn from this, and either design rules differently so that wasn't a problem (because the places I think of natural language being a problem are where D&D IS trying to be a GAME, not a simulation but cloaking it), or just use clearer language where necessary.

I think there's a more general underlying problem with 5E in which the designers have their specific understandings of how things work which were not always adequately conveyed by the wording of the rules. That Feat that allows shield-shoving, for example. I don't think there was any easy way for a natural-language reading of that to determine that you only get the shove after an attack. I accept that you can come up with that, but I don't think it's obvious (and the evidence of perhaps most people initially interpreting it otherwise, both here and on reddit prior to the Sage Advice comment). Yet, had it been worded in a more game-y way, there wouldn't even have been a question. And indeed like a good proportion of Sage Advice stuff seems to be "this could have been solved by just wording it a little more obviously".
 

"It is at odds with how previous editions worked," is, I think, a much separate issue. If the new rules matched the old rules... they wouldn't be new rules, now would they?

Well to my mind it's slightly more complicated than that.

Obviously, you're right on a basic level - rules change each edition. But because they cloaked the rules on surprise in frankly confusing natural language, a lot of people, perhaps not reading carefully enough, perhaps just not understanding, seemed to think that there was a surprise round, or came to very different understandings of how surprise worked. Particularly common was the (mis)understanding that it basically worked the same way as before.

And that matters because when you change a rule significantly from how it functioned in previous editions, I think you need to make it really obvious both that it has been changed in a significant way, and how it functions now. This is particularly true for games which have gone for multiple editions with more similar rules on a subject. I don't remember surprise ever really confusing people in previous editions. In 5E though thousand+ reply reddit threads with some very dramatic up and down voting show that is no longer the case.

I've run and played a lot of 5E. Most of the rules, I could give you correct from the top of my head (or really close). Surprise? I wouldn't even try. And the debates are all about both the language used and what is actually supposed to happen. And clear language would have resolved this.

As an aside, I'd add that I think this is partly a designer problem. Like, I love Jeremy Crawford as a designer generally, and he also seems cool, but man he does enjoy writing cryptic answers to things. Even some of this Sage Advice is barely less cryptic than the rules he's asking about. And given his good-natured-ness, I doubt this is him trying to be difficult, or present riddles, but rather the meaning is obvious to him, and not to others. Which is more of a danger with natural language than more mechanistic language.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Well to my mind it's slightly more complicated than that.

Obviously, you're right on a basic level - rules change each edition. But because they cloaked the rules on surprise in frankly confusing natural language, a lot of people, perhaps not reading carefully enough, perhaps just not understanding, seemed to think that there was a surprise round, or came to very different understandings of how surprise worked. Particularly common was the (mis)understanding that it basically worked the same way as before.

And that matters because when you change a rule significantly from how it functioned in previous editions, I think you need to make it really obvious both that it has been changed in a significant way, and how it functions now. This is particularly true for games which have gone for multiple editions with more similar rules on a subject. I don't remember surprise ever really confusing people in previous editions. In 5E though thousand+ reply reddit threads with some very dramatic up and down voting show that is no longer the case.

I've run and played a lot of 5E. Most of the rules, I could give you correct from the top of my head (or really close). Surprise? I wouldn't even try. And the debates are all about both the language used and what is actually supposed to happen. And clear language would have resolved this.

As an aside, I'd add that I think this is partly a designer problem. Like, I love Jeremy Crawford as a designer generally, and he also seems cool, but man he does enjoy writing cryptic answers to things. Even some of this Sage Advice is barely less cryptic than the rules he's asking about. And given his good-natured-ness, I doubt this is him trying to be difficult, or present riddles, but rather the meaning is obvious to him, and not to others. Which is more of a danger with natural language than more mechanistic language.

Funny thing is I think the surprise rules are perfectly clear. Seems pretty simple to me: if you didn't notice the enemy until combat starts you can't do anything until the end of your first turn. How is that hard?

Then again I really like the stealth rules (previous editions led to head scratching immersion breaking scenarios) so there's no accounting for taste. ;)
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
The one 5e example I have of where natural language caused me trouble is the Charm Person spell. We were having a discussion on another thread about what a "friendly acquaintance" would do.

1603299269107.png


Could a friendly acquaintance use a sleep spell on you if you were acting out of control and looked like you were going to do something illegal or might hurt yourself?

The conversation really changed when we realized charmed is a condition...

1603299190405.png


[Even with that, am I doing something "harmful to it" if I attack its friends? steal from it? make it disobey the commandsit was given by its employer?]

Would italicizing or bolding or capitalizing charmed in the description have been that big of a violation of the asthetic? Or putting those bullet points in again? Or parenthetically saying "see Charmed, pg. #"?
 

Funny thing is I think the surprise rules are perfectly clear. Seems pretty simple to me: if you didn't notice the enemy until combat starts you can't do anything until the end of your first turn. How is that hard?

Then again I really like the stealth rules (previous editions led to head scratching immersion breaking scenarios) so there's no accounting for taste. ;)

Dude. DUDE.

I told you that I wasn't going to play this game! :p

I told you loads of people swear blind that they're completely clear and then give summaries or descriptions that do not much up with the rules (no comment on whether yours is this way). Worse, a lot of alternative understandings arguably work better than the actual rules (in that they are more naturalistic and/or playable).

Point is, if it was so obvious, there wouldn't be so many misunderstandings of how it works, nor so much debate over how it works (particularly when you get to corner-case situations).
 

Monayuris

Adventurer
The one 5e example I have of where natural language caused me trouble is the Charm Person spell. We were having a discussion on another thread about what a "friendly acquaintance" would do.

View attachment 127692

Could a friendly acquaintance use a sleep spell on you if you were acting out of control and looked like you were going to do something illegal or might hurt yourself?

The conversation really changed when we realized charmed is a condition...

View attachment 127691

[Even with that, am I doing something "harmful to it" if I attack its friends? steal from it? make it disobey the commandsit was given by its employer?]

Would italicizing or bolding or capitalizing charmed in the description have been that big of a violation of the asthetic? Or putting those bullet points in again? Or parenthetically saying "see Charmed, pg. #"?
I don't see any problem with the spell. I'd rather have this natural language than a more precise keywording system, because you are talking about edge cases that aren't covered by the rules.

The best way to handle these edge cases is to allow the DM to make specific rulings based on the context of the situation at hand. Let the DM have the ability to examine the situation and make a judgement call.
 

Or to put it another way, trusting the DM and acknowledging that if players didn't trust the DM, the game was probably doomed no matter how precise the rules were.
There are other reasons, it isn't all about 'trust' and 'dm power'. It is also about player enablement and creating a participatory story. So, if the player has no idea what will happen (that is from a general perspective of what the costs and benefits are, and likelihood of success) then it isn't possible to establish the 'setting of stakes' and 'taking of risks' which is part of the process used to generate narrative in that way. This creates instead a different sort of process, which isn't objectively better or worse, but is not necessarily what is wanted. Clear rules, such as 4e's rules (assuming they were written well, which they weren't always) means you, as a player, KNOW how a certain move or gambit will play out. Certainly you know as well as the GM does. Also, because there is already an agreed-upon mechanism, you aren't 'playing the GM', you're playing your character in the story.
I constantly find with 5e games that I am assessing the GM's mindset and figuring out how they are going to apply the rules. Now, 5e is a lot more clear than, say, 1e, where the rules are kind of pea soup and GMs could potentially throw anything at all out there. So I am not entirely condemning 5e, but its rules ambiguity works heavily against some styles of play. I also found there was a 'work load' aspect to 4e GMing, because I never had to think much about how to 'make a ruling' about something purely mechanical, I could think at the story level most of the time. 4e has some issues too, but I could fix those, I can't really fix the issues I have with 5e. I don't run 5e as a result, it is just not something I like to run.
So, while some people might see rules precision as some sort of "Munchkin Repellent" or shield against jerks, I don't see it that way at all, and I don't think that is what game designers in general see in that approach.
 

Undrave

Hero
Not really? I don't think it has much of anything to do with simulationism. Another example that is completely unrelated to simulationism, which I mentioned in the first post, is the people who insist that a single "one stop shopping" place for character options, is better than individual class lists. In fact, that's what inspired me to write this up in the first place. People in the A5E threads were asking for a single, comprehensive repository of all Knacks, and that similar Knacks from different classes should just be collapsed down into a single Knack that each of those classes is permitted to choose. That's a purely aesthetic desire--"don't make two similar options, when you could make one generic option"--that is completely unrelated to simulation.

I admit, though, that most of my examples tied to 3e will be simulationist, because it is such a deeply simulationist game. But "natural language" isn't simulationist--at least, not as far as I'm concerned. What is "the rules need no explanation" simulating in the world?

Well, when it comes to the Knacks, I think they should be treated like Fighting style. It makes way more sense if there's a short list to simply put it with the Class, but that if two Knacks do the same thing, they should be named the same thing.

"Don't make two identical option when you could make one generic option' is actually a gamist concern.

I think your Meta-aesthetic just include all three aesthetics: gamist, simulationist, narrativist. Those are meta aesthetic and have different goals and different individuals value them differently.

Bleah! Keywords on Magic cards are tolerable if only because there isn't much space to write everything out. But D&D books/modules/etc. have the space, so bang goes that excuse.

Keywords can be pretty important if something happens all the time. I think Yu-gi-oh! might actually be a good exemple because it's 'keywords' system was developed over multiple sets as rule concepts became more and more prevalent. For exemple, early cards would say something like "target 1 card in your opponent's graveyard and remove it from play". These cards were very rare in the early days but became more and more common (and more and more important as the graveyard became like a second hand) until eventually "remove from play" was shortened to "banish".

Another one is the concept of piercing damage where older cards would say "During battle between (???) and a Defense Position monster whose DEF is lower than the ATK of this card, inflict the difference as Battle Damage to your opponent." which was eventually shortened to "If (???) attacks a Defense Position monster, inflict piercing battle damage to your opponent.".

Piercing or 'trample' had been a fairly common jargon amongst fans to begin with.

They also developed problem solving text which made this much more uniformed. For exemple, the cost to activate a card is ALWAYS placed before a colon, and effect of the card afterward. Costs and effect have different timing and interaction with rules so that these are always worded and presented the same way avoids complication.

D&D already has keywords, such as 'saving throw' and 'ability check' and 'melee attack' or 'grapple' or 'fire damage'.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Dude. DUDE.

I told you that I wasn't going to play this game! :p

I told you loads of people swear blind that they're completely clear and then give summaries or descriptions that do not much up with the rules (no comment on whether yours is this way). Worse, a lot of alternative understandings arguably work better than the actual rules (in that they are more naturalistic and/or playable).

If we aren't going to discuss the particulars of you example... your assertion becomes non-falsifiable.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Dude. DUDE.

I told you that I wasn't going to play this game! :p

I told you loads of people swear blind that they're completely clear and then give summaries or descriptions that do not much up with the rules (no comment on whether yours is this way). Worse, a lot of alternative understandings arguably work better than the actual rules (in that they are more naturalistic and/or playable).

Point is, if it was so obvious, there wouldn't be so many misunderstandings of how it works, nor so much debate over how it works (particularly when you get to corner-case situations).

In my experience the only people who have problems with it have a problem with it because of baggage from previous editions. I honestly don't know how much clearer it could be if you don't have any pre-conceived notions.

Besides, just because I think it's clear doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot. Just that different styles and systems work better for some people than others. The natural language, for the most part, works for me. YMMV.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
I don't see any problem with the spell. I'd rather have this natural language than a more precise keywording system, because you are talking about edge cases that aren't covered by the rules.

The best way to handle these edge cases is to allow the DM to make specific rulings based on the context of the situation at hand. Let the DM have the ability to examine the situation and make a judgement call.

The mechanical effect of the spell gives the creature a named condition that specifically forbids it from attacking and gives the caster advantage on social rolls with them. But reading the spell doesn't tell you that, because it doesn't let you know its a condition instead of just an adjective that means they treat you as a "friendly acquaintance". That doesn't seem like edge cases to me, it seems like a huge mechanical part of the spell.

What if magic missile said the target is hit by darts of magical force but didn't say what the damage was. Does it even do damage? Does it do d4 because that's what normal darts do? (Well, if you think to look up magical effects in the back you'd see it was d4+1).

The part about what harmful means, sure. You can't cover everything and those might be edge cases.
 

Undrave

Hero
And that matters because when you change a rule significantly from how it functioned in previous editions, I think you need to make it really obvious both that it has been changed in a significant way, and how it functions now. This is particularly true for games which have gone for multiple editions with more similar rules on a subject. I don't remember surprise ever really confusing people in previous editions. In 5E though thousand+ reply reddit threads with some very dramatic up and down voting show that is no longer the case.
If you change it significantly, it's a good idea to change its name or reword it. Like how 3e it was 'Attack of Opportunity' and 4e and 5e is 'Opportunity Attack', or the difference between '5 ft step' and 'shift'. 'Surprise' should have been reworded.

5e removed the concept of 'skill check' but does a TERRIBLE job of explaining that it did and how the use of them SHOULD be handled.

Funny thing is I think the surprise rules are perfectly clear. Seems pretty simple to me: if you didn't notice the enemy until combat starts you can't do anything until the end of your first turn. How is that hard?

Then again I really like the stealth rules (previous editions led to head scratching immersion breaking scenarios) so there's no accounting for taste. ;)

Yeah I'm not sure I see the confusion exactly? I will admit a lot of the particulars of surprise don't come up very often and it's a very forgettable rule. I can see the 'end of that turn' being the confusion? But round and turn are well defined?

Not that I want to go into details about how it may or may not work, what is the sticking point with confusion anyway beyond being used to how things work?

Would italicizing or bolding or capitalizing charmed in the description have been that big of a violation of the asthetic? Or putting those bullet points in again? Or parenthetically saying "see Charmed, pg. #"?

All the conditions should be easier to notice in text. Probably capitalization since it's a proper game term would be the best. Maybe add a modifier to type face like italics or bold. Surprised and Charmed are conditions, for exemple. And there should be a condition that prevents you from taking reactions (Addled? Startled?) since it comes up often enough.
 

Teemu

Adventurer
I think the topic is about rules that play well vs. rules that read well.

A lot of people read the rules instead of playing games with the rules. I think this is something that'll always happen because it's a lot easier to find time to read books than to organize a game. I'm pretty sure WotC purposefully writes some of their material for 5e with this reader market in mind. The layout of the 5e adventures is one of these: they're not organized so as to facilitate referencing but instead to make it more natural to read through. A fairly sizable portion of the market will buy the books just for reading, not playing.

Things like 3e's player-monster parity reads well because it makes sense on paper, but it causes a massive prep load on the DM. Or how fun it's to read through 9th-level spells, but in play they can sometimes be a nightmare. Or even keywords -- they make sense when you read through them, everything being so logical and rational, but if done wrong, they don't facilitate play.
 

Mistwell

Legend
I think they failed! Gygax was, above all, ORGANIZED. Somehow, though it isn't always apparent, his text flows, educates, and reveals. When you go back later you can remember what you read, and you can find a specific reference again, usually under a well-named subheading. Nor is any topic covered in more than one place. In all of 1e each element of the game is discussed ONE TIME, at least in mechanical terms (there is some duplication of reference between the DMG and PHB, but in all cases the actual rules language is deferred to the DMG, with the PHB simply providing a general statement about how something works).
5e OTOH is a referential nightmare. Rules are declared, referenced, modified, applied in different ways, etc. throughout the text. So to know how 2-weapon fighting works, there are at least 5 different things you would want/need to read. This is covered entirely in one paragraph in 1e (and I note that 2e starts to slip in this regard).
And I disagree. In my opinion, the 1e AD&D books are not well organized and Gygax was not, above all, organized. I don't think he ever claimed to be well organized, and you're the first person in over 40 years I've heard describe him or the AD&D 1e books that way. They are so disorganized that modern OSR reprints are primarily about re-organizing them so you can find all the rules which relate to one concept in one place.

I would refer you, for example, to the excellent AD&D 1e Combat Flowchart. Which is, frankly, insane. Rules are pulled from all over the place in the PHB and DMG and even elsewhere.
 


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