D&D General Rules, Rulings and Second Order Design: D&D and AD&D Examined

Clint_L

Hero
I generally find that 5e has a good balance of rules and freedom, possibly getting close to optimal as far as a D&D chassis goes. To me, it feels like how I thought D&D should play back when I first started and all the inconsistencies and nitpicky details in AD&D bugged me, even though I loved the game. In practice, this means that there is more weight given to "second-order design," so that the game feels cooperative - the DM and players are working together. That said, I really want to try Dungeon World, because having read the rules it potentially offers an even more satisfying balance of shared storytelling.

However, one thing I note is that 5e is still a pretty granular game when it comes to combat. In fact, the rules are easily detailed enough that it can still be played much like OD&D: as a miniatures-based war-game. I rather think that 5e intentionally went back to more of an OD&D philosophy in that regard, striving to free up DM and player cooperative storytelling outside of combat while keeping tactical play quite tightly constrained. I'm a miniatures and terrain enthusiast, so for me this is a huge plus (I am resisting the urge to post a photo of the battle map from our last game).

For me, the D&D rules scratch three itches, in fact:

1. They are constrained enough to run a skirmish-level wargame - first order.
2. They are open-ended enough to work decently with cooperative roleplay (though I think other systems are better) - second order.
3. They are enjoyable to read and play around with in their own right - ???

I don't think there has been much discussion yet of 3, but I strongly feel that for a certain type of gamer, like me, there is huge enjoyment in just reading rules and thinking about the game. Maybe rolling up different characters, or imagining the kinds of stories I could run. I don't think this falls into either the first or second order category, but is rather a marriage of an aesthetic and logical experience. And enjoyment of rules for their own sake is widespread - who here has not backed a Kickstarter or bought a rule book mostly just to read through and perhaps find inspiration, even knowing full well that you might not ever play the game?
 
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DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
Despite your repeated disavowals of the idea and your unconsummat'd desire to argue with us, you're just reiterating the same point. The design goal (what you are designing for) is fun.

Just like when you're cooking, you're cooking to make something taste good.

Now, you can break down that in different ways. You can analyze it in discrete parts, if you want. Some people will use different vocabulary than others. But it doesn't change the end goal.
No, see I actually understand what @EzekielRaiden is coming from here and why they are butting up against you. Because you and they are not seeing the same scenario the same way or parsing the language the same way.

To use your example of food... a chef isn't cooking "tastes good". That's not a thing. Rather what they doing is cooking a steak. THAT is their end state. That is their end goal-- to cook a steak. And everything they are doing is to cook that steak. Now the hoped-for result of cooking that steak is for it to "taste good". And all the bits and bobs they add to their recipe go towards their cooked steak tasting good. No one disagrees with that. But before you can get to "tastes good" step in the process you need to decide on what it is you are actually cooking first, and then work towards it tasting good. You can't have "tastes good" until you have "steak".

That's where you both are butting heads. You appear to me to be skipping the part of deciding on the thing and going straight to the "fun"-- the "tastes good". But Ezekiel isn't doing that because "fun" in and of itself isn't a thing-- it's not an object-- that you can put in these books. Instead, "fun" is the result that comes from a thing-- a rule. We have to put in the rules first and then have or make those rules be fun. From their perspective in the conversation, one can't have the fun until you make the rules.

You both are ending up at the same result... a game and game rules and a rulebook that is fun to play. But they are just suggesting you need to stop at the "making the rules" step first and then the fun can come out of it.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Exactly! This is exactly what I am talking about when I say that focusing on "fun" alone leads to worse results. Because if you focus on "fun" alone and ignore all other considerations, you'll never do what Stalker0 describes here. You'll never sit down and say, "Okay, so, what are the biggest things people do? What's common about the experiences players have? How are we serving--or not serving--those interests? In what ways can we adjust our offerings, so those common things are consistently handled very well?"

Despite the fact that those questions are not about fun*, answering them (which requires collecting information and analyzing it!) will very frequently lead to results that are more fun.

*They're about things like frequency (how often do players do X?), effectiveness (do the rules actually work for their intended purpose?), breadth (do the rules cover most things it would be nice to have a consistent answer for?), simplicity (have we used the least restrictive means to achieve our ends?), etc. Things which are not "fun" in and of themselves, and which often (e.g. frequency) have no particular relation to "fun" directly. And yet finding the right way to frame these questions, and then poring over the answers and using those answers as the reason for changing your design, is essential for designing a better product.
I agree. B/X is considered a pretty light game by WotC standards of D&D. It embraces rulings, Rule 0, GM empowerment, and the like. However, B/X and a number of its OSR-adjacent clones/derivatives actually have pretty tight rules when it comes to the primary forms of play: i.e., dungeon-crawling adventure. The games provide rules that reinforce and cultivate that desired core experience, particularly around the common set of experiences.

Something that we see almost time and time again in well-regarded OSR games - e.g., B/X, OSE, Knave, Shadowdark, Stars Without Number, etc. - are clear, well-defined procedures of play, whether that is for dungeon/wilderness exploration, sandbox play, or whatever else. While there are rulings and the like, the game design and play procedures are an important part of driving play forwards and cultivating the game experience towards what OSR folks regard as "fun." Not everyone in the OSR community (and/or communities) shares the same sense of fun, but there is clearly some overlap in the play principles and design philosophy of "philosophic OSR" or "NuSR" when it comes to designing the sort of tabletop games that this community finds fun.

No, see I actually understand what @EzekielRaiden is coming from here and why they are butting up against you. Because you and they are not seeing the same scenario the same way or parsing the language the same way.

To use your example of food... a chef isn't cooking "tastes good". That's not a thing. Rather what they doing is cooking a steak. THAT is their end state. That is their end goal-- to cook a steak. And everything they are doing is to cook that steak. Now the hoped-for result of cooking that steak is for it to "taste good". And all the bits and bobs they add to their recipe go towards their cooked steak tasting good. No one disagrees with that. But before you can get to "tastes good" step in the process you need to decide on what it is you are actually cooking first, and then work towards it tasting good. You can't have "tastes good" until you have "steak".

That's where you both are butting heads. You appear to me to be skipping the part of deciding on the thing and going straight to the "fun"-- the "tastes good". But Ezekiel isn't doing that because "fun" in and of itself isn't a thing-- it's not an object-- that you can put in these books. Instead, "fun" is the result that comes from a thing-- a rule. We have to put in the rules first and then have or make those rules be fun. From their perspective in the conversation, one can't have the fun until you make the rules.

You both are ending up at the same result... a game and game rules and a rulebook that is fun to play. But they are just suggesting you need to stop at the "making the rules" step first and then the fun can come out of it.
This. Full stop!

I think that it would be absurd for any company to design a video or board game simply on the basis of "fun" without first going through the laborious process of deciding what sort of play experiences that they want their game to produce. Elden Ring, Stardew Valley, and League of Legends are all meant to be "fun," but their design aims are radically different in what they (and respective their core audiences) consider fun and what sort of cultivated play experiences these games are designed for.
 

Oofta

Legend
No, see I actually understand what @EzekielRaiden is coming from here and why they are butting up against you. Because you and they are not seeing the same scenario the same way or parsing the language the same way.

To use your example of food... a chef isn't cooking "tastes good". That's not a thing. Rather what they doing is cooking a steak. THAT is their end state. That is their end goal-- to cook a steak. And everything they are doing is to cook that steak. Now the hoped-for result of cooking that steak is for it to "taste good". And all the bits and bobs they add to their recipe go towards their cooked steak tasting good. No one disagrees with that. But before you can get to "tastes good" step in the process you need to decide on what it is you are actually cooking first, and then work towards it tasting good. You can't have "tastes good" until you have "steak".

That's where you both are butting heads. You appear to me to be skipping the part of deciding on the thing and going straight to the "fun"-- the "tastes good". But Ezekiel isn't doing that because "fun" in and of itself isn't a thing-- it's not an object-- that you can put in these books. Instead, "fun" is the result that comes from a thing-- a rule. We have to put in the rules first and then have or make those rules be fun. From their perspective in the conversation, one can't have the fun until you make the rules.

You both are ending up at the same result... a game and game rules and a rulebook that is fun to play. But they are just suggesting you need to stop at the "making the rules" step first and then the fun can come out of it.

But the goal is still a good tasting steak. You can't just say "They should focus on using [insert some process]" because that's a meaningless statement. The problem that I see is that we're trying to discuss what mix of hard and soft rules we should use and how you judge the result. To me, you judge it by the result, is it fun. I don't care if you use a tenderloin from a Kobe Wagyu carefully seasoned and cooked over old growth redwood charcoal, I only care if the steak tastes good.

It's the same thing here. The end result is the only thing that matters despite protestations that somehow designing something fun is somehow ends up with worse results. Because "focusing on 'fun' alone leads to worse results" to me just sound like code for "don't include rules I don't like". If you don't like how something was done, if you don't care for the level your steak was cooked to (personally I'm not fond of rare meat, my brother-in-law likes it practically raw), then just state your preference. Because ultimately what you're judging is the end result, did you have fun playing the game.

How is focusing on making a game fun ending up with worse results? It's an oxymoron.
 

But the goal is still a good tasting steak. You can't just say "They should focus on using [insert some process]" because that's a meaningless statement.
No, it is quite meaningful.
  1. Obtain the cut of meat desired.
  2. Sear over high heat for 2-3 minutes on each side.
  3. Grill over low heat for 10 minutes, reaching an internal temperature of 125-130 degrees.
This leads to an excellently cooked medium-rare steak.

Now, it can be further seasoned with salt, black pepper, and garlic. It can be seared with a butter glaze. It can be served with mushrooms and/or onions. It can be paired with a merlot or cabernet franc. There are several modifications that can be done according to taste, but there is a core process that leads at least most of the way to the goal. You don't make a steak that "tastes good", you make a properly prepared steak which ends up "tasting good" to many / most people which can thereafter be fine tuned to individual tastes.
 

Oofta

Legend
No, it is quite meaningful.
  1. Obtain the cut of meat desired.
  2. Sear over high heat for 2-3 minutes on each side.
  3. Grill over low heat for 10 minutes, reaching an internal temperature of 125-130 degrees.
This leads to an excellently cooked medium-rare steak.

Now, it can be further seasoned with salt, black pepper, and garlic. It can be seared with a butter glaze. It can be served with mushrooms and/or onions. It can be paired with a merlot or cabernet franc. There are several modifications that can be done according to taste, but there is a core process that leads at least most of the way to the goal. You don't make a steak that "tastes good", you make a properly prepared steak which ends up "tasting good" to many / most people which can thereafter be fine tuned to individual tastes.

The phrase used is "focusing on 'fun' alone leads to worse results". I think that bupkiss. What else are you supposed to focus on? When you're cooking a steak you're focusing on making the best tasting steak possible. Want to discuss how to make the game more enjoyable for the majority of people? Fine. We'll continue the conversation.

But the only reason I can see to use phrases like this is to basically say that the current design approach is bad. So how about this. How about we talk about the concepts in the OP? Talk about where we need hard and soft rules? Because the other stuff? It's just making up nonsense to distract from actually discussing how you achieve the goal of making the game fun.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
The phrase used is "focusing on 'fun' alone leads to worse results". I think that bupkiss. What else are you supposed to focus on? When you're cooking a steak you're focusing on making the best tasting steak possible. Want to discuss how to make the game more enjoyable for the majority of people? Fine. We'll continue the conversation.

But the only reason I can see to use phrases like this is to basically say that the current design approach is bad. So how about this. How about we talk about the concepts in the OP? Talk about where we need hard and soft rules? Because the other stuff? It's just making up nonsense to distract from actually discussing how you achieve the goal of making the game fun.
Something that might be helpful or might not. It’s often useful to disconnect the process from the result. We can have a certain amount of control over the process but we have no real control over the end result. Like working hard to get a promotion at work. You control the working hard (the process) but you don’t control whether you get the promotion (the end result).

First order design is the process. Second order design is the result.

This applies to both the game designers and the referee at the table. The designer controls the design but not the table having fun. The referee controls the game (to a certain degree), but they don’t control whether the players have fun. The referee can certainly influence the players having fun but they don’t have control over it. You know Doug loves combat, but if he’s having a terrible week he’s not going to have fun in this epic fight you designed. In a horror game you can be as scary as you want as the referee but if the players don’t buy in they’re not going to feel scared.

To me, focusing on the fun is backwards. It’s focusing on the part you have no real control over. Focus on the process. Run the best game you can, play to your strengths as a referee, keep learning etc, but in the end whether the players have fun or not isn’t up to you. Nothing will make someone have fun in a game or style they don’t enjoy. If they hate hexcrawls even the best hexcrawl of all time will be boring to them.
 

But the goal is still a good tasting steak. You can't just say "They should focus on using [insert some process]" because that's a meaningless statement. The problem that I see is that we're trying to discuss what mix of hard and soft rules we should use and how you judge the result. To me, you judge it by the result, is it fun. I don't care if you use a tenderloin from a Kobe Wagyu carefully seasoned and cooked over old growth redwood charcoal, I only care if the steak tastes good.

It's the same thing here. The end result is the only thing that matters despite protestations that somehow designing something fun is somehow ends up with worse results. Because "focusing on 'fun' alone leads to worse results" to me just sound like code for "don't include rules I don't like". If you don't like how something was done, if you don't care for the level your steak was cooked to (personally I'm not fond of rare meat, my brother-in-law likes it practically raw), then just state your preference. Because ultimately what you're judging is the end result, did you have fun playing the game.

How is focusing on making a game fun ending up with worse results? It's an oxymoron.
I think the people arguing that fun is a poor goal would disagree with your analogy. You’ve already decided on steak, and a good-tasting steak is fairly well defined.

The equivalent to telling someone to “make a game that’s fun” is if you ask your spouse where they want to eat and they reply “somewhere good.” It’s not really new information.

If you’ve already decided to make a game about exploring mega dungeons, then you’ve already decided what kind of fun you want, and so focusing on that starts to be a worthwhile exercise.
 

I think focusing on fun is a perfectly fine way of thinking about things. It may lead to further conversations about what is meant by fun, but I think generally speaking, it means being aware whether everyone at the table is having a good time and being responsive to that (in design I think it can mean different things but noting whether people are enjoying themselves and having fun is very useful to observe in playtest in my opinion). Where it can go off the rails I think is when you try to artificially maintain a level of fun at all times in the game, not realizing you need the peaks and valleys for contrast. It can be like the loudness wars in music.
 

Clint_L

Hero
What we keep coming back to is that D&D wasn't ever designed as a cohesive game. I would argue that it still isn't; all WotC have done is take that lack of design and enshrine it as a feature, not a flaw...and I think they might be right! (The closest they got to a fully designed D&D game was 4e, and look what that got them).

When you look back at the early history of OD&D, there was HUGE debate about what the game even was, and how it should be played, so much so that every region had their own version of the game which they often considered just as valid as anything put out by Gygax. AD&D was an attempt to get control of the situation and the game (plus screw Arneson out of royalties) and so added a whole lot more design, but all it really did was bolt a whole bunch of different systems onto OD&D (which is what a judge found in rejecting TSR's claims that this was a whole new game).

So AD&D is certainly a more designed game than OD&D in terms of the amount of stuff that is covered...but not really in terms of the basic principles of the game. It was still basically a miniatures wargame with additional rules to add role-play in a really half-assed way, with an expectation that most of the practical design work would either be done by the DM and/or via a published adventure module. 5e remains basically a miniatures wargame with additional rules to cover role-play, though in a significantly less half-assed way.

As I mention above, this might sound like criticism, but I think the incompleteness of D&D (any edition) is more of a feature than a flaw. By de facto dumping a ton of design work onto the DM and players (mostly the DM) the game becomes empowering: when you run a D&D campaign, you are an author in a very real sense. This is powerful!

So I think this argument is really about DM authorship in D&D, and the degree to which we prefer it to be open or constrained. I think that DM authorship is expressed in three primary ways:

1. Encounter building
2. Adventure building (i.e. plotting)
3. World building

1. Encounter building is the most constrained. Obviously D&D5e allows the DM carte blanche to put the pieces together however they want, but ultimately there is an implicit contract with the players that the encounter will be fair within the context of the overall story that is being cooperatively generated (e.g. you don't have to fight a Tarrasque at level 1). And once the encounter actually happens, the rules step in hard and the DM's authorship becomes severely limited. Sure, rule 0 still exists but in most circumstances the DM and players are expected to abide by RAW. Some of us take this further by making all rolls in the open, even DM rolls, so that everyone is on an equal footing and the story will be determined by player choices, constrained by rules, and pure luck.

2. Adventure building is much more open. Not only does the DM have carte blanche to build story hooks any way they like, but players have considerable freedom to affect the direction of the story via their choices (and at some tables, like mine, by offering their own additions). This is where I like the rules to be relatively light. I do not want big lists of factors that might affect a skill check and by how much; I want to collaborate with my players so that the story we are creating feels right to us.

3. World building is almost completely unconstrained. Again, I like this, and I like that the "rules" of a D&D setting (e.g. the various planes, alignments, species descriptions, etc.) are increasingly framed as suggestions and options. In my campaign, Bahamut is arguably worse than Tiamat, and there's no one that can tell me I'm doing it wrong.

I think 5e is basically a fully realized OD&D. Which means that by some definitions, it remains kind of a "non-game." I think that is hyperbolic, but there is truth behind the hyperbole.
 

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