The MAYA Design Principle, or Why D&D's Future is Probably Going to Look Mostly Like Its Past

innerdude

Adventurer
Had to share this article, as it pretty much sums up the last 10 years of the D&D product line. In fact, the very first consumer product that came to mind when I read the MAYA principle was Dungeons and Dragons.


https://getpocket.com/explore/item/the-four-letter-code-to-selling-just-about-anything


In terms of product design, MAYA stands for the "Most Advanced Yet Acceptable" version of a given product, with one of the primary keys being familiarity.

Research suggests that we, "The Consumer," want products that are familiar yet contain just enough novelty to hold our attention. In this light, it's not hard to see why 5e has become the most popular version of the Dungeons and Dragons product line of all time. It hit all the right notes in mapping to the familiar 1e/2e/3e core, while providing enough novelty (adv/disadv, revised feats, revised magic) to keep things fresh.

I think for me, though, it reinforced something that the 4e "experiment" seemed to bear out. Based on the MAYA principle, the actual "D&D" product line (as opposed to one of its many OGL derivatives) is unlikely to meaningfully diverge from its current core. As a result, if at any point you're no longer a fan of the "D&D" core product as-is, you're probably better off looking for wholly different systems as an alternative, as the core is unlikely to radically change from within.

If you want a "new" or "different" "D&D", you're either going to have to kit-bash it yourself, or look elsewhere.

The other thing that was interesting from the article is that it reinforced strongly the idea that exposure is also key. One of the reasons it's so hard to get people off of the D&D product is that it's FAR AND AWAY the system that players are exposed to. So if you want to get your group to switch to a new system, you've got to get them actual exposure to it, probably through several different means.

Anyway, found the article interesting and thought I'd share.
 

Akodoken

Explorer
Very interesting and informative. I agree this is probably a major contributor to the reaction to D&D 4E. 4E isn't perfect but it is a great game, imho. It definitely strayed too far from the formula and wasn't very popular for that reason.

The interesting bit will be to watch how Pathfinder 2E does with this concept in mind. I think Paizo is a very smart company and won't stray too far but if the playtest taught us anything, they are definitely trying to be innovative.
 
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Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
You're not wrong. I consider 4e to be a step in the game's evolution until it did a backslide into 5e. 5e is closer to what I wanted in 3e, but 4e is what I really enjoyed and wished to see progress and evolve further in 5e. 5e does not innovate with any new ideas for me, so I moved on.

PF2 could get my interest, but I am fully invested now in other games that do things different and (dare I say) better in some aspects.
 
Familiarity doesn't explain 5e's success breaking into the mainstream? Or rather, it's a different familiarity - for at least the last 10 years, D&D has been, along with nerd culture more generally, exposed to the mainstream. Whether thats seeing a bizare facsimile of it being played on Big Band Theory, or watching streaming play - or playing derivative CRPGs or MMOs - it's a very different familiar than 5e has or 4e lacked with existing fans.

And, it's familiarity that can be gained without exposure to edition warring. Because 4e wasn't broadly unpopular with D&D fans, it was actively maligned and sabotaged by a particular segment of that fanbase.
 
Because 4e wasn't broadly unpopular with D&D fans, it was actively maligned and sabotaged by a particular segment of that fanbase.
Actively sabotaged by Mike Mearls, too.

If 4e had had one quarter of the management backing and marketing resources that 5e has, we'd all still be playing it.
 
Actively sabotaged by Mike Mearls, too.

If 4e had had one quarter of the management backing and marketing resources that 5e has, we'd all still be playing it.
I got the impression that 5e was done on a shoestring, sort of a Hail Mary, pitched to an indifferent Hasbro as maybe rehabilitating the brand enough to use it in other media.
It just happened to be released into a TT renaisance - even then, I thought that'd stay limited to boardgames.
But, in a favorable market, without the negativity of an edition war, the D&D name finally generated the long-looked-for, and genuine come-back.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
You're not wrong. I consider 4e to be a step in the game's evolution until it did a backslide into 5e.
Not relevant to any particular game or edition: This is not how evolution works. Evolution does not have a preferred forward, and thus no backward. Either "evolution" is not a proper word to describe the game's change over time, or the concepts you are applying here do not apply.

I can see an argument that the game is evolving - evolution contains the concept of variations *that fail*, that do not fit the environment in which they find themselves, and they die out. I am not sure the evolution analogy fits perfectly, but if you want to use it, that's probably the way to look at it.
 

Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
Not relevant to any particular game or edition: This is not how evolution works. Evolution does not have a preferred forward, and thus no backward. Either "evolution" is not a proper word to describe the game's change over time, or the concepts you are applying here do not apply.

I can see an argument that the game is evolving - evolution contains the concept of variations *that fail*, that do not fit the environment in which they find themselves, and they die out. I am not sure the evolution analogy fits perfectly, but if you want to use it, that's probably the way to look at it.
That actually makes a lot of sense. Thanks Darwin! :)

I'll need to consider better terminology for what I'm trying to say... Hello, Thesaurus! ;)
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
That actually makes a lot of sense. Thanks Darwin! :)

I'll need to consider better terminology for what I'm trying to say... Hello, Thesaurus! ;)
I mean, saying 4e was an advance, and 5e a step back works, if that's what you think.

Mulling over the evolution analogy... I note that evolution is not an *overall* statement of a creature's fitness. There is no such thing as "overall fitness". A creature is only judged relative to the environment/niche it finds itself in at the time. It either lives, shifts to a different niche that happens to be readily accessible from where it is, or dies.

Which is to say, failure in evolution doesn't say you are bad, just not right for where and when you were. From the evolutionary standpoint then, we can say 4e's fall doesn't say it is a bad game in a general sense - just a poor fit to be the flagship RPG product (which is the niche D&D generally sits in) at that time. We could imagine it in a different niche - some other company, positioning it as another fantasy game - and it might have lasted longer.
 
Which is to say, failure in evolution doesn't say you are bad, just not right for where and when you were.
Also, evolution doesn't really happen at the individual level. An individual might carry wonderfully 'fit' genes for the environment, but fail to reproduce due to some freak accident, for instance - but, over a large population and many generations, blips like that are overwhelmed, and the sufficiently-fit proliferate.

Games don't /really/ evolve from one ed to another, since they're literally an example of intelligent design (no matter what you think of the designers' talent or artistic merits, they're intelligent). But how a given ed is played out in the wild, that could 'evolve' in a meme-like way, if play that works well at some tables is propagated to others, while that which is dysfunctional leads to tables abandoning the game.

I mean, saying 4e was an advance, and 5e a step back works, if that's what you think.
4 steps forward, 5 steps back.
;)
 

ART!

Explorer
I'd like to see a concise history of what has changed from edition to edition, over time.

Could it be argued that bigger changes to the system happened earlier in it's history, but now that the core concepts have been codified and popularized they have changed less?
 

HJFudge

Visitor
Familiarity doesn't explain 5e's success breaking into the mainstream? Or rather, it's a different familiarity - for at least the last 10 years, D&D has been, along with nerd culture more generally, exposed to the mainstream. Whether thats seeing a bizare facsimile of it being played on Big Band Theory, or watching streaming play - or playing derivative CRPGs or MMOs - it's a very different familiar than 5e has or 4e lacked with existing fans.

And, it's familiarity that can be gained without exposure to edition warring. Because 4e wasn't broadly unpopular with D&D fans, it was actively maligned and sabotaged by a particular segment of that fanbase.
I think that the success of 'nerd culture' is something that has taken things like DnD along for the ride, rather than 5E DnD being the cause.

Increased ways to Monetize 'gaming' is responsible for the rise in its popularity that weren't as ubiquitous as they are today. Streaming services and the ability to 'showcase' gameplay have led to...well, almost every gd group I find that wants to play is trying to stream their game. This annoys me, but is another topic I think. Also, as the article points out, the increased Exposure with the popularity of nerd shows has made Tabletop games far more palatable to the masses. The culture being more accepting of 'different' also has a lot to do with it, people feel more comfortable trying things like DnD.

On the 5E side, 5E has made DMing *super* simple for a beginner, and toned down the differences between a 'decent DM' and a 'bad DM'...lower highs and higher lows, in other words. Great DMs can still be great, obvs, but a lot of newer DMs like to use 5E as a system because its simple and easy and not as much work needs to be done.
 

Staffan

Adventurer
You're not wrong. I consider 4e to be a step in the game's evolution until it did a backslide into 5e. 5e is closer to what I wanted in 3e, but 4e is what I really enjoyed and wished to see progress and evolve further in 5e. 5e does not innovate with any new ideas for me, so I moved on.

PF2 could get my interest, but I am fully invested now in other games that do things different and (dare I say) better in some aspects.
4e had two problems:

1. The math didn't work out. The treadmill regarding monster stats vs PC stats meant that PCs became less likely to hit monsters at higher levels, and monsters generally took a bit too long to kill. This aspect was exacerbated by the game wanting to be focused around interesting "bossy" fights, while players and designers were still doing attrition-based adventures. This made the game tedious, at least when played as people were used to playing.

2. Too many radical changes. Adding tieflings (but now with a homogeneous look to make art direction and making miniatures easy) and dragonborn as core races (while dropping half-orcs and gnomes), dropping druids, sorcerers, monks, and bards as core classes (while adding warlords and warlocks), making the ranger non-magical, creating an implied setting based around a conflict between primordials/elementals and gods, mucking around with the planes, and so on. And FR made it even worse, pushing its timeline about a hundred years ahead and replacing Maztica with a different continent and changing all sorts of stuff. These made the game feel like just one more of the gazillion of games that are sort of like D&D but not quite.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Also, evolution doesn't really happen at the individual level.
Yeah, I know. There are limits to all analogies. I was kind of thinking of it as the published game is kind of the genetic line. Individual tables are the individuals of the species. Eventually, the genetic line dies out (they stop publishing) when there aren't enough tables around to support the line going forward.

Games don't /really/ evolve from one ed to another, since they're literally an example of intelligent design (no matter what you think of the designers' talent or artistic merits, they're intelligent).
"Intelligent design" isn't just "design by someone who is intelligent in a general sense". It is, "Design by someone who knows what they are doing." And what science and principles of rpg game design we have are really very recent - like, 21st century. Historically, RPG designers haven't had sufficient theory vetted by empiricism to really say they know what will work in the world at large. It isn't their fault - the information simply didn't exist. The bandwidth for feedback simply wasn't large enough until after 3e was published.

I think history supports me in this - if games were intelligently designed, they'd all be very fit, and would succeed. But gaming history is filled with games that just didn't cut the mustard. That shouldn't be true if intelligent design was the rule.

Thus, historically, game designers may have been well-intentioned, but lacking in support - they had to make lots of guesses, shots in the dark. And that's kind of what nature does. Random shots n the dark, some of which work, and others which don't.

This even held for 4e, where they were rather specifically designing to deal with some problems they thought were important, only to find out that while the results were pleasing to some, it was a solution to a problem that didn't drive most folks' buying and playing.

The pattern of guessing only really changed with 5e - and they changed it not by having the right intelligent design, but by setting it up in a playtesting incubator, and rapidly iterating on the design with feedback bandwidth the likes of which hadn't really been applied before. Basically, they made an isolated population, and ran it through many generations quickly, and came up with a new species - kind of like what happens when you get an isolated population of an animal, and it speciates.

So, while it is bending the ideas a bit, evolution may not be a wholly bad analogy for 5e's development.
 

Akodoken

Explorer
I got the impression that 5e was done on a shoestring, sort of a Hail Mary, pitched to an indifferent Hasbro as maybe rehabilitating the brand enough to use it in other media.
It just happened to be released into a TT renaisance - even then, I thought that'd stay limited to boardgames.
But, in a favorable market, without the negativity of an edition war, the D&D name finally generated the long-looked-for, and genuine come-back.
I'm not an insider and I haven't seen much insight on what was going on behind the scenes but you might be right.

Either way, D&D 5E definitely benefited from the edition at the "right time and place" to help it explode. I see 5E as kind of a D&D Lite edition which is actually perfect for introducing new people into the game. All this coincided with the nerd culture explosion as you said and the advent of VTT/streaming popularity. It was a perfect storm, so to speak.

Familiarity is one ingredient in that recipe and that is something 4E lacked to a certain degree. Something I have been thinking about for a bit now, I am getting ready to start a D&D campaign with my kids. I asked them what edition they want to play. I assumed they would say 5E but they unanimously voted for 4E. We discussed it at length. That was the edition they started with. That IS Dungeons & Dragons as far as they are concerned and D&D 5E doesn't live up to their standards of what they consider the best edition to play. I had never realized that point of view until they pointed it out to me. Their second choice was Pathfinder and 5E came in third. My eyes were opened. It was very interesting to me.

As for sabotage, I do feel Mike didn't support it as well as it should have been supported but I don't know that it was "actively sabotaged." Maybe you know something I don't know.
 
As for sabotage, I do feel Mike didn't support it as well as it should have been supported
The impression I have is that MM was a good soldier when 4e was in development and did the best he could for the game (whether he believed in what Hasbro & Heinsoo were doing or not). Once he was in charge, he changed direction as much as he could towards what he thought would do better (or what he identified as 'really D&D,' himself, his own sense of familiarity, perhaps).
Nothing like 'sabotage.'
I don't know that it was "actively sabotaged." Maybe you know something I don't know.
Just a very few incidents I actually saw. The most blatant was: a player sitting down at a convention game, declaring he was trying 4e for the first time, and grousing out a litany of complaints straight off the internet. Then doing it again - yes, including "I'm trying 4e for the first time!" - at another game, at the same convention, the next day.

I guess, by gamer standards, I really don't stand out, because I was sitting right there as he did it, both times.

still kinda a head-shaker

"Intelligent design" isn't just "design by someone who is intelligent in a general sense". It is, "Design by someone who knows what they are doing."
OK, maybe not then.

I think history supports me in this - if games were intelligently designed, they'd all be very fit, and would succeed. But gaming history is filled with games that just didn't cut the mustard. That shouldn't be true if intelligent design was the rule.
The market place isn't /nearly/ that rational, no.
 
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Staffan

Adventurer
I'd like to see a concise history of what has changed from edition to edition, over time.

Could it be argued that bigger changes to the system happened earlier in it's history, but now that the core concepts have been codified and popularized they have changed less?
I'd say no. The smallest edition change (counting full editions) was 1e to 2e, and the biggest was 3e to 4e. You might argue that the change from 4e to 5e was mostly a reversion of changes, but that's not entirely true - rather, 5e is about as far from 3e as 3e was from 2e, it's just that the 3e to 4e change was a lot bigger and went in a different direction.

1e to 2e:

- Overall: mostly collected stuff from all over the place into the core books, and the changes were mainly on the detail level.

- Class structure shifted from a class/subclass structure (e.g. the paladin is a sub-class of the fighter) to a group/class structure (both the fighter and the paladin are classes in the Warrior group).

- Monks and assassins removed. Illusionist turned into one of many specialists in the Wizard group, with their spell list folded into the main Wizard spell list. Magic-user renamed as Mage. Druid became one example of how to make a "Priest of a specific mythos", with the idea being that each god would have its own priesthood with its own spell list and special abilities replacing the generic Cleric (that's not how it worked out in practice, however). Bards changed from this weird multi-/dualclass thing into its own class that was placed in the Rogue group and could do a bit of everything, but not very well.

- Non-weapon proficiencies added as a semi-optional skill system (it was labeled optional, but everything other than the core rules assumed you were using it).

- Round structure tightened up. THAC0 replacing hit matrices.

- Core books lacked most info on planar stuff. The original Monstrous Compendium didn't have many planar monsters either, and when they showed up in the Outer Planes appendix a lot of them had been renamed in order to placate those who saw Satanism in D&D.

2e to 3e:

- Overall: Massive changes.

- Core mechanic: Almost all task resolution is now done via d20+bonuses and trying to exceed a difficulty class (or armor class), instead of everything having its own little weird system.

- Ability scores: instead of each ability score having its own table specifying what, if any, benefits you got from Dexterity 14, stats had a bonus based on the score and used in various places as appropriate.

- Class structure shifted: All classes were given the same XP table, and multi-classing now split levels rather than XP. No sub-classes or class groups, all classes were on the same footing. Prestige classes added that were classes that required you to have certain prerequisites before becoming that class, usually providing some sort of specialization.

- Monks return as a class. Druid once again split from Cleric as a distinct class, and both can now cast spells up to 9th level instead of 7th. Specialization becomes an option for the wizard class, instead of a class of its own. Two new classes added: Barbarian (which shares the name with a class from a popular 1e supplement, Unearthed Arcana, but little else) and Sorcerer (an arcane magic-user who does not need to prepare spells in advance, but instead just knows a limited number of spells and can cast them in whatever configuration seems fitting based on spell slots).

- A proper skill system is added, with each class getting a number of skill points to spend each level on buying skill ranks. This is to a large degree responsible for replacing all those weird sub-systems (surprise, tracking, sage knowledge, etc.).

- Feats are added, representing learned abilities that aren't necessarily tied to a class, and are more binary in nature than the graduated nature of skills. All classes gain feats, but fighters gain the most, and many of the feats represent different types of combat improvement.

- Combat is tightened up a lot. The game moves to a cyclical initiative system (instead of rerolling initiative each round, you use the same initiative throughout the fight unless you actively change it). The old idiosyncratic saving throw categories are replaced with three, based on whether you resist an effect via Fortitude, Reflexes, or Will, with different classes progressing in these in different ways.

- Magic items become an expected part of character progression, to the point where the game assumes you'll have X gp amount of magic stuff at level Y. You're also assumed to have more-or-less full control over what items you have - if the items you find aren't what you want, you can sell them and buy the good stuff instead. After a while, it becomes apparent that it is most useful to sink most of your money into a small number of items that improve core stats (saves, AC, primary stat, weapons) at the expense of cool, flavorful items. Another consequence of the magic item rules is the innocuous-seeming wand of cure light wounds which lets PCs recover all hit points between fights at a monetary cost that's negligible even at moderate levels (4+).

- Monsters are built sort of like characters with monster types (beasts, dragons, fey, etc.) taking the part of classes providing hit points/hit dice, saves, attack bonuses, and so on.


3e to 4e:

- Again, massive changes.

- Game now goes to level 30 instead of 20, and is divided into three different "tiers": heroic (1-10), paragon (11-20), and epic (21-30). For PCs, level/2 is included in almost all rolls.

- Immense changes to classes. All classes now use a similar structure for abilities, with a few at-will abilities, some encounter abilities (that you recover on a 5 minute rest), and some daily abilites (that require a night's rest to recover). All classes gain these abilities on the same schedule.

- Class design is informed by two things: the class's "power source" (the core rules have martial, divine, and arcane), and the class's role in the party (defender, striker, controller, or leader/supporter). These inform what sort of abilities the class has - leaders will have abilities improving their allies or healing them, defenders will protect their allies from harm and redirecting the enemies' attention onto themselves, strikers to a buttload of damage and maybe some debuffing, and controllers usually have area-damage and debuffing.

- Since each class has a large list of powers, the rules don't have room for as many classes - the barbarian, bard, druid, monk, and sorcerer will have to wait for later sourcebooks, and instead the warlock and warlord are added.

- Class design mostly focuses on what that class does in combat. Out-of-combat stuff is handled via skills and, when it comes to magic, rituals. Rituals are a really cool concept that let you do out-of-combat utility magic without necessarily being a proper spellcasting class (though for non-casters you have to invest some extra resources into them), and at the cost of money instead of "spell slots" or the like.

- This edition vastly speeds up healing. In addition to healing all damage on a long rest (overnight), you also have a number of "healing surges" per day that each heal 25% of your max hp. You mostly spend these while taking short rests, but you can also sometimes trigger them in combat. They serve both as a source of, and a limitation on, healing - almost all healing is handled by abilities that let you spend a healing surge.

- Combat has a strong focus on tactical gameplay. Many character abilities move enemies around on the battlefield as secondary effects, or have effects based on adjacency or distance, and there's a strong emphasis in the encounter design guidelines on providing interesting terrain - not just cover, but things like runes that enhance your attacks and stuff.

- Monsters often have interesting abilities and, like PCs, are designed to fit one of a number of roles (though the monster roles are different from the PC roles). Often, many varieties are presented of the same monster (e.g. goblin lurker, goblin blackblade, goblin hexxer, goblin wolf-rider, and goblin boss) with different abilities based on their combat role.

- Magic items are boring, and mainly used to keep up with the expected math of the game and possibly add a special ability, usually tied to attacking in some way.

- For the first time, there's an implied setting to the game, even if it's only described in the vaguest of terms. Basically, at the dawn of time, gods and elementals/primordials battled it out for control of the world, and the gods won. Since then, many empires have risen and fallen, and currently the world is in a post-fall era. Outside small bastions of civilization ("points of light"), the wilderness is haven for monsters of all sorts.


I'm not going to go over 5e here because I assume people are familiar with it.
 

Staffan

Adventurer
This even held for 4e, where they were rather specifically designing to deal with some problems they thought were important, only to find out that while the results were pleasing to some, it was a solution to a problem that didn't drive most folks' buying and playing.
My impression is that 4e was to a large extent driven by some things that had been very well-received in various sourcebooks - more at-will abilities (warlock invocations, Reserve feats from some of the Complete books), abilities that could be used once per encounter (Tome of Magic, Tome of Battle), cool things for fighters to do other than just hit (Tome of Battle, Iron Heroes), some level of easy healing but with limits (there were quite a few abilities that allowed "free" recovery up to half hp in a short period of time), item levels instead of gold piece values (Magic item compendium), detailed encounters that used a lot of tactics ("Delve format" adventures, a lot of stuff from Dungeonscape). It's just that while all these things individually appealed to enfranchised players, the sum of them did not for some reason.
 

Akodoken

Explorer
Nothing like 'sabotage.'
Just a very few incidents I actually saw. The most blatant was: a player sitting down at a convention game, declaring he was trying 4e for the first time, and grousing out a litany of complaints straight off the internet. Then doing it again - yes, including "I'm trying 4e for the first time!" - at another game, at the same convention, the next day.

I guess, by gamer standards, I really don't stand out, because I was sitting right there as he did it, both times.

still kinda a head-shaker
Oh, my apologies. I misunderstood you. I thought you were saying Mike Mearls actively sabotaged the game. I didn't realize you were talking about others.

Yeah, it sounds to me like you caught someone doing exactly that. I've not seen it in person but that disappoints me even while it doesn't surprise me.
 

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