ver the course of developing D&D Next, we’ve talked a lot about the game’s feel. Like elegance, feel is an elusive target in game design. Feel is an almost intuitive quality. It pulls you deeper into the game, making it easier and more rewarding to become fully immersed within the rules.
A mechanic’s feel is correct when it helps to match your actions, thoughts, and decisions as a player with the actions, thoughts, and decisions made by your character. Roleplaying games have an unmatched potential to immerse participants in the act of playing. The idea of feel fosters this immersion by bringing a player’s mindset into harmony with his or her character’s mindset.
When the feel of a game mechanic is off, it leads to situations in the game that pull you out of character and force you to think purely in terms of mechanics. The word “force” is important there. Some players quite enjoy approaching D&D as a puzzle to solve, and it’s okay for those players to actively decide to disengage from the feel of a game mechanic. However, trouble arises when a player who wants to become immersed has difficulty doing so because of how the rules function.
For example, imagine a scenario in which a quirk in the rules meant that the average orc in plate armor was easier to hit than the average unarmored orc. Orcs aren’t known for their speed or agility. In this case, the orc’s AC fails the feel test. It doesn’t match what you’d expect. It feels wrong.
On the other hand, you could imagine that the same scenario would make sense when applied to a quickling. Armor slows down a quickling and negates its inhuman agility. Throwing such a creature into plate armor could well make it easier to hit.
In D&D Next, our approach to light, medium, and heavy armor captures the basic feel that armor should evoke in a fantasy roleplaying game. Agile characters wear lighter armor, even as clumsy or average characters would rather wear heavy armor to cover for their lack of agility. Even though this approach might not be the most realistic, it meets the much more important criteria of evoking the feel of D&D.
Character Classes and Feel
RPG designers face an interesting set of opposed goals when it comes to feel and class design.
On the one hand, designing flexible classes allows each class to accommodate a wide variety of play styles. For example, your rogue can be a shadowy killer, a cunning treasure hunter, or a charming diplomat. Flexible classes do a great job of serving players who bring a specific character concept to the game, and then look for a class to match it. You can think of those players as goal-oriented shoppers. They go to the store knowing exactly what they want, they track those items down on the shelves, and they make their purchases. These types of players come to the table with the feel of their characters already determined. They know what they want, and they need the system to provide it.
On the other hand, such flexibility can prove troublesome for new players, and for those players looking to inspect different classes first, then pick what they want to play based on what they see. Those players are more like browsers wandering through a store. They look at what’s on the shelves and let the selection guide their purchasing decisions. For players who like to explore first, then decide what they want, the feel they seek is the blank slate that allows them to fully interact with the game.
Though many mechanics lend themselves to a straightforward sense of whether they support the feel of D&D or miss it in some manner, classes have to match a variety of expected feels. Some players think of a fighter and imagine a towering half-orc with a huge axe. Others see a nimble elf with a short sword and bow, or a cunning halfling with a pair of axes. Each class has a number of basic shared traits that it should support—for example, the idea that fighters are good with weapons and armor. However, other preferred traits will vary between players.
On top of that, it’s clear from the playtest feedback that players love to customize characters. Although getting the basic feel of a class is important, there will never be one single sense of feel to rule them all. Some players want the flexibility to add their own unique flavor to a class. Others want the option to pick from a limited number of class archetypes. In designing D&D Next, we thus faced an interesting challenge.
Historically, 3rd Edition D&D catered to the goal-oriented shoppers. Classes were open ended, with feats, spells, prestige classes, and multiclassing all acting as doors opening onto near-infinite options. Unfortunately, this open-ended approach proved an impenetrable barrier to many new players. Players of 3e were required to bring their own feel to the table.
In reaction, 4th Edition took the opposite approach. By adopting roles and builds, the game made it clear what each character class was supposed to do. The decisions you made as a player were more limited in scope. Players who loved to browse had a much easier time of it, since they could look at a class and its builds to see what was available. In exchange for that, however, 4e left many goal-oriented players out in the cold. If you wanted your fighter to be a cunning archer and survivalist, you had to wait until we published the appropriate build and power, or you were forced to play a ranger.
In 4e, the game assumed that players came to the table with a blank slate. The game dictated your character’s feel from the range of explicit options it provided. Players could always pull various pieces together to form the exact characters they wanted. However, doing so took more work and sometimes required that an ability’s description be ignored in favor of its mechanics.
With D&D Next, we took an approach almost straight down the middle between these previous editions. We moved away from roles to give players more freedom, but we adopted subclasses as a way to provide more focus and guidance to character creation. In many ways, the roles from 4e helped give focus to the design of specific subclasses. For example, when we look at the fighter, it feels equally natural to view that class as a protector of the rest of the party, or as a warrior whose only focus is dealing out punishment at a prodigious rate.
Browser-type players have more finely tuned options in D&D Next, even as goal-oriented character builders can mix and match subclasses to create their own unique characters. Feats are bigger, making their effects on characters more obvious and pushing us to design fewer of them. Browsers can spot the feats that improve their chosen specialty. Builders have access to feats that can give their characters a strong push away from a class’s typical identity.
For Dungeon Masters, we’re placing the idea of creating your own subclass into an optional part of the game. We want DMs to embrace subclass creation as a part of setting creation. We also want to make sure that builders or players who love to optimize take a moment to sit down and talk to their DMs before a campaign starts. If a player wants something specific from the campaign, it’s important that the group talks about it, understands it, and gives the DM space to plan adventures and sessions around it.
This is just one of the many areas where the D&D Next playtest was critical to striking the optimal balance between the needs of different groups of players. By relying on survey results to hone each iteration of the game’s design, we slowly but surely arrived at a basic approach to class design that works well for all types of players.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.