Design & Development10/07/2005


Dev Test Answers



We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

Dev Test Answers

In our first article, we introduced the developer test questions given to R&D applicants. By now you've had a chance to formulate your own responses, given in the following message board thread. This week, we present the answers as given by recently hired Mike Mearls -- and with comments provided by Development's Jesse Decker.

Jesse Decker (Development): The development test measures analytical ability, mastery of the D&D rules, and writing skill. Analytical ability easily ranks as the most important quality in a developer. Since the development team is responsible for measuring and verifying game balance, precise insight into game balance is a must. There’s certainly room for a developer’s rote knowledge of the rules to improve on the job (in fact, it’s required), but that’s only a small part of the test. Likewise, while developers needn’t be wordsmiths capable of world-class poetry, we expect developers to improve a manuscript whenever they touch it, and a paragraph of prose shouldn’t get worse because of a developer’s involvement. For this reason, we warn those taking the test that the quality of writing plays some part in the scoring.

1. In D&D, class and race are crucial elements that define a character's role in the party and his place in the world. It's no coincidence that they're among the most important game mechanics for developers to understand.

a) What is the most powerful class in the Player's Handbook, and why is it the most powerful?

Mike Mearls: The cleric is the most powerful class. Aside from its mechanical advantages – its access to divine spells, ability to wear heavy armor, average base attack, turning/rebuking undead, and two good saves – the cleric's role within the party is perhaps the most vital to the players' success. The cleric is responsible for keeping the other players active with its ability to heal. While magic items can cover this gap, most items that a party can afford don't provide enough healing on a round-to-round basis. The person playing the cleric can exert a lot of control over the party's decisions. For example, during a battle, the cleric moves away from the monsters and announces that if anyone wants healing, they have to move back to his position. The players must follow the cleric if they want their characters to survive.

While the cleric is the strongest class, I would argue that it is not unbalanced. Its abilities are fundamentally passive – they remove conditions rather than inflict them. The cleric needs to be powerful in order to attract players to the role. I think the cleric illustrates that mechanics must sometimes be judged according to criteria other than pure mathematical analysis.

Development's Response

b) What is the least powerful race in the Player's Handbook, and why is it the least powerful?

Mike Mearls: The half-elf is the least powerful race, because it is an elf with the weapon proficiency, secret door detection abilities, and racial ability adjustments removed and the bonus to Spot and Listen reduced. In return, the half-elf gains a +2 bonus to Diplomacy and Gather Information checks. These bonuses are useful only for a narrow range of characters – low Charisma characters and those who do not have Diplomacy and Gather Information as class skills gain little benefit from it since these skills operate against static DCs rather than opposed checks. In an opposed check, there's always a chance that you face an untrained or penalized foe, making any sort of bonus useful. Since both Diplomacy and Gather Information can be used untrained, they are poor investments unless you can use them to routinely beat high (20+) DCs. If anyone in the party aside from the half-elf invests in those skills, the half-elf's bonus is largely useless.

The ability to count any class as favored is a minor edge, especially compared to the human benefits. In comparison, the elf's secret door detection is useful to any character, while Spot and Listen are useful in almost every encounter.

Development's Response

Other popular answers to this question include the gnome and half-orc. While both of those races have their limitations (gnomes are mostly overshadowed by halflings, and half-orcs are severly limited in their choice of classes), both can shine in specialized builds.

And here again are the results from our 09/09 poll, taken on this question:

Most Powerful Class Least Powerful Race
Cleric 23.0% Half-Elves 33.5%
Wizard 15.5% Half-Orcs 20.1%
Druid 13.3% Gnomes 16.4%
None 12.6% None 11.0%
Monk 11.1% Halflings 8.2%
Fighter 6.6% Humans 5.9%
Sorcerer 6.2% Elves 2.5%
Paladin 4.1% Dwarves 2.5%
Rogue 2.9%
Barbarian 2.4%
Ranger 1.4%
Bard 1.0%

2. Longstrider is a 1st-level ranger and druid spell that increases movement by 10 feet for 1 hour per level. Is this spell more powerful, equally powerful, or less powerful than most 1st-level spells? Why do you think this is true?

Mike Mearls: I believe that longstrider is powerful for a 1st level spell, but not overly so when compared to magic missile or shield of faith. It falls above the average 1st-level spell in that it remains useful at high levels.

The key to its utility lies in its 1 hour per level duration. A high level druid, ranger, or cleric with the Travel domain gains the equivalent of a +10 feet bonus to movement in return for a 1st level spell slot each day. Longstrider has several factors that prevent it from becoming overly powerful. As a personal spell, it can only affect the caster. Thus, the caster must be built to take advantage of the spell. Considering that the barbarian has a 1st-level ability that grants the same benefit without any duration, the spell also seems about right in terms of power.

If this spell's range was changed to touch, I believe it would become too powerful. In that case, the entire party could essentially operate with a +10 bonus to speed at high levels, plus characters such as rogues, monks and barbarians, who generally gain the most from a speed increase, could consistently gain access to its benefits.

Development's Response

3. The concept of the "swift action" (as described in such books as Expanded Psionics Handbook and Complete Arcane) is a relatively new addition to D&D. Why were swift actions (especially swift-action casting time spells) added to the game? What's the downside of adding swift actions to the game?

Mike Mearls: The swift action was added to the game to make spellcasting warriors a viable option. A multiclassed fighter/wizard, or a class such as the psychic warrior, is forced to make a single, critical decision – cast a spell now and attack next turn, or attack now and forget about using a spell. This problem becomes even worse at high levels. Spellcasting warrior characters must either have time to buff before a battle, or they lose the benefits offered by their spells. This case also extends to any spellcaster/non-spellcaster multiclass combination.

The downside to swift actions is that they can extend the time it takes for player to resolve his action. Not only must he decide either which spell to cast or who to attack, but he must now decide which spell to use and which opponent to strike. In addition, a swift action spell gains the equivalent of the Quicken Spell metamagic feat. Granting a character the ability to cast two spells on his action opens up some potentially troublesome combinations. For example, any swift action damaging spell that requires an attack roll will almost invariably end up comboed with true strike.

Development's Response

4. You're part of the development team for the next D&D sourcebook. If these two feats were part of the design turnover, what are some comments that you would make about them?

Arcane Defiance
Your knowledge of one school of spells enables you to better resist spells from that school.
Prerequisites: Int 12, Spell Focus in the chosen school, ability to cast one spell from the selected school.
Benefit: Select one school of spells that you can cast and for which you have the Spell Focus feat. You get a +1 bonus on saving throws against spells from that school.

Mike Mearls: Arcane Defiance seems a bit weak for a feat. Compared to Iron Will, Lightning Reflexes and Great Fortitude, it offers half the bonus against a potentially more limited range of spells. While it does apply to all three saves, the limited range of effects it protects against make it a bit weak. This feat is drastically more useful against the evocation, enchantment, and necromancy schools compared to conjuration or divination. A +2 bonus fits better with the established save improving feats. The prerequisites feel a little vague – does a wizard qualify if he has a spell in his spellbooks? Does a cleric qualify if the appropriate spell is on his spell list? I would suggest removing it, as the Spell Focus prerequisite seems to provide enough of a link to the chosen school at a much higher cost to a wizard, cleric, or druid. In comparison, a sorcerer or bard pays a steeper price for this feat.

The name is inaccurate. There's nothing here that prevents a divine caster from taking this feat. The Intelligence prerequisite does not seem justified in this light. If this feat is supposed to reflect an arcane specialist's ability to resist his chosen school, the prerequisites should illustrate that.

Burning Barrier of Breath
You can channel the power of your breath weapon to create a barrier of flames.
Prerequisites: Cha 13, breath weapon.
Benefit: Use your breath weapon to cast wall of fire.

Mike Mearls: This feat fails to cover all the facets that are in play here. What is the caster level for the wall of fire? How does one determine the save DC? Is this used as a supernatural or spell-like ability? What are the exact mechanics of "use your breath weapon"? Does this require the creature to exhaust its use of the breath weapon? Are there limits to how often you can use this feat? There should be, because a creature that can breathe once per round can choke up the entire battlefield with walls.

Since this feat generates a wall of fire, the prereqs should include language to allow only creatures with a fire-based breath weapon to use it, or it should explain how a creature creates a fire effect from a non-fire breath weapon. More importantly, wall of fire is a 4th level spell. A prerequisite must ensure that only PCs or creatures of an appropriate CR or level have access to this feat, especially since the number of times per day the character can use the feat is tied to his breath weapon, not this feat. The Charisma requirement places no value on a PC's power.

Development's Response

5. You're part of the development team for the next set of D&D Miniatures. If this model were part of the design turnover, what comments would you make about it?

Ruby Golem
Cost: 38
Faction: CG
Type: Construct
Level: 8
Speed: 4
AC: 22
HP: 80
Melee Attack: +4/+4 (10)

Special Abilities
Fearless
Regeneration 5 (heal 5 damage each time Ruby golem is activated)
Sonic weakness (Ruby golem cannot regenerate damage from sonic attacks)
Magic Immunity (Whenever a spell is cast on ruby golem roll 1-10 the caster gets the spell back and it has no effect, 11-20 the caster loses the spell and it has no effect.)

Warband building
Ruby Golem can be played in any warband but costs an extra 5 points and loses fearless if he is not in CG.


Tangent Alert!: This miniature is on the test because one of the developers has been teasing Rob Heinsoo about his RPG design on the ruby golem for years. The ruby golem as written in Monsters of Faerun was a construct with regeneration (all damage taken is subdual damage + constructs are immune to subdual damage = ridiculously hard to kill). Since Rob was the lead designer of the D&D Minis game, it seemed fitting to cite a monster he designed for the RPG as the worst possible miniatures design. Really though, Rob’s the one with the last laugh – once you solve the regen problem, the ruby golem’s a pretty cool monster.

Mike Mearls: The sonic weakness seems problematic, since it forces the player to keep separate track of sonic and normal damage. The magic immunity ability does not work like the other golems' ability from previous sets. The golem is awfully slow and high AC for a CG figure – the basic stats feel more LG. In addition, its pitiable attack bonus makes the golem useful against a narrow slice of opponents, primarily low AC CE figures; unless there's a good synergy with another figure in the current set, I think the golem costs too much or needs an improved attack bonus. As its stands, this figure is good at occupying a space and absorbing attacks, but with its slow speed it is easy to outmaneuver, and its poor attack bonus makes drawing an AoO from it a low risk gamble.

It would be clearer in play to make the figure "neutral" a la Mordenkainen and include a warband building ability that grants it fearless in CG. The 5-point increase in cost seems like something that would be easy to overlook in play. I think it would be clearer to simply make the figure available to all factions and cost it appropriately.

Development's Response

6. Your development team has decided that this rule is mechanically balanced, but the team lead tells you that it needs to be rewritten for clarity. How might you rewrite this rule and why?

While this effect affects you, your Reflexive saves are improved by +2 if you're a rogue or other kind of character with evasion, except when she's flat-footed or loses her AC Dex bonus, in which case she doesn't get any bonus, but if she has improved evasion improves you to +4.

Mike Mearls: There is no such thing as a Reflexive save – I assumed the designer meant Reflex save. The prereqs for the bonuses are poorly worded – it could be read to mean that all rogues along with all characters who have evasion gain the benefits. I assume that isn't the case, since prereqs don't normally require a specific class. The bonuses are unlabeled. Since they go away when a PC loses his Dex bonus to AC, it is best to label them as dodge bonuses, particularly since dodge bonuses stack and, as an unnamed bonus, this ability also stacks. It has the same effect in fewer words and it keeps things tidy with respect to abilities that interact with dodge bonuses. I also assume that a flat-footed character loses the bonus even if he has improved evasion. The text above is unclear on that point.

I would re-write the material to:
This effect grants a +2 dodge bonus to Reflex saves if you have evasion, or a +4 dodge bonus to Reflex saves if you have improved evasion.

Development's Response

7. Describe a game mechanic (from a game other than a roleplaying game) that you think is good, and explain why you think it's good.

Mike Mearls: I love mechanics that emphasize the fun parts of a game while pushing the dull parts to the background. Halo 2's damage system removes the typical health meter found in first person shooters. Instead, each player has a shield that soaks damage. Once the shield is gone, additional shots damage a target based on where they hit. When the shields recharge, all body damage heals.

The time needed to recharge is long enough that you are unlikely to heal in the middle of a firefight, but it readies you for the next area of a map once you defeat your current foes. This emphasizes the fun parts of Halo – running around, blasting away at enemies – without forcing players to spend time in search of healing or power-ups. Such a search isn't necessarily fun, and it puts the game on hold until the player is in a good shape to continue.

In multiplayer games, this mechanic encourages good tactics. An ambush or clever use of terrain gives a big edge, since in most cases two opponents meet with full shields. If it takes 10 shots to defeat an opponent, whoever fires first, or whoever makes an opponent miss more often, gains a big advantage.

Development's Response

(Interested to share your own thoughst on the test? Please use this message board thread.)

About the Authors

Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.

Development: Jesse Decker (male human, CR 1/8): I first picked up a d20 somewhere in the early eighties, and I often tell the story of my intro to D&D. I was in elementary school, and a friend received the now famous "red box" set as a gift from his parents. I was instantly hooked, and soon became a regular haunt of the one hobby bookshop here in Renton, WA. Fast forward through some-teen years of gaming (with occasional interruptions for things like school), and just out of college I land a job as editorial assistant for Dragon Magazine. The eight years since that entrance to the gaming industry have included a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon, freelance design credits such as Hammer & Helm, and Unearthed Arcana.

In the middle of 2003, I left the helm of Dragon for a chance to do full-time design in Wizards' R&D group, and was lucky enough to work on books like Complete Adventurer and the DMG II. I clearly liked to talk too much to remain on the design team, so I moved over to manage the relatively new development team for RPGs and D&D Minis.

It's easily the best job in the whole world, but even so, I swear that as soon as I level up I'm taking the Talk Less in Class feat.

Feedback

Thoughts or suggestions for this article? Topics for future Design & Development articles you'd like to see covered? By all means, please feel free to write directly to the authors, at: dndcolumn@wizards.com.

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