ast week, I outlined the two big goals for D&D Next. This week, I'd like to delve a bit deeper into the details behind them. The two main goals—bringing out the core elements of D&D and making a game that scales from simple to complex—are fairly intertwined.
To start with, we're approaching the game in terms of three levels of rules. This week, I'll tackle the basic rules.
The Basic Rules
The basic rules represent the starting point for the game. The basic rules cover the absolute core of the game. They capture the strengths of basic D&D. These rules form a complete game, but they don't give much detail beyond the rules needed to run dungeon exploration. Characters are created by rolling ability scores (though we have discussed the possibility that your class gives you an array that your race then modifies), picking a race, and picking a class. Skills aren't part of the game, but we've discussed integrating skill dice into the classes (fighters get their skill dice on all Strength checks, wizards on all Intelligence ones, and so forth) to support improvisation and the use of checks. Each class has a default specialty, and its benefits are presented as class features. The specialties are simple but effective, such as bonus hit points or spells.
You can think of the basic rules as supporting an AD&D approach to characters—race and class as choices, though without multiclassing—combined with basic D&D's approach to the core game rules.
The current choices that are present in the game—deity for a cleric, tradition for wizard, and so on—won't appear here. The options built into characters will reflect the iconic D&D expression of the classes. Clerics will turn undead, wield maces, wear heavy armor, and heal characters. Wizards will throw fireball and magic missile. Fighters will wear heavy armor and wield the best weapons. Rogues will be sneaky, good with traps, capable of climbing walls, good at backstabbing or sneak attacks, and otherwise talented with the classic rogue abilities. This is where it is critical that new and returning players see the races and classes in their most iconic form.
The key strengths of the basic rules are that they make the game easy to pick up and play, with fast character creation and classes that default to simple but effective options. Like basic D&D, the rules are more freeform, with DMs encouraged to use the core mechanics to adjudicate corner cases as they come up.
The basic rules will succeed if they support the key concepts of an RPG, namely that you can try anything and that there are no bounds to what is possible. Like basic D&D, the focus rests on the core concept of an RPG, rather than exhaustive rules or character options.
Even better, people who don't care for complex rules, or the new player you're introducing to your campaign regardless of the rules you're using, can create a character using these rules with a minimum of fuss.
Here's a bullet-point list of the goal of the basic, core rules:
- Easy to learn, especially for new players and DMs. In an ideal world, a group of new players can pick up the game in about the same time it takes to learn a board game such as Settlers of Catan. The basic rules are at the forefront of recruiting new players, whether they're 10-year-olds trying their first RPGs or DMs coming back to the game after 10 years away. Adult D&D fans should feel that this is the best way to bring their kids into the games.
- Focuses on what makes RPGs unique (imaginative play, lack of limits, unbounded possibilities, and the fun and random stories about the game that groups share).
- Quick to start play, whether creating characters, reading an adventure, or rolling up a dungeon.
- Teaches DMs how to make rulings and use the core mechanic to resolve anything that comes up in play.
- Quick to play, with complete adventures playable in an hour. A group should be able to complete a simple dungeon with five or six rooms in that time span. Obviously, you can build bigger dungeons for longer sessions, but it's important to reduce complexity and therefore reduce the minimum time needed to play an adventure. A quick start time and fast play are key to recruiting new D&D fans and making the game accessible for people with ever busier, hectic lives.
- In terms of a product, you could imagine something along the lines of a set that covers levels 1 to 10 and includes an adventure of the size and scope of Temple of Elemental Evil. Keep in mind, though, that our specific product plans aren't close to being done, but the example gets at the scope of what we'd like to do.
Current Design Goals
If you look at the current state of the rules, we still have some work to do to hit our goals. These goals have met varying levels of agreement among the designers, and the playtest feedback from the next survey will determine which ones we tackle.
- Simplify the current expertise mechanic to make it run more smoothly at the table. Frankly, we think that martial damage dice and martial damage bonus are too fiddly. The current thinking is to ditch the static bonus, use your weapon's die as the die you gain for bonus damage to make two-handed weapons competitive, and elegantly bind two-weapon fighting and multiple attacks into one system. The hidden benefit of this change is that by dropping damage for martial characters across the board, we can deflate hit points a bit and make higher level monsters relatively tougher.
- Keep the classes balanced. All of the classes should feel competent when compared to each other at all levels, though we're OK with classes being better at specific things. Rogues are good at checks and handling traps. Fighters have the best AC and hit points. Clerics are the best healers and support casters. Wizards are the best at area attacks and control effects. I have to admit that I'm really happy with how the concentration rule is reining in spell stacking and buffs. My high-level playtests have limited any balance problems to specific spells, rather than the entire concept of dropping five buffs to create a death machine character or using glitterdust/grease/stinking cloud/wall of fire at once to turn an encounter into a joke. We're looking at breaking the concentration rule into two separate rules: one rule that covers concentration and the chance that damage ends a spell, and a separate rule (tentatively called focus) that limits you to one focus spell at a time. That will give us a bit more fine control over how spells interact.
- Simplify opportunity attacks. I'd like to focus them exclusively as a penalty for breaking away from melee without disengaging. Personally, I'd like to change their name to cut down on confusion between their intended rules and the rules for them in prior editions. I like how basic and AD&D handled them by focusing them entirely on situations where you try to move out of a melee. That's the intent behind the rule.
- Emphasize the abilities more. The current text doesn't really drive home the importance of the abilities and their central role in the game. I'd like to see us give examples for checks and contests that any character can try for each of them.
- Simplify combat by removing extraneous options. We have 14 options in the rules now. The basic game needs only attack, cast a spell, disengage, hide, hustle, search, and use an item. I'd like the core rules boiled down to about 16 pages, not counting class-specific material.
- Build the core options for the classes, from spells to specialties and specific class choices. The emphasis here will be on making choices that are unquestionably good, requiring little system mastery to use to ensure that new players or people who want a simple character are effective even when playing with veterans.
Part Three: Transitioning
Next week, I'll talk about the standard game and the challenge of ensuring a smooth transition from a game that's similar to basic D&D to one that supports a lot more character options.
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.