ast week, I talked about how elegance is the ultimate goal for every game designer, and about how that goal has shaped the design of D&D Next. Design finesse is the main tool we use in the quest for elegance. However, beyond design, it's important to remember that elegance only ever reveals itself as a byproduct of play.
Elegance arises in the natural, organic rhythm of an RPG session, as the rules effortlessly support the action, make the DM's life easier, and enable flow at the table. Elegant rules are invisible rules, in that using them makes the moments of the game move more smoothly than they otherwise would. You can think of elegant rules as helpers who are always in the right place at the right time.
The last two of our four precepts for design finesse are specifically focused on creating elegance in the way the game is played.
Think Locally to Keep Rules Invisible
American politician and former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill was famous for saying, "All politics is local." The same can apply to RPG rules—at least rules designed to take care of a specific situation.
The story of opportunity attacks in D&D Next was written by this concept. If you remember attacks of opportunity in 3rd Edition, they had quite a number of specific cases and exceptions attached to them. A number of actions either did or did not provoke attacks of opportunity. Moving into a creature's threatened area did not provoke, but moving within or out of that area did. Casting a spell provoked. Standing up provoked. Drawing a sword didn't. It's a lot to learn, and every player had to understand the rules because they had a big effect in combat. Each round, almost every character or monster involved in an encounter would do something that was specifically called out as provoking or not provoking attacks of opportunity.
In 4th Edition, we slimmed down opportunity attacks considerably. They were triggered by movement and certain types of attacks (ranged and area), as in 3e, but by nothing else. In D&D Next, we took this simplification even further, with opportunity attacks triggered only when you leave a creature's reach.
In this case, we knew that opportunity attacks were a rule that everyone needed to learn. As such, we needed to keep that rule as simple as possible. If you run away from a melee, you risk a free attack. That penalty has been a part of D&D for decades, and it makes sense in terms of the game's narrative.
However, we knew also that spellcasters have never been eager to engage in melee. This is where the principle of keeping rules local comes in. Rather than including spellcasting in opportunity attacks, we introduced the concept of concentration. In the final form of the rule, attacks can break your concentration and cause a spell to end. Casters who use concentration spells thus still want to avoid melee and take cover whenever possible.
A fighter or rogue doesn't need to learn this rule, nor does a paladin or bard who never picks up concentration spells. It only comes into play for those who want to use buff spells or long-lasting control spells. A player who learns the rules and knows that an evil cleric has used a concentration spell is rewarded by being able to make informed tactical decisions when fighting that cleric. However, you don't need to know the rule to play the game.
As an added bonus, you can't keep more than one concentration spell active at a time. This also cleans up spell stacking and prevents buff abuse. It's an efficient little rule that has done a lot of work toward making the game play well.
Go With the Flow
The final principle of design finesse ties into the idea of creating rules that stem from the players' understanding of how the game is supposed to work, even without any knowledge of the rules. RPGs are powerful because we can take our understanding of the world, apply it to the game, and often come to a correct decision without using the rules to make that choice. This aspect of RPGs helps produce their unique immersive qualities—the ability to draw players into the world of the game and make it come to life.
As an example of a type of gaming that depends entirely on the rules, consider a strategy board game such as Lords of Waterdeep. When playing that game, I know that I should slap a mandatory quest on Rodney because he's in the lead, it's the last round, and he can't complete any more quests with that mandatory quest hanging over him. Only by understanding the rules do I understand when and why to make that decision.
By contrast, in D&D, the DM might describe a pack of hobgoblin archers taking aim at my rogue. If the DM mentions a stone pillar nearby, I can decide to leap behind it and take cover. In D&D we give you a bonus to AC for taking cover. That's a sensible, logical rule that people would expect. However, in deciding to jump behind the pillar, I might know how the rules for cover work, or I might not. I'm simply taking my understanding of how the world works and applying it to the game. All things being equal, the guy behind the pillar is harder to hit than the yokel standing out in the open.
Along these lines, we've talked about adding drawbacks to using bows and ranged weapons in melee. Prior editions used opportunity attacks to punish such attacks, but I don't think a free attack necessarily captures what actually happens when you try to use a bow in melee. Instead, I might advocate for a new trait for weapons—call it 'unwieldy' for now—that we can use to capture the sense that some weapons are a bad choice for close-in fighting. You suffer disadvantage when using an unwieldy weapon within 5 feet of a hostile creature. The longbow, sling, and longspear might be labeled unwieldy, capturing the idea that they are difficult to use when an enemy presses in close.
Rather than use the opportunity attack rules and make everyone learn another exception, the unwieldy rule puts the burden on the attacker and links it to a subset of weapons. Simply by envisioning a character trying to use the weapon while surrounded by orcs, a player can get a clear sense of how and why the drawback makes sense. Even without the rule, many players will intuitively understand that you don't use a longspear or bow in close quarters fighting. As such, the players' sense of the real world makes it seem logical that some sort of drawback should come into play.
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.