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The Many Faces of D&D
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

My name is Mike Mearls, RPG Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.

If you’ve been reading my columns for any amount of time, you’re probably familiar with a refrain that comes up again and again. D&D caters to a diverse crowd of gamers. Some people like combat, others like roleplaying, and still others like immersion and simulation. Over the years, the game has changed to cater to different styles. In many ways, AD&D is a flat-out different game compared to 3rd or 4th Editions.

Here’s my thesis statement: D&D is at its best when it successfully caters to as many of the styles that its players enjoy as possible.

So the question becomes, what are those styles and how can D&D work with them?

First, a Diagram

If you played D&D back in the day, you might remember the old D&D alignment chart. It looked like this:

As you can see, this handy little chart breaks down alignment into its components and shows you where a few common D&D critters sit on the good – evil, law – chaos continuums.

I think we can create a similar diagram that shows how people like to play D&D. Using the enormous production budget I have for this column (which is roughly $0), I’ve had the following diagram created:

As you can see, I have a fairly simple chart. There are two axes, one that ranges from tactics on one end and story on the other. The other covers immersion and abstraction. I think those are two good starting points, but I can imagine starting with others.

I think of tactics as power gaming: learning to make an efficient character who can take down whatever challenges the DM throws at you by using the rules to your advantage. The guy in your group who builds optimized characters is on this end of the chart.

I think of story as looking for challenges outside of the rules. Coming up with a plan to ambush a bandit gang falls here, as does creating a trade guild, marrying into nobility, or building a castle. The guy in your group who likes solving riddles and coming up with a plan straight out of Leverage is on this end of the chart.

Immersion translates into seeing the game through your character’s eyes. Rules that feel real, that simulate the reality of the game, and that provide clear, intuitive cause and effect help with immersion. The guy who speaks in character, or who says “That’s what my character would do” (and not as a lame excuse to do something stupid) is at this end of the chart.

Abstraction favors functional rather than expressive mechanics, those that get the job done without any regard for how those mechanics reflect the reality of the game world. Rules like action points are good examples of this sort of design. The guy who re-skins monsters and powers in your game, who uses the mechanics for a shaman but describes his character as a dwarf possessed by a hundred ghosts of his ancestors also fits into this area.

When you think about D&D, you can draw a little box on that graph that covers the territory that you find most interesting and appealing. I think most players will sketch out a few boxes, but if pressed they’d pick one as their favorite mode. For example, I prefer immersion with an even mix of story and tactics. I also like some abstraction, so I’m not at the far end of the immersion end of things. My own location on the chart might look like this:

That isn’t an absolute. For instance, back in 2nd Edition I ran an adventure called The Siege of Kratys Freehold (from Dungeon #33). I loved that adventure, which involved the characters’ organizing defenses against a siege by invading orcs. That adventure was far on the story side of things, since it required the characters to come up with imaginative solutions to defeat the orcs. Their spells and magic items played only a small role in the adventure. So, while I think people have generalities, I don’t think they are absolutes. The DM, the group, and the specifics of an adventure can change things. Like alignment, my little chart is a generality that can change in specific situations.

I think most people would place themselves squarely in the middle, but I don’t have any hard data to back that up.

What Does it All Mean?

Just as you can peg your tastes in D&D to the chart, you can also map the modes that a given version of D&D best supports. 2nd Edition was big on immersion and story, with little emphasis on tactics until later in the edition. 3rd Edition emphasized tactics but it did account for story; its rules also tended more toward immersion than abstraction. 4th Edition has a big focus on tactics and abstraction, while 1st Edition favored abstraction and story.

As it happens, each of the four editions of the AD&D branch of the game tends toward one of the corners. None are absolutes, but they each definitely aimed for different things.

I think that the ideal D&D would do a good job catering to whatever corner or corners the DM and players like. That sounds fairly obvious. Why not let D&D draw a big box around the entire diagram, rather than stake out one part of it?

The answer to that is simple: It’s an incredibly daunting design challenge. As several folks have pointed out in the comments in this series, it’s hard to do one thing well, never mind everything well. In my experience, games that aim for a universal appeal have to pick at least a few assumptions that ground them. GURPS, for instance, assumes that you’re dealing with fairly realistic levels of lethality in combat and character ability. It’s great for a modern espionage game, but for superheroes gaming I’d reach for Champions or Mutants & Masterminds.

Can you design a game that could aim for encompassing all play styles? Is that even a good idea? How can this inform 4th Edition?

Next week, I’d like to start tackling those questions. We have to begin at the beginning, the absolute core elements of D&D, and see where that kicks things off.

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 06/07/2011

Drawing on the power of the gods, you invoke the rune of peace to cripple the serpent's ability to attack. Bands of divine radiance seal its jaws shut for a few critical moments, allow you to batter it with your mace. When the magic of your prayer finally fades, the snake then grasps you in its jaws. You crush its skull with one, final blow, but not before it delivers a full dose of its deadly poison. You feel woozy and sick, but your divine magic quickly purges the venom.

With the snake slain, you see now that it was coiled around an iron cage. A mangy bugbear sits in the cage, its fur streaked with gray. It glares at you.

"Let me free, human, and I can make it worth your while. I have friends in the city above, and enemies we may share in these tunnels."

What do you do?

  • Bargain with the bugbear: 89.6%
  • Kill the bugbear: 6.8%
  • Continue up the stairs and through the door above: 2.2%
  • Go through the door at ground level of this chamber: 1.4%

Poll Time

The bugbear is eager to cut a deal.

"Escort me to the exit from this place. I can sneak through the city from there. Visit The Rusty Blade no earlier than tomorrow and tell the barkeep that you are a friend of Hrunar. He will give you a gift on my behalf. A wizard dwells in the chambers above this one. He is a deadly foe, but I have a crystal that contains the trapped essence of a demon he tried to bind. Break the crystal and the demon will slay the mage, leaving the mage's treasures behind for you to plunder. That damnable mage captured me after I stole that crystal and several items from him. I can assure you that I only scratched the surface of his treasure hoard."

What do you do?

What do you do?
Escort Hrunar out of the dungeon.
Kill the bugbear.
Ignore him and exit through the door at floor level.
Ignore him and go up the stairs.

Mike Mearls
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.

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