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Rule-of-Three: 11/07/2011
Rich Baker

You have questions—we have answers! Here's how it works—each week, our Community Manager will be scouring all available sources to find whatever questions you're asking. We'll pick three of them for R&D's Rich Baker to answer, whether about the about the making of the game, the technical workings of our DDI studio, or anything else you care to know about… with some caveats.

There are certain business and legal questions we can't answer (for business and legal reasons). And if you have a specific rules question, we'd rather point you to Customer Service, where representatives are ready and waiting to help guide you through the rules of the game. That said, our goal is provide you with as much information we can—in this and other venues.


This week, I'll continue with more questions about the whys and wherefores of 4th Edition. We had a good response to WotC Trevor's request for questions, and I have plenty to work with still.

1 With skill challenges and highly codified combat, some say 4E favors PC skill over player skill. Intentional or coincidental?

Intentional. We wanted to make sure the game was very accessible to newer players. For example, one of the classic hang-ups in roleplaying encounters is that an inexperienced player with a highly charismatic PC might not have the confidence or knack for witty repartee to portray his character's effectiveness in a tense negotiation. On the other hand, a really unpleasant PC in the hands of a forceful, fast-talking player doesn't ever get penalized for his rotten Charisma score, because the player can smooth over that character hole with his own roleplaying skills. During the development of 4e, we decided to slant the resolution of roleplaying encounters toward the PC's innate abilities, not the player's debate skills or personal panache; the skill challenge system reflects this.

There is, of course, a cost to this approach that I have come to regret to some extent: Game immersion suffers when players don't care what they say or do. I have been at many 3e and 4e tables where a player says something like, "I Diplomicize the guy," or "I bluff him, I got a 30," without ever offering a hint as to what argument or lie the character might be creating. For some gaming groups, those details are a nuisance, and using the skills is a shortcut to the action. But for other groups, those interactions are the bread and butter of exploring the world and engaging with the adventure. I'd like to find better ways to make both tables happy.

Regarding "highly codified combat," I assume you're referring to things like combat roles, unification of conditions, and leveling complexity across classes. Yes, we intentionally took steps to "insulate" newer or less skilled players from making poor decisions by not understanding what they were supposed to do. For example, it's easier to tank with a 4e fighter than with a 1e, 2e, or 3e fighter, because the 4e fighter possesses "role insulation" features such as Combat Challenge and Combat Superiority. I think there's still plenty of room for player skill to matter, however.

2 Did MMOs influence design in things like encounter powers and roles, or did this come more as a natural evolution?

We're gamers too, so naturally we play a lot of games of all sorts and compare them to what we do. What MMOs did for us in the 4e development process was to provide some new vocabulary and viewpoints for examining our game. We were influenced to some degree, but we were already working on a number of internally driven design efforts that led us in some similar directions.

For example, encounter powers were something we were already experimenting with in the tail end of 3rd Edition. Design work on Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords explored this space independently of the early design work on 4th Edition. I was the lead designer on that particular project, and I wasn't much of an MMO player at the time. I was just looking for ways to create "martial spells" that could be used without reference to a daily progression but couldn't be used at will. I realized that earlier editions of D&D had many class features you could use X times per day, and when X is somewhere between 2 and 5, it's something you should see about once per encounter. Our developers were examining similar ideas derived from cooldowns in CRPGS and MMOs around the same time; the notion of the encounter power as it came to be implemented in 4th Edition arose from a mix of both ideas.

As for roles, well, roles have been part of D&D forever. Every 1e or 2e player knows that it's the job of the fighter to protect the wizard from getting attacked in melee, and it's the job of the cleric to keep the fighter on his feet. But looking at D&D through the MMO lens helped us to identify why things like the 2e specialty priest, druid, bard, and thief hadn't ever been very effective character classes when scenarios didn't cater to their special niches ("nature guy" or "talky guy" or "skill guy"). Earlier editions of D&D never really nailed down a striker role or identified what exactly was required for a "demicleric" such as the druid or specialty priest to effectively serve as a party's cleric. We'd known for years that these were problems; fresh experience with MMOs helped us to diagnose them, and started us thinking about what tools each role needed to have its unique impact in the combat part of the game.

3 What's the single biggest lesson you've learned about D&D's design and development since the start of 4e, and how are you applying that info?

I chatted with some of my coworkers, and opinions vary. But here's one that I think about a lot, and my colleagues generally agree with me: We have too many powers that are too similar. Listing powers under specific classes might have helped organize the Player's Handbook for the specific task of character creation, but it launched us on a design and development path where we created many similar powers whose only substantive difference is the class those powers appear under. If I told you "I'm thinking of a 2[W] power that dazes for 1 round—which class does that power belong to?" you couldn't begin to guess. Almost anybody might have that power.

In earlier editions, some spells were allowed to appear on multiple class lists. We considered this a moderate nuisance in 3rd Edition, because it was strange that you couldn't describe hold person as a 2nd-level spell—for the wizard, it wasn't. I have belatedly come to realize that overlapping spell lists are a good thing, because they give spells like hold person and dispel magic unique identities in the game. When I play 4e, I don't recognize most of the powers that my fellow players are using, and that's a shame. In retrospect, I wish we'd just created a Powers Appendix of iconic, diverse effects (including martial powers, of course), and granted each class access to different subsets of those powers. The game would be better with a smaller number of iconic and memorable powers even if classes overlapped a bit more.

That ship's sailed, but we are looking at ways to be more conservative with the creation of new powers (or classes requiring entire power sets) in the current environment. Certainly the Essentials versions of the fighter, rogue, and ranger offered different ways to play functional characters with fewer powers. Introducing builds instead of classes is another way to create greater overlap in power selection. Upcoming products showcase more examples of both these approaches, which we now think are a little better for the game as a whole.


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