s we move forward with the design of D&D Next, it’s worth taking a step back to look at some of the general principles of RPG design that the team has employed over the past year.
Of course, we’re busy right now finalizing design and pulling things together. The results of the last round of playtesting were overwhelmingly positive. Although we still have things to polish up, we hit our highest levels of approval. Believe me, you’ve been tough critics in these surveys. It feels good to look back at where we started with the very first round of material and see our progression from there. We’ve made huge strides forward in keeping our playtesters happy while maintaining a consistently high level of participation.
So, without much new design to show you, it would be useful to address some of the techniques and approaches we used in building D&D Next.
Priority Ranking and Balance
Here’s some insight into our design process, specifically regarding how we worked to balance spellcasters against their nonspellcasting allies. Our weapon of choice was a simple priority ranking of options.
A priority ranking for D&D is a list of character option categories, such as classes and proficiencies. The priority ranking places the most important elements at the top of the list and the least important ones at the bottom. In terms of D&D’s content, classes sit at the top of the list, followed by races, spells, backgrounds, and feats.
The ranking answers the following question: What wins in a contest between option A and option B?
If my class gives me the ability to become an awesome archer, I should be a better archer than other characters whose classes give them no archery ability, but who took feats or can cast spells on themselves to gain that ability. Class is ranked higher on the list than spells or feats. Therefore, class wins.
This kind of ranking helps make sense of the interactions between options as a game is designed. It’s a tool to help answer questions, resolve conflicts, and guide design decisions. It helps shape all the elements in the game by clarifying their relationships.
More importantly, using a priority ranking meant that we could sort out options and abilities at the class level, knowing that assigning a feature to a class made that class the best at that particular feature (or tied it with another class that needed that option, too).
When two types of character options start to crowd each other, we know which one is more important. In general, a more important piece of the game should trump a less important one. There are exceptions, but as a general guideline, this rule gives you a place to start in design.
Take spellcasting as an example. If you want to become a powerful caster, you need to take levels in a class such as wizard or cleric. You can take feats to augment your casting ability, or you can pick a race that offers some minor innate magical ability. However, climbing to the top of the spellcasting heap requires you to invest in a character class.
That example might sound obvious or intuitive, but it becomes much fuzzier when you delve into more nuanced class features. If rangers can track but all characters can take a proficiency and feats that allow them to track and improve their ability, who should be better at it? Is the ranger equal in tracking to the character with the proficiency? What about the character with proficiencies and some sort of tracking-related feat?
The line is rarely obvious and easy to spot, but the ranking of options helps us understand how we should weight things. In this case, we’d expect that a ranger could be overshadowed at tracking only by a character investing several choices in background options and feats. A nonranger needs to make a real commitment to stepping into the ranger’s niche.
On the other hand, something like stealth is less clear-cut. In prior editions, a wizard might use invisibility while a rogue makes a Stealth check to hide. In D&D Next, we decided that stealth and other checks are of utmost importance to the rogue—the elements that help define it as a character class. Thus, a rogue who takes stealth options within the class shouldn’t be overshadowed by the invisibility spell. A class trumps a spell.
As with everything relating to game design, much of the process is more of an art than a science. The ranking of options is a useful tool, but not a straitjacket or a checklist. As a team, our understanding of the ranking was fairly explicit about a year ago, but became more intuitive and obvious as our work progressed.
The biggest benefit of this approach was that it made it clear when a spell was threatening to overshadow the abilities of a nonspellcasting character. In almost every instance, we opted to improve the abilities of a class such as the rogue or the fighter to exceed the temporary boost afforded by a spell.
The other big benefit was that it allowed us to create a flexible system for customization. We knew that we could give options for stealth, casting, and so on in feats, backgrounds, and races, as long as the options available at the class level served as an upper limit that those lower-ranked options couldn’t overshadow.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He has worked on the Ravenloft board game along with a number of supplements for the D&D RPG.