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Evolution and D&D
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

My name is Mike Mearls, 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.

Last week, I talked about the divide between fighters and wizards in the early days of D&D. Interestingly enough, that divide remained in place until the release of 4th Edition. It seems odd that such a disparity in power was not only accepted, but viewed as a core part of the game. However, when we peek into the mechanics of AD&D things start to make sense.

Segments, Initiative, and Lost Spells

Back in the days of AD&D, casting a spell was a dangerous option during a battle. The initiative rules required each side to roll for initiative at the start of each round. Characters had to decide their actions before they knew the exact order they would act. Spells required time to complete, leaving a gap between your rolled initiative and when the spell actually completed. If a caster suffered damage before completing a spell, that spell was effectively wasted—thus, a few orcs armed with bows could easily shut down a spellcaster.

Unleashing a spell therefore required teamwork and a little bit of luck. In that sense, the gap between fighters and wizards felt narrower than it might appear. Without a fighter, the wizard was helpless unless the gods of initiative were kind. So if a wizard managed to unleash a powerful spell, a fighter could easily see how his or her presence in the fight made that spell possible.

In addition, a fighter could always attack. While the wizard was crossing his fingers and hoping to unleash a fireball, the fighter could slice through a horde of orcs without worrying about losing his attacks. The wizard’s power felt balanced by the restrictions on its use.

However, as the game transitioned to 3rd Edition, the initiative system underwent an overhaul. Each individual combatant rolled initiative, the order didn’t change (unless you delayed or readied your action), and spells fired off immediately. Such changes helped widen the disparity between these two classes. In addition, spellcasters had much easier access to potions, scrolls, wands, and other items that gave them access to a wider and deeper selection of spells. Suffering damage while casting might still wreck a spell, but a high Concentration skill bonus could now also take care of that.

Character Creation and Optimization

While it’s easy to look at this change as the end result of a series of unforeseen consequences, I think there’s a bigger force in play. Players like the feeling of power and effectiveness that games provide them. Changes to D&D, like making it much easier to use their spells without interruption, speak to that feeling. If you want to play a wizard, you want to cast spells. If the game makes it harder to cast spells, our would-be wizard might abandon the game.

One of the big changes of 3rd Edition was its increase in the number of choices made in creating characters (also discussed in a past column). Previously, you rolled your stats, picked a class, and maybe selected a few spells. If you found a magic item, you either used it or abandoned it. In 3rd Edition, you could now combine feats, skills, and spells, along with magic items you purchased, to create a character capable of a specific, mechanical trick. For many players (though not all) the play skill of the game shifted from exploring and reacting to the environment, to finding the right combination of character abilities.

That change flows back into the idea of making life easier on casters. If you spent hours perfecting a character, it was lame that the rules would stop you from actually using your tricks. Deep character creation and optimization created incentives for the designers to clear any obstacles to making use of your chosen powers.

Such a change to the game reflects how I believe evolution changes D&D. We’re used to hearing the word “evolution” bandied about as an equivalent to “improvement”. A new computer is an evolution of an older model. A weak sports team evolves into a championship contender through good draft picks and trades. However, that’s an imperfect use of the word. Evolution never takes place in a vacuum. It relies on context, the environment in which it takes place, to drive it. A species that can survive without much water can resist a drought better than one that needs more. However, that doesn’t make one species inherently better than the other; one might be better adapted to a dry climate, but under different conditions the other could outcompete it and flourish.

The same applies to D&D. When we think of the game’s evolution, I believe it primarily refers to how the game reacts to changes in gamer preferences and play styles. With the rise of 3rd Edition, D&D embraced character customization found in RPGs like Champions and GURPS. It continued the trend started by 2nd Edition’s introduction of kits, varying uses for proficiency slots, and the Skills & Powers supplement.

All Gaming Is Local

With all that in mind, I believe that there is no one, true way to play D&D. The game might change to accommodate different styles and new tastes or preferences, but at the end of the day the “right” way to play the game depends on you and your group. Do you like building characters, or would you rather just get to the action? What makes you the most excited, a tough fight or a funny roleplaying scene? We all have our preferences. We might all play D&D, but the ways in which we play or want to play are not necessarily compatible. It’s a big issues facing R&D, as edition wars clearly illustrate.

The video linked below talks something about this concept. I think it says much to how people relate to D&D: What We Can Learn from Spagetti Sauce.

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 04/12/2011

Which class do you prefer, wizard or fighter?

  • Wizard: 40.4%
  • Fighter: 28.7%
  • Neither: 18.2%
  • Jester: 12.6%

Poll Time

You stand at an intersection, with passages heading to the north, south, east, and west. You arrived here from the east, having trodden down a broken, stone staircase into the twisting halls and forgotten vaults that stand below the ruins of an ancient wizard's tower. The passage to the west is well-worn and free of dust. To the north wafts a faint odor of rot. To the south, you see a stone door, half open. In the shadows beyond the door you can barely make out a humanoid shaped statue.

Which way do you go?

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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