Monday, June 30, 2014

The Tabletop: How D&D Fifth Edition Can Be Truly Modular (Or Something Like That)

The edition wars summed up in one image.

I've been looking at the previews for the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and was worried that I was starting to get truly edition-warriory about the whole thing. The more and more the gaming press and the developers themselves treat Fourth Edition as the redheaded stepchild of the family, the more I've been inclined to see it as a misunderstood masterpiece, the Community to Pathfinder's Big Bang Theory. I've been increasingly skeptical of every single teaser being released, and while there is some material here that bears watching, it was the newer, more lethal monster entries that pushed me beyond skepticism, past dismissal, and into some weird academic thinkspace.

What I noticed was that the Ogre, a monster given a "Challenge" rating of 2- theoretically indicating that it's a good challenge for a 2nd-level party- was in fact capable of turning second-level player characters into paste with one good hit. This struck me as excessively lethal, but people on various fora were quick to point out that it was a fair challenge if the players thought outside the box and did some actual strategy before confronting the beast. This is, after all, supposed to be a grittier game than the high-powered heroic fantasy of 4th or even 3rd edition, closer to the old school where life at low levels is very cheap but chargen is fast so death isn't that big a deal. At least I think that's the idea. And here's the rub.

Fifth Edition has been caught in the position of trying to be all things to all players, of trying to appeal to fans of old-school D&D, early AD&D, 3e/Pathfinder, 4e, you name it, in the hopes of creating an ur-D&D capable of propelling revenue into the sacred "core brand" territory inhabited by Magic: the Gathering. It promised to do this via modularity, the pitch being that the rules would be presented in such a way that you could easily swap around various modules that would make it more tactical, less tactical, more complex, more magic-heavy, less magic-heavy, etc. Every gaming group would have its own selection of modules, easily tailoring the game to their standards. What we're seeing first is just the core, you'll be able to change everything.

As time has passed, skepticism has grown around this claim. We haven't really seen any full modules, or explanations of what makes this modular structure different from just having optional rules- which have been present in nearly every edition of D&D- and everyone's starting to wonder if the team are really as committed to this idea as they were two years ago. I'm not sure they are, but what I'm starting to see is how they can be if they so choose. It's not about the edition wars, in the sense of making the game look more like 4th edition or 3rd edition or the Red Box. It's about the underlying assumptions of design and play, and making those clearer to the players.

The original Dungeons & Dragons was designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson based on the assumptions of their own gaming group up in Wisconsin. Through early releases you can see tweaks and additions to the rules based on what this relatively small crowd of players was doing. They asked for different weapons to do different amounts of damage, and they got it; they asked to play elves and dwarves, and Gygax let them after grumbling a bit. The rules were thus built around a very specific play experience, one in which open combat was basically a sign that you had done something wrong. The rules reward you sneaking by the monsters and grabbing their treasure far more than they do cutting them down in a swarm of blades and fireballs. They reward cautious exploration over boldly charging forward. It's a valid style of play, sometimes referred to as "Subterranean Fantasy Fucking Vietnam", and it reaches its apotheosis in adventures like the Tomb of Horrors, where the best way to prevail is to never touch anything with your own hands.

But of course, the game was not just played by one community of hobbyists in Wisconsin. It sold millions and became the cornerstone of the new hobby of roleplaying games, and attracted groups with very different preferences and playstyles. In later editions of Basic and Advanced D&D, the game would expand, trying to accommodate these different approaches. And inevitably there were those who wanted to kick in the door, slaughter orcs, and then take their stuff. There were those who wanted to enact epic fantasy sagas and rescue princesses or save kingdoms, those who wanted to simulate the workings of a fantasy kingdom, and so on. There's an excellent thread at which sums things up better than four solid decades of edition warring ever could.

So the rules for Dungeons and Dragons have been pulled in every which way, but the problem is not so much that the game has changed, or that people aren't playing the same game. It's more that the game, in its status as the definitive fantasy RPG, is so rarely clear about what it is. And this is the key ingredient of modular design that the new edition's designers, so far, haven't talked about- transparency.

Modularity is Mandatory

In wondering whether a truly "modular" RPG was possible, I suddenly remembered that there is, actually, an excellent example. Paranoia XP was released by Mongoose Publishing ten years ago (they have since had to retitle it to avoid the wrath of Microsoft), an update of the legendary darkly comic dystopian RPG that for years had PCs accusing each other of being Commie Mutant Traitors, actually committing acts of treason, and dying in such quantities that giving everyone six clones might just get them halfway through a given adventure. One of the great things about that book is that it actively sought to reconcile the disparate playstyles that had already cropped up in the game's history. It presented throughout the rules and supplements three major styles of play- "Straight", "Classic", and "Zap!"- attuned to, respectively, semi-serious dark future intrigues, healthy combinations of deception and violence, and finally wacky slapstick chaos. The game line had been many things over the years, and there were adventures, rules variants, and GM advice explicitly tuned to these three categories. Even with the Mongoose team's noted distaste for the wacky puns and parodies of late-period Paranoia, they didn't leave fans of that approach out in the cold.

So the new Dungeons & Dragons has to actually lay all this out on the table- talk about the different ways people play it and the best way the rules can be used to those ends. The rumored "tactical module" shouldn't just incorporate grid-based movement for the sake of grid-based movement, but to enable large setpiece combats with characters making meaningful decisions each round. There should be obvious dials to make the game more or less lethal, to actually change the fundamental workings of the game, and there should be clear explanations of how it all works.

Can Wizards of the Coast do this? I think so. Will they? That's another matter. We won't know until November, when they release the Dungeon Master's Guide, which is supposed to actually have all the advanced modules and rules-hacking advice. I'm not exactly holding my breath; so far what we've seen is incredibly opaque, trying to evoke an ineffable "feel" of D&D without getting into any nuts and bolts. In the meantime 4e books are still pretty easy to get, as well as alternate systems ranging from old school retroclones to more progressive entries like Dungeon World and 13th Age. And I suppose there is that Pathfinder thingy. I'm not really excited for the Fifth Edition, but I am willing to allow for the possibility that it can work. It just has to be more versatile and more transparent than any edition of the game has ever been. That's not too hard, right?

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