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Modular Madness
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.


One of the primary goals I had in mind in kicking off this article series was to start a conversation between gamers and R&D. I’ve mentioned this before, and I’ll mention it again that your feedback in the forums and elsewhere is vitally important to keeping D&D healthy and interesting.

With that in mind, I’d like to revisit a few of the concepts I touched on last week.

The Foundation

One of the things I mentioned last week was the idea that skills and feats could be optional systems. In reading through the feedback, it’s clear that most people desire a starting point that includes those elements. Character customization is a big part of D&D. It makes sense to avoid putting too much of that into the classes. Otherwise, they lose some of their iconic identity. On the other hand, feats and skills are really handy for customizing a character. Since they’re shared between classes, you can design them to archetypes or concepts that can move between classes.

It also suggests that feats and skills shouldn’t be linked to the core math of the game. If classes carry the combat, interaction, and exploration abilities that the game expects from the typical character, feats and skills allow you to specialize in one of those areas.

In other words, your feats allow you to be better at something than other characters. That difference should be noticeable, but it can’t be so big that it disrupts balance.

If we make feats and skills part of the core, we can then create a fairly simple rules module for old school D&D play. These rules not only would remove feats and skills, but they would also explicitly push the game toward DM rulings rather than hard and fast rules. This sort of rules module would use the same DM guidelines for adventure design. The idea would be that player skill—knowing where to look for traps, learning a monster’s weaknesses, making smart strategic decisions—takes the place of the mechanical advantages offered by skills and feats. In some ways, it’s like playing D&D in hard mode.

The Modules

The idea of an old school rules module paints a pretty good picture of how the module concept could work. I think the concept works best if the rules alterations that significantly affect character abilities come in bundles that point to a thematic style of play. This approach makes it easy for a DM to explain a campaign and gives clear expectations for players.

Dark Sun provides a good example of this. You could imagine that the Dark Sun rules module offers the following for all characters:

  • Superior ability scores created either by a generous random method or a point buy option with a bigger budget;
  • Psionic talents for all characters;
  • Racial variants with greater ability score bonuses.

These modifiers are pure additions without drawbacks. They make characters more powerful because that’s how Dark Sun works. On the DM’s side of the screen, the adventure and encounter building guidelines account for this increase in power. In addition, the rules for non-metal weapons and the rarity of magic items also help to balance the campaign.

Other modules would require a similar thematic approach, one that helps snap everything into focus. For the advanced DM, it wouldn’t be hard to take the next step and assign a power level to each individual enhancement. Such DMs could then mix and match rules to create unique campaigns or match the mechanics to fit the worlds they’ve built.

Complexity

I’ve talked a fair bit about complexity, and it’s worth revisiting it again.

If you make feats and skills part of the core game, then you solve some issues with complexity and character creation. The core class concept—class progressions with choices predetermined across each level—works well here for pick-up games, new players, or quick NPC creation.

Additional rules modules could use a similar approach. Dark Sun psionics might be wild talents gained by rolling on a table, or the power list could include a few simple, easy packages that beginners could select and use, DMs can layer on top of NPCs to save time, or players could choose when putting together characters for a pick-up game.

Other rules modules might add complexity in layers. The realm management rules could have a basic version that resolves military conflicts, handles the general happiness and loyalty of the realm, and determines revenue through taxes. More detailed subsystems could exist for each of those options, allowing DMs to tailor the focus of the campaign as needed. You could also imagine those rules coming into play as necessary. When the paladin gains the throne, she might have a trusted general on hand to manage the threat posed by the barbarian tribes. Later in the campaign, as the tribes prepare to go to war against the realm, the trusted general betrays the paladin. The paladin must now personally manage the armies, thus allowing the DM to segue into the more detailed system.

A Work in Progress

In some ways, you can think of this process as akin to character creation for the DM. The DM decides what kind of campaign he wants to run, in terms of tone, world elements and so forth, and then picks out options or rules modules that match that tone. The campaign setting becomes as much of a character in the rules as any NPC, location, or event.

With all that in mind, I’ll be at Gen Con later this week to preview some of our products for the coming year. Our product preview panel is Saturday at 10 AM in Indiana Ballroom G at the Marriott. In addition, I’ll be at the R&D at Your Service panel at 10 AM on Thursday at the same location. Stop on by, ask me a question, and/or give me your feedback on this series.

Poll Time

The final round of the Creature Competition has now opened for voting. This week's match-up is:

  • The Displacer Cube vs Intellect Tyrant
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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