ast week, I talked about the concept of “feel” in RPGs, and what it means for the design of Dungeons & Dragons. This week, we turn our attention to how some specific approaches to design can help focus a game’s feel.
D&D’s magic system is a great example of how a design can deliver on creating a particular feel for a game. It also highlights one of the biggest pitfalls in choosing a specific feel for a big part of your game. Spellcasting in D&D takes a lot of heat for its idiosyncratic nature. It shares few, if any, features with how magic is depicted in most fantasy stories and games, with one notable exception—the “Dying Earth” stories of Jack Vance, which inspired D&D’s original spellcasting system. As a result, preparing spells and expending slots can seem out of sync with the exploits of fictional magic-users such as Merlin or Zatanna.
On the other hand, D&D’s magic system delivers the game’s feel in spades. In the last column, we defined feel as a quality that matches your mindset, thoughts, and decisions as a player with your character’s mindset, thoughts, and decisions. When a mind flayer comes around the corner, both you and your 3rd-level wizard should be overcome by fear and plotting an escape. When six kobolds swarm your 12th-level fighter, both you and your character should be confident of victory.
In the same way, the feel of D&D spellcasting means that just like your character, you need to carefully consider which spells you want to cast. Knowing that you’re about to track down a Zhentarim agent in Baldur’s Gate, do you prepare charm person to win over suspicious locals? Or magic missile in case you’re caught in a fight? Would sleep be a better option, to avoid causing injury and angering the city guard? Your character goes through the same process that you as a player go through in picking out spells. Even better, this choice is a great opportunity for players to express their characters’ personalities. Even as a cautious cleric opts for subtle magic, a mage who has sworn an oath to kill the Zhent might pick devastating spells heedless of the consequences.
You can also use the language of the rules to precisely describe your character’s mindset and approach to spells. If you have only one 3rd-level spell left to cast, it makes sense for your character to say something like, “I can cast fireball or fly once more before I need to rest and regain my power.” The mechanics describe the world in terms that make sense to your character.
Of course, many people come to D&D having read plenty of books and seen many fantasy movies. Their concept of magic likely doesn’t match how D&D portrays it. As a result, the feel of magic in the game might be off for them. However, even as we stick to our guns and maintain D&D’s identity through the feel of the game’s traditional spellcasting mechanic, we can keep the needs of these other players in mind—for example, by creating options for groups that want to use spell points in their game.
The challenge in bringing out a game’s feel lies in crafting rules that mimic the decisions and thought processes that a character faces during play. Here are three of the most useful approaches to doing so.
Choices and Consequences
Feel shines through when you ask someone to make a decision. The distinctions between possible choices should resonate with both the player and the character. Your character—working from knowledge of the game world—and you—working from knowledge of both the world and the rules—should weigh the same factors, benefits, drawbacks, and risks as you come to a decision.
Weapons and armor provide an easy example. A greatsword lets you hit harder, but the longsword allows you to use a shield and improve your defense. You as the player and you as the character approach this choice with the same basic criteria and expected outcomes. Your character knows that a shield helps deflect attacks. You know that a shield is worth +2 to AC. Those two things mean the same thing. The mechanics are merely expressions of what happens in the game world.
Matching choices and consequences to run in parallel for players and characters is the most fundamental tool a designer can bring to bear in bringing a game’s feel to life.
Complexity in Strategy, Simplicity in Tactics
During a battle, your character has no more than a second or two to make a decision. Though a round is six seconds long, you still need time to actually complete your action and movement. Nothing messes up feel and breaks game immersion like attaching complex, involved rules to things that should happen quickly in the game world.
On the other hand, complexity is okay when a character can reasonably be expected to take time to make a decision. The rules for managing a kingdom can be more involved than the rules for combat because a single “round” for a realm might represent months or even years of game time. The discussion around the table could mimic the debates between counselors, envoys, and nobles as they hammer out a peace treaty with a nearby dwarf stronghold, or debate whether to launch a raid on a hobgoblin citadel.
In fast-paced situations such as combat, the mechanics for any given decision should allow that decision to resolve in about the same amount of time that the character would take to make the decision. By doing so, the game avoids bogging down the players to the point where referencing rules overshadows the action. In other situations, you can add more nuance and detail.
Narrative cohesion brings to life the decisions and consequences that a player faces. It provides insight into a character’s world. It bridges the gap between Mike, the guy sitting at his friend Rodney’s gaming table, and Kel Kendeen, the wizard of chaos bent on spreading havoc and confusion.
Narrative cohesion is simply the description of what’s happening in the world. In most cases, it’s so obvious that we don’t notice it. Plate armor provides better protection than leather. Giants are stronger than orcs. However, in building mechanics, it’s easy to lose track of what’s happening in the game world. Likewise, if you pay too much attention to the reality of the campaign, then the rules can easily bloat out of control. Finding the middle ground between too much and too little abstraction is a huge challenge in RPG design.
Take sneak attack as an example. In 3rd Edition, huge swaths of creatures were immune to it. Sneak attack was defined as a rogue’s ability to hit a creature in a vital area of its discernible anatomy. Monsters such as golems, elementals, and undead either don’t have a traditional anatomy or lack vital areas to target. Likewise, later rules clarifications implied that you couldn’t sneak attack a giant if you could only reach its arms or feet.
In the end, this focus on reality in the game detracted from sneak attack being a big element of what made rogues distinct. As a rogue, you spent your battles on the edge of the action, waiting for the opportunity to dart in and deliver a deadly strike. While exploring a dungeon, you’d scout ahead in silence, set up an ambush, and take down a guard before it could raise an alarm. However, nothing shatters that kind of immersion faster than realizing that the monster on guard is an elemental or undead. The assumption that sneak attack should focus on a rogue’s knowledge of anatomy breaks the feel of these most common character concepts. Your entire way of thinking as a rogue breaks down.
In later editions, we’ve tweaked the definition of sneak attack to make it more flexible. The key is that rogues are devious. They prefer ambushes, tricks, and indirect attacks. A rogue fights on open, even terms only if there are no other options. Rogues aren’t straight-up warriors or anatomists—they’re devious opportunists and backstabbers. As such, a rogue knows how to maximize attacks when a foe’s guard is down. Your rogue should be able to spot a crack in a stone golem’s leg or the flickering central essence of a fire elemental as easily as he or she can target a living foe where it hurts.
Narrative cohesion explains how you and your character can think of a situation in the same way, even if you’re thinking of the game’s rules and your character can only understand the description of the situation in “real” terms. Narrative cohesion works best when it strikes a middle ground between providing enough detail to explain a situation and leaving enough room for the abstraction necessary to produce a fast, easy-to-use set of rules.
Even with these approaches, feel is much more of an art than a science. By far, the biggest challenge for designers is making sure that the feel we aim for is right for the game. As I mentioned last week, the biggest benefit of our playtest was in opening a dialogue with D&D players and learning what they thought about the game. With more than 175,000 players taking part, the playtest made sure that the R&D team and the broader spectrum of D&D players were on the same page when thinking about the feel of the game.
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.