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RPG Design Philosophy
Legends & Lore
Mike Mearls

I ’m having a funny moment this morning as I sit down to write Legends & Lore. In early 2011, we launched the column because we saw a massive gulf between the audience of D&D players and DMs (everyone reading this column) and the people responsible for making the game (R&D).

It strikes me as funny, then, that I’m somewhat at a loss for things to write about this week. Our latest playtest packet went out during Gen Con. We have a lot of classes, races, spells, and monsters to work on still, but those are just far enough in the future that I don’t have much solid material to share with you. We announced during The Future of D&D keynote at Gen Con that we’re moving to a place with the Forgotten Realms where the results of tabletop RPG play will be shaping its future, but it’s too early to give details on that.

Rather than take a few stabs at what our future might be, I thought it might be helpful to take a look at what sort of philosophy helps guide us in creating rule mechanics for the game. RPG design is a fairly unique animal. You can be great at board game or video game design and still deliver a terrible tabletop RPG (and vice versa).

Since I’m the guy in charge of R&D, I thought it might be useful to give you some insight into what I consider to be the key elements of good RPG design. I follow two basic philosophies: one for DMs and one for players.

The rules shall make things easier for the DM. This might seem like a funny concept, but it’s something that is a huge distinguishing point between RPGs and other types of games. In an RPG, the rules should help move things along, serve as a useful tool for the DM, make things clear and easy to understand for players, and enable the sort of creative, unpredictable, and evocative gaming that has kept tabletop RPGs going for 38 years.

The rules guiding a good RPG fade into the background. Once you learn the rules, you can apply them logically and easily. A good rule is easy to extend to situations that sit near it, giving the DM an easy tool to cover the gaps and any weird situations that arise. The rule doesn’t call attention to itself, disrupt the game, or cause extra work.

An RPG rule’s greatest goal is to ensure that the game is better for its presence. If you didn’t have that rule, you’d want it in the game.

This point is important because RPGs are the most open-ended form of game. The DM needs to make judgment calls and apply the rules, and having rules that are easy to extend or modify makes that much simpler.

The concept of easy rules also extends to things such as monster XP values or levels, treasure value, and so on. A DM should be able to throw a monster at the party or stash loot in the dungeon with some idea of its relative power. Whether you care about the characters’ relative power compared to a monster or magic item is up to you. As a DM, you can carefully balance everything to meet the party’s level, or you can build a world where opening the wrong door at 1st level unleashes Tiamat on the party. The key is that the DM gets to decide how that works, not the game rules. The game’s job is to inform the DM, not dictate to him or her.

It’s important to contrast this point against other types of games. The rules for tennis or poker don’t make things easier for players. They instead make the game fair by establishing the standards for serves, shots, conduct, and so on. Most games are concerned with maintaining fairness, providing clarity, and covering every conceivable event in the game, but D&D is different. As a cooperative game, it relies on the DM to cover those areas. There is one exception, however.

The rules shall balance character options, within reason. D&D gives players classes, races, spells, and other options to build characters. Although the game isn’t competitive, it’s supposed to give players a chance to take on a role as an adventurer in a fantasy setting. Some people want to be wizards, and others want to be warriors. The game should ensure that no single option, or small group of them, completely overshadows the rest. The game is about the adventures of fighters, rogues, wizards, and clerics, not a wizard and his or her lackeys.

In other words, the game shouldn’t punish someone for deciding that he or she wants a character like Sir Lancelot rather than someone based on Raistlin Majere (or vice versa). Whether your DM runs an absolutely killer dungeon or hands out artifacts like candy, the characters should each have the same basic opportunities to contribute to the adventure, stand out, and feel effective.

On the other hand, perfect balance is a complete myth. If people want to build broken characters, they are going to find ways to bend the system and options to completely outdo everyone else. When a broken combination appears, R&D needs to judge whether it’s a pervasive enough problem that it requires errata or another major fix. In the meantime, we can give DMs guidance and advice on dealing with overpowered characters. We can also issue suggested changes to tide groups over. It’s fine for players to find powerful combinations. R&D needs to determine if those combos are powerful enough to distort the game or transform one character class into the absolutely most powerful option.

Building everything in perfect balance would lead to a boring game. Additionally, the moment where a character does something notable is a moment created by localized imbalance. It’s interesting when the wizard uses feather fall to allow the rogue to float silently on to a hill giant’s back and stab it in the back from above. It’s heroic for a fighter to block a dungeon corridor and singlehandedly hold back a dozen ogres while the rest of the party retreats. We want our characters to shine. The rules step in to make that happen by giving the character the chance to accomplish something unique.

The rules fall down when, through no special effort, one character outshines everyone else combined. There’s also a problem when entire classes don’t have much to contribute. The system works if the average gamer can put together a character and have a good time. Thus, overall the classes should be balanced by giving them unique and interesting things to do that allow each one to stand out in its own way.

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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