his week, I wanted to talk about a few of the rules of D&D Next as they've come together over many months of playtesting. Sometimes a rule's value to the game is clear from the beginning. Sometimes it takes a while for a rule to come together. Sometimes rules that work fine at the concept stage are ultimately dropped from the game, and it can be interesting to look at the thinking behind these processes.
Advantage and Disadvantage
I'd like to say we were surprised when this rule performed so well in play and in the playtest polls, but the truth is that we knew we were onto something with advantage early on. When the design team first proposed this rule, there was an almost unanimous sense that it was a good idea. When we had follow-up conversations about advantage, it was great to have a mountain of playtest data to confirm exactly how much players liked it.
We didn't fully realize it at the time, but advantage and disadvantage did a great job of cutting down on clutter. All we knew was that people wanted a faster, more agile game, and the overwhelmingly positive reaction to advantage and disadvantage helped to guide the creation of the lean, mean RPG machine that D&D Next has become.
At one point, we considered treating weapons in a manner similar to spells, giving each weapon one or more special maneuvers it could execute. For instance, a flail might let you trip someone, make a disarming attack, or attack with reach. In theory, it sounded cool. In practice, it bloated the system and led to far more complexity than we wanted. Forcing every player to understand how all the weapons in the game worked was a headache. It assumed that everyone wanted to spend the same amount of time poring over the weapon list.
In the end, these sorts of abilities are better implemented through feats and class features. Though some players wanted this complexity, it wasn't for everyone, and that guiding principle steered a lot of our design.
I've noticed that many DMs miss this rule when running D&D Next. When you cast a concentration spell, any other concentration spell you've previously cast immediately ends. This rule prevents casters from overloading on buff spells or completely shutting down battles with multiple control spells. It encourages casters to be more strategic in how they operate.
Concentration is an odd rule, because though our overall goal is to reduce complexity, it specifically makes the game more complex. However, adding that small bit of complexity helps to lessen the complexity of the game overall, encouraging a play style that helps level the field between casters and noncasters, while also deemphasizing control and buff effects. Both of these effect types slow down the game and increase complexity across the table. Limiting them to one per caster helps regulate how many complex spells hit the table at once. It's a bit of focused complexity in one aspect of the game that makes the rest of the game move quicker and easier.
Several times, we took a stab at introducing hard and fast rules for allowing characters to automatically succeed at certain types of checks. These rules sounded great, and in the hands of some DMs, they played well at the table. Unfortunately, they didn't mesh with all play styles. On top of that, the rules tended to break down in any situation in which the party would have a single specialist deal with a check.
I think of our explorations in this area as similar to the effort car manufacturers put into concept cars. Many are exciting and show off what a car can do, but they aren't necessarily the best option for the kind of vehicle most people need. However, we learned a lot from these efforts, and the idea of automatic success lives on in our DC mechanics. Where prior editions gave guidelines for DCs less than 10, we're moving away from that. As a rule of thumb, if the average person can succeed at a task more than half the time, we're not going to bother giving it a DC. Things like climbing ladders don't require checks in D&D Next.
At the same time, if the playtest showed us anything, it's that players and DMs still love a bit of randomness, in the form of the threat of catastrophic failure or unlikely success. That feedback was a big part of the reason we avoided adding passive perception to the game until late in the process. Even then, the rules require traps and hidden creatures to make checks against passive perception, rather than relying on the automatic success or failure of comparing two static results.
If one thing links the examples I've talked about here, it's that the rules for a tabletop RPG can have implications for the game that go beyond their specific mechanics. I've talked before about how a big part of our goal for the playtest was digging down into the rhythm and flow of the rules—the feel that rules produce at the table. We saw consistent feedback in favor of quick resolution, speedier game play, and an emphasis on risks and rewards—all of which became our focus for the evolution of Dungeons & Dragons.
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.