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Rule-of-Three: 01/31/12
Rodney Thompson

Y ou've got questions—we've got answers! Here's how it works—each week, our Community Manager will be scouring all available sources to find whatever questions you're asking. We'll pick three of them for R&D to answer, whether about the about the making of the game, the technical workings of our DDI studio, or anything else you care to know about... with some caveats.

There are certain business and legal questions we can't answer (for business and legal reasons). And if you have a specific rules question, we'd rather point you to Customer Service, where representatives are ready and waiting to help guide you through the rules of the game. That said, our goal is provide you with as much information we can—in this and other venues.

1 What do you feel the pros and cons are of the power system are, and how do you think it will influence the next iteration of D&D?

Powers do a lot of things right. By and large, their function is to serve as a discrete, packaged action that doesn't overlap with other actions. An action doesn't need to worry about stacking with other actions (unless they have some kind of ongoing effect), so when using or designing a power you know that you have everything you need to resolve that action. In the end, powers are just a method of formatting discrete actions. I would argue that powers have always been in D&D, they were just called spells and limited to magical effects. Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords took that and applied it to non-spell elements, and then 4E spread it across all classes.

There are some challenges associated with powers. First, due to their formatting, powers create a wide array of game jargon that a player has to learn before really understanding powers, which can be a barrier for players with lower tolerance for naked mechanics. In a jargon-filled system, there is also a lot of room for error or misunderstanding, and subtle changes between powers can be lost on the reader. If I look at two powers side-by-side and the only difference is that one of them targets Reflex instead of AC, it's easy to miss that on an initial read-through of the power.

There's also a question of whether or not that level of granularity is a good thing, or whether the kinds of effects you are giving out should be bigger and more meaningful than simply changing the defense that gets targeted. Additionally, in a highly granular system, it's easy to create mechanical elements simply by mixing and matching; in other words, it's easy to create a lot of powers that boil down to do some damage plus apply some conditions, and have them be mechanically distinct. This increases the volume of material that enters the system, which adds a level of difficulty to building and maintaining characters.

The execution of the powers system in 4E also has an interesting psychological effect. Given the high number of powers each character has (even at 1st level, a character can have eight or more powers), they create a sort of tunnel vision for many players that makes it harder to improvise actions on the fly. A phrase I like to use is, "When presented with buttons, you never think to press the invisible buttons." When they have eight distinct options laid out before them, most people won't think to ask for the ninth option. For players used to a game where the impetus is on each player to be creative with their actions, powers can create a sense of limited options, since having an array of powers in front of you makes it seem like those are your only choices. On the flip side of that, however, is that powers are great for players who don't want to improvise their actions every turn, instead finding powers to be a reliable method of having valid choices to make on a turn-by-turn basis.

So, in the end, the value of powers largely depends on the player. If you don't mind more technical language, favor high granularity, and prefer an array of predetermined options to the uncertainty of improvised actions, then powers work out great for you. If you prefer plain language in your rules, prefer fewer but more significant effects, and favor improvisation that relies more heavily on the DM to adjudicate, powers are less beneficial to you.

Going forward, I'd like to see us preserve what I see as universally good aspects of powers; in my mind, that includes having them represent discrete actions, and having them available to players looking for more reliability in their actions. I think we should carry forward the idea that complex and discrete actions don't need to be limited solely to magic spells. I also think that powers introduced a lot of good ideas (such as the variable frequency in at-will/encounter/daily usage, or good use of keywording) that can be carried over into the game system as a whole, not just in a "powers" system. At the same time, I would also like to explore being more conservative with the volume and granularity of powers, and instead providing fewer mechanical elements but turning up the volume and complexity on the effects (leaving simpler, less complex actions to be adjudicated by the core system).

2 Skills have changed with every edition of D&D. Which skill system do people in the office like best and why?

We've had a lot of discussions about skills lately, and the answer to your question is that skills remain a topic of debate. There are advocates for a variety of systems, but that debate has really helped us understand what skills really mean to the game, and I think will help us shape the game going forward.

Skills are an interesting and tricky area of game design. In 3rd and 4th Edition, skills serve two primary purposes: resolving player actions, and customizing characters. The first of those two is simple to understand; since my skills give me a numerical bonus, I use my skills to determine success or failure at a given task. That's very different from AD&D, which used ability checks to determine success or failure and, starting with 2nd Edition, used nonweapon proficiencies (the progenitor of modern skills) serving to unlock the ability to do certain other things. The 3E/4E method of task resolution reduces the importance of ability scores to the game as a whole, and also has a side effect of requiring the DM to learn when to call for checks with the various skills (as opposed to having everything boil down to one of six ability scores)

At the same time, skills serve a very valuable purpose to players in that they are a great way to customize your character. Players want to say, "I am good at this thing," and a skill is an easy thing to point to. As your bonus goes up, you know you are getting better. Having a skill is a way to say something about your character's background or tendencies in a meaningful way. While for some players it's easy to just say, "My character is a woodsman," many players want that phrase to be reflected in their character's mechanical capabilities. After all, in reality many of us define ourselves by our capabilities; I call myself a game designer because that's where my capabilities lie. Thus, skills serve as flags that the player plants in his character to announce to the DM and to other players, "This is who my character is."

What does this mean going forward? It means we're still working on it. Skills are clearly important to many players as a customization element. The questions remaining in my mind are, "How can we create a system that provides the customization players get out of skills, while still making it easier for DMs—and players who don't want to use a skills system—to adjudicate actions at the table."

3 What else can you tell us about the miniatures game?

The upcoming miniatures skirmish board game is called Dungeon Command, and we had an open playtest for its system in the latter half of 2011 that yielded some great results. Thanks again to all of you who participated in the playtest, as you really helped us make the game better! The game will be sold in faction packs, each of which contains everything that one player needs to play the game. This includes twelve non-random, thematically linked pre-painted miniatures, plus the cards and tiles you need to play the game.

The first two packs are Heart of Cormyr, consisting of adventurers and heroes from Cormyr, and Sting of Lolth, consisting of drow forces and their spider minions. Soon afterward, we will have Tyranny of Goblins, which consists of goblinoid creatures and their allies. In addition to having a story theme, each faction also has a game mechanical theme that causes it to play slightly differently than other factions. For example, the drow focus on mobility and treachery, while the adventurers have a broader base of abilities but work well with other adventurers. Goblins are easy to get out onto the battlefield, and swarm over your opponent.

We've got a few other expansion packs in the works, and as more packs come out players will be able to combine the creatures and cards from those packs to build their own warbands, which should give the game a lot of replay value as you come up with your own combinations of creatures, pick the right orders to issue to them, and choose a commander for your force.

How can I submit a question to the Rule-of-Three?

Instead of a single venue to submit questions, our Community Manager will be selecting questions from our message boards, Twitter feed, and Facebook account. You can also submit questions directly to So, if you'd like to have your question answered in the Rule-of-Three, just continue to participate in our online community—and we may select yours!

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