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Minimalist D&D
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.

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Last week, I talked about the basic activities of D&D. These were the basic things that you did during the game with the help of the mechanics or the DM’s adjudication. In looking at your comments, a few people mentioned that problem solving, including puzzles, was its own thing. Others talked about roleplaying as an aspect of the entire game, an activity layered on top of everything else you do.

Personally, I take something of the opposite view. In my mind, problem solving is an aspect of combat, roleplay, and exploration. If you need to solve a puzzle to open a sealed door, that’s part of exploration. By the same token, I think you can mix roleplay into everything in terms of characterization, but I think there’s a separate bucket for it assuming a role in the DM’s campaign setting.

The main use I see for the categories lies in directing story and mechanical development. You could imagine a DM equipped with three dials, one for each of the basic activities described last week. A DM can twist those dials to match a level of complexity, or the direction of the campaign, as needed.

If a player wants to become king, you need to consider creating mechanics for that (either specific rules or a general set of options that the DM can apply). The main issue I see with puzzles and problem solving is that I believe most players don’t want specific mechanics for this sort of challenge. If you like puzzles, you probably like the challenge they pose to your skill as opposed to your character’s skill. In my experience, mechanics applied to puzzles usually make them more palatable to players who don’t like puzzles. So in my mind, that dial is more of an on/off switch for the DM to determine if puzzles show up in the campaign.

Of course, your mileage may vary. One of the most enjoyable parts of game design is discovering new methods and approaches. Maybe there’s a middle ground out there that isn’t quite evident yet.

The Mechanical Core of D&D: Abilities

Speaking of complexity, this week I’d like to take a look at the six core abilities. They’ve been a part of D&D since the beginning. For a few years we had a seventh ability, Comeliness, to describe a character’s physical attractiveness (as opposed to Charisma’s focus on personality). Dragon magazine also published rules for another ability, Perception, back in the day (issue #133)… but neither of those rules caught on.

In the beginning, your abilities gave you a bonus to experience points and that was it. The first supplement for the game, Greyhawk, changed that by extending bonuses for high abilities that have persisted ever since. Strength granted a bonus to attacks and damage, Dexterity modified AC, and so forth. Very early on, it was clear that Gary Gygax saw that players expected a link between their characters’ abilities and their strengths and weaknesses in the game.

The basic system laid out in Greyhawk remained unchanged until 3rd Edition, which simplified the bonus progression and clarified the interaction between abilities and some areas of the rules. 4th Edition continued in the 3E vein, using the ability score modifiers in a wide variety of situations.

I’m going to make a crazy supposition here: If you go back to 1974 and look at the basic rules of D&D at that time, all of the basic, administrative stuff in the game had been solved via ability scores. Take those, add in 3E’s and 4E’s unified bonus progression, and your entire game engine has its foundation. Lots and lots of stuff that we take for granted—stuff that has been in the game since the beginning—does the same exact work as an ability score. The abilities are sitting on the bench, ready to shoulder the load, but we’ve never asked them to. The underlying reason is simple. Until D&D had its universal task resolution system, the game couldn’t use the abilities in this way.

Abilities Define Your Character

There’s a funny disconnect in D&D. Let’s say the bartender at the Dancing Boar slips a vial of poison into your drink. Most folks would expect a character to make a saving throw versus poison, a Fortitude save, or suffer an attack against Fortitude defense. Those mechanics all work well, but I think they’re ignoring something really important.

You already have a Constitution score. While your Constitution modifier can factor into a save or defense, why bother with that step? Why not just use your Constitution score as a defense and your modifier as a saving throw? In terms of story, we see the same results. The tough dwarf unleashes a thunderous belch and just keeps drinking. His friend the sickly elf coughs, goes cross-eyed, and falls over. The saving throw mechanic, either labeled according to the incoming attack or the target defense, just seems to step in the way. Our nice, fairly universal mechanic can handle that work, but we instead bring in a specialist sub-contractor to tackle it.

In the beginning, ability scores helped you earn extra XP. That’s all they did. Your saving throws were a separate part of your character, determined by class. In fact, almost everything back then was determined by class. Ability score modifiers came shortly after, but by that time saving throws were already in the game. They remained in the game until 4E replaced them with defenses, duplicating the same basic mechanic but just reversing the die roll.

What’s interesting to me is that the game flirted with using abilities. Non-weapon proficiencies used them as a measure of skill, with players trying to roll under the score. 3E and 4E used the modifier as part of the skill system. What if you applied the same thinking to remove the skill system entirely and instead just used an ability check? You use Charisma to intimidate or bluff, rather than a separate but related skill.

When you look at the abilities in that light, it opens up a lot of possibilities. Entire layers of the game become optional add-ons rather than necessary for basic functionality. Skills sit on top of your abilities. Mechanics that improved your defenses or saving throws become situational benefits to your abilities. In terms of simulation, that giant’s 24 Strength speaks for itself when you make an attack against its Strength to push it. The abilities describe any character or monster in a fairly concise but comprehensive way while creating a relatively small mechanical footprint.

Next week, I’ll talk about character classes and the role they serve. I’ll also expand a bit more on this idea of the ability scores as the central starting point for everything.

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 06/21/2011

After escorting the bugbear safely through the dungeon, you once again face a choice:

  • Escort Hrunar out of the dungeon: 80.5%
  • Kill the bugbear: 11.1%
  • Ignore him and go up the stairs: 5.8%
  • Ignore him and exit through the door at floor level: 2.6%

Poll Time

You head over to the Rusty Nail at the appointed hour. The streets of Porttown are busy with laborers heading home after a long day at the docks, merchants and traders from distant ports, sailors from a dozen lands, and adventurers such as yourself. A trader from distant Zaath, clad in the crimson cloak and turban of his people, falls into step next to you. In the fading light of the evening, his near-albino complexion stands out like a beacon. His cloak hangs on his boney, emaciated frame.

He smiles at you and speaks in a low tone meant for your ears alone: “You have been to the ruins beneath the ruined tower of Zenopus. There you met a bugbear. Perhaps we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement regarding that one.”

He gestures toward the sagging façade of an old alehouse, the Western Wind. It is an old and dilapidated place. A few surly sailors are visible at tables, sipping ale and talking quietly. What do you do?

What do you do?
Follow the trader into the Western Wind to hear him out.
Rebuff him and continue on to the Rusty Nail.
Drag him into a nearby alley and beat the truth out of him.

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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