As my good friend Mike Mearls mentioned last week, there are some changes here with the column. The biggest being that I'm writing it. Who am I? Monte Cook. I was one of the co-designers of 3rd edition D&D. I have worked full time as a game designer since the late 80s, including a long stint with TSR and then Wizards of the Coast when the latter bought the former. I did a lot of work with 2nd edition D&D, helped transition to 3rd edition, and then ran my own d20 company, Malhavoc Press, to continue to explore the possibilities of that rules set on my own.
Now I'm back working alongside the other great designers at Wizards of the Coast. I can't tell you how good it feels to be back, working with the game I love. It's amazing.
And it gets even better. My job is primarily to explore options. It's the "research" part of "Research & Development." The goal I've been given is to make D&D the best game it can possibly be. It is and always has been the premier roleplaying game in the world, and I want to make sure it continues to be.
Of course, that's a very special challenge, if you think about it. A game like D&D has to move forward, but it also has to stay true to its roots. If you've got a game that's been adored for almost four decades, while you do what you can to bring in new players, you try to please those who have loved and supported the game for so long.
Like me. I started in 1978 or so with the three little booklets, usually called Original D&D or OD&D now. I moved from there to AD&D, and have played every other version and edition of the game at one time or another. I can't even begin to calculate the thousands of hours I have spent playing or preparing for the game, let alone talking about it, thinking about it, and of course working professionally with it.
I think, then, it comes as no surprise for me to say, I love Dungeons & Dragons.
Diving Right In
If you really roll up your sleeves and dig down to the basics of D&D-—the basics of almost any RPG, really-—what you find is either a unique way to create a narrative or a unique way to play a game. (We can debate storytelling vs. game playing some other day.) Either way you want to look at it, you have one person who has information and others who want information. The players (through their characters) are moving through the fictional world and need to know what it's like and what the consequences of their decisions and actions are. The DM is managing the fictional world. But how is that information conveyed? How does he know what to tell and what not to tell?
Simple, really. The DM is the eyes and ears of the players. If they can see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, or touch it, he should tell them about it. We all know, of course, that it's a bit trickier than that, because sometimes things are hidden.
It's the classic dungeon scenario. You can see it right there on the cover of the first edition Player's Handbook. The PCs have slain the monsters, and now they're searching for treasure. Some of the characters look around, while others busy themselves with the map or something. A couple of guys specifically check out the huge statue. Ideally, it doesn't all come down to just a roll of the dice. Ideally, the players actually interact with the room. They tell the DM that they search the statue, look in the massive brazier that it's holding, and check out the two smaller ones as well. Maybe one of those big teeth on the statue is a lever that opens a secret panel. Maybe one is hollow and holds a secret treasure.
That kind of discussion around the table is dynamic. It's interesting. It should be rewarded. It encourages the skill and imagination of players more than characters. And it would be horrible if a poor die roll wrecked it all.
Imagine, then, if the rules of the game allowed each character to have a ""rank" " that indicated how perceptive they were, and if all the hidden things had a rank as well. You could quickly and easily compare the ranks. If the character's rank was equal to or higher than the rank of the secret door or other hidden thing, he could find it if he took the time, because it was easy for him. No die roll needed. He can just do it because he's very perceptive. If the rank of the hidden thing was higher, though, he could still try to succeed at a die roll. It's challenging, but not impossible (the sweet spot, if you will). And if the difficulty rank was a lot higher, it would just be impossible, and again there's no need for the die roll. The DM just says "you don't find anything." Quick and easy. And best of all, if the player told the DM that his character was doing exactly the right thing-—checking the statue's teeth to see if one moved-—the DM could easily grant him a bonus to his rank and make what was impossible to find, possible. Player ingenuity rewarded.
That's the straightforward, active perception issue, but what about what I like to call "passive perception?" You know: when the PCs aren't actually looking for something, but it stands to reason that some one or more of them might just have a chance of noticing the hidden thing. Remember, for example, how in first 1st edition elves had a chance to notice secret doors just by walking by them? Or what about the rogue who always has a wary eye out for traps? You don't want these guys constantly making die rolls every 5 feet. The game will bog down quickly. Again, if we look to the rank idea, the DM can just make a note that the elf has an Expert rank, and thus he knows that if, in the course of exploration, she walks by any secret doors of Expert rank or lower, she spots them. Higher, and she doesn't (no die rolls at all-—because the die roll itself tells the metagaming player that there's something to find, and the DM having to make rolls for the player behind the screen is awkward). Likewise, the rogue can always be on the lookout for traps without routine walking around the dungeon becoming a chore. It's only when he's being really cautious that he can state that he searches the door or the chest or whatever. And then we handle things as described above, thus rewarding smart play.
This is all a way to handle the flow of information-—particularly secret information-—quickly and easily, with die rolls involved only when it really matters. So that we can keep the game moving at a lively pace without sacrificing the fun of exploring the environment with dynamic play and creative ideas. So that the rules don't get in the way of the fun.
I look forward to hearing what you have to say on the matter. This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot more ideas to talk about. Some crazy, some hopefully not so crazy. It'll be up to you to tell me which is which.
What do you think of this approach to perception?