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Customized Complexity
Legends and Lore
Monte Cook

A t its earliest roots, Dungeons & Dragons had very little customization to offer. You rolled your stats (and if your DM was mean, you didn't even get to arrange them), picked your class, and you went into the dungeon. Character customization came in what weapon you chose to wield (although even this choice was dictated heavily by your class), or which spell—singular—you memorized.

Customization grew in leaps and bounds through the editions. Non-weapon proficiencies, kits, skills, feats, powers, themes... soon players had many, many options with which to shape their character. Want your fighter to be a former cook from the king's court? No problem. Want your wizard to have trained with poisoned shuriken in a dojo? It can be done.

The mantra has always been that you should get to play the character you want to play. And that's a fine mantra.

But hang on a minute. Was it really impossible to create the character you want in those early days? By having no skills, feats, and so on, you could—in theory—create anything at all. Nothing was stopping you from being the former cook from the king's court. And the poisoned shuriken? Well, it would probably take DM approval, but are they really all that different from the darts your wizard is already allowed?

Sure, earlier editions had a lot of roadblocks. In 1st edition, a cleric couldn't use a battleaxe, ever. In 2nd edition, halflings couldn't be bards. And so on. But while few or no mechanics to customize your character meant no flavor to some players, to others it meant that the sky's the limit.

Customization to many people involves choices that mean something. You don't want to just declare that your character used to be the cook from the king's court, you wanted the skill bonus to back up that claim. If D&D is going to quantify combat prowess, it should quantify noncombat actions, if not as well, at least to some degree. A valid expectation.

The details that provide the ability to create the character you want in a meaningful way add complexity. Kits, skills, feats, powers, and so on are all new mechanics you have to learn. And since character customization is important—perhaps most important—at 1st level, you have to learn them right out of the gate. Suddenly, you end up with a game system requiring hours to create a new character.

Having lots of tools to customize characters is good for players. Lots of complexity is bad for players. Again, we face a dilemma. Like so much of game design, it involves identifying a broad spectrum and then picking the proper spot on that spectrum for that game. While for some it's hard to realize that there is indeed a spectrum, the key words there really are "for that game." What's right for one game won't be right for another. So what's right for D&D?

Well, D&D has seen the gamut. From no complexity devoted to customization to a lot. D&D players of different eras are used to different things.

Rather than just choose a spot on the spectrum, then, which will please some but not all, what if we left it up to each individual group? What if D&D gave you the tools and you chose whether or not to use them?

This would mean that some, or perhaps even all, of the various subsystems that exist (and have existed for a long time) in character development would be optional. This would include all the skills and feats and various pieces that go into customizing a character. A radical approach, really. One that would greatly affect game play, but I want to just focus on character development and creation right now. If you strip these things away—from a character creation point of view—you're essentially left with ability scores, race, class, hit points, armor class/defenses, and gear. Interestingly, something that looks a lot like a 1st edition character or even an OD&D character. The other things could be layered on as desired. Again, as an interesting thought experiment, you could layer on a couple options (kits and proficiencies) and have something that looks a lot like a 2nd edition character. Layer on a couple different ones (skills and feats) and you've got a 3rd edition character. A different combination (skills, feats, and powers) gets you a 4th edition character, and so on.

Now that's an oversimplification, because race and class mean different things in the different editions for starters, but it's an interesting way to view it. It also brings into focus that at its core, the game has a few vital threads which have changed very little. At its core, a D&D character is still a D&D character, and thus it becomes clear that the very core is the most important part of the game.

This Week's Polls

Poll 1: When it comes to character creation, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "not at all" and 5 being "very much," I value the following things in D&D books:


 Quick Creation  

 Ability to Customize Fully  

When it comes to character creation, what's more important to you, simplicity or customization? Choose a number on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the picture of simplicity and 5 being near limitless customization options.

 When it comes to character creation, what's more important to you, simplicity or customization?  

Last Week's Polls

When it comes to rules presentation, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "not at all" and 5 being "very much," I value the following things in D&D books:

Conversational Tone
1 198 9.3%
2 384 18.0%
3 725 34.1%
4 581 27.3%
5 240 11.3%
Total 2128 100.0%

Story and Flavor Text
1 98 4.6%
2 208 9.8%
3 438 20.5%
4 685 32.1%
5 703 33.0%
Total 2132 100.0%

Clear, Formal Tone
1 56 2.7%
2 234 11.1%
3 662 31.4%
4 671 31.8%
5 485 23.0%
Total 2108 100.0%

Precise Game Language (Jargon)
1 93 4.0%
2 246 10.5%
3 541 23.1%
4 587 25.0%
5 879 37.5%
Total 2346 100.0%

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