Article Header Image
The Genius of D&D
Legends and Lore
Monte Cook

I 've written of this before in essays elsewhere, so some of you might have to bear with me.

I believe that Gygax and Arneson were geniuses for many reasons that are apparent in the very first Dungeons & Dragons booklets. Thankfully, much of that genius has been preserved throughout the game's entire life.

Take, for example, the genius of levels. Sure, this concept existed in various wargames before D&D, but I'm not necessarily talking about the genius of innovation as much as the genius of inclusion and implementation. Why are levels so great? Well, I'd argue first and foremost the greatness of levels has little to do with mechanics or gameplay and instead lies at a level much more fundamental to the hobby. Simply put, levels serve as a means to incentivize people to keep playing the game. There's always that pull to keep playing your 5th-level character a bit longer so you can enjoy the benefits of 6th level. And once you're there, you want to stick around for 7th. And so on. It's the brilliance of episodic television, in game form. This is important because enticing people to continue playing keeps the game alive. The longer a person plays, the more likely he or she will teach a new friend to play, and soon that person might start a whole new group of players.


Class, of course, is just as important if not more. Each class offers a role—something to grab hold of to understand one's place in the game and in the game world. Most of us can understand what a fighter or a wizard is, and what that kind of character does without much explanation. They're archetypes. We know, regardless of edition, that if the adventuring party comes upon a band of vicious orcs, the fighter is probably going to run up and attack, the wizard is going to stay back and cast a spell, and so on. This is an extremely powerful tool for new and old players alike.

So why bring this up? It's likely that I'm preaching to the choir, so to speak. Very few people reading this are going to argue that classes and levels are cool and serve the game well. Still, it's important make observations like this when it comes to assessing the game's most vital factors. For example, if you were going to compare the value of a character's class versus its theme in 4E, class should be more important. It should always carry more mechanical weight. Themes are great, but class is more important. It should always be the more important of the two choices that the player makes. We can then prioritize the basic aspects of a character. This is important when figuring out what kinds of mechanics should go where. Is such-and-such a mechanic appropriate as a class ability? A theme? A feat? A power? A nonweapon proficiency? A kit? A magic item?

I might rank the aspects of a character like this, in order of importance:

1st: Class (and Level)
2nd: Race
3rd: Ability Scores
4th: Customizable Elements (skills, feats, etc.)

Level plays into all of these things, of course, but I've lumped it in with class just so it gets put on the list in some fashion. This means that when I create a new character, the choice I make that affects my character the most should be class. The second most important choice should be race, and so on. Taken as a whole, my class should have the most impact on what my character can and cannot do in a typical game session. (It would be slicing things too thin to say that such was true in every single encounter.) Again, looking at it from a very top-down perspective, over the course of a session and certainly an entire adventure, my fighter's Strength score should be more important and come up more than any one feat selection or the character's theme, but not as much as the fact that he's a dwarf.

If this is the view we take, as a game designer I know to make sure to never weight a set of racial abilities for a new race so that they are more important to a character than his class. I know to never make a new skill more vital than an ability score. But maybe I don't have them in the right order. Do you agree? Let me know.



This Week's Poll

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "not at all" and 5 being "very much," rate the importance of the aspects of a D&D character:

 Class  
1
2
3
4
5

 Race  
1
2
3
4
5

 Ability Scores  
1
2
3
4
5

 Customizable Elements (skills, feats, etc.)  
1
2
3
4
5

Comments
 >
There are no comments yet for this article (or rating). Be the first!
 >