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Rule-of-Three: 12/19/2011
Rich Baker

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 4th Edition D&D gives every class the same number of resources to manage in combat. Has this been a success for 4E? Why did you guys make this choice?

The 4E class power system grew out of two principal design visions: First, the 4E design team wanted to explore D&D character powers as an exceptions-based system that characters of all classes participated in; second, we wanted to even out complexity across the classes so that any player could competently play a complex character such as a wizard, while players who enjoyed the depth and challenge of spellcasters could find that engagement in any class they played. During the early design and development of 4th Edition, a number of us read The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwarz. That book definitely influenced us toward a design goal of presenting the "right" number of choices—enough to be engaging and offer variation from encounter to encounter, but not so many that the typical player would feel unhappy looking for the optimal choices each round.

Has it been a success? I think this approach achieved the design goals we had at the time. You don't have to play a wizard to find an engaging set of choices, and you don't have to play a fighter to avoid more choices than you're comfortable with. However, the realities of the game muddy the waters a bit. By the time characters reach mid-paragon tier, they're closer to 15 powers than the 7 or so we'd want, and that doesn't even count magic items. Some players eagerly chase items that offer more power selections, while other players avoid them like the plague and stick to items with simple properties. Epic characters are probably three or four times more complex than the goal we originally set, at least in terms of the number of powers at their disposal. And of course 1st- and 2nd-level characters really don't have all that many choices and haven't yet reached a comfortable "cruising altitude" of complexity.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and now we look back and think we might have been better off to give players the ability to choose their preferred level of complexity. That's one of the drives behind the class design of the D&D ESSENTIALS books—the knight, the slayer, the hunter, etc., all offer you the ability to play simpler fighters and rogues and rangers who don't have to manage so many resources. They're reasonably well balanced compared to the "AEDU"-based versions, but a good deal simpler in play. (For those who don't know, "AEDU" stands for the basic types powers a character can have—At-will, Encounter, Daily, and Utility.)

2 To an outsider, playtesting sounds like an awesome job. Can you describe the process for 4E from a designer's perspective?

Playtesting is a lot of fun, but to do it right, it takes a lot of work. We use a variety of different processes depending on the profile of the project and the "differentness" of the rules elements we're interested in looking at. Systems that aren't like anything we've done before get more attention than systems that are expanding on established rules, and systems that are large pieces of major releases are playtested more than self-contained or variant systems appearing in supporting products.

For a serious playtesting effort, we'll go to Organized Play (the RPGA) and ask Chris Tulach to find us 20 to 40 groups that are willing to put aside their regular gaming for a bit and investigate a new element or system. The challenge from the designer's perspective here is to make sure we provide some boundaries on what we're testing, then ask the right questions. If we simply throw something out like, "Here are the psionic rules, whaddya think?" we'll usually get about half the groups designing the psionic rules they think they would have liked to see, and sending them back to us as feedback. It turns out a lot of D&D players have an itch to tinker under the hood. It's better for us to create a small questionnaire asking for specific information such as, "How often did you augment your powers?" or "Which battlemind powers did you select?" to get actionable feedback. Like many things in life, you get out of it what you put into it.

In addition to formal external playtesting, we often do internal playtests to explore new ideas in a more casual, quick turn-around environment. For example, a designer might build a party of psionic characters and round up several co-workers to run them through the first few encounters of an adventure to see how the ideas for the power points are shaking out, possibly even modifying rules on the fly as their warts become obvious. A few months back, we played the first Lair Assault seven or eight times as we looked for the right challenge level, making small adjustments each time.

Finally, those of us involved in regular after-hours games (and that's most of us) often introduce elements from books we're working on and give them an airing in our home games. For example, James Wyatt ran City of the Spider Queen for our Thursday night group while he was designing and I was developing the adventure. I made a point of playing a dumb character so that I could ignore all knowledge I had of the adventure as we played.

3 When designing new rules elements, what measure(s) of balance do you consider? How does R&D define "balance?"

I don't know about the rest of R&D, but I suppose I would define "balance" as making sure that there is no one right answer to a question of character creation, spell power, item selection, etc. If every character in the game selected the same string of feats, or chose the same powers, or encountered the same monsters, that would be some boring D&D.

At this point in the edition, balance is mostly determined through comparison to similar elements. For example, when we create a new character race, the first thing we do is look at the existing universe of ability adjustments and racial traits, and make sure the proposed race isn't offering anything that would displace an existing race or make it into the no-brainer race selection for a particular class. New feats are compared against the existing feats in the game, and powers are compared against similar powers (close in level, targets, conditions, etc). One trick our developers use is a "costing" mechanism for powers, in which powers trade off dice or [W]'s of damage for conditions and for multiple targets—a power that hits a number of enemies at once with a nasty condition shouldn't do a whole lot of damage, too.

Sometimes, especially in class design, we have to take a step further back, and begin with pure damage output. We have pretty firm guidelines for how many daily, encounter, and at-will powers we'll assume characters use in a day, and how much damage those should do. Going back to these guidelines allows us to tinker with things such as eliminating daily powers (in the case of a class such as slayer) or expressing powers as augmentations of at-will powers (such as in the psionics classes). The slayer is balanced with other strikers over the course of a whole adventuring day, even if other strikers can "spike" better by using their best powers all in a row.

That said, balance is equal parts art and science. Sometimes an element such as a new class feature or new racial trait comes along, and there is nothing we've done that is a reasonable analog for it. Other times we make choices to support game play over pure numbers comparison. At some point it comes down to a judgment call.

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