Sunday, June 30, 2013

Action Economy in D&D Next

A few weekends ago, I finally fulfilled one of my long-standing gaming goals by playing in the D&D Next open beta as part of D&D Worldwide Game Day. As a roleplayer, I couldn't have been happier with the new rules--my wonderful and patient non-roleplayer girlfriend got to endure at least five minutes of me singing its praises.

Many of the mechanical and narrative high points in D&D Next are really only relevant in the context of roleplaying game design, but a few mechanics have some interesting implications for strategy game design too. In particular, the way that "actions" work in Next, sometimes called the "action economy," is vastly streamlined in comparison to D&D's earlier incarnations.

The 3rd Edition of the game, released in 2000, came with a veritable smorgasbord of them: standard, move, swift, immediate, full-round, free. 4th Edition kept most of them and added minor, interrupt, reaction, and the maddeningly vague "no action". Next simplifies things a lot. Most of those action types do indeed still exist in Next, but in keeping with the "modular" theme of the rules, not every action type is necessarily attached to every character, so the core rules don't assume every player needs to understand all the action types.

For example, the core rules account for exactly two "actions," the action (what used to be called the "standard action") and the move (which is no longer an action proper but a distance). Swift actions and reactions exist in Next, but not every character has something that can be accomplished in a swift action, so the swift action isn't described in the core rules. Instead, the description of how it works is included in every ability that needs it.

Going along with our recent discussions of complexity and approachability, the takeaway here for strategy game design is that if a game must be complex, it's better to move complexity to where it's required than to assert it in a game's basic rules. How many times have you unwrapped a new Euro-style board game to find a twenty-page manual describing every corner case of each rule variant that might exist but that doesn't tell you how to determine who goes first?

Of course, in designing a game, those rules variants and corner cases are important. It's essential to think about any situation that might possibly arise during both mechanical balancing and playtesting. But if a given piece of information is only relevant some of the time, the best games find ways to introduce that information when it is needed and not a moment sooner.