Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Design Lessons from the D&D Next Playtest (Part 1)

As part of the ongoing playtest for the next edition of D&D, Wizards of the Coast's designers and developers have broadcast playtest sessions and recorded some fascinating podcasts delving into the design decisions underlying the current iteration's mechanics. While most of the discussion focuses on roleplaying games, and D&D in particular, there are a few principles discussed that are good points for game design in general. This is the first post in a series describing the application of the D&D Next design principles to strategy game design, covering the July 5th podcast and the June 28th live stream.

A mathematically perfect game is not the same thing as a perfect game particularly if it's not fun to play. This blog has covered design principles like approachability and theme quite a lot, and a game's aesthetics, mechanical flavor, and difficulty have just as profound an effect on a game's quality as how sound the scoring system is and how well the game scales for multiple players. If every die roll, card draw, or move of a token needs to be modified based on the number of players, the stage of the game, and the outcome of the previous turn to ensure mathematical balance, then you may have created an exquisitely designed game that nobody wants to play.

Good playtests operated in different "modes" to achieve different results. Most strategy game players and designers are familiar with "standard" play testing, where the game is played without a particular goal in mind, letting the action unfold and potentially confusing situations occur organically. Rodney Thompson and Mike Mearls describe a second "mode" of playtest, called a "stress test". A stress test strips away the theme, continuity, and other trappings, dealing only with the troublesome situations that showed up during the standard playtest. These trouble spots are worked through repeatedly and without context to smooth out the underlying math or contradictory rules.

Mechanics that tend to arise together should be analyzed together. Sometimes, mechanics that seem innocuous enough on their own can synergize in unexpected ways. In the podcast, Mike Mearls describes a monster that can make more attacks than an average monster, though its attacks are weaker. That's fine balance, except that the attacks can also cause paralysis; if an attack paralyzes its victim, the relative weakness of the remaining attacks is rendered moot because the victim is defenseless.

The situation described in the podcast is similar to my biggest critique of Seasons, a game I otherwise like very much. Plenty of cards in Seasons allow you to reduce the cost of paying for other cards--again, by itself, that's a fine mechanic, and it exists in probably every other resource-based card game from Magic: the Gathering to 7 Wonders. But in Seasons, the relative rarity or abundance of certain resources is a central mechanic. In effect, the "pay less cost" mechanic changes both the number and the rarity of the resources required because it doesn't discriminate among which type of resource you get a discount on. It's a subtle combinatorial effect, but a powerful one, and an unfortunate one because it skirts a central motif that most makes the game distinct from other tableau-builders.

It's fascinating so far to see roleplaying game and strategy game designers speaking so much of the same language and teaching so many of the same lessons, even if the application of those lessons is a bit different depending on the type of game being designed. And it's obvious that guys like Mike Mearls and Rodney Thompson are talented game designers in general, not merely roleplaying game designers, because they've capably balanced the need for strong narrative with the need for strong mechanics that is essential in a roleplaying game. Check back for discussions of the other podcasts in the series as we continue to explore the overlap between board game and roleplaying game design.