Saturday, August 24, 2013

Design Lessons from the D&D Next Playtest (Part 3)

The last post in this series examining the design overlap between tabletop roleplaying and strategy games will discuss the third installment of the Against the Slave Lords playtest from July 19 and podcast from July 23. Catch up on the first and second posts in the series if you missed them earlier. As always, we'll focus on interesting design decisions reached over the course of D&D Next playtest and how they might relate to more general design principles.

1. Expendable and constant-effect abilities need to be balanced carefully and in general, the formula of "effect equals probability times consequence" doesn't necessarily hold true. An effect that always works but is nominally less powerful is often more useful in practice than one that has a massive effect if successful but only a small chance of working. Therefore, effects that incorporate mechanical variance--die rolls, card draws, or whatever else--need to both be substantially powerful and have a way to mitigate that variance (or have a lesser effect even on a "failure") to be worth using in comparison to "always works" abilities.

The classic D&D example of this sort of balancing is the low-level wizard spell magic missile, which always works when it's used. Often, there's no need to use any other spell of the same level because magic missile is so reliable that it's automatically preferable--even if there are other spells that might be nominally more powerful. Among strategy games, Ascension does a pretty good job of constant-effect (construct)/expendable (hero) balancing: not only are construct effects not overwhelmingly powerful compared to heroes, but they do a good job of complementing hero abilities in creative ways.

2. The "flow" of a complex game has a large effect on its perceived complexity. Even though the same time might elapse over the course of one very long turn as in a few shorter turns, more shorter turns tend to feel faster as there's less time spent waiting for another action. There's an implication for actual complexity as well: fewer actions can be accomplished in a shorter turn than in a longer one, making turns more straightforward but at the potential cost of some strategic depth.

In both roleplaying games and strategy games, the best designs have enough turn-by-turn strategy that each turn features interesting and important decisions but little enough time between turns that time doesn't feel wasted. And regardless of how long a game actually takes, it's rare to walk away from the game wishing it had felt like it lasted longer. Rodney and Mike discuss this point in the context of a particularly climactic fight that took a few hours, but through sufficiently short turns to keep the action moving, the fight never felt bogged down yet offered enough complexity for the players to accomplish their goals.

3. Gaming should be fun. Always. It's a fitting point to end on because it's the most important design rule of all. Mechanical, strategic, and aesthetic considerations exist only to make the game more enjoyable. While designing a game, every decision should be made in the spirit of increasing how much fun the game will be to play.