Design Theory and D&D: Why a Poor Design (According to Theory) May Sell Well

Design book cover illoOne the major complaints I hear about D&D Next from many 4e fans (at least on the Internet) over and over again is that D&D Next has completely abandoned 4e’s stress on tight design and balanced math — what people making this complaint call “good design”.

I’ll admit that 4e was the best designed version of D&D ever produced if tight, focused rules and balanced math are considered necessary for a RPG to be well-designed. However, well-designed according to these principles does not mean an RPG so designed will automatically be adopted. It still has to meet the needs of those who play it. For example, here are some of my major requirements for any set of D&D rules that I am going to play or run:

* Fast and simple character generation that does not require computer assistance to be fast and easy. (Say a max of 10 minutes for an experienced player, 20 or so for a new player with an experienced player to walk him through it.)

* Fast combats that do not need minis/counters and grids. By fast, I mean an average combat with 4 or 5 players at the table takes no more than 10 or 15 minutes maximum — including any setup time. End of adventure “boss” combats might take 30 or so minutes max, however.

* Players can play (and play well enough to not handicap the party) without studying the rules.

* Players can play by simply describing what they want their character to do in plain English (or whatever their native language is) and the GM can simply tell them the results or what to roll. There should no need for players to describe characters actions in rules terms. In other words, the system needs to accommodate casual players and players who simply aren’t interested in game mechanics.

* The system should work with two players or ten players at the table.

* The rules should fade into the background. In other words, play should be about what the characters do into the game world, not about using/manipulating the game rules to best advantage.

* The game rules should adapt to the way my group plays not expect that my group will change their style of play to fit the rules.

* The system should work with all the D&D adventures and setting I already own (or have created) without a lot of prior preparation. I should be able to adapt such older material on the fly while running a session.

Any objective look at D&D 4e will show that it fails to meet most of my major requirements, so no one should be surprised that I’m not going to regularly play or run 4e. This does not change the fact that 4e is “well designed and has balanced math” as its fans claim and meets those goals better than any other version of D&D. However, simply meeting such design criteria does not automatically mean that the game meets the specific requirements of all potential players. A game system that seems to be poorly designed according to popular design theories may meet the requirements of some players far better than a well-designed game.

Let’s look at this idea from a different point-of-view: cars. I’m willing to admit that even an average formula one race car is far better designed and far more innovative than my almost decade old Safari mini-van. However, I would not trade my mini-van for a formula one race car, because the formula one race car does not have a big air-conditioned compartment where I can haul 4 or 5 dog crates. My wife is involved in dog rescue and at least one or twice a month, I end up transporting a few dogs around the area. My mini-van with its out-dated (and not even very innovative when it was new) design allows me to do that. The latest and greatest formula one race car would not. It’s not “nostalgia” or the lack of desire to learn to handle a formula one race car that makes me stay with my old mini-van, it’s the fact that the mini-van does the job I want it to and the far better designed formula one race car does not handle the job nearly as well (read: at all).

Excellent design according to design theory simply does not mean that the resulting design will actually meet the needs of every potential user, whether one is talking about D&D or vehicles. Sometimes, one can sell more product not by producing the best design possible according to design theory, but by looking at the needs of one’s potential buyers and designing to meet those needs — even if the result is an horrible design according to design theory and angers everyone who values “good design”.

Randall Stukey

Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund.

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Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund. Gates & Glamours RSS Feed

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instantapathyRachel GhoulUnknownRandall Recent comment authors
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I kinda feel like your analogy breaks down (as they are wont to do) a bit in that to me it's less 10 year old SUV to formula 1 racer, than it is 10 year old SUV to a modern pickup. It's not the same vehicle, but it has more similarities than not, and can do most of what you want with some modification. Of course, to use that analogy some more(yay, more stretching) if the SUV you have works for you then there's no reason to invest in the new pickup. But that also doesn't mean that someone going… Read more »

Rachel Ghoul

Makes sense to me, at least on the surface. Next is still (at present) a clusterfuck, though. I really think that they could have pulled it off– a little of 4e's cooler innovations on a 3.x framework simplified to the point that it almost resembles 1e or B/X doesn't strike me as undoable– had I the time and the inclination I think I could produce a superior product along those lines myself.


Rachel Ghoul… you might want to check out '13th Age'. It has the balance and cool innovations of modern design on an OGL framework, and in many places is simplified back to early rpg roots. It is designed by Rob Heinsoo (lead designer on 4e) and Jonathan Tweet (lead designer on 3e).

(full disclosure, I work for the company)


Ah – I'm sure I logged in.
Not 'Unknown'.
Ah well.
+ASH LAW on google


@instantapathy: No analogy is perfect, but I think my point stands — "well-designed according to design theory" often does not mean "best for everyone." Even a 2013 pickup that won every design award out there would not be able to replace my mini-van as pickups lack the enclosed and air-conditioned cargo area where I can put crates with dogs in them in 100+ degree weather while I transport them from place to place. All the great design and innovation in that award-winning 2013 pickup does not change the fact that it does not meet my needs. You could give me… Read more »


@Rachel: While I know people who love 4e, I really can't think of any innovations in the game that I would want to use in my games. There might be some, but if there are they were buried under all the things that turn me off: the "gamist" play, long combats that really can't be played right without minis and grids, skill challenges, complex character creation, classes that use traditional names but aren't much like they were in previous editions, too much stress on balance and pre-designed encounters, errata upon errata, etc. 4e is my least favorite edition of D&D… Read more »


Well, I guess it's lost in the words but the point I was trying to go for, is that just because it doesn't do what you want doesn't mean it's a clusterfuck. I haven't played anything that would fit into an OSR model since like… 93? And I have no desire to, but that doesn't mean I think they are bad or clusterfucks just because it's not what I want… And man, could you tape one of your 10 minute combats so I can see what you are talking about? I don't think I've ever seen one that short, in… Read more »