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