Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Game Design Aesthetics Part 6...

And now the test of tests. How does the objectivity of my system of aesthetic measurement hold up when applied to one of the most hotly debated games of all time.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (Basic and 4th Edition)
For D&D we're going to take a slightly different tack and compare two iterations of the same game to see how the design ethos and target audiences have changed over the 3+ decades of its existence. Please note that while I, personally, find the Basic game to be preferable, the scores for the 4th edition game do not reflect my personal like or dislike of one or the other, but the different aesthetics involved and how they might affect my decision as well as that of those who favor 4E over Basic.

This is a hard characteristic to properly analyze for both editions, as one could argue that the very system of D&D, with its levels, hit dice and other core principles, has become the defacto thematic mechanic for D&D style games. So while it would be correct to say that the rules themselves are generic enough to be applied to any setting, it is an arguable point that D&D is just not D&D without them and, after 30+ years, D&D fantasy is as specific a style of fantasy roleplaying as sword & sorcery or science fantasy.

That being said, there is a definite split in the community on what, exactly, the core mechanics are. So far, Levels, Hit Dice and Hit Points remain, although they have changed considerably over the years, but race as class, level caps, wizard abilities and other core concepts that have existed for multiple editions have been done away with in 4E. The question is this: where is the line that any edition must cross to go from being D&D to a game that is D&D in name only?

Taking this into consideration, and considering the age of the edition, Basic D&D pretty much encapsulated the D&D experience for a large number of people for a very long period of time. It scores Theme +2, only losing out on a +3 because the rules were never intended to reflect any particular theme, they just ended up doing so with age.

While 4E does contain many of the ‘sacred cows’ of previous editions, it does manage to slaughter quite a few more and change up the style of gameplay enough that it has caused a great deal of discord amongst D&D players. Mechanically, it is clearly a different approach to the old game, but it does what intends to do so well, that it has created a whole new style with a devoted fanbase. So I’d say Mechanics +2 for 4E. It’s still D&D in more than name, but it is very different from what has been traditionally known, thematically, as D&D fantasy.

Basic is very simple in execution. The rules are sparse and cover general situations with a great deal of Dungeonmaster advice on how to improvise when the rule are undefined. This idea of ‘anything that is not forbidden is permitted’ carries a complexity all its own, however, as it takes a lot of experience to run the game based on some notes and a good talent for improvisation. Indeed, most DM's learned to run the game from playing it under a more experienced DM, the knowledge of how to run the game being passed down rather than being learned from the books.

It can be complex for players who are not used to having such an open environment, as well, and many will resort to simple applications of the rules for their first few games (and die horribly in traps they did not look for or to monsters they misjudged) before they truly understand the dynamics of a completely open world and how to interact with it within the ‘theatre of the mind.’ For this reason, I’d score Basic as Simple +2.

4E is different in that there are a lot more rules and the balance between those rules is so important, that it rewards the proper application of those rules first and foremost. Add to this the important meta-game activity of character building and the focus on the combat minigame, and a lot more system mastery is required than before. This complexity tends to grow exponentially as new books with new powers are released, increasing the number of interconnecting parts that must be balanced against each other and in the game.

On the one hand, this makes the game much simpler for the DM and players, as all they need to do is look up the right rule and they know what to do from game one. In addition, the firmly defined conditions of 4E keep the rules consistent from one encounter to another. Unfortunately, the sheer number of powers, conditions and other necessary rules can slow down the game incredibly and make even the simplest battles complex, multiple hour affairs. By comparison, the average Basic combat takes roughly 15 minutes. For these reasons, I’d say 4E scores a +1 Complexity.


While player decisions are the heart of most RPGs, there is a great deal of difference in how those decisions are judged. Basic is a strange creature in that the rules apply randomness in a number of situations, but the DM is free to simply say ‘You are an X, and task Y is pretty average for an X, so you automatically succeed.’ This varies from DM to DM, however, so we must weight our consideration on the bits where dice do become involved.

In this case Basic is far more random than 4E. Everything about a character except equipment and class is determined randomly (and even those latter two are influenced by other random results). Characters with a single hit point and poor stats were as common as an Adonis with maximum durability and, in a world where a single random encounter could kill them all in a single round, both were as equally likely to die as become powerful heroes. That was considered a feature, not a bug and defined the D&D style of play for decades, but it also scores Basic as Random +2.

4E is geared around ‘flat math’ in order to provide a more consistent experience for all characters, regardless of class, level or tier of play. As such, the randomness, while still there, is heavily mitigated by a balanced character building system, compensatory powers and special rules, like Healing Surges, which can mitigate the vagaries of fate. 4E, for this reason is Determinant +1.

RPGs are all about player interaction, both cooperative and competitive. There are solo RPGs, or RPG like games, but D&D is not one of them in any edition and requires at least a single DM and player to work as intended. And although 4E could arguably be played as a solo boardgame, that is not what it is designed for. Both score Interaction +3.

I’ve already mentioned how Basic and 4E differ on this
in the definition of this characteristic in Part 3 of this series. I have also pointed out that these two terms are loaded with preconceived vitriol and need to be changed to something a little less antagonistic (just for now we're going to use Linearity to take some of the edge off), so to sum it up in another way: Basic is about exploration and forming a story out of a basic set of notes, random encounters and the resulting actions and reactions of the players to the environment. 4E is about heroes doing heroic things using the story as a context in which to set their actions. I imagine there will be quite a few quibbles on my definition here, but let's press on with that as our basis.

Both are nominally sandboxes, but Basic is designed specifically for that random exploration style of play with a number of system tools to facilitate it. It is capable of telling other, more linear types of stories (indeed, one could argue that dungeons, in essence, are linear narrative devices) and some really bad adventures are straight up railroads. Sandbox +1.

4E is also, nominally about sandboxing, and you could use it to run a Basic style of game. The rules, however, are designed and focused on combat encounters and because of all the possible power permutations, creature abilities and environmental rules, these take some time to complete. As such, there is less spontaneity and a tendency for 4E DMs, especially those new to RPGs, to build more linear stories and fill them with set pieces with limited branching. I’d give 4E Linearity +1 for this reason.

I also talked about this previously in
Part 3. Basic has only enough rules to hang your hat on and get on with the game. You can create a character in 5 minutes and go, and once in the game, the character is more dependent on your decisions as a player than any abilities they may themselves possess. They are, for the first few levels at least, pawns of the gods, but they do tend to gain new abilities which become more important as they gain in power. Basic scores Player Skill +2.

4E is largely about the build and mix of character powers from the get-go and building a 4E character can take quite a bit more time than a Basic character. In addition, the improper use of powers can doom not only your character, but the rest of his party as well, especially if he doesn’t balance well with the other character types. As such character building is a meta-game of great import in 4E and determines their destiny from adventure 1. 4E is definitely Character Skill +2.

So looking at the two editions, we get the following aesthetic qualities for each:



Based upon the many complaints and defenses I've heard from the community for the two editions, I think this is a fairly objective take on the two games. It certainly shows the evolution from one edition to the other very clearly, with a four point swing showing particular areas where the new take on D&D completely turns old notions of the game on their head.

Again, there are factors, like the shifting target that is the mood of the average gamer (we all tend to get bored with the same style of play after a time) as well as the presence of gamers who will play any edition just so long as they can play a game, that can modify the aesthetic appreciation of one game over the other over time. However, those considerations are too subjective and ephemeral to use in a system that is trying to find an objective way to define what makes a game aesthetically different from other games on a basic design level.

So I think the system works. It just needs refinement. I really need to find less combative descriptions for one, and then boil them down into single word descriptions for the sake of consistency. It's less useful, in my mind to have one box with Them and another with Mechanics when a -3 to +3 scale for Thematics (or something that sounds a little less goofy) would do just as well. But that's a post for another day...

 EDIT: Is it just me, or has Blogger editing gotten ridiculously random and impossible to consistently control? I mean, look at the above three paragraphs. They are exactly the same as the ones above, by the editor's standards. WTH?!

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