the coming crisis: D&D edition

Christoph at Free Spacer has a post wondering if technical aids (iPad apps, for instance) will lead to sprawling game rules. In general, my optimism is almost Pollyanna-ish, but I agree that this is something worth considering.

Pencil and paper RPG rules have opposed forces acting on them:

an urge towards simulation creates complicated rules, and
irritation with recordkeeping pares them down.

This iterative process (theoretically) removes dud rules that don’t pull their weight. It’s responsible for a lot of the evolution of the D&D ruleset. (Of course, “dud” is relative: some may argue that the 1e harlot table added to the depth of the game world, and the pared-down 4e skill list doesn’t provide enough scope for epic-level rope use.)

The pressure for simplicity separates paper games from video games, where there is no real cost to over-writing your code. It’s easier to write complicated than elegant code!

Christoph mentions the D&D Character Builder as an example of technology as an anti-streamlining force, and he’s right. Character generation may not be more complicated in 4th Edition than in 3rd, but it’s certainly no simpler. Since the D&D developers all use the Character Builder, there is really no pressure on them to simplify character-creation rules.

That’s what human technology does – it removes pressures, and lets things grow. Whenever people invent a new tool – fire, agriculture, DDI Character Builder – they come to depend upon it.

I like simple rules. I’d like to spend less than an hour creating a D&D character. Even a level 20 character. ON PAPER. The goal of a madman, perhaps? or a visionary?

Even though you said “madman”, you have to admit: this mad dream I have? the dream of my PC being killed, and being able to roll up a new guy in time for the next encounter? It’s a dream you’d like to wake up to.

There’s a lot of stuff at work in D&D, not the least of which is that as you get more proficient with the rules, more feats and powers come out that drag out the character creation process further by providing a TON of options. I’m not sure if this is that different from earlier editions; 3.5 had a wealth of powers and options available and there was no character builder to help sort things out.

Also, it is worth considering that D&D is kind of designed to be played at level 1; for a pro like us using the character builder I bet we could slap a character together in 5-10 minutes. Maybe 20 minutes on paper.

I suggest an experiment: try creating a level 20 character for a class you’ve played before using just the PHB 1! Or try making a character using JUST Heroes of the Fallen Lands. OR, don’t think very hard when making choices. I bet you could make a thoroughly mediocre character in no time!

8 Responses to “the coming crisis: D&D edition”

  1. Mike says:

    I just got the new essentials character book (heroes of something or other) and have been struggling with creating my first character. There’s a lot of page flipping and a lot of wondering where each stat comes from and if I’ve done everything correctly. For characters who aren’t very complicated, the process of making one sure seems overly complex to me.

  2. HansGruber says:

    I have a hunch that character creation is too complicated for a new player but I’ve made so many characters that it seems simple to me. But you can internalize anything given enough time! The best critic of characetr creation is probably someone new to D&D or at least the new edition.

  3. Jon says:

    Are there any ‘pencil and paper’ RPGs that have embraced the tool approach, to the extent that they don’t bother a manual approach for a particular aspect of the sim? That would enable some really wacky simulation stuff you couldn’t think of doing if you ever had to work it out with paper.

  4. paul paul says:

    I would like to see a D&D character creation usability test, using just, say, the Essentials book with no one to explain anything.

    A “pen and paper” game that required computers would be a peculiar cyborg. I guess from the pen-and-paper side you’d get the benefits of having a GM adjudicate unexpected actions, and the social side of things? And everyone would have to have iPads or whatever, to handle, say, the physics engine (!) and possibly to facilitate secret note-passing.

    OK, here’s my pitch for the game: everyone is scientists working on the first Moon landing. The players have to use an old-computer-sim application on their laptops to do the real calculations necessary to land the ship. Two of the players are Russian spies who want to sabotage the landing.

  5. Patrick says:

    I thought this was a very insightful comment in your article:

    “Pencil and paper RPG rules have opposed forces acting on them: an urge towards simulation creates complicated rules, and irritation with recordkeeping pares them down.”

    In many ways, this reality is what creates the unique gameplay experience of a pencil and paper RPG, at least in terms of rules and game mechanics. It can be very satisfying to play an RPG that has achieved a good balance between simulation and simplicity.

  6. mbeacom says:

    Were it not for tools like character builder, I probably never would have gotten back into D&D as quickly or as intensely as I have. I have yet to make a 4E character without it. I shudder at the thought.

    I look back on my AD&D and BECMI character sheets and shed a tear for the elegant simplicity they had.

  7. paul paul says:

    The Basic character sheet on the back of the red box book is also the standard to which I hold up other character sheets. Of course, it wouldn’t really be usable for, say, an ECMI magic-user: the spell list would eventually have to be written on a separate page. That’s no different than 4e power cards.

    I do think that the 3e/4e character sheets could be a little simpler; surely some D&D character details aren’t worth the real estate?

  8. (Continuing my read-through of the whole Blog of Holding:) This post looks thoroughly prescient now that 5e is a going concern. An experienced player would need more time to write things down on a character sheet than to make the choices involved. I haven’t tested it, but as long as we’re not talking about a spellcaster choosing a ton of spells, I feel like a player could comfortably build a 20th-level character in an hour.

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