Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dinosaurs & Dandelions

Mike Mearls: Don't worry, I'm not making the same mistakes again.
D&D community: No, you're making all new ones.

Do those quotes sound familiar? Mike didn't actually say them, it's taken from Jurassic Park. A conversation between John Hammond and Ian Malcolm. It did seem appropriate after reading Mike Mearls' latest post on D&D Next Goals out today. I couldn't help recall that famous quote from Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). In "Lost World", John Hammond is desperately trying to bring his park online. Which he thinks failed last time because he didn't take the proper precautions. Not enough fences, more security, all female population, etc. When in truth what he should have done is not breed velociraptors. He had been foretold by Ian himself:

Dr. Ian Malcolm: John, the kind of control you're attempting simply is... it's not possible. If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is.
John Hammond: [sardonically] There it is.
Henry Wu: You're implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will... breed?
Dr. Ian Malcolm: No, I'm, I'm simply saying that life, uh... finds a way.

RPGs have a tendency to build a life of their own. D&D is alive in so many of us and it wants to break free. That was the initial promise when we saw those books, right? They used to say "Products of your imagination" right below the TSR logo.

Mike listed eight design challenges in his article today. Three of which stand out to the balance and particularly caster/non caster balance issue. I'll quote a few: "Create 3E-style multiclassing that creates balanced characters within reasonable mixtures of class levels", "New options are nice only if they are balanced and interesting. Open, aggressive playtesting—maintained beyond the core game tests—is a key part of this goal." and "keep casters and noncasters distinct but balanced across all levels. This becomes more challenging as we allow for more customization, but it is important to keeping the game functional."

Just like John Hammond didn't realize the problem was breeding velociraptors and t-rexes and not the lack of proper security, Mike Mearls fails to realize the problem is with D&D's underpinnings and not the "balanced" derived from "aggressive playtesting" as he calls it. Mike needs to understand that just like the dinosaurs, D&D is alive and will continue to grow in the player's hands as it is played. In the same way the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park became male and began to reproduce. Breaking away from the constraints imposed by their creators.

Until the D&D design team realizes this and begins to make a grass roots change to the system it will continue making all sorts of "new mistakes". They must realize that the old rule system: hit points, attack rolls, XP, level progression, etc., does not scale well to meet the current demand for skills, character personalization and growth, backgrounds, etc. These features still seem bolted on top of the "sacred cow rules", instead of being an integral part of them.

Nowadays I see D&D more like a dandelion. With every new edition being like a gust of wind blowing seeds in a new direction. These are planting new communities and groups of players that are thriving and without a compelling offer from WotC many see no reason to return. Mike Mearls keeps failing to address the weaknesses of each edition and prefers to focus on the strengths. A new edition built on the strengths of prior editions is good, for new players, but bad for old timers because they already have the good in their favourite edition. The only way I see for the dandelion to stop loosing seeds is to solve the quintessential issues from the ground up, even if that means doing away with the "sacred cows" of D&D.
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