Friday, January 13, 2012

Now You (Yes, You!) Can Design Dungeons and Dragons!!!!!!!

Dungeons and Dragons was actually in the news this week. There was even a big article in the New York Times. Turns out, they are going to redesign the game from the ground up.

(Again!?!? Wasn't the last time in 2008? Answer: Yes, it was.)

The impending redesign wasn't the big news item, though. Redesigning D&D isn't news. Happens all the time. What did attract a lot of attention is how they are going to redesign it. They are going to have a “hearts and minds” campaign, ask players what they want in the new edition, and supposedly make it from the ground up while actually taking into account feedback from their fan base.

I assume, of course, that this is all simple marketing-speak, part of a clever and successful way to get attention, and not an actual, realistic plan of action. I assume this because it's the best possible scenario. Actually trying to design a game this way is a terrible, terrible idea.

I've written before about the considerable dangers of relying too much on your fan base to figure out how to design your game. And, as often happens, Penny Arcade did a fantastic job of boiling down what is screwy about this approach.

But I just want to throw out two points.

1. A cacophony of voices will never solve a hard problem.

Whenever you need to make a big, difficult decision about your game design and turn to the public for help, you will get a huge number of responses. They will all be passionate, many will be well-argued, and they will split evenly between all of the possible decisions.

Think about it. If a decision is difficult (and making a game like D&D involves LOTS of tough decisions), it's difficult because there is no clear answer. You could go either way. And people giving you feedback will totally go in any imaginable direction.

The real artistry in game design comes from making all of the possible decisions in a way that they all build towards one unified goal. You want all the decisions to add up to more than the sum of their parts. Some people are really good at doing this. We call them Game Designers.

2. The people giving feedback are not the people you need to listen to.

When you throw open the doors, you will get feedback from the most intense, passionate fans. (Note I didn't say "smart" or "insightful." Some of them will be smart. Some won't. Good luck figuring out which are which.)

But D&D's big problem is not that it lacks a core cadre of passionate fans. It's that any sort of person who doesn't live and breathe this stuff has long ago drifted away. Those are the people you need to hear from. But you won't hear from them. Because they don't care. And you need to know why they don't care, because people who cared once not caring anymore is the heart of the problem. 

Of Course, This Doesn't Matter ...

Because people don't put in the long years of work getting a plum position like "Dungeons & Dragons Designer" to then throw up their hands and say, "Hey. Let's see what the forums have to say!" This "hearts and minds" stuff is marketing. It should be marketing. There is nothing wrong with marketing, and making the fans feel involved is a worthwhile goal.

I don't envy them their task. Dungeons & Dragons is one of the great games, and it's had some rough years. Sadly, it's a fair question whether tabletop RPGs will ever be more than a niche of a niche of a niche again, no matter how many times you redesign them. I'll have more to say about this soon.


  1. I agree 100%. unfortunately there are many smart people out there that believe 100% that the "just do what your fans say" is the best and only ethical approach to software design.

    "A cacophony of voices will never solve a hard problem"
    Again correct, but so many people don't get this.
    I once watched a film where the way to solve the problem of (A bunch of huge explosive missiles are currently headed towards the country) was (get a bunch of homeless people together and pick the best solution to said question {with no more details or backstory given then what I told you}).

  2. I don't think anyone's seriously considering this crowdsourced design shtick to be anything more than a marketing move.

    As game designers, we have a responsibility to realize a unified vision. Opening up the design process to the masses is about as useful as metrics-driven design: it can aid with very specific design decisions which directly derive from player behavior, but [to Penny Arcade's point] are nowhere near as useful when designing major game components and their interactions.

    Ebyan "Nolithius" Alvarez-Buylla

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  4. This applies well beyond just game design. Even software design, though that's my experience. I've never solved a problem by asking 20 people what they think and going with the majority opinion.

    As a counter point, listening to your users and using those "Game Designer" or "Software Designer" filters you've spent years honing to pick out good ideas that you may not have thought of can be a useful exercise.

    In short: it could be marketing, or it could be a massive brainstorming step in the design process.

  5. It's good marketing. They want buy-in. They get to claim the rules they're selling are what *you* asked for. They're yours. You just need to buy a copy.

    It's how they're going to counter the whole mess of getting people to buy a new stack of books when they haven't finished the old campaign yet.

    I first read about this technique being used to draft a constitution for a student organization. A decent one was made over the summer. And instead of pitching it, the guy asked for everybody to submit suggestions, things they wanted in it.

    Every suggestion went in the filing dumpster.

    The actual product was presented as the result of assembling the ideas... and was passed almost unanimously.

    It's a simple, and brilliant marketing tool... made of lies. They want to demo it for a playtest at a major convention. So it's actually already mostly done. It's being playtested for real as we speak, because that takes time.

    If they get creative, they might reference individual suggestions that match what they've already included. That doesn't really require reading everything... just a good search engine.

    I'm going to keep playing a house-rule of Alternity, or another session of Deadlands. Maybe even GURPS. Because I have a nice happy library of games. Hmm. Maybe Dresden Files.

  6. one is... 'worried'? A new edition in barely four years - as far as I understand it is a sign of the failure of 4th edition as a whole. Surely a sign of weakness.Maybe they think it is a smart marketing move or maybe they're truly out of ideas.
    And about the 'A cacophony of voices will never solve a hard problem' it sounds a bit elitist,
    like the old 'Res Mala Multorum Imperium': what is OUR democracy if not the chaotic clash of different opinions?

  7. We had this chance with 2nd edition if you remember. There was a survey in Dragon about what should be in the new edition. That is how we got things like monster manual binders where you could buy a page a time. In my opinion it was a disaster for precisely the reasons that you listed above.

  8. @Albrecht one is... 'worried'? A new edition in barely four years - as far as I understand it is a sign of the failure of 4th edition as a whole. Surely a sign of weakness.Maybe they think it is a smart marketing move or maybe they're truly out of ideas.
    And about the 'A cacophony of voices will never solve a hard problem' it sounds a bit elitist,

    I have talked to some of the original designers of 3rd edition. The story of 4th edition is a very political story of key people leaving and other people being Peter principled in.

  9. Listening to fans and learning from what they say are 2 completely different things. You always have to listen but you dont always have to learn from what they say. However, i have gathered that what most people like in a game is what they will get. Its that simple.

  10. The whole tabletop industry is shooting themselves in the foot if they don't embrace the touch-screen (iPad or whatever) revolution. Whoever designs a system that integrates on all digital platforms, especially the touch screen, wins. The rest die a slow, sad death.

  11. The point of D&D's call for open design is not for fans to create the game from the ground up. 5E's been in development for a while now, and the call for user feedback didn't go out until recently.

    The real point is to preemptively make sure that designers don't produce something that's completely at odds with what their buyers want. It's also to make sure that major flaws didn't sneak past the designers, which arguably happened with D&D 4E (monster HP/combat length).

    This is an open beta. Not design from the ground up.

  12. I guess there's a misunderstanding when you say "...and supposedly make it from the ground up while actually taking into account feedback from their fan base".

    In fact the new system already has a base, which will be shown during the D&D Experience this month. All they want us to do is testing this new system (developed by Cook and Mearls) and provide them useful feedback, which they'll use to give form and spirit to this new version of D&D.

    Pay attention to Mike Mearls' statements:
    "As part of our increased efforts to engage with the player-base, we launched a series of weekly articles in early 2011, including Rule of Three and Legends & Lore, to give you a voice in our work. We’ve listened to both praise and criticism from all D&D fans, regardless of their edition of choice, and we’ll continue to do so."
    and then,
    "...starting in Spring 2012, we will be taking this process one step further and conducting ongoing open playtests..."
    followed by
    "By involving you in this process, we can build a set of D&D rules that incorporate the wants and desires of D&D gamers around the world."
    and finally
    "We have begun obtaining feedback from a limited Friends & Family playtest consisting of internal employees and their gaming groups and soon we will be expanding that group to consist of members from our existing body of playtesters."

    How could they playtest something if they didn't have at least part of the system already developed?

    I believe we should wait and see instead of giving opinion on something that's still invisible to our eyes, but I believe in Monte Cook's work and I expect nothing less than awesome from his return to Wizards of the Coast.

  13. It may be marketing and it may be a hopeless task, but it was done with the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. Granted, we've not seen the finished product yet (due April 2012), but Joe Goodman has given details of how he has directly taken feedback from the beta test and redesigned his game. Some of the redesigns have been quite major. So it can be an extent.

    I expect the D&D beta will end up being a type of proof-reading and "sanity check" on what they already have in mind. Which is no bad thing. But to say it will be "your game" is hyperbole.

  14. I don't understand. Why did you erase my comment?

    All I did was point out that Pathfinder had a open playtest and is beating D&D 4e in sales. Then I pointed out that White Wolf did the same thing with New World of Darkness.

    Your experience is with video games. The tabletop RPG world is a different one. This has been tried and succeeded there, that's why WotC went this route.

    How is any of what I said offensive enough to have my comment deleted? I'm not being rude. What's the deal here?

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