Defenses in D&D

One of the wierd things about D&D is how the use of defenses actually works to the detriment of the defenders in a standard game of D&D. (Whenever I boot a game of Diablo for a half-hour break this occurs to me.) Here's what I mean: 

In the real world, defenses and strongholds are meant to bolster a weak party against a strong party. For example, castles were built to allow a small number of defenders to hold off a large army (for an amount of time, perhaps until an allied force arrives, or the invader runs out of money to pay his troops). The basic idea is that by channeling invaders down some narrow passage, you can fight them one-at-a-time, at equal odds or advantageously, instead at the skewed odds against all the attackers at once. 

Now, this assumes one critical criteria -- That the defenders are, man-to-man, about equal or stronger than the men in the attacking force. In the medieval real world, this is basically always true. 

But this key requirement is perfectly upended in the standard D&D game. Here, the general gameplay is for a very small number of PCs to be invading the territory of some sizeable hordes of evil beasts or minions, and the PCs are generally much stronger than most of the defenders they're fighting against, man-to-man. It's almost always desirable for the PCs to fight man-to-man if they can (they overpower most of the defenders), while it would be in the defenders' best interest to bring the whole weight of their numbers to play at once (they could surround, flank, and get many attacks per single attack of the PCs). 

And that's why, counter-intuitively, almost all the "defenses" and tactical terrain in a D&D game wind up working for the PCs and against the monsters. It's actually the PCs who want to restrict mobility and fight the monsters one at a time. It's the monsters who are hurt by not being able to move freely and pig-pile the PCs. 

The best possible case for the PCs is, usually, a single doorway where the toughest PC fighter can stand and chop down the monsters one by one. That's why smart PC fights wind up tactically with the PCs defending some narrow passage, and the native monsters acting the part of the attackers, getting mowed down as they try to wiggle through their own defenses. 

And that's one of the reasons why the canonical "warren of kobold tunnels" never ever works (in my experience), because kobolds coming one at a time against the PCs is actually the best possible thing the PCs could hope for. They're the ones who are outnumbered (and facing weaker opponents), and therefore want limited mobility in the fight. Defenses help the small party -- and in D&D that's practically always the PCs. 

How to deal with this in-game? Well, as a rationalization, you could say that standard stronghold/dungeon defenses do in fact keep out the hoi poloi (normal soldiers), and that's exactly why you need to send in extra-powerful PCs to root out the evil stronghold all the time. On the other hand, it argues for actual defenders arming themselves almost exclusively with missile weapons, and arranging defenses that allow the entire defensive host to rain down missiles on the attackers all at the same time -- perhaps narrow entryways that open into big spaces or courtyards which are basically firing ranges. A whole bunch of spread-out archers or missile-throwers can be the toughest thing for a standard PC party to deal with (assuming the archers have any kind of appreciable chance at punching through the PCs' armor, which is sometimes not the case).


Cross-Linking Forums

Personally, I like to cross-link forums about the same subject (even though I know some people who don't). I find that it adds depth to the conversation, and hey, isn't that what the hyperlinked World Wide Web is all about? Check out more of my observations on this issue here.

Con Bonus to HP

Here's a thing that irritates me, especially about 3E: the Constitution bonus to Hit Points. It makes monster hit dice listings really complicated. Why can't the natural "toughness" of a creature be entirely reflected in a number of hit dice? Why do they get to "double-dip" with both multiple HD & Con bonus in 3E? And also, how can you ever tell what part of PC hit points are raw physique when the Con bonus changes over levels?

Consider the original rules from OD&D (white box). Everyone gets the same dice -- d6's. Different PC classes get their d6 dice at different rates. All monsters get a simple integer number of dice. Only if PC's have Con 15 do they get +1 benefit (very minor). Monster hit dice merge perfectly with PCs if you choose to interchange the two. Very elegant.

Keeping that in mind, here's a possible variant rule for the 3E d20 System; in fact, it really based on the "Variant: Vitality/Wound Points" from UA. Say PCs start with a base hit points equal to full Constitution -- that's their raw physical durability. Add to that hit points from class -- their Vitality, or quasi-dodge/roll ability (in the UA system, you get bonus points from Con, but I'd strike that out). Now, switch monster "hit dice" to actually be a number of d6's rolled for Constitution (and hence base hit points).

To wit: Orcs get 3d6 Con (base hit points), the same as humans. Hobgoblins get 4d6. Gnolls get 5, ogres 7, trolls 8. Giants get 10 and up, etc.

So, this system has the following advantages: (a) race-based hit points are the same as Con dice, represented by just a single integer; (b) it makes explicit the difference between raw physical damage and dodging-exhaustion; (c) it triples starting PC hit points for survivablity & granularity, which seems to be all the rage these days; (d) it makes the power increase from 1st-2nd-3rd class levels a lot less steep; (e) if PC hit dice revert back to all d6's like in OD&D, it becomes trivial to add class levels to any base monster; (f) no special rule is needed for unclassed humans, they just have 3d6 base hit points like everyone else.

However, now you probably have to re-evaluate reams of existing rules, possibly like weapons, spells, and monster attacks, to make sure that things are at least somewhat balanced. Nontheless, it's an attractive proposition (hearkening back to OD&D) to have these kinds of things be a simple, raw number of dice for base racial characteristics.

Of course, I'll never have time to completely work out all the implications of a system like that. I suppose I can go back to the regular d20 System and make my peace by saying that PCs learn better how to use their natural physical endurance as they advance (and hence get re-investing Con bonus every level). But man, I wish I could torpedo the monster Con-bonus hit points, and just say the raw Hit Dice number encapsulates how tough they are.


Part III -- Promise of OGL

Conventional wisdom holds that a lot of former 1E players came back in the fold when 3E was released, and I was definitely part of that crowd. To me, the single most exciting thing about 3E was the OGL, the Open Gaming License.

To summarize, the OGL allowed anyone to distribute the core mechanics of the D&D rules. It allowed anyone to write & publish adventures compatible with D&D, and modify & expand the rules however they imagined. There were specific comparisons to the GPL used in open-source software (something also close to my heart, since I've been a professional software developer). The business case was that WOTC made money selling hardcover rulebooks, while others could write adventures that supported the system. There was a "d20 System" trademark made available, for free just by sending a letter to WOTC, that allowed anyone to signal compatibility with the greater system of D&D.

It might help to refresh one's memory with how Ryan Dancey was selling the OGL, back at the time of 3E's rollout in 2000, on the WOTC site here.)

I previously wrote about how I saw the breakup of the OGL happening at the advent of 3.5. The evangelizing Ryan Dancey had left the company at that point, and WOTC was pretty clearly stepping back from the OGL movement. They didn't communicate the rules changes to the companies that were dependent on the system, and many were forced out of business at the time. (You can see my prior posting on the 3.5 release here.)

I think the switch to 4E is going to be significantly more dramatic. For starters, there is no longer a free "d20 System" trademark. WOTC will be offering that to only a few select, approved large companies, and perhaps approved sub-licensors. They claim that there will be an OGL version of the rules, but details are extremely vague (frankly, I remain skeptical at this time). Third-party publishers seem to be suffering even more greatly this cycle; apparently no draft of the rules has been shown to third-party publishers (whereas they did have a draft at the equivalent time in advance of 3E). Some folks are reporting local game stores getting out of the D&D business entirely with the rules switchover. The head of ENWorld reports that their publishing sales have fallen 80% since the announcement of 4E (here).

But by far, the greatest failure has been in the promise that the OGL would make the future evolution of D&D a cooperative effort between company & customers. Here's Ryan Dancey, from the above article, as 3E was being rolled out:

The other great effect of Open Gaming should be a rapid, constant improvement in the quality of the rules. With lots of people able to work on them in public, problems with math, with ease of use, of variance from standard forms, etc. should all be improved over time. The great thing about Open Gaming is that it is interactive -- someone figures out a way to make something work better, and everyone who uses that part of the rules is free to incorporate it into their products. Including us. So D&D as a game should benefit from the shared development of all the people who work on the Open Gaming derivative of D&D.

It was precisely this promise that was the biggest attraction for me to get back into 3E. Like the open software movement, the intellectual property was being opened to everyone. The users themselves would be driving the future "shared development". For me, I expected this to result in smaller changes over time, and an ongoing refinement of the system in the future, as consensus grew around particular parts of the ruleset. That's a big part of why I thought it was worthwhile to learn the new system, that the rate-of-change would be slowing, and therefore it would get wider usage for a longer period in the future.

That promise doesn't look remotely like the releases for 3.5 or 4E. In fact, it's pretty much the exact opposite of "someone figur[ing] out a way to make something work better, and everyone who uses that part of the rules... incorporat[ing] it into their products. Including us." Rather, 3.5 and 4E changes have come entirely from "star" designers in the WOTC offices. The new changes have in fact been closely-guarded secrets, sprung on the industry in the most surprising way possible. Hints and clues about the new 4E system are locked behind Gleemax logins, or even sold as "design preview" books in game stores (with the mechanics details still secret).

Clearly WOTC isn't taking direction from the larger community... in fact they apparently feel compelled to make as many surprising mechanical changes possible, so as to startle the players and get attention with the widespread, fundamental novelty. My estimation now is the reverse of what I thought when 3E was rolled out -- instead of changes slowing over time, I now expect them to accelerate over time into the future.

Consider Ryan Dancey's later analysis of how the the OGL played out to 2007 (a month before 4E was announced), in response to a question of mine posed at ENWorld here:

In practice I'm not too surprised at the lack of OGC use in D&D. There are several dozen people paid quite well to design & develop Dungeons & Dragons. You will remember that just after 3.0 shipped, Wizards went through 4 disastrous rounds of layoffs. The "survivors" (many of who also survived the Last Days of TSR) know how to keep their jobs: Do great work, and get it published. So there's an economic (and personal) motive to avoid using a lot of 3rd party OGC in the work that team produces. Nobody in that team wants an upper level manager to think "well hell! Let's just get rid of the RPG R&D group and rely on this talented pool of freelancers instead".

I'll also say that there's a unique thing going on at Wizards of the Coast, and that thing is what I call the "culture of design"... The result is, in my opinion, a qualitative difference between the WotC produced content and a lot of 3rd party content... it's hard for outside material to make it through the design inspection and review process and into a Dungeons & Dragons product.

So there you have it. The initial promise of the OGL (in any way that resembles the GPL of open source software) is basically pronounced dead by its initiator (and also a current WOTC spokeperson in the same thread). Refinements produced outside WOTC can't become part of core D&D products, because (a) the mind-set is now that WOTC provides a "cathedral" of unmatched game design high priests, and (b) the game designers themselves need to convince their bosses that only their work passes muster (and so specifically avoid OGL sources). And I'd also suggest that (c) WOTC wants to "suprise" the player base with many unexpected changes in order to drive sales. Whatever form the OGL'd content for 4E takes, the motivation behind the original idea is definitely no longer there.

Thus, for me, one of the biggest promises of 3E, which brought me back to the game, has specifically been reversed and renounced. If the players aren't formally participating in the evolution of D&D, then it just looks like any other RPG product to me. If there isn't the promise of everyone have the opportunity to publish work marked as compatible with D&D, then it's not so exciting. If it looks like changes will come more and more rapidly in the future, then it's not worth my time learning a new system today.

But, we'll always have 1E and 3E. Maybe if the pendulum swings back in the right direction for 5E, I'll once again take a look. Until then, cheers!

Part II -- Digital Initiative

(Heh, I got busy in the fall and didn't have time to add to this blog much. Here's the last two parts I outlined back shortly after 4E was announced.)

A core part of the business strategy is what they're calling the "Digital Initiative". This includes things like logins to the WOTC "Gleemax" forums, the now online-only version of Dragon and Dungeon magazines, web-based character creation and dungeon-design tools, and an online game table where players can push around virtual miniatures and roll dice. All for various fees, of course: some combination of overall monthly subscription fees, subscriptions to the "magazines", more for the tools, game table, more for virtual miniatures, access to digital versions of expansion books that they sell, etc.

At the announcement event at GenCon, the presenter laid out a strategy that included 4 parts: (1) Physical Product (actual books & miniatures), (2) Organized Play (conventions & online organization tools), (3) Community (Gleemax.com, social networking tools), (4) Digital Offerings (creation tools, game table, web magazines). You can see the summary at ENWorld here, and the first of the 4 video presentations on YouTube here.

By my counting, that's 3 of the 4 parts of this strategy that are really online computer-based offerings (for a subscription). They make it sound like 75% of their business model is now dependent on the Digital Initiative.

It seems clear that WOTC is looking enviously at the advent of major MMORPG's, like World of Warcraft, that are raking in millions of dollars per month in subscription fees (orders of magnitude more than pen-and-paper RPG's ever made). They're willing to completely re-architect the game to pursue the flavor, classes, magic sensibility, and levelling experience, basically of World of Warcraft, and the consensus opinion is that they're betting -- that they need -- to attract lots of young players away from WOW to start playing D&D. Like I say, they themselves make it sound like 75% of their strategy is dependent on a massive monthly income stream from online offerings.

This has an overwhelming number of risks -- in my opinion, it's fundamentally a bad bet. First, it's not playing to D&D's core strengths; instead of emphasizing the things that can be done well in pen-and-paper, and are poorly done online, they're specifically trying to mimic popular online games in mechanics and delivery. This will only make D&D look worse in comparison (while losing chunks of the traditional 1E, 3E customer base). Ryan Dancey made a similar argument a few weeks before 4E was announced, here:

We have to avoid dead end strategies designed to make tabletop games play like MMORPG games -- the worst thing we could do is spend time & resources trying to make a digital environment to virtualize the tabletop experience, or try to find ways to let people play a tabletop game across the internet.

Second, the great majority of MMORPG-like projects are outright failures. There's an excellent book by Mulligan & Patrovsky, Developing Online Games: An Insider's Guide. In it, these consultants on several MMORPG projects paint a picture of a whole lot of game companies getting stars in their eyes over ongoing subscription-based services, diving in without realizing the risks, pumping millions and millions of dollars into development (several multiples beyond any similar project they've completed), and then having it all crash down around their ears because they don't have expertise with these kinds of complicated real-time services. (From the Foreword: "The fact of the matter is that the history of online game development is littered with very expensive carcasses.") It's almost like you just can't stop game company executives from betting the whole farm on MMORPG's, even when you present reams of evidence on how unlikely it is to succeed. I think it's likely that WOTC is now determined to stomp down this same well-worn path.

Third, WOTC has a proven track record of being totally incompetent at software projects. It's not just that it isn't their core competency as a business. It's not just that they have no software development arm whatsoever. Rather, if you go back to the commencement of 3E, there was a fairly nice demo of a character generator, on a CD in the PHB. Promises were made about a fully-fleshed out PC generator, with -- you guessed it -- mapping, dungeon creation, monster placement, etc., to come. (There was an earlier kind of shaky version for 2E.) But this project suffered all the classic problems of mismanagement and feature bloat. As I recall, it took years and years, went through several development teams, completely ditched everything in the original demo UI product, abandoned the mapping tool, and was ultimately released to very poor reviews. Third-party tools were roundly considered far superior to WOTC's "official" product. (The first review I found of this 3E product, titled "Time for a toolbox -- but not this one" from Scifi.com, you can see here.) If they failed so miserably with just a local application like this, how can we possibly expect success on a far more complicated ongoing subscription service?

Finally, WOTC's Digital Initiative does not provide a game. For all the content and myriad of services they say they'll provide (preliminary reviews of their Dragon & Dungeon magazines have been quite poor), and the emphasis on the digital game table, that game table doesn't resolve any mechanics. You can push miniatures and roll dice and that's it -- you still have to make your own adventures and have a DM manage all resolutions by hand. (Oddly enough, I was actually involved in engineering a prototype project very much like that ten years ago at another computer game company. For the life of me, I couldn't understand how that project made sense at the time, and I still can't now. Ultimately, the project I was on was turned down by the license-holder we offered it to.) If WOW players are used to getting a fully-featured 3D world, automatically run with monsters and quests, with fellow players automatically and always available, for $15 per month, then I can't see why such players would accept paying a similar amount for a sterile miniature-placement tool. It's hard to see how the market would reward a half-hearted venture like that.

WOTC made it very clear in their initial presentation that they're betting the company on the Digital Initiative. I think there's an extremely high likelihood that this venture will not be a success.