On What to Do About the Bugbear Roadblock

How did this gridlock happen?

First, I'm doing this because clearly there is another game of Dungeons and Dragons in the works - and I want to make sure that they read at least once what really would re-reinvigorate the hobby. Also: I want to clarify that although 'comprehensive robust' rules systems are part of the problem that I'm not advocating bad rules.

The WotC thinking here is as follows (and please, correct me if I'm wrong):
  • We want people to play our game and continue to play it
  • Therefore we have to provide lots of incentives and carrots with progression to keep people playing
  • So we have to design the game to limit the vast majority of actions (firing into combat, attacking additional opponents) so that we can reward the players with these abilities when they level.
  • This design by limitation causes players to believe that if they don't have something written on their sheet that they are unable to do it.
  • This leads to them trying to solve problems by looking at the sheet.
There is a lot of discussion about why the modern game feels mechanical.

These are the reasons why.
  • It is more fun to describe the room, and think of places to search, rather than rolling a search die ten times.
  • It is even less fun to just say - "We take 20"
  • Making the game scale from schmoe, to hero, to superhero, to god causes a very specific list of problems
    • The wide power range and the emphasis on power limits which opponents are appropriate
    • Magic items and magic and other things become required facets of character power and become ho hum
  • Embrace the abstractness of the game, instead of creating dissonance when trying to make things more concrete.
  • The issue of 'Character Builds' is eliminating millions of people from playing Dungeons and Dragons.
  • In a given night, playing a modern game (Pathfinder, or 4th edition) we spend on average a third of our time either looking up rules in the books (Pathfinder) or using various online utilities (4e) to decipher how things work. 
  • The moment by moment tactical combat is an entertaining minigame, but it is unsatisfying as actual role-playing, and as an always DM, I find it extremely unsatisfying to play a tactical game I'm expected to always lose.
Now I know that they are doing this to make money. In the immortal words of Elizabeth Warren, "I just want to be clear".

Taking a bunch of polls and doing a bunch of research asking people what they want, and then trying to design a game that appeals to everyone will result in a middle of the road piece of shit that no one wants to play. Setting out with per-existing 'monitization' schemes without any actual value or content will not result in a profitable enterprise. Dungeons and Dragons does not compete with my computer/video gaming time and money, and the corporate insistence that is does is what drove me away from the newest modulations of it.

If you want to make a game that will reinvigorate the hobby, if you want to make one that will be a smashing success, then do what was done for first edition or third edition, go beyond.

Make the books so interesting and powerful that even people that aren't gamers can't help but pick them up. Fill them not with pages and pages of rules, but pages and pages of ideas! Come up with simple mechanics that don't require any references to the work. 

Allow someone to be able to engage in play in under five minutes.

Give them not the carrots back that you took so to hook them, but tools to the DM's creativity so that they can't wait to discover what happens next.

Create a book that no matter which "edition of the famous fantasy role playing game that we know and love" we play, we will purchase because it will improve our game.

Oh, continue to release totally awesome and separate boardgames like Ravenloft to fill that other niche.
Instead of codifying rules for endless different situations; how about they codify abstract systems that we can apply as we wish for various things. (i.e. here are a dozen ways to resolve conflict in the game, ability checks, modifiers, percent chances)
How is the possible? Look at the creativity and output of the OSR! Dragons-foot! Blogs! Almost all of that labor is being done for free, and as the premiere fantasy gaming company with budget you can't take advantage of that? How can you not have the money for that when you've got so much available for free! Crowd-sourcing anyone?

To be clear, I'm not saying that you only use our resources, or that you try to crowdsource everything - but with the variety and quality of stuff is being produced for free, how come the stuff that gets paid for is lackluster?

Imagine a 'players handbook' that has dozens of classes, each with a hundred variations. Instead of page after page of powers, how about adventure hooks and motivations, ideas for warlocks and wizards, summoning circles, rune knights, adventuring companies, sky pirates, dragon infiltrators, dashing rogues and knights of the realm. Not 1000 classes, but few classes with a lot of ways to differentiate character. Set the limits that allow our creativity to shine.

Imagine a 'monster manual' that instead of stats, one lousy picture, and some dull flavor text, instead has multiple beautiful illustrations, legends of the beasts, differing and conflicting stories on its' capabilities, and legends and lore of the creature. A true bestiary in the classic sense! Since the game isn't about the next tactical challenge, you won't need 1000 different monsters, though as the shepherds of the greatest role playing game license in history, you could exhaustively cover every monster ever released for the game. (How will you make your money? If each book is beautiful and unique and useful with new ideas, instead of the same old stats, I bet I'd buy the whole 'set' - I know I did for Hackmaster.) What an opportunity!

Imagine a 'Dungeon Masters Guide' that took some of the best essays and advice on the web, from the Alexandrian, to Ars Ludi, to Monsters and Manuals, and gave us the tools we needed to create a sandbox, to handle low level play to high level play, to empower player agency. Make a book 1/10th as legendary as the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide and you'll sell a million copies. (The game masters guide by Paizo is a bit like this)

Please don't let me open the next book to find page after page of boring options that are necessary for me to 'build' a character that is not useless in comparison to another 'build' and that reduces all play to rolling dice.

Stop putting the burden on the DM to ignore the rules for better play, and make some rules that I don't need to ignore.


  1. I sincerely hope WotC do not listen to old, angry grognards like you yelling "get off my lawn" at all the young people playing the game the way they want to. You will just moan about 5e and won't buy into it anyway, no matter how good or bad it is, so why would they pay any attention to you?

  2. I think appeals of this sort are a wasted effort - not because I have any particular ill will towards WotC, but because I don't believe a company of their size has any chance at all of being swayed by the opinions of bloggers. Anything you want out of this hobby is up to you and your fellow enthusiasts, you shouldn't hold out hope of getting it from Wizards. Most hobbies don't have well-funded corporations looking after their interests, so D&D isn't really any different in that regard.

    @Anonymous: Go do something constructive.

  3. Nice article, and I have to agree with you whole-heartedly. However, I would like ro point out that the two most recent Monster Vault books they have released have been more in the vein you describe: laden with multiple illustrations, plot hooks to tie the creatures to the game world, more focus on how they interact and how they can be more than just another bucket of hit points. In particular, the Threats to the Nentir Vale Monster Vault was an excellent combination of gazeteer, setting sourcebook, and bestiary.

    I've been playing and running 4e for a while, and i've gotten to the point where i'm just not going to sit through another hour long tactical combat minigame. So I'm about to start a game using the Microlite74 ruleset, one online and one at home with my kids, utilizing all the fluff and core setting material from my library of 4e books. It's been remarkably easy to do, actually, and I think it'll work pretty well.

  4. I view things completely differently. After being a GM for years, I'm annoyed when I pick up Pathfinder's "Game Mastery Guide" or 3.5's "Dungeon Master's Guide 2" only to find page after page telling me how to run a group. I appreciate that the information is useful to some people, but it's the kind of information which is only useful once, whereas books detailing rules make good reference material, giving me a metric by which to judge my calls.

    And while I appreciate the criticism that a system so complicated as to force a player to constantly reference the rules is bad, I don't really get that from 3.5/Pathfinder. I read the rulebooks once, and what I don't remember, I make a judgement call about. In my experience this is what most GMs do.

    The only time I can think of where I actually do reference the book at the table is to determine precisely what a spell does when a player casts it. And that's rarely a problem due to my house rule which states that if a player casts a spell without being able to give me a page number, the spell fails.

  5. @John: understood, but I think the essay might ring true for players about their own 4e experiences, and help them make a better decision as to whether 5e would make a good purchase.

  6. "as an always DM, I find it extremely unsatisfying to play a tactical game I'm expected to always lose."

    Also, as a player, it's also unsatisfying to play a tactical game where I'm always expected to win.

    Great article!

  7. @Alex: Fair enough.

    @LS: I haven't read the 3.5 "DMG 2", but what I want from a D&D book is inspiration, not instruction. I want random tables and optional subsystems and easy-to-use rules that I can use or ignore without having to rework the entire game because of their absence. I don't want something that tells me how to DM, I want a toolkit.

  8. @John My perspective is that I'm already good at coming up with ideas. That's why I GM, because I have more ideas than my players can keep up with. What I lack is an ability to quickly come up with mechanical responses to what my players do beyond a simple -4, -2, +2, +4. And even then I worry that I'm being grossly inconsistent because I'm unconciously rooting for my players to overcome whatever challenge I put before them. And I worry that desire causes me to give them harsher penalties or lower bonuses when theyr'e doing well (to make things dangerous,) and softer penalties and greater bonuses when they're struggling (because I don't want them to fail.)

    Codefying that a bull rush does X & Y but not Z keeps me from having a world in which reality bends to how much help the PCs do, or don't, need. Such a world would be harmful to player agency.

    I 100% agree that the current systems tend to leave characters looking at their character sheet to see what they can do, rather than just imagining what might be possible. And I agree that it's a big problem. One which I (who cut my teeth on 3.5) didn't overcome until a couple years ago. But I think there are better solutions than a drastic cutback in rules.

    As a final note, I would like to see a larger variety of systems covered as options. It frustrates me that I had to go to the Internet to learn about Hex mapping, for example. With all the pages filled with pointless new spells, subpar new classes, and monster after iterative monster, it's shocking how many truly valuable elements of RPGs have been simply glossed over or completely ignored.

  9. @LS: You misunderstand me. You're good at coming up with ideas, yet you had to go to the internet to learn about hex mapping. That's the sort of idea I'm talking about - useful tools and concepts for designing and running a game.

  10. @Anonymous: I am neither old, nor angry. 4e is a failure financially in comparison to the earlier editions, and had extreme revisions made before it was palatable even to the fans.

    But more to the point, the books I've seen (mostly the early ones) are filled with pages upon endless pages of powers, which does nothing to fuel my creative juices or interest.

    I am asking for something better.

    @Sully, the monster vaults sound interesting, but how do they compare to the tome of horrors or the new hacklopedia

    Also, Sully: "i've gotten to the point where i'm just not going to sit through another hour long tactical combat minigame"

    Hear hear! It's not that this isn't fun - it's that this isn't the D&D I was playing until 4e/Pathfinder came out.

    @LS, re:GMG by paizo, I was specifically talking about the creativity resources, like 50 unusual entrances to a dungeon, and other tools like that.

    @Mike, The always lose expectation is based off CR and the whole 'appropriate encounter' jazz. When you set up minis on a mat, players expect to win.

    @John/LS, Yes, so yes - this is the thing I'm talking about. Why are their not the type of articles in the core books about hex size, flow of play, etc. Stuff that is useful for us as DM's

  11. @John & -C:

    I can certainly appreciate that as an entirely valid criticism of 3.X / Pathfinder.

    I'd be very interested to know what you would remove from the core rulebook of Pathfinder, though. While I'd certainly like to see information on things like hex mapping, detailed help for dungeon design, charts for quickly generating communities of various sizes, etc made available in official books, I don't think there's anything I would feel comfortable removing from the core books. I could potentially see myself cutting the chapter of spells in half.

    But what I would much rather see is more books geared towards helping GMs and fewer books filled with player options (which is just about the only thing 3.X ever released.)

    Also, I would question the critique that Pathfinder leads to role playing being nothing but an endless combat minigame. I simply have not experienced that.

  12. Stop putting the burden on the DM to ignore the rules for better play, and make some rules that I don't need to ignore.

    Well said.

    Anonymous, I think you may have missed the point of the post.

  13. Can you elaborate on the comment that "The issue of 'Character Builds' is eliminating millions of people from playing Dungeons and Dragons."?

    It's the one bit that made me furrow my brow and feel unsure what you meant.

  14. I think someone should email this directly to Monte Cook.

    Also I agree with the above statement someone made that I want books with DM options not so many Player options. I don't know about you guys but I think DM's are the ones buying the books anyway.

  15. Players expect to win? Really? Someone's not playing right. ;-)

  16. @rjbs: Sure. Many people are quite interested in gaming with me and my group (more than I can accommodate), but when attempting to introduce new people to the activity. . .

    The vast amount of choices available, and the huge importance they have with the resolution of actions at the table mean that new players are completely overwhelmed, lacking the information necessary to make 'correct' successful decisions, and often make decisions that are clearly sub-par in comparison with the rest of the party.

    This kind of complexity, i.e. a book that is filled with pages of stat blocks, is explicitly exclusive to new players.

    @Louis Clark, I tagged Monte twice on google+. I can only assume he saw the article. Sadly, I there is no response. Perhaps he believes that I don't represent the buying public? Even though I spend quite a bit on role playing products monthly.

    @JDJarvis, aye -- after the roper furor in Sunless Citadel, the way of design is to give only appropriate encounters. ;-p Clearly, I agree. But with 'narrative' focused games, and encounter that can't be beat is an impassible roadblock, leading to further design dissonance.

  17. @LS: We're necessarily going to disagree on what should be in the core books - you're a 3.x man, I'm a 1e man, we play different games. Also, I have no experience with Pathfinder, except insofar as it's a 3.5 clone. But what -C mentions, about stat blocks and character builds and so on, will do for a start.

    When new players join my game, or if I'm starting with a whole new group, it's pretty rare that they've read the Player's Handbook. I verbally walk them through the character creation process, and get them to write down their character information on a blank piece of paper. This takes maybe twenty minutes, maximum, for an entire party, most of which is spent choosing equipment and spells, which is the only reason we consult the book. As DM I need to have read the PH, of course, but the information from it that I actually need can be easily contained in my head.

    Starting play this way does not disadvantage the players in any way. They don't need to have read the rulebook to know how to play. They pick up how to make attack rolls, saving throws and so on (read: what size of die to throw) as it comes up - it's not important that they know how to do those things in advance, because their decisions during play aren't based on manipulating a set of rules, but on their ideas about what a person could actually do in their character's situation.

    Could you start a 3.5 or 4e game that way? It's hard to imagine. But if you could, I think those games would be significantly more popular.

    @-C: Cook is almost certainly forbidden from discussing anything related to the next edition before it's been announced.

  18. @John: I definitely see the value of fast character generation. I can generate a 3.X / Pathfinder character for myself in maybe 15 minutes if I have the book handy. When I'm helping a group of 3-4 first time players roll up a character it takes closer to 40 minutes. And with no false modesty, I doubt a less experienced 3.X GM could pull that off.

    But while that complexity can be a detriment for new players, it can be a strength for more experienced players.

    I'd like to find some copies of 1e rules and try my hand at learning & running them at least a few times. Much as I love the 3.X style, it's clear that it lacks some strengths of older games.

  19. While I agree with most of your statements, I definately disagree with your solutions. While you might not like tactical combat, a vast majority of gamers do. Both PF and D&D top the charts of sales with ease. Likewise, I'm not sure you could sell a book repeating Monster myths from the 70s. I mean, who REALLY needs yet another book about how Orcs are? Dragons? They are anything a fantasy fan can rattle off in mere seconds. No, I don't think many people would buy into a system that's not much of a system. Play? Sure. But invest? A system that's so rules light can be used with anything, so paying $40 for a book containing knowledge had more simply than a google search doesn't seem appealing.

  20. @Blackknight

    You should go back and re-read the post and actually discuss what I wrote instead of creating strawmen that are not representative of my position.

    Because of your difficulty with reading comprehension, I'll try to make it more clear for you.

    The "vast majority" of gamers don't even play role playing games because of their complexity a large part of which is heavy insistence on tactical combat.

    Nowhere in the article does it suggest a 'book repeating monster myths' or something that 'isn't much of a system'.

    What I am suggesting that instead of locking out millions of possible consumers by trying to create some tedious tactical WoW clone forcing them to pay monthly for powers updates - make a game that appeals to game players. People will play catchphrase, Wii, or Catan - why not make D&D something that they can play without needing to take a course?

    More books like Vornhiem and the new Hacklopedia will mean more sales to a wider audience for a longer period of time. Book after book of splatbook powers have a short shelf life and are dull to boot.

    Pathfinder (which outsells 4e) does exactly this - the GMG and APG and various ultimate books are useful no matter what RPG I'm running And it has made them industry leader.

    WotC has deeper pockets - can't it do better?

  21. Firstly, you can use the DMG1 and DMG2 as resources for any game as well, and any competently-written GM's section can be so used, so those aren't really points in Paizo's favor specifically.

    Secondly, simple RPGs exist, yet they haven't crushed D&D and Pathfinder. Why do you believe this to be the case?

    Thirdly, MMOs are far more intellectually demanding than a TTRPG for the same level of complexity because they are performed in real time while the TTRPG is not. Millions of people can handle WOW, and yet they can't handle D&D? Is it your belief that D&D 4e and Pathfinder are so much more complex?

    But your overall tenor is one of neglecting mechanics in favor of flavor. Well, flavor is meaningless without mechanics to back it up. If there's no distinction between a "sky pirate" class and a "knight" class, (or a "wizard" class and a "thief" class) they are the same class with different words used to describe them.

    And I remember how 1e and 2e distinguished its classes- the balance of the book was spell lists, just as 4e's balance is concerned with power lists.

    Finally, I believe that you are overestimating the importance of optimization. To counter your anecdote, my 4e-playing group is nowhere near optimized, yet they have not had the problems you have claimed to have had. So what exactly are these problems that render character optimization vital?

  22. @Effectronica, I see you had some difficulty parsing the article above. I'll address some of your misunderstandings and hopefully clear them up.

    Re: Firstly; Paizo is mentioned once in the article as an example of a publisher who is producing material that is useful in general to role playing gamers. As you also say the first edition DMG is also useful as a resource no matter which game you are running. There is no 'points in favor' and the point has nothing to do with Paizo, or any other specific publisher.

    The point is, Make Products that are Useful for Gamers. A WotC 4e product can do nothing to improve or assist with a B/X, OD&D, Pathfinder, Earthdawn, or Shadowrun game (insert your example here). .: WotC is not producing supplements that I can use, and this is costing them lots of money.

    Re: Secondly; This is a complicated question, the largest problem is the statement of the goal of 'crushing D&D/Pathfinder'. I don't want D&D or Pathfinder crushed - I want to be able to play it with my friends instead of catchphrase or dominion.

    There are many many many many more people buying games then detail obsessed micro-manageing socially inept people - how about making a game I can play with my friends without their eyes glazing over? This is what happens when presenting them with pages of feats or endless (outdated) power lists.

    Unless your argument here is that we should be doing a lot to restrict our audience? If you want that - that's ok, but you're leaving money on the table.

    As to why simple RPG's haven't crushed D&D, it's because D&D was originally the simple RPG and it has been declining in popularity and sales ever since. Marketing, Resources, Quality of Product, Distribution, and Money are another obstacle that simple games face.

    But your core argument shows a blatant ignorance of how the industry is functioning. Board games and other activities that regular people who don't want to read a college textbook in order to play a game (i.e. non-gamers) are becoming more and more popular and this is reflected in sales numbers.

    Continued. . .

  23. re: Third, I've been playing all kinds of games my entire life long and I would not ever, even in jest, describe an MMO as "intellectually demanding". How is pressing 1,1,1,2,3,1,1,2,3,1,1,1,2,3 or setting up a macro to do the same a demanding enterprise?

    That absurdity aside; Yes, your point is exactly what I am saying. When I start to play WoW I am immediately playing WoW. I do not have to read dozens and dozens of pages of text, nor do I have to make irrevocable decisions as soon as I begin to play.

    I believe it is possible for them to handle the game, but the front loaded way it is presented is designed to keep them from doing so. This is the point I make in the article above.

    You then proceed to misinterpret my 'tenor' and then make an argument against that. You can become familiar with my stance on mechanics versus flavor by perusing the deconstruction and analysis of conflict resolution of 3.x/PF I am currently writing.

    If you were reading that, you would note that my stance is one of 'flavor is secondary to fun mechanics' and 'the core mechanic outside of combat is boring in Dungeons & Dragons 3/4'. I explictly cover the reasons why in that series of articles

    The statement that spell lists were the only distinguishing features in 0e/1e/2e is false and shows an ignorance of class differences used in those games.

    This is understandable - if the only experience you've had is with games published past 2000, how would you know otherwise?

    And to address your last point - the fact that you can objectively measure the 'optimization' of their 'builds' is the root of the very problem that I'm talking about.

    The game is no longer about adventure and the strategic choices made to achieve a heroic or nefarious success; but is instead about combat encounters and the tactical choices made to achieve a win versus the current opposition.

    I've played them both, and they are both enjoyable activities - but the first is much, much, more fulfilling an activity to me.

    As most active gamers haven't even ever participated in the first it makes it difficult to accept their assertions that the second is better.

  24. This is just something to think about when it comes to "builds". Consider the Barbarian ideal. Most people think of a big hulking fighter who goes into Norse style blood-lusts until he wears himself out.
    The mechanics though are simply that they gain some stats and lose some stats for x turns/day/level.

    Now imagine you are playing in a party with a small, ethereal looking humanoid who can always be found in the company of her pet monkey, wanders off a short ways from the group to chirp at animals, and prefers sleeping outdoors or by an open window if safety allows. Also, she wears green. Most people are already assuming this is a druid.

    Surprise, when something threatens her animal friends, she flies into an uncommonly passionate rage, doing amazing physical feats no one imagined in order to save her friend. It is a race against her own Constitution, because spending so much energy is quite taxing. Usually, she succeeds, and collapses in a warm ball with her animal friend as soon as possible.

    She was a female gnome Barbarian, who had a good value in CHA in order to take advantage of Handle Animal.

    A normal 3.5/PF player would not even consider this possiblity thanks to "builds" and "char op" and whatnot. "Since orcs make the best Barbarians, and I want to kill everything quickest, I will be an orc barbarian" is the thought promoted by online resources. Picking small sized "primary fighter classes" is derided. While this does not really apply much to Old-School gaming (nor have I ever old school gamed), even in the world of 3.5/PF, the fact that "builds" can be "optimized" kills a large amount of player thought!


  25. "but with the variety and quality of stuff is being produced for free, how come the stuff that gets paid for is lackluster?"

    Because conscious thought is on a completely different level than formatory thinking - taking everything as good or bad, black or white, etc. Believe it or not, most people (secretly) crave authority and easy choices.

    "Instead of page after page of powers, how about adventure hooks and motivations, ideas for warlocks and wizards, summoning circles, rune knights, adventuring companies, sky pirates, dragon infiltrators, dashing rogues and knights of the realm. Not 1000 classes, but few classes with a lot of ways to differentiate character."

    Yes! Great post overall.


  26. I know this post is a little old, but it would seem that you've nailed it.
    We'll still have to wait and see how the new DMG turns out, but I can see, and hopefully you're feeling fulfilled in your assertions, that the new edition seems to share some values that you asserted in this article.
    Great work.

  27. For all the negativity in the comments, reading this post for the first time in 2018 I can’t help but wonder if Mearls and Crawford did actually read this (or something like it) and take it on board. 5E is not my ideal RPG by a long way, but read this post’s description of the ideal Monster Manual, then leaf through the 5E one... eerie!

  28. I think Mearls and Crawford definitely read at least some of the OSR blogs though I'm not sure which ones. Volo's guide is an even more direct riff on what Courtney described in terms of a Bestiary, and Xanathar's guide reads like a literal interpretation of the description of a PHB here. Neither really captures the excitement or possibility with which they are described here but they seem to be help back by D&D's middle-of-the-road compromises.


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