For those (few) of you who read the blog know, I am an "old school" gamer. My favorite edition of D&D is still Basic (Rules Cyclopedia), and my current retroclones of choice are ACKS and Labyrinth Lord. But recently I ran the D&D Next playtest, and while it was barrel-of-monkeys fun, I also had concerns.
Yes, I was concerned about the rate of healing, and long rests, and too-generous Saves v. Death, but not that concerned. Those sorts of things are easily house-ruled. Piece of cake. They were worth mentioning in the playtest report, but not losing sleep over or even bitching about at EN World.
My primary concern was something more basic - effect-oriented rules. And this is a real problem. It could be a deal-killer for many old school players (like myself) if these effect-oriented rules dominate D&D Next's final form. And if the old school players don't take up D&D Next in great numbers, one of the stated design goals of the system will have been a failure.
I don't want that to happen. I want everyone to be happy.
Let's define two terms:
Object-Oriented Rules: These rules (OORs) are principally concerned with, and define, an object that exists in the game world. It might be a sword, or a horse, or a layer of grease covering something else, or an incorporeal Chaotic spirit, or a big ball of really hot fire 30' in diameter. Point is, it's something. What can you do with it; how does it effect the game world? That depends on the situation - ask your DM.
Effect-Oriented Rules: These rules (EORs) are principally concerned with, and define, their effect on the game world. How this effect is caused - not important. Make up a reason. The point is, "this is what happens".Okay, so those are the terms.
EORs have become more common with each Edition of D&D, and are very common in 4E, because (1) they're easier for the designers to balance, and (2) they're predictable in competition play. The "game math model" is clean and easy. A certain kind of player likes them too, because they don't require any sort of "approval" by the DM to function. The player can just assert an EOR, and as long as the DM doesn't correct a misunderstanding (e.g., "These are undead, remember? Charm spells don't work"), the EOR works for the player as-written every single time. It's like in Chess - no DM approval is needed for moving your rook in a straight line.
Older editions of D&D however (Gygaxian, Holmesian, and even Arnesonian versions) are much more object-oriented. The object was defined first, and the effects that could arise therefrom were adjudicated by the DM as necessary. A Fireball, for instance, was a big ball of fire, so it's effects were anything a big ball of fire would do. It combusted combustibles, melted meltables, and probably could have reinflated a hot air balloon under certain circumstances. Yes, of course it did 5d6 damage - but that's not all! (/tv-pitchman-voice)
So why does this matter?
Because for a certain faction of D&D players, certainty of effect is paramount, and object definition really doesn't matter as much. It's nice, but really, "I just want to know in black and white what I can do in any situation." This sort of player enjoys the creativity of employing their effects in clever ways - like gambits in Chess. "EORs rule, and OORs suxors. OOR rules are just playing "Mother-May-I" with the DM."
But for another faction of D&D players, certainty of objective knowledge is paramount, and effects can be negotiated with the DM later. This kind of player expects and looks forward to each negotiation with the DM to find clever ways of applying their objects in unexpected and advantageous fashions, like MacGuyer finding the 135th use for a pocket knife and duct tape. "OORs rule, and EORs are teh lame. EOR rules cramp my creativity and don't let me have any fun."
I'm not judging. No accusations of badwrongfun. Just different play styles.
Oh, let's define one more term:
Brain-Damaging Rules. These rules pretend to be OORs, but when you actually try to square their described object with their stated effect, your brain is damaged. You'll see what I mean in a second.Thankfully, I have a solution! (Maybe).
From the playtest document, let's look at Ray of Frost...
Oh, wait, I clicked-throughed on some sort of click-wrappy agreement with Wizards where I promised I wouldn't reproduce their playtest materials. Okay, let's look at ... Ray of Glue. Yeah, that's it.
Ray of Glue
You fire a pale beam of elmer-white energy to trap a creature in glue,
Effect: You make a ranged attack against one creature within 20 squares of you. On a hit the target's speed drops to zero.Okay class, what kind of rule is this? Answer: Brain Damaging. Wouldn't trapping a creature in glue have slightly more effects than just dropping their speed to zero? You'd think so, wouldn't you? Like, objects thrown at them stick, they can't drop weapons, and maybe they can't even see. To use D&D Next terminology it would be Blinded, and either Paralyzed or Restrained. But nothing like that is mentioned in the Effects section.
By default it becomes an EOR though, because the effect is clearly written and sensible, while the object is ... incomplete. In fact it's pretty obvious little thought was put into the object at all. It's not even described very well.
Furthermore, how does Ray of Glue work outside of combat? We simply don't have enough information to even begin to think about that; not without every DM in the world reaching wildly different conclusions. If the purpose of the above rules is to achieve any sort of consistency between D&D campaigns, it fails pretty hard.
Here's an Improved Ray of Glue:
Improved Ray of Glue
Description: You fire a pale beam of elmer-white energy up to 20 squares. At the target spot a 6" cloud of glue bursts into existence, causing all objects within the cloud to stick together until the beginning of your next turn (six seconds). The glue then evaporates as quickly as it appeared.
Some Effects: 1. You target one of the feet of one creature. On a hit the target's speed drops to zero. 2. You target one of the hands of one creature. On a hit it cannot let go of whatever it is holding. 3. You target a sheathed weapon. On a hit it cannot be drawn.Yes, that's a bit wordier. But the words are so, so worth it. Now both old-school OOR-loving Simulationists can be happy, and so can new-school EOR Gamists. Because Improved Ray of Glue has both a clearly defined object (a 6" ball of glue) and several clearly defined effects (zero-move, no-drop, or no-draw). And no brain damage, because the effects flow logically from the object! Happy day!
This could work for everyone, because D&D Next is supposed to be modular. It is expected that every Next DM will have a "campaign sheet" that says how his campaign will run - whether it will have the advanced tactics of 4E or more basic fights of Basic, etc. Well here's checkbox #1 for the aspiring DM: Primacy of Description; or Primacy of Effect.
In Primacy of Description campaigns, OOR is the default (and the Effect list is by default incomplete). Have at it, MagGuyer.
In Primacy of Effect, EOR is the default and the list of Effects is by default complete. The description is just fluffy flavor text you can change at-will. Go get 'em, Kasparov.
I could go on with more examples, but I think this has gone on long enough, and the smarty-pants in the audience can figure it out from here.
I feel a great disturbance in the Force. As if millions of Edition War threads cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something wonderful has happened.Prologue: A special case:
Action Rules. These rules define how your PC interacts with objects. Some of these rules don't have to be written in the books because they are common sense - if you have hands (or even particularly dexterous toes), you can pick up a sword. There's no rule for that. However, if you sneak down a tunnel - how do your feet interact with the ground? That's where the Stealth rules come in, with possible modifiers (by-the-book or DM-adjudicated) for ground surface type and the nature of your shoes. The point is, the "objects" in this case are your feet and the ground, but since both "feet" and "the ground" are fairly common, Stealth just assumes them.
And that's okay, as long as the designer keeps on eye on "What objects are interacting here, and what assumptions are safe to make in most cases?" No one wants to have rules arranged by body part.
Special thanks to Zak S. and Brendan S. for some Google+ discussions that made this a better post. Naturally any shortcomings remain mine alone.