Hello everyone! I’m Chris Sims, former Wizards of the Coast designer and editor. You might know me from my editing work on the 3e D&D game (Rules Compendium), my design work for the 4e game (Martial Power, Monster Manual, Monster Manual 2, and so on), or from D&D Insider. I’m joining my friends here at Critical-Hits, because I enjoy talking, thinking, and writing about games and generally geeky stuff.
I want to write what you want to read. That means I’m open to questions and topic suggestions. Feel free to send me either or both at my Critical Hits email–chris at critcal-hits dot com. Also, I want to start helping you with your games and design questions, which might even form a whole new “mailbag” column if it receives enough response.
I also want to to play the “identify the classic AD&D monster and source” with my author bio. You identify it first, and I’ll tell everybody you did. I’ll try to change up once a week.
I’ve been thinking about entry-level tabletop roleplaying games a lot lately. Looking back on the start of the 4e D&D game, and the amount of material that’s already out for it, I wish it had been developed and released in a more controlled manner.
I realize that the 4e game isn’t really entry-level. However, it was produced with the intent of gaining a whole sector of new players. It failed to be as good as it could have been in that area of design intent.
An entry-level game must give the potential player setting and rules material that are comprehended quickly and easily. The player needs some control of character creation and play through choices. But an entry-level game needs to limit choices to the point that they’re digestible.
By limiting choices, I don’t mean eliminating choices by making character creation extremely random. Randomness isn’t simplicity; it’s choices made for you by a roll of the dice. Numerous modern video roleplaying games allow a lot of choice during character creation without resorting to such a crutch. A modern entry-level product has to acknowledge that. Random systems all too often force a character into particular molds, limited by the designer’s imagination and page space. Such a lack of choice won’t fly with most modern gamers.
Numerous modern tabletop roleplaying games, and even more video game RPGs, instead provide ideal starting points for a player in the form of archetypes. You want a troll mage? Here’s the perfect set of initial abilities for that character. (Even the 4e D&D game has such archetypes for a starting character, but the information is easily overlooked in each character class entry.) The good modern games allow you to tinker with and eventually outgrow the archetypes as you grow in play proficiency. They do it without overwhelming you.
Speaking of overwhelming, the 4e D&D game had a cumbersome amount of legacy material and audience expectations. These pressures didn’t serve the design process as well as they could have. It seemed to me that the possible forms the game could have taken overwhelmed even the designers themselves. A 4e that took a few more of its cues from the old-school red-box (Moldvay 1981 revision) D&D Basic Set might have been better in the end.
For character creation and development, that game had several classes, a little randomness, and limited scope. It also had a range of information that at least implied a setting, as well as enough challenges and rewards to get one started as a DM. Sure, looking at it with modern sensibilities makes its flaws even more glaring. At the time, though, that red box had an approach that was sheer genius–simple, limited, and modularly expandable.
The tendency today is to try to give players everything possible at once, maybe even with a little new hotness for spice. That’s a wrongheaded approach, especially given the evidence of how people digest and play with tabletop roleplaying game material (slowly). It’s also wrongheaded approach if you, as a designer, want the game to have a long, exciting lifespan.
Too many players think that a new version of a game needs, at its inception, all the options the previous, mature system had. They’re wrongheaded, too. The way people learn and play a new system (slowly) doesn’t bear out this desire to have it all as soon as possible. It’s also wrongheaded if you, as a player, want the game to have a long, exciting lifespan.
Imagine if we could roll back time to the initial release of the 4e D&D game. What if the first Player’s Handbook had, at most, 160 pages–about the size of Martial Power and similar books. Let’s say it had the expected races (dwarf, elf, half-elf, halfling, and human) four core classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard), levels 1–10. It’d also have all the rules the current PH1 has, along with some clearer “entry-level” stuff such as archetypes. (All this would indeed fit in a 160-page book, along with a little new hotness, such as a new race or three and maybe another class–to taste.)
Before you decry or support this utter fantasy, imagine also that the release schedule modularly expanded the game. Six months would give you, as a player, a few more builds, classes, and races. A year later, at most, you would have access to the first paragon tier material. Year two would show you epic tier in all its glory. (The fact is, though, most current 4e players aren’t yet beyond heroic tier, even now.)
It would have been better for the designers and for the players. And that’s not even mentioning a utilitarian release schedule for DM products. It’s also ignoring that an entry-level game also has to be simple and fun, which I think 4e is. But that, and perhaps expansion on some of the topics touched on here, is a topic for another day.