It Slices, It Dices, It Possibly Does The THAC0

I’m sure by now you’ve heard the news. Beyoncé Knowles has given birth to a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and the Internets are ablaze. The epic ears of the Wizards of the Coast are now listening to user feedback more than ever before, and in their direction everyone’s hopes and dreams for their favorite game have been launched. The system is rumored to be many things, two of the most common of these being “just another money grab” and “modular”. As my experiences with the R&D team over the past couple years have not included any signs of them being were-packrats who hunt shinies when the moon is full, I can only speculate about the game’s modularity. As it happens, that is the thing that gives me the most hope and the most worry about the upcoming changes to D&D.

Recycle, Reduce, Revenant

When the day-star shines, I am a computer programmer. People of my class are usually pretty familiar with the concept of modularity. Those of us who are not tend to either be unemployed or promoted to management positions. I love writing modular code, and there is a very specific reason why: I am incredibly lazy. I want to write something I can reuse a bunch of times in a bunch of different situations. I want other code I write (or *gasp*  code someone else writes!) to be able to use this thing I made without having to modify anything. I hate redoing things for no reason. It’s why I don’t much care for MMO’s.

If I want to stick the same menu at the top of every webpage I write, I’ll write the menu code once and put it in a reusable module. Of course, to do this, you need to make your code ready to use modules, and that means you’re probably going to have to lay down some ground rules. These would include things like knowing what to give the module to make it do things, and knowing what to expect the module to give back when it’s done. It probably also should include some means of keeping the module from accidentally blowing everything up if you get back something completely unexpected from it. It’s kind of like loaning a car to your teenage son, and when he brings it back it’s full of zombies. He is SO GROUNDED.

One major advantage of writing code in this way is that it’s possible (although frequently not easy) to pop off an existing module and put something entirely different in its place. It likely will do similar things, and it may work much better for whatever purpose you had in mind. However, changes to the programs that used the old module might need to get made in order to accommodate the new module’s use. It might expect different things from you, or give you different stuff back. This time, the car might come back full of zombie mermaids. Where the hell does your son go at night?

This Is Not Computer Science 101 What Are You Doing

Nobody’s really quite sure what specific parts of the The Next Version of D&D are going to be modular, but a lot of the above principles will still apply regardless of whether we’re talking about computer programs or game rules.

There’s probably going to be a barebones set of rules for the new game. It may be completely playable all on its own, but I suspect that we’ll start by using a recommended set of starter modules for various game functions. One of the major questions for me in all this is how deep this particular rabbit hole goes. “Modular” could mean literally anything.

Will they have a combat system that uses a battlemat that you can swap out for one that doesn’t?

Will there be 4e style magic, Vancian magic, and a mana point based system?

Another interesting question: does every player follow the same rules, or can individual players choose what style of [your module here] they want to use for their PC?

Whatever it is they let us fiddle with, though — there is a price…..

The Price Of Flexibility

I’ve been on several projects in which people want an incredibly wide range of deliverables. As I have gained XP in coding (and scar tissue), I have learned that building a degree of flexibility into one’s code is a very smart move that tends to save one’s butt.

However, as the complexity of a project grows, so does the amount of time it takes to develop it. I’d love to shoot for the moon and be able to tweak every little thing, but I’d like to play this game before 2050. That’s not the worst part, though.

The other problem with a complex project is the number of things that can go wrong with it — especially if you’re going to be swapping out major portions of functionality. One would think just getting something up and functional is the hard part, but the real work comes in squishing all the little bugs. So often, problems will appear sporadically and be difficult to track. This is one major reason why a nonzero quantity of my hair is now grey.

I absolutely love the concept of The Next D&D letting us swap out things we don’t like and maybe putting stuff we do in. It concerns me that every feature they do this with will have to first be designed to work with every other iteration and combination of other modules, and then it’s time to find all those little bugs. However, as I spend a large part of my day finding and squishing bugs, I know it can be done. I also know that bugs don’t always bring the entire system down, and may just be temporarily annoying. (Why the hell is that text blue?? It’s not supposed to be blue!)

One very encouraging part of all this to me is the fact that we’re probably looking at a nice large open playtest. As the Open Source community is fond of repeating, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” I’m not sure I completely buy into that statement, but I do think having an army of gamers reporting in to WotC to tell them what worked, what didn’t, what was fun and awesome, and what ruined the evening BEFORE  the game is launched is an extremely good idea.

Of course, then we start to run into the problem where no matter how flexible a system is, it still can’t satisfy everyone. But that is another story.


  1. Vanir, that’s a good point about flexibility- making sure certain combinations are compatible. It’s not so different than it is now though. Every time a new feat, paragon path or power comes out, it needs to be considered in respect to all of the other combinations out there to see if it can be broken. Or at least cause power creep. It inevitably does, and then comes errata.

    With modular approaches, it also brings in the concept that you shouldn’t use everything. It’s a good idea, but it’s something few people do. If the modules come in with a few rules, like don’t combine module A2 with module C16 or else all beholders gain another eye to summon pie fiends at will, that is not such a bad thing. It means there’s a list of suggestions on modules to use that can guide your game and avoid needing to errata everything afterward.

    Here’s my concern. Unless there’s lots of customization available, people will say the modular gimmick failed. But if there is lots of customization, every time you walk into a new game, you have to keep straight which of the myriad of options they will use. Not only that, you have to know all of those options beforehand. And during play, you have to make sure you keep them all straight in your head. Will the options keep switching every time a new Encounters season starts, or Lair Assault? I don’t know.

    So I put all that together, and here’s how I see it. There will be one core set of rules that is the “normal” way to play. And throughout the book, there’ll be options for how to do some of the systems differently. In essence, they’ll roll up Unearthed Arcana and the Player’s Handbook all in one. What they’ll make clear right off the bat is that you’re supposed to house rule your games, and here’s some great options that we’ve already thought of that you might like. And house ruling is what you were already supposed to be doing anyway, it’s just 4e due to its heavy rules base and emphasis on public play, was not tweaked the same way some earlier editions.

    There’s two important points about this though. The house rules are now disseminated throughout the community. On the forums, if you say we’re using options A, B and C, everyone will know what you’re talking about. Your house rules will be widely accepted and can be commented on by a much larger group of minds. Second, as the game and players keep evolving, the “normal” set of rules can easily be adjusted without using errata. If it turns out that the most widely accepted form of the game is using feats, a weapon mastery system and Vancian magic, all Wizards needs to do is say that should be your “normal” starting point. and POOF, everyone can play that system without needing to buy anything new.

    Ok, long comment. sorry, but like everyone else, there’s lots of thoughts running through the brain on this one.

  2. Nice to see some thoughtful feedback about the modular concept. I agree with the concerns about testing bugs, but share hope that open playtesting will aid in that work.

    My main concern is differnt from those stated here: I simply don’t think the modular approach will do D&D any favors. Sure, grognards like us are likely to get a kick out of it. But it won’t address the stated problems that it’s supposed to: the fragmentation and the game’s general decline. Catering to disparate tastes won’t help to unify the community, merely aid in fragmentation. And it won’t help bring in new blood because by allowing a menu of options that includes both the complex and simple, you’ve made the whole beast look VERY complex from the outside.

    I think 4E did most everything right (marketing aside). Try to make a single game as best as you can to cater to modern tastes with a nice on-ramp. But it didn’t sell well. You want it to do well, it’s time to embrace technology. But that is another story.

  3. Good points, I agree that at the very least it will be an interesting ride through the playtest and potential modular release of the new edition.

    Re: Goken – I was also wondering about the ‘new blood’ issue, and one approach might be that the very basic, stripped down version of the new edition will be simple enough and ‘play ready’ enough to stand as a good introduction to new players. Once they master the very basics, they can add on the layers as they grow.

  4. New here, so forgive me if I put this the wrong way, but wouldn’t all this modularity make D&D into GURPS?

  5. I very much enjoyed reading this post. You capture a great deal of my angst about the modular nature of the next game. I really hope they find a way to do it right though.

  6. Chris Wachal says:

    I’ve had these same concerns, also coming from a computer science background. It’s already been the problem with D&D so far, which is the more options you have to choose from, the more likely “bugs” creep in and issues arise that imbalance or slow down play.

    I’m also concerned about this causing further fragmentation. Right now you have each group of people who like their own editions of D&D. However, just imagine if the new system allows you to choose: Combat: A) Simple B) Intermediate C) Advanced…Feats: A) None B) Simple C) Advanced…Classes: A) Simple B) Intermediate C) Advanced…Powers: A) None B) Simple C) Advanced…

    You’ve now created 81 versions of D&D, each of which will have its own group to champion it. You think edition wars are bad now…just imagine when there are 81 editions to argue superiority over.

    And if they are truthful about wanting this to be the “kitchen sink” edition where they can satisfy people who like 1e and 4e equally, then the options will have to be radically different from one another creating a VERY different game depending on which options you pick. Which means that people who don’t really like the same things will now suddenly be part of the same community (5th Edition players).

    I’m hopeful 5e lets us create the best version of D&D every. I’m just concerned that there won’t be enough players out there who like my particular brand of D&D enough to play with me.

  7. Joe Thomas says:

    Well put on modularity issues in general.

    @jdclins, I haven’t played much GURPS, but one of my players who’s done lots of GURPS voiced a similar concern. In particular, trying to design lots and lots of different things means you tend to end up with lower quality across the board — you just don’t have the time, energy, and people to get everything right.

    In terms of the “how many different versions will there be?” I think one way to deal with this is to have differently option-ed out characters be roughly balanced, so two different players can play in the same game using different sets of options without destroying the game. So, for example, John plays a rogue with a +6 Thievery skill. Jane plays with the advanced character options, so she plays a rogue with Thievery(traps)+4, Thievery(locks)+7, and Thievery(forgery)+7, because she wanted to emphasize a spymaster-y approach and had the time and inclination to tweak little options.
    That’s going to get significantly harder with different combat options, or different character options that affect combat — if John also doesn’t care about feats and so doesn’t have any, but Jane does, I don’t really see how that results in John having a shot at being as useful in combat as Jane.

  8. The difference between GURPS and 5E will be that 5E (so far as I know) is professing to only be a fantasy game. GURPS tried to cover every genre with one rule set.

    I expect at its heart, 5E will still be a combat/explore type fantasy game as well. I don’t expect it to use a burning wheel social conflict system or a Fiasco story telling tree. It will be a D&D game at its core and will give different ways to run that D&D game. While D&D may mean different things to different people, there’s enough common ground there that modules, at least at the start, will have a limited reach.

    Or I could be completely wrong.

  9. Excellent post, as a software engineer myself it really speaks to me!

    I have to say while I hope they go for a modular design I hope we don’t end up with such a fragmented solution that bringing out new modules will either be slower or far more complicated for a designer. It has to have the ability as well to ramp up nicely for new players, almost a “plug and play” style, while allowing more experienced player can tweak and tune to their heart’s desire (I really want this modular part, but not that part…).

  10. I don’t think WotC are worried about continued ‘edition wars’ for 5e. As it stands now, if you don’t like 4e, you take your money to another company (Pathfinder, etc.). That’s what WotC don’t like. However, if 5e works, people can have their factions but it will be within the umbrella of 5e. They’ll all be buying it. So what if they then go off and argue amongst themselves? You can spin that as proof of a vibrant community. Just as long as they are buying your stuff and not the competitions….

  11. DarkplaneDM says:

    Thanks for your post. I have a thought, and I think it’ll make it clear that I’m an actor and not a programmer. A game gives a lot more leeway than a computer program. The friendship and creativity of the gametable kind of makes up for any bugs that might appear, because in the end it’s about more than numbers and mechanics.

    That being said, I agree that generally there may be some kinks in module compatibility. I’m confident that as a DM I can handle it. It’s worth it to be able to bring in elements of each edition that I liked and play it all in one game rather than trying to convince my group to play 2nd ed occasionally to change things up.


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