I wish I could have seen the meetings where publicly playtesting D&D next was pitched to the executives. I’d love to know what got a company really big on secrets to not only let the cat out of the bag, but to let millions of people participate in the design and construction of both the cat and the bag. Indeed, if I was someone in charge, I would consider such a notion insanity. I’m not entirely sure I don’t now, but as long as it’s here we might as well enjoy it.
I don’t know about any of you, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Not on this scale, anyway. I’ve done some playtesting for a few tabletop RPG’s. This isn’t like that. By the time I got involved, nearly everything was set in stone, and I was giving some feedback on minor tweaks to some game mechanics or throwing my group to the wolves in a content supplement to see if the number of wolves needed to be adjusted. I wasn’t there when the engine was being built. I wasn’t there when the core mechanics were being developed, and I definitely wasn’t there when they were deciding which core mechanics to include.
Greek Letters: Used By Both Fratboys And Computer Scientists. WTF.
Most people know what it means for software to be in beta. It’s still “in testing”. There’s probably going to be some bugs. Since I’m a software developer when I’m not a blogger, I get to see software in this state all the time, and I take great satisfaction in killing each and every one of those little bugs. A lot of you probably have experience with beta versions of software through videogames. Lots of game developers release beta versions not long before release, usually in networked games (so they can see what horrors we will unleash upon them). That’s always a fun experience, discovering the hard way that their code doesn’t scale when a hundred thousand people bang on it. I also like it when someone shoots into space when their character stops paying attention to physics. That’s awesome.
Barring a few bumps in the road, though, the game will play as expected in a beta version. The D&D Next playtest isn’t like that. Not yet.
Have you ever used software that was in alpha? For those of you unfamiliar with software development, that’s the step before beta. That’s when software is just a wee baby taking its first steps. It also craps its pants frequently and should never be left in charge of anything important. Alpha is the phase where the thing is crawling with bugs, and when you go to kill the bugs you sometimes find more bugs, or that you forgot to give it two arms or two legs, or that someone didn’t actually want a baby but instead wanted a double rocket pony.
Alpha software, in most cases, barely works. It may surprise you to find out that the D&D Next playtest isn’t like that either. Not yet.
The names for the part of software development before alpha are strangely unimaginative. Some call it “pre-alpha”, others “under development”, and yet others “OH GOD BEES”. Whatever you call it, you’re likely not going to be using it for anything useful. This is where stuff is made from the ground up. Unless a developer is crazy or masochistic, they won’t make something in its entirely and flip the switch at the end and pray it works. That is the road to madness (and being forced to seek employment elsewhere). Developers who survive those first critical months in the wild will probably make something barebones they can run early on that won’t do much by itself. It gains the ability to do stuff bit by bit as more things are added onto it.
This is where D&D Next is right now. We have a framework, and a couple of things that keep getting modified and swapped out. Everything doesn’t work yet because a lot of things don’t yet exist.
The Reason The Machines Never Win
“But”, you say defiantly because you are that guy, “I have played entire games of D&D using D&D Next and it works just fine!” Well, to be honest, this is the part of the article where both my software development cycle metaphor breaks down and my point gets made.
Generally speaking, a computer program can’t deal with a bunch of stuff being missing and still make it seem like everything is working. If you try to use Microsoft Word and the part where you can load and save files is missing, you will notice. If you’re playing an MMO and you can’t pick up any items because the inventory system hasn’t been written yet, you will notice.
Tabletop games like D&D Next share a lot of traits with software, but ultimately they’re run by humans. Humans suck at a lot of things, but “winging it” isn’t one of them. We do it all the time. Our brains hate it when we don’t understand something. They’ll fill in gaps all day long. This is why optical illusions work.
In this case, we can encounter a game mechanic that’s unclear (or missing), and shrug our shoulders, and come up with something that sounds compatible and reasonable, and it will Mostly Work. It will likely break the game in ways we won’t understand, and we won’t care. In our minds, the game still worked, more or less, in the way it was supposed to. Even better, the game is run by a DM who can intercept things that don’t make sense, and give the players something that will. In this way, D&D Next’s suggestion that players say what they want to do and have the DM interpret it works extremely well.
None of this should be mistaken for thinking the game is finished, though. It’s an illusion, at least at this point. We’re still very early in the development cycle on this game, so we should neither get too excited nor too angry about anything. What we should do is give WotC lots of good feedback. What we liked and what we hated. What worked and what didn’t.
Then, when the game is more complete and less illusory, we can all get into pointless holy wars over what actually is rather than what may be. Or we could give good feedback that results in a system flexible enough to work in a lot of different ways compatible with a wide range of play styles.
One of those.