You’re Right, Monte, It Does Sound Crazy

Monte Cook’s first post-5E-announcement column is up, and it gives a broad view of what the folks at WotC are doing with the new version. It basically confirms the speculative chatter of the last week, that 5E will be modular. Fine, I get that. Options for simple, moderate, and complex combat, skills, etc. No problem.

What I can’t seem to wrap my head around is this:

Second—and this sounds so crazy that you probably won’t believe it right
now—we’re designing the game so that not every player has to choose
from the same set of options. Again, imagine a game where one player has
a simple character sheet that has just a few things noted on it, and
the player next to him has all sorts of skills, feats, and special
abilities. And yet they can still play the game together and everything
remains relatively balanced. Your 1E-loving friend can play in your
3E-style game and not have to deal with all the options he or she
doesn’t want or need. Or vice versa. It’s all up to you to decide.

What he seems to be saying is that the players can choose which of the modular parts of the rules they want to play with, and that it won’t matter which ones are chosen, since they’ll all be inter-operative at some level. I’m dubious.

If I’m at a table, and I’ve got my stripped-down character sheet with 6 stats, hit points, and how much damage my longsword does, I don’t want to have to sit through a lot of “I’m using my crushing blow attack and delivering a sarcastic denouement using my witty banter skill while casting dire meteor swarm because my character is following the mage-blade paragon path.” I just want to roll a d20 to hit, and I want you to do the same, because you’re slowing down my combat with your crappy add-ons.

He says that all this is going to be balanced (oh, that word!), but I can’t help but think that someone who spends hours fine-tuning a character with dozens of options and add-ons and fiddly bits is going to be expecting some in-game bennies for doing so. If so, then we’ll see an instant arms race that renders the rules lite players completely out of the competition. If not, then aren’t the rules-heavy players going to resent doing all that work for naught?

Plus, it makes me wonder how all of this is going to affect the DM. Is he going to be responsible for knowing and using each and every little fiddly bit that some player at the table decides he wants to use? Or is the same modularity principle going to apply to the game at the level of the DM? If so, am I as a DM going to be able to run a stripped-down rules lite game while some of the players at the table are playing a rules-heavy characters? Again, I’m dubious.

So yes, Monte, it does sound like you just escaped from this video. But I’m still willing to give it a thorough look-see when the playtest version is released. Maybe you’ve come up with a miracle of game design elegance that will be a model for generations of game designers to come. Nobody will be happier than I if that’s the case.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

24 thoughts on “You’re Right, Monte, It Does Sound Crazy

  1. I am with you on this one Joseph. It may sound crass, but as a long time DM, I don't think giving players complete freedom to do what they want is good. Given the nature of the internet, there will ultimately emerge an optimal way to make characters among the 5e buffet. And worse as your example shows, a free for all game will foster resentment at the table. I know for a fact it won't work in my game group. Half are laid back and wouldn't care if you rolled stats 3d6 down the line, while the rest are highly competitive and must have balanced stats with everyone else, so they like point buy. Yup, 5e sounds crazy.

  2. Exactly my thoughts on the matter.

    Just a few weeks ago I was considering that it wouldn't be too terribly impossible to have characters from different RPG systems playing together in the same campaign (for some kind of a fractured-reality type-game) — much less different versions of D&D, which are inherently more similar to each other. However, you've hit precisely on my two greatest concerns:

    1. If I choose a system precisely because I don't want to spend 50 hours min/maxing my character, I don't want that to mean my character is going to be woefully underpowered. But, just as you said, the min/maxers aren't likely to be satisfied unless their min/maxing yields results of some kind.

    2. One of the things I dislike most about 4e is its propensity for combat to last forever — if I wanted to have a three hour-session consisting of nothing more than two battles (without any actual role-playing, of course), I'd play a board (or miniatures) game instead. This difference of preference (short, simple combat vs. elaborate tactical combat), I think, is one of the biggest gulfs between people who like the new editions and the people who prefer the older editions. Rectifying that, I feel, will be one of the main challenges to a successful 5e.

    Lofty goals of unifying the fanbase aside, to me all the modularity just feels like another gimmick to sell books. I think if any of us really wanted 2e and 4e characters playing together in the first place, chances are we could have figured it out on our own. At least in the older editions, you could buy the core rules and stop there if you wanted to. Now it sounds like you might have to buy several books just to assemble the core system of your choice.

    Sure, this solves Wizards' problem of most people only buying the core books and passing on the rest, but I can't help but feel like they've found yet another way to screw the consumer, while telling us it's for our own good — the irony of which isn't lost on me.

  3. I think it's fine as long as the DM sets the bar.

    "Alright, in this campaign we are using character sets 0e thru 2e – 3e and above is verboten in this campaign."

    The DM is always Rule Zero anyway 😉

  4. And I believe that all of the comments here are quite valid. Those of us playing oldschool games already have everything we need, what is the point?

    However, I am curious and I did sign up for the playtest. While dubious of this approach, I am willing to playtest it and see if it works.

  5. As others have said, it really just sounds like the FLAILSNAILS conventions… but not implemented properly. There's an implication, as you say, that the control for what subsystems are used rests with each player, and each player gets exactly whatever subsytems they want. In contrast, FLAILSNAILS only guarantees that the GM will be willing to convert characters from compatible games, with the definitions of "compatible" and how much conversion or handicapping is necessary being up to the GM.

  6. Although I may be giving the Wizards of the Coast too much credit I do think I could see a way for this to to work. Look at the examples of oldschool / newschool in "the Primer for Oldschool Gaming" and then imagine both methods being used in the same game. If the more rigid in-depth type 3+ rules are just stricter guidelines for what any older type rules "can" do, then I could see this working.

    Newschool fighter Steve chooses "cleave" as a character power and so often chooses to use that move. He likes the structure of having very well defined powers.

    Oldschool barbarian Eric doesn't have any powers noted on his sheet but will often describe effects similar to the "cleave" power when he attacks. He likes the imaginative and creative power this gives him.

    As long as neither player or the DM is a dick then I could see them working together and playing in the same game with minimal issues.

  7. Every time I talk about new editions of D&D it ends up in a rant, so I'll restrain myself just this once.

    However, I have to mention that the video is one of my favorites. Thanks for showing it to your masses!

  8. It… could… work! In fact, it has. 🙂

    I may not be a total rules aficionado, but I think most of us multisystem users have already done this. Have you ever crossed game systems?

    Whether combining fantasy, horror, western, sci-fi, etc… you just break down or convert character sheets to the rules the GM is using. I've run games combining D&D with other genres. Did I have to retool every character sheet? No. Could I balance what every player was doing with their unique other-system abilities? Yes.

    This is just cross-breeding D&D and all of its editions (maybe). It's just cherry-picking. The DM will have to know a bit of everything, but when has that ever not been the case. Either that, or they'll break everything down or categorize things to make the DM's life easier.

    And Greyhawk will not be the default D&D world.

    There! If I am to be wrong, let me be wrong about TAHT too! 🙂

  9. This vaguely reminds me of MegaTraveller, where a few classes had advanced generation with college and so on, and the "civilian" classes all made do with basic Traveller generation. Not good.

  10. Maybe Monte doesn't really expect a mishmash of character styles at the same table. Maybe he really means that 5E will allow DMs to run any type of D&D game they want,and the players will have to buy in to whatever level of character complexity the DM's campaign calls for…

  11. I would love to DM such a system. It's a perfect fit for my players, who range from very casual to game-mechanical geniuses who write their own RPGs.

  12. I'm not sure that it's impossible for a simpler-to-build character and a complex-to-build character to sit at the same table together and both contribute meaningfully to a combat and both players to have fun. It happens already in 4e with, say, the Players Handbook Fighter and the Slayer from Essentials. The Slayer is much simpler and pretty much says "I hit it with my sword." The PHB Fighter has far more options. And yet they both have similar impacts on the combat, and I've seen players of both characters having a good time together.

    Basically, the Essentials books have already tried out this idea, and it's worked. I haven't seen resentment from the players of more-complex characters, either. They ENJOY the complexity, so they don't tend to begrudge the Slayer players their straightforward power.

  13. I could see a situation where some characters could spend xp to buy feats and power ups, while others could simply use it to enhance saving throws or hit points. Monsters could be as complex or as simple as the GM wants them to be.

  14. "…I don't want to have to sit through a lot of "I'm using my crushing blow attack and delivering a sarcastic denouement using my witty banter skill while casting dire meteor swarm because my character is following the mage-blade paragon path.""

    That can and does already happen with a bare bones character with no add-ons. Some players like to "role-play" and add cinematics to their combats through descriptive commentary. Likewise it is possible with a character with multiple add-ons to simply say "I hit it with my special ability," and roll the dice. Ultimately, in this situation, it comes down to how the player wants to present it.

    As for whether or not this concept will actually work in 5E remains to be seen.

  15. OK, 1) I agree with you, Joe. It seems to me like they're trying to create a game that is multiple types of games at once without being any one type of game in the first place. That's a recipe for failure. If 5e doesn't have it's own motif, it's own style, it's own . . . whatever . . . then it's just not going to be anything at all. But then, who knows, they might actually have pulled of some kind of revolutionary creation that will amaze all of us, yet.

    2) Did you actually use the word "bennies"? You remind me of people who use words like "preggers" instead of pregnant. Once you're past a certain point in your life, you give up the right to use cutsie abbreviations like that. Especially when the abbreviation is of equal or longer length than the word you're substituting for.

  16. Joe – perhaps one way they could make it work is to have the extra layers of complexity not actually make any statistical in game difference. So if you are used to pokemon style combat where you invoke all kinds of powers and such, your fighter can call on them, but the end result is the same chance to hit and damage as the fighter who just takes a swing with his sword. So it would be a matter of style rather than substance, maybe.

    @Hamlet – Speaking for myself, I reserve the right to say or use whatever word forms I damn well please as well as the right to say screw you to all proponents of cultural faschism.

  17. This… is possible. But it will put a lot more responsibility on the DM.

    I can think of two examples. The first is GURPS. I've run GURPS games where we used a wide range of systems plugged into the game, including some characters using Martial Arts rules while others didn't and more than one magic system in play.

    The other would be the MMO "City of Heroes" which introduced a system of crafting and enhancement sets that you could add to your character for special bonuses and abilities. They did it in such a way that if you went to the trouble of using this system you would get some nice woobies, but if you didn't bother with it you would not feel gimped. Most of the time I didn't bother with them and my characters didn't feel underpowered as a result.

    So it's possible. Though I suspect that this means they'll be starting with a whole new set of mechanics that are no more backwards compatible than 4th edition was.

  18. It is possible. And I suspect done already, without the "input" requested from players. Although, they will state proudly, "it is just as you requested!".

    I don't expect it to be a totally new system. That would be too crazy, even for WotC. It will be some distilled version of all editions in the end.

    Modular is as modular does.

    As long as there are dice to roll, I will be happy.

  19. More than appealing to fans of different editions, if the game could be played by raw newbies, casual/lapsed gamers, and hardcore gamers using the same core rules, and they could all enjoy it, that would be something.

  20. Everyone's missing the point. These are the guys who designed 3e and by proxy, 4e. They think their game is superior. They are convinced that when you bring your quaint little OD&D or AD&D 1e character to a table with "real D&D characters", you will see the folly of clinging to the old school and immediately upgrade to all the new options. That's the hubris here, they assume we don't play 4e not because we think it sucks, but because we haven't played it and realized what a gift from the gaming gods it really is.

    The idea of 1e and 4e characters in the same game is akin to you playing 5 card stud and me playing "war", against each other, with our respective rules, and somehow ending up with a game that is enjoyable to both of us, without compromising our preference for our game. It's ridiculous, and Monte and Co. know it.

  21. For me the main thing I'm looking for … my canary in the coal mine so to speak … is the grid. Will the new version of the game require a grid to function properly. Do we need chits/markers/minis to run combats. I don't care what anyone says in the 3.0-4e era of D&D unless your going to hand wave/houserule 3/5ths of the rules you have to use the grid. For me the biggest problem with the newer versions of D&D (which I've played extensively and even enjoyed) all stem from the grid. So if they make that an option I'll be interested. If they do that AND make the game backwards compatible I will likely buy in.

Comments are closed.