An Open Letter to the D&D R&D Team

TO: The D&D R&D Team (Mike Mearls, Monte Cook, et al)
FROM: A Long-Time D&D Enthusiast
RE: Future Directions for D&D


First off, thanks for choosing to spend your time reading thoughts from a member of the faceless masses who think about games for fun. I know you have precious little time to spend, so I'll try to keep it short.

In response to the Legends & Lore article on 10/4/11, I participated in some discussion on Twitter starting around 2PM Eastern on 10/5/11 about magic items with @pdunwin, @ArcaneSpringbrd, @SarahDarkmagic and others. We touched on wonder, and inherent bonuses, and the heck of a time it'd be to run a low-magic game in 4E, Dark Sun and inherent bonuses aside. SarahDarkmagic expanded some of those ideas into a blog post which spawned much great discussion. I touched on wonder in a much earlier post (and boy does that post need a good edit), which may have some relevance here. Many good ideas have come up, but these recent discussions crystalized an underlying issue I have with 4E.

D&D 4E is a pre-specialized system.

As it stands now, 4E is not terribly tinker-tolerant. Sure, powers and themes are great areas to customize, and I think there's an untapped gold mine in modifying and extending magic items, but the basic system already has canonized house rules. The assumptions behind a "default" D&D game are clearly spelled out in the rulebooks, but those assumptions have led to some rules customizations that are challenging to modify. We don't always see the mechanics under the hood which led to the assumptions that pervade everything, like, say, the work that went into the monster stats math changes earlier this year, or a point-buy system for building custom races.

Those system-level assumptions pervade the entire system and make change difficult. Here's the most blatant example: Granted bonuses that modify a character's inherent abilities (like magic items or inherent bonuses) are assumed to be given out at a specific rate as characters advance. Further, they're tacked on in their own system, separate from the basic character rules. If I wanted to remove that separate system and allow neither magic items nor inherent bonuses in my game I could remove them, but then I'd need to weaken every monster to compensate since they were designed to challenge a party that uses a certain density of magic items. There's no elegant way to strip the characters down to their loincloths and have them do well against a level-equivalent encounter, and that works exactly the way 4E was designed. No shame in it, but some of us out here want the freedom to twiddle the knobs a bit.

In short, I'd like more system-level flexibility in D&D without crossing the line into a generic ruleset. I realize this may be an impossible request, but given this Legends & Lore column from June, I think you're considering this approach as well.

With that in mind, I offer you a single viewpoint's worth of ideas about what I would like to see in the next incarnation of D&D, in no particular order.

I'd like a base system that can be extended with optional rules modules. I want to see a very simple, entry-level, red box-style D&D system that's complete and usable out of the box, plus more advanced books or boxed sets that add on systems and functionality. Honor system? Done. Alternate hit points and more complex healing? Easy. Monsters as PC races? Got it. Called shots and wound locations? Go crazy. Want to run combat without a tactical map? Here's how. Yes, some of these rules modules will need to roll up into campaign guides (a setting filled with mounted knights needs some riding rules, for example), but I think they should be available on their own as well as cheap PDFs or something similar. This modular approach would allow GMs to fine-tune their style of play from Old School skills-as-GM-Fiat to a meticulously detailed and crunchy skill system, and the community could produce some very focused rules additions. I think the 4E Red Box goes a little too basic and I feel a sense of relearning the system when shifting to 4E Proper.

I would like to see campaign-focused equivalents of a Players Handbook, containing all the allowed races and classes, plus all the optional rules for a particular campaign in one book. No more rummaging through three books to get your character built. No more rules arms race between the players and GM; if it's not in the campaign book it just doesn't exist in this game. Given its modular nature, the base set of rules could also emulate the style of play from every previous version of D&D with the appropriate rules modules. I'm not going to advocate branching the base D&D rules into other genres here, though I thought d20 Modern worked well, I liked Gamma World since the conversion rules appeared in the AD&D DM Guide, and I really enjoy genre mashups.

I would like more guidelines for GMs hacking the system. The 4E DMG encourages us to tweak the assumptions behind the rules, but there's precious little guidance as to what that means. "Low Magic" games  appeal to me, but to pull it off in 4E we still need to track and use inherent bonuses to compensate for the lack of magic items. 4E is restrictive, not least for the mandated magic items per level, and Essentials narrowed the choices even more. As a solid ruleset for bringing more players into the hobby, 4E has scored big. But there's nothing on the other end of the spectrum to let us grognard system-tinkers change the underlying assumptions while maintaining the balance that 4E brought to the party. I would love to see a collection of designer's notes, though formalizing the underlying ideas and spinning some ideas for different campaigns in a Tinker's Guide to D&D would downright rock.

I would like an easy way to run different styles of games by extending the same basic set of rules. To me this primarily means an easy system to throttle the game's magic quotient from zero to Monty Haul, and per the latest Legends & Lore column a balanced way to add or remove support roles from the characters. Sometimes "unbalanced" games work really well. I played a D&D game colloquially referred to as "Dungeonpunk" where the PCs had no magic or healing to overthrow the established order of mages and priests. It felt gritty and more intense since the only recourse we had for healing was days of non-game time hiding in a cave. Yes, the shiny default world of 4E is designed and balanced for 4 to 6 PCs with easily available magical healing, but some of the most rewarding play for me has been in one-on-one games with a Rogue PC, and I feel there needs to be some thought given to that game style. I'm advocating modularity for multiple play styles because there are no wrong ways to play D&D, only wrong-for-you ways to play D&D.

I'd like to see Rule Zero front and center. 4E really veered away from this, but Essentials brought it back. 'Nuff said.

As a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream, I'd like to see an online ruleset that can be customized by campaign and shared with players or printed out as The Rule Book For My Game. This goes a step beyond the campaign-specific Players Handbook idea from a few paragraphs previous, so I wanted to call it out separately. Since we live in an increasingly-shared-online world, I think rules should be extended through fan submission using the same rules-customizing interface the base product uses for ease of integration. I've already expounded on this idea in a previous pipe dream post, so I refer you there for more details.

In case you haven't guessed my viewpoint, I received the Erol Otus cover Basic D&D set in 1981 when I was 11. I've been GMing and rules tinkering for just over 30 years with AD&D, Boot Hill, 3E, Gamma World, and 4E, along with other companies' systems. I sold off my Companion, Master, and Immortal boxed sets a few years back, and I've come to regret that decision. I love the game and I play because it gives me a framework to make something out of pure thought for my friends and I to play with and enjoy. The act of playing D&D builds memories and strengthens the social tapestry, and I value the experience immensely.

Thanks for all of your hard work on D&D to date, and I can't wait to see what you'll turn loose on the world next.



  1. I totally agree -- 5th Ed should be a very small extensible core for the rules light folks and beginners, and extensible as you describe. A great post!

  2. Thanks for the feedback!

    I got into a discussion about Rule Zero today in the web chat, and I think I should clarify that point a little. Maybe I'll do a follow-up post specifically on Rule Zero.

  3. I, essentially, have been saying the same thing over on my blog recently.

    That said, one of the reasons I switched back to Pathfinder is that it actually already does most of these things -- and does them well. Far better than the original 3.5 rules did.

    I also think that, while not perfect, the SAGA system designed for WotC's Star Wars RPG should have been emulated a little more in 4E design and the game would have been much better.

    Good letter, and I hope 5E is a great game.

    PS -- I said the same thing you did about 4E not being tinker friendly nearly two years ago... and got shouted off my blog. It's funny how people didn't believe it, until they did...

  4. This is why we never left 3.5 and are still using it today. Along with other more flexible\fun systems like Conan, Game of Thrones... etc...

  5. OK, I'll jump in on the other side.

    There are plenty of lightweight, extensible RPG systems out there. FATE springs to mind.

    I don't want D&D to become another one. That is not its strength.

    One of D&D's strengths its comprehensiveness. There's a rule in there for pretty much any situation, and which can at least be applied to unusual situations.

    Not to be a grumpy old man, but if you want a lite, extensible system, why not use Old School Hack or Searchers of the Unknown?

  6. Brent, there's some truth to that, and I love lightweight systems. And yes, that's not D&D's strength, especially given the balancing act from 4E's design process.

    I'd like to see a heavyweight extensible system. I want something comprehensive, but I want to swap out elements or pieces of the rules and still have it recognizably D&D. Maybe that's just brand loyalty on my part, but there it is.

    AD&D's attack modifiers vs. AC Type table was unused by anyone I know because it was a cumbersome throwback to tabletop wargaming. It was a wasted page in the PHB. Instead of going through the "What's this?" "We don't use that, just ignore it" exchange with a newbie player, I'd love to not have it in my rulebook at all.

    Unearthed Arcana in 3E was a good example. It had a couple of variant systems for hit points and healing. I want just the version I'm using in my rulebook to avoid players comparing various systems and wanting something that doesn't exist in this particular game. If they want to speculate away from the table, that's fine, but I don't want someone looking up a rule during play and getting confused because what they're looking for is spread across 3 rulebooks and contradicts itself in some places.

    My overriding goal is a campaign-specific gamebook that provides the complete rule reference for this game, and that can adapt from game to game. Producing a PDF would make that even easier.

    Yes, I'm asking for a lot in one go, but why not go for broke? Plus, discussions like this and the Rule Zero discussion/debate with tresi yesterday rock the house.

    Thanks for commenting!

  7. I'm with you on this!

    Although there are other rules-lite systems out there, and it wouldn't "feel right" for D&D to become a rules-lite generic system, nevertheless I would love to see fewer rules. Every iteration of D&D has seemingly been written by lawyers, with every conceivable interaction between Rule X and Rule Y spelled out, every circumstance that affects the behavior of Rule Z defined at great length and with many words, every possible action the characters might take accounted for and codified and enumerated. This is where a minimal rules set, with optional rules expansions for people who love crunch, would be great. Hell, they could even resurrect the "AD&D" term -- D&D would be the basic game, with simplified rules and easy-to-use options, and AD&D would be the more crunchy version with more decisions made by the writers.