I was having coffee with Friend Ian yesterday, and discussing the future of Dungeons & Dragons, and perhaps more importantly the history of Dungeons & Dragons and some of it’s queerer idiosyncrasies. In particular, we got onto the topic of the current development and the slight air of panic we’ve picked up on from the folks at Wizards of the Coast. Our conversation had turned from more general game design discussion to more focused questions about where we are in the development timeline. I know people have playtested the game. Is it done? Is the playtesting they’re doing to fix the niggly wiggly bits? Or do the folks at WotC really have no idea what their players want?
This brought us to an interesting point about Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, something that has been sitting in the back of my head for a long time: Fourth Edition solved every problem in 3.5, and people didn’t like it. I liked it, but I’m not the game’s core audience, really. I’m an aficionado, the sort of person who revels in GNS theory and Glass Bead Games. I deeply appreciate great design, and Fourth Edition – at its core – had that. And, y’know, it solved every problem that 3.5 had.
Admittedly, this came with its own stack of problems, but D&D Fourth Edition is easily the cleanest design in the game so far. It was basically… perfect. There was nothing mechanically wrong with it, really. Nothing about the game was dangerously exploitable, it was balanced and clearly written, there was some real thought put into how each part of the game was going to interact with every other part. It did what it did perfectly, but for some reason that made it feel “wrong.”
Maybe games don’t have to be perfect. Maybe they shouldn’t be.
RIFTS is an incredibly popular game, and it is – to be entirely fair – garbage. Really. Really really. It’s system is trash. Even the world, the world that is tossed around in the infamous RIFTS-only argument “I don’t like the system but I like the world” is a derivative hodge-podge of speculative fiction tropes taken from all over the nerd spectrum. Objectively, as a person who has had a lot of fun playing RIFTS, looking at the design of the thing is painful. The attributes have nothing to do with the rest of your abilities, how good you are at fighting is determined by a skill which is entirely different from how the rest of the skill system works in the game, the skill list is hyper-specific to the point of obtuseness, there is a type of damage that could kill one section of player characters with a single shot but barely scratch another set, armor has two different sets of rules depending on what sort of armor you’re wearing… It’s brutally bad.
Other great examples include Exalted, Shadowrun and Call of Cthulhu. None of these games are particularly well designed, but they are incredibly popular with players all over the world. So… Why?
Games with design flaws, games that have large, glaring errors in their rules systems, provide certain psychographics of gamers a way to leverage those system problems to their advantage. These are the Johnny players of the role-playing game world, and they represent a fairly hefty chunk of our playerbase. And everyone has a bit of that in them. Even if you’re not looking to min-max your fighter to the Nth degree, everyone likes finding those synergies and occasionally getting to exploit them to do something that is particularly cool with the game’s crunchy bits.
And very well designed games don’t tend to offer a lot of exploits like that. The best designed games in the industry right now are likely Greg Stolze’s Reign and Steve Long’s HERO. Neither game really offers players a way to break the system in half. Which is sort of what you’re aiming at with your game. Neither game is as popular as RIFTS, either.
And maybe this is something we’re missing right now. Maybe it’s part of the Lonely Fun of a roleplaying game system, figuring out how to beat the rules into submission. Maybe, sometimes, you need to hack at bits of system until they scream. Maybe, sometimes, the fun of the game isn’t so much about the game, but about That Cool Thing you can do that shows off how clever you are. Maybe it’s about fixing a broken game and making it playable because you enjoy the challenge of making a bad system work (which is, I think, why most game designers get into the industry). Maybe, sometimes, the roleplaying games that are the most fun are the ones that aren’t very good at all, because you get a chance to make them good, and that’s what you’re really looking for. And maybe, sometimes, the old busted game is just more fun to fuck around with.