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The Trajectory of D&D Design: Art vs Engineering

Crazy Jerome

Retired User
I have one major concern with where D&D is going. And by this, I mean where it has been going from since Gygax first let it loose on the world to the projected life of 4E. I'm probably going to botch the explanation, and add to the considerable flames, but I'm going to try to express my concern anyway. :D

Other qualifiers: I'm "concerned" only in the sense that the game be successful. If it happens to not appeal to me, but gives a bunch of other people a lot of fun, then I'm fine with that. I have plenty of other things that I'm happy to play. (If I have great games I want to play; that's a win. If I don't, it prompts me to work harder on my homebrew system; that's also a win. As you see, I can't lose. ;) ) Also, I'm using some terms here in more precise meanings than they are generally used--you might say more ancient meanings. Those will be defined.

Concern: Over the life of D&D, the people responsible for it have become increasingly focused with the engineering of the system, and less focused on the art of how the system works as a whole. This has made a tighter game, but has lost something in the process. By "engineering", I mean that the mechanics (math, et. al.) were carefully considered to produce a desired effect. By "art", I mean that the designers (though experimentation, educated guesses, or even wild hunches) settled upon a set of mechanics that, while not always "engineered" very well, nonetheless worked pretty slick for certain audiences. They worked so well, because they great "exceptions" in interesting places.

I think this started while Gygax still was the main guy responsible. It's not as if Gygax was totally lacking in engineering and the current guys totally lacking in art, when it comes to mechanics. A designer 100% skewed one way or the other would be incapable of putting out a playable system. OTOH, it's a delicate touch to thread between the optimum focus between engineering and art in a design. So it doesn't take much of change in relative focus to cause the trajectory I see.

It is, of course, possible that the current designers could be focused very carefully on both engineering and art, and that superior engineering will create a new, larger space for the art to operate in.

And since my comments are rather esoteric, let me close with an example. Contrast the 3.5 Magic Item Compendium to the magic items in the 1st ed. AD&D DMG. The former are engineered very well. They are a model of consistency. And there are numerous entries that consist of nothing but a stat block and two or three sentences of boilerplate text (that could have just as easily been left out for another entry or two on the stat block). It's almost as if they realized that they had sucked all the flavor out, had nothing left to say, and had to keep some of the mechanics in the description to even have any text. The 1st ed. AD&D DMG, OTOH, is a shining example of wacky flavor with, at best, scattershot engineering.

And it's not as if this contrast is necessary. It's true that some of the wackiness of the 1st ed. items is because of the inconsistent engineering. But not all of it. You could take the Magic Item Compendium, pull the remaining engineering out of the text and into the stat block--and then add some text of true, "magical" exceptions.

The "art" of design is knowning when to make exceptions to the "engineering" of design. While I'm not fan of Emerson's deliberate inversion of Pope's famous quote*, there is something to be said for targeted and carefully considered inconsistency.

* Pope said that "Inconsistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Emerson changed it to "Consistency", and that's the one that usually gets quoted today, as it appeals to more people. If you look carefully at the kind of people they were talking about with their quotes, you'll see that both of them had a case. :D
 

mxyzplk

Registered User
Validated User
I tend to agree. I think because of RPGA/tournaments (and the obvious influence on WotC from their tourneys for card/mini games) and their push towards a MMORPG environment, their percieved need for well-engineered standardization for "Fairness" is high.

Now, I do appreciate some of the standardization that went into 3e in terms of having some metric to measure monster CR, item gp value, etc. But it did go way too far into legalism. When I ran 1e and 2e no one had a problem with running rules, magic, etc. a little "from the hip". But the focus on rules adherence is so strong now - whenever I read "Sage Advice" my gorge rises in my throat as I flash back to my Magic card playing days and worrying about the exact stack order of interrupts vs instants.

They firmly believe that people "want crunch not fluff" and so have focused on many, many books full of rules. Compare 2e with 3e in terms of the splatbooks. The 2e figher, wizard, etc books had a high fluff ratio - except for some kits and whatnot there wasn't a lot of rules stuff. Now, the splatbooks are all rules, having more or less descriptive text on them.

I think that's had detrimental effects down the line too - we frequently hear how building stat blocks is the worst part of creating adventures. Difficulty of converting stat blocks from 3e to 3.5e may have been involved in the gaming industry crash. You can't just give a monster another ten hit points if you want, you have to 'advance' them.

I think back on a long (5 year!) exciting 2e campaign I ran. So many of the things that went on would be hard now - when the fighter in desperation threw his bastard sword to hit something on a cave ceiling, now it's "sorry you need a feat for that."

Same with the focus on minis and tactical maps. We seldom used those in 2e and when we did they were understood to be approximations. Now, it's pretty much "the law!"
 

Crazy Jerome

Retired User
The amount of fluff really doesn't matter. You can have a lot of fluff in a well-engineered system, and very little fluff in a something that is more about artistic exceptions in the mechanics.

But I'm sure you grasp that, because your example of adding 10 hit points is a good one. If that is something the system expects you to do, it's a poorly engineered system. It's a kludge. OTOH, it's exactly the kind of easy, easily understood exception that can make a game simply "work", in practice.
 

mightybruce

New member
Just my two cents, but it seems to me that 4E is going back towards the Art side of things. That is, the design seems to be trending back towards the "fun and feel" involved in how people play and allowing the mechanics to support this style.

For example, in rewriting how spellcasters work, the designers seem to be trying to capture the feel of a powerful, adventuring arcanist by removing arbitrary limits on their simple powers without killing a good, Engineered balance.

In simpler language (and boy did I need it), they are trying to make the game more fun . . . recapture the Art without losing the nice effects of good Engineering.
 
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Kintara

Twisted and Tied
RPGnet Member
Validated User
So, basically you're concerned about whether 4E has "heart." Meh, "art" sounds like a mystical non-quality to me.

This isn't to say that I wouldn't like some zaniness. Zaniness is fine.
 

RSC

Retired User
I think back on a long (5 year!) exciting 2e campaign I ran. So many of the things that went on would be hard now - when the fighter in desperation threw his bastard sword to hit something on a cave ceiling, now it's "sorry you need a feat for that."
SRD:
"Improvised Weapons

Sometimes objects not crafted to be weapons nonetheless see use in combat. Because such objects are not designed for this use, any creature that uses one in combat is considered to be nonproficient with it and takes a -4 penalty on attack rolls made with that object. To determine the size category and appropriate damage for an improvised weapon, compare its relative size and damage potential to the weapon list to find a reasonable match. An improvised weapon scores a threat on a natural roll of 20 and deals double damage on a critical hit. An improvised thrown weapon has a range increment of 10 feet. "

Seems to me that a bastard sword is an improvised thrown weapon.

You can have versatility and strict mechanical definition at the same time. Has 3.x failed at this on occasion? Oh, god, yes. But it's not a necessary weakness of engineering the system well.
 

David Nash

dyin' the way he lived
Just my two cents, but it seems to me that 4E is going back towards the Art side of things. That is, the design seems to be trending back towards the "fun and feel" involved in how people play and allowing the mechanics to support this style.

For example, in rewriting how spellcasters work, the designers seem to be trying to capture the feel of a powerful, adventuring arcanist by removing arbitrary limits on their simple powers without killing a good, Engineered balance.

In simpler language (and boy did I need it), they are trying to make the game more fun . . . recapture the Art without losing the nice effects of good Engineering.
What I've read of the 4e spoilers lead me to agree. Lately, though, I've gotten a bit paranoid regarding 4th Edition, and have started wondering how much of what I've seen I've liked because I imagined it to mean something that was cool to me, when it really meant something else. :)
 

Keefe the Thief

Guuhhn Fingas
Validated User
This whole "art vs. engineering" debate is unwinnable for 4e anyway, because the feeling for the "art" of earlier D&D editions came with heavy play that showed how to invoke that special power of wackieness. It´s one of those "i know it when i see it" arguments: the random harlot table is a delicious little gem of zany "art", while 4e is an obviously commitee-designed, flavorless engineering effort which lacks anything like that.
Art is nothing without appreciation, and appreciation grows out of interaction.
 

Redbeard67

Registered User
Validated User
SRD:
"Improvised Weapons

Sometimes objects not crafted to be weapons nonetheless see use in combat. Because such objects are not designed for this use, any creature that uses one in combat is considered to be nonproficient with it and takes a -4 penalty on attack rolls made with that object. To determine the size category and appropriate damage for an improvised weapon, compare its relative size and damage potential to the weapon list to find a reasonable match. An improvised weapon scores a threat on a natural roll of 20 and deals double damage on a critical hit. An improvised thrown weapon has a range increment of 10 feet. "

Seems to me that a bastard sword is an improvised thrown weapon.

You can have versatility and strict mechanical definition at the same time. Has 3.x failed at this on occasion? Oh, god, yes. But it's not a necessary weakness of engineering the system well.
Funny. I don't remember the rules for improvised weapons at all. But when I read that 'the fighter wants to throw his sword, but can't because he doesn't have a feat' I just thought to myself: eh. He's got a -4 to hit.

So if the admittedly crunchy rules system is ingrained enough in me that I can rule in nearly the letter of the rules without remembering them, is that a sign of good engineering or good art?

I think it is good engineering that the system is that consistent. While I appreciate that, I do think we could use some more wackiness.

So. Is it time to put some random magic sparkly bubbly fountains and magical decks of cards in tomorrow night's session? :)
 

Melan

Radio Free Internet
Validated User
I agree with the OP. To me, much of a game's magic lies in those small immeasurable qualities and quirks which can't be "engineered", or created from a rational viewpoint. A design culture like Wizards has today can only think in terms of fairness and satisfying various focus groups (or not offending them, which I think is worse), but lacks vision. They could never come up with anything approaching the crazy idea of a classical megadungeon, or monsters like the beholder or the gelationous cube. They have to measure and analyse so much that the magic inevitably gets lost. On the other side, Gygax's greatness doesn't lie in mechanical design, but rather the whimsical attitude which infuses his works with an unique and very distinct flavour.
 
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