The Genius of D&D

In this week’s Legends and Lore Monte talks about The Genius of D&D, more specifically the elements of a character: class, race, abilities, and so on. This Indies & More post will take a look at what makes a character in some other games and how they approach it differently.

As Monte points out, class has always been the defining bit of a character (even when the classes included Elf). The interesting thing about class is that it covers a lot of ground. Take the Cleric for example: it not only defines ability to withstand damage, ability to resist damage (saves), and ability to attack, but also a place in the world, a role in the party, and preference for non-fighting abilities (Sense Motive over Deception, for example).*

*Interpolation on Classes

This doesn’t quite belong in a footnote or separate post, so it goes here: I’m not sure classes are really strong archetypes. When you say “Wizard” a new player has a huge slush of pop-culture refuse to meld together to form a mental model. Are we talking Harry Potter, Rincewind, Dr. Strange, or Gandalf? None of those actually fit the “stand back and cast a spell” model, by the way. That’s why it’s important for the game to define, hopefully quickly and with style, what a class is about. Same goes for race: are dwarves Middle Earth, Snow White, Warhammer? Without a succinct easy to internalize concept of the class you’re relying on that huge slush of pop-culture refuse.

End Interpolation

ANYWAY, D&D characters are, in order of significance,  Class (inc. Level), Race, Ability Scores, and Customization. That’s Monte’s assessment, and it seems pretty solid. Customization might rank higher in some cases, say with the 4E Essentials classes where the choice of style changed the role significantly (Defender to Striker, for ex.). That’s not a huge difference though, two fighters have more in common than two dwarves, two elves have more in common than two characters with 16 Str, &etc.

The first step away from that is to games that prioritize those differently, or remove one concept entirely. Shadow of Yesterday, for example, has no concept of class per se, but species plays some important roles. There are no abilities blocked off by “class” but many species abilities that define what the species is and does.

So in TSoY race > class, but that’s only a partial picture. The thing that most defines a character in TSoY is not how they get things done, but why they do it. Note that “why” is never really addressed by D&D classes to any significant way. There’s usually something in the “flavor” text (how I hate that word) but it’s not presented so that every play encounters it. TSoY has one of my favorite bits of gaming tech, Keys. A Key is a way of earning XP that’s a) per character and b) entirely in the players’ hands. Instead of the GM awarding XP as they see fit the player takes XP for playing to their Keys, as specified by the Key. Of course usually the entire table is involved in judging what really counts for a Key, but the responsibility is fundamentally shifted.

That’s the most important part of a TSoY character. My character might grow from defeating monsters while yours grows from dealing with their sordid past. The most important part of the character isn’t how but why. (Inline footnote: Keys would be a wonderful modular XP system for D&D Next. Choose from a set of Keys about slaying stuff for treasure or a set of keys about gaining power, &etc.)

That said, a TSoY character still looks pretty similar to a D&D character in many ways. They have (more or less, with different names) Abilities, Skills, Feats, and so on. Keys are just added to the list and moved to the most important spot.

Going a step further, some games get rid of any significant difference in numerical strength. Systems like this, like Dust Devils and Dogs in the Vineyard, give everyone similar amounts of ability and leaves it to the players to allocate those abilities to make the characters different.

This ties back to Monte’s comments about roles in an interesting way. Typical D&D classes sort into roles in pretty dramatic ways: only this class can use these weapons and armor, only this class can heal, and so on. Dogs characters have no such role specified or enforced, but the characters still diverge in interesting ways.

The gaming tech is quite simple: based on your character’s background in Dogs in the Vineyard you get to allocate different numbers to Stats, Skills, and Relationships (terminology adapted for clarity and comparison, the book uses different terms). There’s a list of Stats, but Skills and Relationships are left to the player. Instead of choosing from Stealth, Knowledge, &etc. you write down ways your character gets things done and assign weight to them. I had a character who’s smile was one of his strongest abilities, it was just hard to be made at such a winning smile. Of course that was no use in a gun fight, but that’s life. The point is that, without any forced roles, every character comes out entirely different. Different enough that the ways they play off of each other is one of the draws of the game.

That’s not to say such open ended choices always work. In part Dogs characters work because they’re already constrained, you know you’re a religious lawman of sorts, riding into town and dealing with their sins. That framework is what allows such wide choices, since you already know what your character does.

But characters can be simpler still. In Primetime Adventures a character is most importantly an Issue. Each character’s issue is their ongoing plot (since PTA is a game of TV drama). Maybe your issue is your mistrusting father and mine is my debts that need to be paid. Beyond that each character is minimal, they specify a few things that define what they do well, but they’re not nearly as important as Issues.

This is character stripped of nearly everything Monte talks about: no class, race, abilities. A tiny bit of customization. And it still works.

You can go further too. In Fiasco you don’t have a character sheet or anything mechanical that makes your character different from any other. Instead your character is entirely defined by their place in the web of connections and plots created during setup. Fiasco characters, despite having no intrinsic abilities, only a place in the world, are still some of the most memorable I’ve played.

That’s a drive-by tour of stripping characters down from their core. Of course class, level, and the rest are genius, but they’re not the only genius. All of these games create engaging characters. But maybe they’re not the right characters for D&D, Fiasco is a considerably different game.

So let’s wrap back around to something more D&D-like: Burning Wheel. Burning Wheel arrives at a similar place to D&D, much like TSoY does: a character with many ways to do things and a few defining characteristics that answer why. The interesting bit is that BW does this without any concept of class and without relying on open-ended point buy.

The first bit of BW character is lifepaths. Each lifepath describes what your character did for a portion of their life and grant you certain skills and traits. So if you want a character with magic you’d better find a way into one of the magic lifepaths. Each lifepath has requirements and others that it easily leads to and is as standard for BW what at first looks like needless complexity actually ties into the core of the game. Each path, for example, includes the number of years it requires, which you add to get your character’s starting age. That doesn’t seem important until it starts to factor into your stats. Jumping from unrelated lifepaths takes more years, meaning your stats change. Hope it was worth it.

This is, in a way, like class. Except that it’s entirely more concrete. You know how your character got the skills they have. The lifepaths are also broken down by race, making each race different in key ways.

The other key bit of making a BW character is questions. Several stats and abilities give you questions to answer about your character, each answer modifies your stat. Take Faith, the “divine magic” stat: your starting Faith is based on the answers to three questions. These questions mean that, to play a high Faith character, they have to feel certain ways. It’s a stat that’s both descriptive and prescriptive.

Finally BW has Beliefs, which I’ve mentioned before. They fill a similar role to keys: per-player XP conditions that help define why you play.

One last note on BW has to do with advancement. BW has no levels, you never gain a lifepath after character creation. Instead you advance the skills you use and to advance you have to roll the skill a certain number of times (pass or fail) against difficulties that are easy, hard, or extreme. This leads to the same joy of new abilities that Monte mentions, but it ties that to interesting play. Players will actively seek out tough situations to become stronger. That’s like a giftwrapped present to the GM.

Hopefully these examples show that Class > Race > Abilities > Customization isn’t the only way of ordering, or even the only set of ways to define a character. D&D certainly has some obligation to keep some of these concepts around but that doesn’t mean they can’t twist a little. What if class and race helped answer the why not just the how? What if customization was key, but tied to simply presented choices? Hopefully these are the questions the D&D design crew is considering.