Immersive vs. Gamey in D&D Next, the score is 1-1

When I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons, people would tell me that the game interested them, but that felt intimidated by all the rules. No problem, I explained, you can play without knowing any of the rules. You play a character, like a mighty fighter. The dungeon master describes the situation, and you just imagine what your fighter would do. If a goblin attacks, just say, I hit him with my axe.

The concept pleased me. As a player, you could immerse yourself in being your character without thinking of the rules. At some point in our D&D history, we all enjoyed this style of play, so as the orc bore down on us, we raised our shield and drew our sword. Where instead of studying our list of powers, we think, if I can cut the rope holding that chandelier, I can bring it down on that brute’s head.

We still sometimes frown on the practice of letting the artifice of the game stand in the way of playing in character. You have heard of metagaming. If the DM drops a battle grid on the table, you know a fight will come, but don’t start buffing yourself. Your character suspects nothing.

Then action points appeared with Eberron. We all loved them, even though managing action points forced you out of your character’s head.

With the fourth edition, the designers set a goal of giving each class interesting things to do during combat. Why should only spellcasters gain the fun of managing resources when we can invent resources like daily martial powers and Hunter’s Quarries?  Every player can join the supposed fun. This opened a flood gate.

You could no longer play D&D by simply immersing yourself in your character. The game added too many constructs that lacked any relationship to the game world. Playing your fighter now required an understanding of things like marks and an entire economy of encounter and daily powers that had everything to do with the rules and nothing to do with the game world.  Playing a ranger meant laying down a Hunter’s Quarry that represented nothing but a floating damage bonus.

Most commonly, these sorts of game mechanics are called dissociated mechanics, and some deeper analysis of them exists elsewhere.

The problem with these mechanics extends beyond just the game’s learning curve. They tax anyone who prefers to play by immersing themselves into character. You can no longer enjoy the game inside the head of Roid the fighter, who likes to hit things with an axe. The game forces you to make decisions that you cannot possibly make in character. Why cannot Roid reuse that daily power again today? He has no idea. When can he spend an action point? What’s an action point to Roid?

Let me be clear about two things:

  • I am happy to think about the rules of D&D as I play D&D. However, I dislike when the rules prevent me from making my character’s decisions in character, from immersing myself in the game world.
  • Rules for things like hit points do not count as dissociated mechanics.  Hit points exist as an abstraction of something in the game world, namely your character’s health, fatigue, and morale.

Many players feel perfectly comfortable with dissociated mechanics as long as, looking back, they can explain them as part of the story. So what if an action point represents nothing in the game world–it represents something in the story. To this mindset, perhaps action points are like that surge of energy that brings Rocky off the mat at the end of the final movie bout. Why does Rocky only get that surge in the final fight? He always saves his action point until the end. (You can see the scene where Paulie coaches Rocky to save his action point in the director’s cut.)

I realize that plenty of players feel perfectly content playing the game as a game, and could care less what Rocky or Roid thinks. But why create game rules that interfere with the enjoyment of folks who prefer to dive into their character’s head? Until late in the 3.5 edition, such rules found no place in the D&D tradition. D&D should excel at immersion for the players seeking it.

By the time D&D Essentials reached the market, the game’s designers seemed to have learned a couple of lessons: (1) Not everyone wants to play a character complicated by things like resource management.  (2) You can invent fun abilities for classes such as rogue and ranger without resorting to dissociated mechanics.

Have the designers forgotten lesson number 2?

I want to turn your attention to two mechanics that appear in the D&D next playtest documents. One is unjustly accused of being dissociated, the other guilty as charged.

First I’ll consider the fighter’s combat superiority feat with its expertise die.

As I see it, the expertise die represents a moment of time and attention that the fighter can spend to achieve something extra on the battlefield. The fighter’s round takes the same six seconds as anyone else’s, but his expertise and training slows down the action, making him able to accomplish more. Perhaps the fighter spends an extra instant drawing a bead on an enemy, parrying a blow that would strike an ally, or tripping a foe already unbalanced by a blow.

As such, the expertise die represents something “real” in the imaginary world, and not some meta-game abstraction.

When I first considered this model, I remained bothered by the Deadly Strike maneuver.  When you hit, you may spend an expertise damage to deal extra damage. I imagined a fighter spending an extra instant winding up to deliver a powerful blow. If he missed, through the benevolence of the rules, he somehow regains that instant to use for something else. The do-over feels like an intervention by the game rules to prevent a player from feeling bad about wasting an expertise die. In character, how could the fighter possible explain the spent and regained moment?

But I realize my first interpretation is wrong. The six-second round represents a lot of time in a battle. The combatants do not actually take turns winding up and swinging like batters in a baseball game. Instead the fighter dodges and weaves, parries and feints, tests his opponents and searches for vulnerabilities. He does not waste time doing an extra wind up before he hits, or at least not before he knows he will hit. Perhaps the blow lands and the fighter spends an instant to wrench his blade or to slam an elbow into his enemy’s gut. Perhaps the fighter spots an opening and takes a moment to wind back for a powerful blow because he already knows his blow will land.

A thread on Wizards’ D&D Next forums considers the gamey aspects of combat superiority in overwhelming detail. Much of the discussion dwells on teasing apart the protect maneuver. Can a fighter decide to jump in and block an attack after a roll determines a hit? I’m sympathetic to the concern, but I’m comfortable with Protect for a couple of reasons:

The dice rolling and other business between beginning an attack and writing down the damage ranks as the one of the biggest abstractions in D&D. The timing of that business hardly matches action in the game world. Your successful to-hit roll simply poses a threat that can still be countered.

  • The fighter’s ability to spot a likely hit and block it seems as natural as, say, a basketball defender’s ability to block a likely basket.
  • I feel like I can use the Protect maneuver without breaking character. “I see the orc wind up for a killing blow on the wizard. I slam my shield into the way and shout, `Not today, you fiend!’”

The expertise die works as a mechanic sufficiently grounded in the game world. The designers deserve kudos for it.

The rogue’s Knack mechanic, on the other hand, exists as pure metagaming. Why does a first-level rogue gain the Knack advantage on a maximum of two checks per day? Nothing in the game world leads to that limit. It exists purely as an artifice of the game, a way to prevent the rogue from gaining too much screen time in the story of the day’s adventure. The Knack mechanic’s appearance is particularly discouraging because it seems like such a gratuitous soiling of a core class. I’m bracing for the likelihood of a warlord class loaded with dissociated mechanics, but this is the rogue. Surely the designers can invent a non-dissociated mechanic that reinforces skill mastery and expresses the rogue’s talent for skills.

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