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Designing for the party

December 28th, 2005: Mike Sugarbaker says...
Designing for the party

(This is the first of what may be a series of highly speculative posts about the future of D&D.)

If you don’t read Mike Mearls’ LiveJournal, you have lately been missing some fascinating debate on the future of D&D. Basically, the elephant in D&D’s living room – World of WarCraft – is being directly addressed by Mearls, Ryan Dancey, and other folks whose attention means, well, rather more than ours does.

We’ve been saying for a while on the podcast that we’re starting to get the fear about a D&D 4th-edition announcement, maybe as soon as next year. So I’d like to toss out an assertion (possibly a false one) and a question.

Assertion: D&D does not have, and has never had, rules that actually use the fact that other people are in the room with you. “You do it with friends” is one of the first things people say when you ask them what tabletop RPGs have over online ones, but let’s think about it: is there anything fundamentally different about the game when it’s just one player and one GM? I mean, when you have a whole party of PCs they can take on bigger challenges and work together tactically, but you can say that about, say, multiplayer cooperative Halo. And I wouldn’t say that multiplayer coop through the same game levels you play in the single-player campaign is a fundamentally different game. Other people are playing alongside you, and it makes a difference, but it’s a difference of degree, not of kind.

And once you accept that, it’s only a short hop before you ask what the fundamental difference is from the player’s perspective between one-player-one-GM tabletop game and playing a console RPG. Consoles get you combat, although with less flexibility and a totally different UI. They get you story, with not much more railroading than many (perhaps most) GM’ed tabletop campaigns; the better ones even get you diplomacy, but my point is not about quality. You might get a much better experience of a certain kind by playing tabletop, but for a certain very popular set of player desires, the experience is the same kind.

So here’s the question: if having other real live in-the-flesh people at the table with you is a competitive advantage over WoW – and I think it is – how can the next version of the D&D rules take advantage of it instead of just falling back on it as granted? How can tabletop RPG rules actually make the fact of tabletop-ness part of the game itself? How can we design for the group?

(And, of course, those linked entries of Mearls’ have a lot of other great material in them, plus some highly entertaining monkey knife fights in the comments. But let’s please keep this comment thread for discussion of the question above, ‘kay?)

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