02 April 2011

Mike Mearls, You Confuse Me

I really want to like the guy. He wrote Iron Heroes, which is one of my favorite reading materials just based on the fact that the guy wanted to take 3rd Edition D&D, where every character is assumed to have a base level of magic items to the point where everything they use and touch from spellbooks to longswords to arrows are swimming in magic, and then say "Nah, these guys don't need that." That's pretty bold, and it required some finangling to move 3e to a nearly no-magic world.

Needless to say, I loved it. It was really cool. The setting was interesting, the classes were both deep and broad, and the token system (while cumbersome seeming) promoted playing within your class, strategic decisions, and party interplay all in one, to varying degrees. 

But this article here confuses me. I understand the point he's making, but not the logic per se. According to the article (and the one from the next week, if you're interested, although they're only tangentially related to each other despite claims otherwise), D&D players have gotten a more sophisticated taste for gaming since the beginning of the hobby, and only increasing complexity can really satisfy a truly experienced gamer. The other argument present is that statistics that vary on choice are better than ones that are pre-defined.

And both of those arguments have merit, but they're not exactly true. What's true is to say that designers have a taste for increasing complexity, and that designers tire of pre-defined choices and dungeon tropes. Designers and players, while overlapping, are not the same. People in designer mode want for there to be lots of moving parts so they can really stretch their mental muscles and show off their creativity, and people in player mode want something to play. 

Let me give an analogy by way of pictures.

That is what a music designer wants. He wants lots of little fiddly knobs so he can get everything just right, and he wants everything to be customizeable so everything works perfectly. He's not going to be content until everything is just so, and this giant sound board thing is perfect for him. He doesn't just want to listen to the music, he wants to mix tracks and push buttons and stuff. He wants to be personally involved with every aspect of the music. To the layman, this is incomprehensible. To an expert, this is a canvas.

A music fan, on the other hand, wants this:

He wants something to listen to. Dude doesn't want to mix the CD (although he may if he has aspirations to it), and he doesn't want to mess with fiddly bits except where it relates directly to his music listening, such as tweaking the equalizer, or turning the volume up. He doesn't want to hear about how this album is innovative because of anything, and he doesn't want to hear about technicalities (this was originally recorded in 1878 on a wax cylinder and has been transferred blah blah blah). He knows if the music is good, because he likes the way it sounds. That's it.

And so it is with games. It's not the players who are tired of simple games- people are still playing Original D&D, for god's sake, and that's a pretty simple game. It only has a handful of levels, and a handful of classes, and a handful of monsters. But I know that there are plenty of people who are still playing oD&D to this day, after picking it up when it was brand new 37 years ago. 

A quote:
 As the title of this column indicates, I think we’re seeing an overall rise in player skill, more established tropes of gaming, and a better network of tutoring and knowledge. Our collective gaming brain has grown larger and larger, and therefore seeks out deeper, more complex games.

This is straight bullshit. Before I start to ramble, let me summarize the problems I have with this.

  1. Player skill does not correlate to increased complexity.
  2. Pre-established tropes in gaming do not affect complexity.
  3. Deeper networks of tutoring and knowledge do not affect complexity.
  4. What the hell is a collective gaming brain?
  5. Complex games are not deeper.

And now for some quick reasons.

  1. Player skill has no effect on a game like D&D. Skill is defined as: "the ability, coming from one's knowledge, practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well". What? To say that somebody is "good at D&D" typically means that they've acquired system mastery of a sort, and that they know how the game runs. Alternately, it means that the player is proficient at combat in that system, such that they can win even with great disadvantages. This is hardly a universally good thing, and seems to be unique to combat-heavy roleplaying games. Nobody's ever said, "Man, that guy is good at Vampire," because the focus in that game is not on the combat mini-game. D&D isn't about being "skilled" at it. You don't win. That doesn't even make sense.
  2. Issues with theme, setting, or backgrounds hardly equate to a need for increased complexity. If you don't like dungeons, don't be in them. This speaks more to a loss of innocence, if I can misuse a phrase, where traps are no longer surprising and goblins no longer interesting. So what? 
  3. Again, this speaks mainly to being "skilled" at the combat mini-game. What is a tutor? Somebody "better" than you. What do they do? They teach you their skill. D&D is not that kind of game. 
  4. No, seriously, what does that mean?
  5. Because I know what they're talking about. We're still talking about the combat minigame. More complex combat does not equal a deeper game, because it's not set up to be a deep game. Deep games don't come from rules complexity, they come from an interplay of competing minds. There is no competition in D&D. The DM is not trying to "win." That would be trivially easy, since he has ultimate power over the entire universe. D&D 4th edition, while having infinitely more complex rules, does not have a "deeper" combat minigame than Basic D&D any more than Axis and Allies is deeper than Go. 

I didn't mean to ramble, but there it is.


  1. "What's true is to say that designers have a taste for increasing complexity, and that designers tire of pre-defined choices and dungeon tropes. Designers and players, while overlapping, are not the same. People in designer mode want for there to be lots of moving parts so they can really stretch their mental muscles and show off their creativity, and people in player mode want something to play."

    Well, not the designers I like.

    As I became more and more experienced as a GM, player and designer (that is, simply, I have more years under my belt playing, running, reading and writing games), I went with the 'less is more' mentality and eventually eschewed complex and cumbersome games for RPGs where the GM and players' ideas were key not the mechanics of the game per se.

  2. Nice post. I want to give Mr. Mearls the benefit of the doubt, but every one of his articles makes it harder and harder.

    Original Dungeons and Dragons evolved out of actual play - in a sense, it was 'playtested' into existence and into refinement.

    I don't want to present an 'Edition War' comment, so let me just state the following:

    The more mechanics (and thus, mathematics) are allowed to govern game play (and design), the less actual playtesting is necessary, the less creative workload is required from the DM, and the design 'product' can be brought to market much quicker.

  3. What the quote about gaming brain needs is the unstated rest of it: "...that we can charge a lot more money for."

    Dead on accurate post. Good work!

  4. "This is straight bullshit."

    Spot on.

  5. "...Nobody's ever said, "Man, that guy is good at Vampire,"..."

    Well, they might but it would mean something different. Assuming I have any clue what I'm talking about here, and didn't manage to completely misunderstand what Vampire you're talking about/is (WoD Vampire right? Of course, that's different depending on whether you mean the nWoD or oWoD version anyway, and I have neither, but...), it would probably mean something like "That guy is good at playing his character", or "He's good at influencing other people in the game".

  6. @ C'Nor: The exact version of Vampire doesn't really matter so much, really. It could have been any other game and it'd be about to the same result- it doesn't make sense to say other people are "good at" the game, because there's no real skill metric. It's not an applicable blanket statement, you know? If you mean to say, "He's good at roleplay" or "he's good at leading a group," those two statements are entirely separate and distinct from being "good at D&D."

    Hope that makes sense. It's a bit of semantics, really, but I think you catch my drift.