Friday, February 3, 2012

Narrow Thinking

Currently, Wizards of the Coast gives us lots of opportunities to voice our opinions. I'm talking specifically here about polls. If you're following Christopher Perkins' The Dungeon Master Experience, or Monte Cook's Legends & Lore column, you can vote in weekly polls. They're inconsistently posting polls in blog updates over at the D&D Next Community as well.

Market research is notoriously difficult to do well. You want to get as many responses as possible so you don't want to put up barriers to participation. Some people don't have time to read a long explanation of your market research question and some just don't want to spend the time. When formulating your survey or poll questions, it is very important to apply the K.I.S.S. principle. At the same time, you do want clarity and understanding so everyone is speaking to the same topic rather than each individual's different understanding of a confusing question.

Self-selecting questionnaires and public internet polls are not scientific market research. That doesn't mean they aren't useful. Sure, you can't say "I know these poll results give me the true answer" but it is a lot easier to total counts in a poll than to read 5000 forum posts and decipher which side the comment falls out on. Both inputs are useful: run polls and scour forums for public sentiment. Ultimately you have to be careful how you use the information and the information will be more useful if you did a better job in formulating the original question.

Don't be dogmatic in interpreting the results of a survey or poll. Just because players would rather use the term dinosaurs in the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual doesn't mean you couldn't use behemoth as a synonym in 5th edition. Alternatively, create a complimentary monster or monster-type using the behemoth term. It is a great word and I think that using such terms enhances the D&D experience.

There are two other polls that seem prone to narrow interpretation: Mechanics Supporting Story and Weapon Damage Types. Mind you, I'm not saying that Wizards R&D will take a narrow approach but rather I want to use these examples to explain the option for broader design.

The discussion in the mechanics/story poll revolves around the dwarf race. If you broke down the 3rd edition dwarf into a point-buy system, I think you'd find that all the little dwarven racial benefits add up to the most expensive ECL +0 race in the Player's Handbook. In 4th edition there was a tension whether the dwarf was the best fighter race (second wind as a minor action rocks!) or not; at least until Wizards R&D, presumably, tried to align flavor with mechanics by also allowing a dwarf to have +2 in the primary fighter stat (Strength). You see, the dwarf is iconic as a fighter and, after the latter 4th edition changes, I believe that dwarf is the best race to choose for that class. The upshot of the poll is that a majority of players want game mechanics to support flavor.*

Should Wizards of the Coast give a bevy of flavor-defining mechanical benefits and restrictions to the dwarf race? Yes and no. We've built up too much flavor around dwarves. There just isn't enough room to create reasonably straightforward races at 1st level when every single aspect of a dwarf is backed up by mechanics. An alternate solution would be to parcel out some of the dwarf properties as feats. If given enough feats to make meaningful choices, the player could choose how deeply they wanted dwarf traits to define their character sheet. Another alternate solution would be to create a dwarf aspect that increases as the player levels. This works with the feat idea before if you can continue taking more and more cultural/racial feats as you level or it could work by having a racial character class. The class doesn't have to be the only way to play a dwarf and if "raised by dwarves" perhaps even a halfling could take the "dwarven-training" class. Dwarf feats or a dwarf class are just two potential examples of taking a bigger picture look at the results of the poll for Mechanics Supporting Story.

The Weapon Damage Types poll is different. Player clearly like to see flavor expressed in game terms such as bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing weapons. Thinking about simulationism for a moment, most weapons can be designed for multiple functions. Take the rapier, it could be designed with a basket hilt to allow you to punch a skeleton in the face so a piercing weapon does bludgeoning damage occasionally. A greatsword with a dull blade is effectively just a giant club. If you were a weaponsmith in a fantasy world where damage types mattered, you best design your creations so that adventurers will be handicapped as little as possible if you want to sell your wares. Weapon damage type flavor might be interesting to players but it still presents the same challenge that game designers must overcome so fantasy worlds are not populated with adventurers carrying around a golf bag with a nine iron for one monster type and a driver for another type.


* The poll uses the term "story" but I believe that is slightly off from what is described. The story is what enfolds during the game and has a plot whereas the setting elements like dwarven racial tendencies are a flavoring of the stories that get told.

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