Suddenly, I find myself with a lot of things on my plate. My biggest Pat supporters know that I’ve spent the better part of a month figuring out and setting up a campaign that allows up to a few dozen people to enjoy a regular, monthly gaming experience with an ongoing story and a shared world. And, of course, there’s that damned Megadungeon thing I need to get back off the ground because people won’t leave me the f$&% alone about it. I’ve started two new series. One about hacking rules and creating content and one about campaigns and settings. Because I’m damned good at STARTING new series. I’ve still got to design two different short adventures for two different articles, one about running games for newbies and one about designing adventures. And now, thanks to people on the internet and an episode of the GM Word of the Week, I’m now being begged to develop a crafting and alchemy system for D&D. And because no one thinks it’s possible to make a good one – and even I admitted it would be a lot of f$&%ing work – I want to take it on solely because people think I can’t do it. I just can’t refuse dare.
But, here’s the thing: I can’t control my f$&%ing brain. I wish I could, but I can’t. And stuff gets lodged in there and then I have to write about it. And what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – and this relates to the Megadungeon AND to writing adventures AND to rules hacking – is modes of play. Now, like so many terms, I don’t know if I heard that somewhere or I invented it or whatever. Who gives a s$&%. I’ll just define it now. A mode of play is a distinct sort of gameplay that exists within a game. For example, in D&D, you have combat. Combat is a mode of play. And you have social interaction. Social interaction is a mode of play. Modes of play are defined by goals and options. A combat is a conflict that is resolved by violence. Your goal is to resolve the conflict by using force while also preventing the enemy by resolving the conflict the way they want. In other words – defeat the enemy and don’t get defeated. Of course, goals and methods of defeat vary. Your goal might be to hold territory, pass through a defended area, or avoid being murdered. And the methods might include killing every damned thing, routing, or just holding out.
Now, social interaction is a mode of play that involves resolving a conflict using verbal interaction. Goals and methods vary, of course, giving rise to persuasion, deception, interrogation, threats, bargaining, and so on.
Why am I thinking about this s$&%? Well, because I play a lot of video games. And many good video games have very distinct modes of play, but the best ones seamlessly switch between one and another. During my Doom streams – and, honestly, Doom is what started this whole reflection – I commented on how the game switches between “combat mode” mode and “exploration mode” through the simple expedient of level design. I’ve talked in the past about how Minecraft switches from “survival” to “exploration” to “user-defined goal” modes as you play it. Batman: Arkham Asylum switched between “stealth mode” and “combat mode,” both of which were so well-defined that they were practically two different games but both of which were so seamlessly integrated that they never felt like two different games. I could go on.
What does any of this have to do with D&D? Well, most video games with distinct modes of play use all sorts of mechanical tools to swap between modes of play and to make those modes of play feel good. Doom’s exploration wouldn’t be fun without weapon upgrade points and hidden collectibles and it wouldn’t be possible to go hunting for those if the games levels were linear. Moreover, if the game didn’t separate itself into combat encounters and the parts between combat encounters, players would be too frantic to go searching around for stuff. For stealth to be fun, players need to be able to take their time and plan and observe. They need to be able to hide and remain undetected for as long as they need to. And there need to be consequences for failing the stealth. So, Batman’s stealth sections take place in complicated rooms with lots of safe places to hide in, especially overhead spaces. The guards patrol, they talk to each other, they react to the environment in observable ways, and the guards have guns that will wreck Batman’s s$&% in a couple of shots. Contrast that with the combat sections where the spaces are mostly open and the thugs are armed with melee weapons.
Now, here’s the thing. D&D has a very simple core mechanic that allows GMs to resolve any type of action players can imagine. Roll an ability check, add skill points or proficiency bonuses, add or subtract modifiers, and compare it to either a fixed DC or some opponent’s skill. And TECHNICALLY, D&D includes infinite modes of play. You can do stealth, survival, social interaction, exploration, mass combat, anything. IN THEORY.
And that IN THEORY part is what is suddenly getting to me. See, I’ve never had trouble coming up with ways to run stealth scenes or survival scenes or social interaction scenes or travel or exploration or whatever. And I’ve always done it using the tools in the system. OR SO I THOUGHT. Because, when I went back and looked at the way I’ve answered people’s questions in the past about things like survival or exploration OR the way I’ve written about topics like social interaction, I’ve realized that I develop other tools on the fly. But I also realized I’ve been filling in some of the blanks in D&D.
Look, here’s the deal: this article is ultimately one of those articles that belongs firmly in the Random Bulls$&% category. I know what I’m setting up. It’ll relate to a lot of different things I’m going to do in the next two months on this site, but it’s really just stream-of-consciousness bulls$&%. I’m just squeezing my brain grapes out onto the site and hoping someone wants to drink the raw pulpy juice rather than waiting for me to make wine out of. And the dead giveaway is the fact that there is no Long, Rambling Introduction™. It seemed like there was, but the first paragraph was already on topic and the introduction isn’t ending. I’d apologize, but you’re free to read it or to not read it, so f$&% apologizes. I owe you nothing. That’s your prerogative. I think this s$&% is interesting as hell. Maybe you don’t.
Anyway, before this ends up just being a wall of text, let me define a topic and slap some headers down. The topic is Modes of Play and the weakness of D&D as a jack-of-all-trades game.
Modes of Play in D&D
Okay, look, we’ve defined modes of play. Sort of. Let’s just call them distinct chunks of gameplay in which the players are pursuing particular types of goals in particular ways. So, what are the D&D modes of play? Does it even have modes of play? And there are two answers. People like me who LIKE D&D will say it has infinity modes of play. The basic engine allows for any sort of resolution at all. Other people, particularly people who DISLIKE D&D, insist it has one mode of play “combat.”
Here’s the thing. Objectively speaking, putting aside love or hatred for the game, both answers are right. And that is the greatest strength and greatest weakness of D&D.
Why Combat is King and Why People Don’t Like That
First, both sides agree that combat is a mode of play. And that makes sense. Because layered over the top of the basic rules, there’s a combat engine. There’s a set of rules that come into play when the game enters a combat. Those rules provide structure to the combat round, measure progress toward goals, and define the resolutions for actions unique to combat, and they set limits. In addition, they provide control over difficulty settings.
I’ve pointed out in the past that D&D doesn’t NEED combat rules. You can run a combat totally narratively. Dungeon World provides a great example of what D&D would look like without a combat engine. It still works, still has combat, but it doesn’t have much in the way of special rules for combat.
So, why DOES D&D have combat rules? What good do those extra rules do? I’ve always said extra complexity must be in aid of SOMETHING – and I wish more amateur game designers understood that. What is the extra complexity doing? Well, it makes it easier to design and run a combat, right? In fact, it does more than that. It automates a lot of the running of combat. GMs can create and run combats by following a very simple procedure: pick monsters of the right challenge numbers, roll initiative, here’s a bunch of predefined actions and how to resolve them, and so on.
Now, here’s where things get interesting. Ostensibly, that allows GMs to focus less on the rules themselves and more on just playing the opposition. That is to say, a GM can simply play the monsters as if the monsters were trying to win the fight. If the fight is built fairly, the GM can actually PLAY AGAINST the players as if he were BEING the monsters. The game handles almost everything. And frankly, that is why I love combat in D&D. Because the ONLY THING I really need to do once the combat is designed is lose myself in the monsters and try to kill the PCs.
And yet, there’s a lot of GMs who hate combat in D&D. I know GMs who aren’t really INTO the tactical game, so they don’t get into the fun of trying to kill the PCs. Other GMs insist that trying to win fights is ETHICALLY WRONG – which is total bulls$&% because the system WANTS YOU TO DO THAT – so they can’t get into that fun. And when they aren’t enjoying the “play as the monsters” aspect, all they see is executing predefined rules and bookkeeping. The rules really do handle most of the fight. So, the GM who isn’t enjoying the game of the fight is just following predefined steps and bookkeeping.
And, to be fair, following predefined steps and keeping records is not why most GMs get into GMing. I get that. I do feel like some of those GMs should lighten up and bit and PLAY THE COMBAT GAME because they might discover they like it. But that’s neither here nor there.
Here’s the point, though: combat is a distinct mode of play in D&D with its own set of rules. And those rules make it really easy to design combats and run combats. And they also make it easy to record and share combats. If I want to include a combat scene in a published adventure, all I have to do is say “okay, here’s a map of the room, some notes about the terrain, and some stat blocks for the monsters. Run the combat.” What I don’t have to do is explain HOW to run a combat. That’s part of the basic game.
Other Modes of Play in D&D
And now, here’s where we get into the reason why some people say D&D can be anything and other people say that D&D can only be combat. Until you dig into option rules in the DMG, D&D doesn’t really include specific rules or systems for modes of play outside of combat. When you enter a stealth scene or a survival scene or an exploration scene or an interaction scene, there’s no special overlay of rules that do what the combat rules do. There’s no in-built predefined actions and resolutions, no defined structural tools or progress indicators, no difficulty sliders or knobs. There’s just action resolution.
Now, to be fair, D&D has, in the past flirted with offering different modes of play. There are some anemic survival and exploration rules scattered throughout the editions and some esoteric optional rules like chase scenes and s$%& like that, but they are meager, easily overlooked, and rarely fully developed.
Does that mean that D&D doesn’t offer other modes of play? Of course not. The action resolution is very robust and open-ended enough to allow for any mode of play the GM cares to include. And that is what some gamers love about D&D. It IS truly a jack-of-all-trades.
But it isn’t as simple as that. The lack of structural rules for different modes of play have a few consequences.
First, let’s admit this: any mode of play will flow better when it has specific mechanics rather than universal mechanics. Combat in D&D feels deeper and more involved than combat in Dungeon World. So, if you LIKE combat, you’ll enjoy D&D combat more than Dungeon World combat. On average. And that’s because combat has rules specifically designed to make the game feel like combat and flow like combat. If you want to get picky, D&D combat is a specific type of tactical combat. It’s wargamey combat more than action combat. But that aside. Let’s just agree that specific rules provide more depth than general rules.
Second, without a predefined set of rules for a particular mode of play, if I want to run a scene with that mode of play, I – the GM – am going to have to do more work. Without predefined bits of rules to fall back on to help me run the scene, I’m going to be left making more judgement calls. I’ll have to adjudicate the outcomes and consequences of every individual action on a case by case basis, pace the scene, and determine progress. Wherever the general rules of D&D are insufficient for the needs of the scene, I have to make judgment calls. That means, as the GM, I have a lot more cognitive load.
Because of those first two consequences, GMs who want to include strong gameplay experiences need to be good at designing or modifying mechanics. Either they have to do so ahead of time and design the scene accordingly. Or they have to be good at designing mechanics on the fly. Either way, it can put a heavy strain on less experienced GMs.
Third, game designers – people who design content for publication – are also under a lot of pressure. When you publish a module, you’re expected to fully arm the GM to run the game you wrote. And that means that if you want to include a robust stealth section, say, or an exploration section, you need to fill in the blanks around D&D’s basic action resolution system. And moreover, you need to spell all that crap out for the GM. It isn’t as simple as drawing a map, putting down some stat blocks, and saying “now fight.”
Ultimately, what it comes down to is that D&D has two in-built modes of play: combat and everything else. One of them is easy to design, build, communicate, and run and one requires a lot of work.
An Aside: Social Interaction
As an aside, I just want to throw this out there. I personally – AND CORRECTLY – feel D&D has THREE in-built modes of play. Those are combat, social interaction, and everything else. Now, I will admit the social interaction system isn’t particularly ROBUST or IMPRESSIVE. It isn’t as well-developed as combat, but it is distinct from “everything else.” And here’s why.
D&D, by its nature, is a game of verbal interaction. Players sit around a table pretending to be characters. And the GM sits there pretending to be the rest of the world. When you sit people down and say “pretend to this be person” and then you say “you can only play by talking,” it is very natural for MANY (but not all) of them to fall into the pattern of speaking as their character. To observe this, run a game for complete newbies and then start talking to them in character. They will tend to follow along. Or at least describe their character’s responses. Also, observe kids playing with dolls.
Social interaction is central to the human experience. We’re wired for it. And if you give us the opportunity to do it, we will. Social interaction is a mode of play for all RPGs.
That said, D&D doesn’t do much to expand on that. In fact, D&D does some weird things to get in the way. But that’s a whole other article about why Charisma and social interaction skills generally make the D&D worse.
Minecraft Houses and Little Big Planet
What’s the result of all this crap? The fact that D&D has two defined modes of play, one easy to deal with and one hard to deal with? Let me talk about some more video games. You know I can’t f$&%ing STOP talking about video games.
First, let’s look at Minecraft. Minecraft is a big, open sandbox filled with Legos. Ignoring the survival and combat aspects and all that bulls$&% with NetherNetherLand and the Ending Dragon. Basically, in Minecraft, you can pick up blocks made of wood, dirt, stone, brick, glass, and so on. And you can put those blocks on other blocks. But there’s also a whole set of other things you can pick up and put down: Redstone. Redstone is this weird sort of resource that basically allows you design electronic circuits. You can use it to make a door open with the press of a button. Or you can use it to design an automated farming machine. Or a clock. Or a calculator. Or a goddamned computer. Seriously, people on the Internet have figured out a way to use the circuit-building tools in Minecraft to build functional computers and play Tetris and Pokémon INSIDE Minecraft.
So, what do most people do in Minecraft? What are most people showing off in their videos? They build houses. Or castles. Or towers. Or palaces. Or lairs. Or dungeons. Whatever. They build s$&%. They stack blocks on blocks and build s$&%. Very, very few people are putting in the massive time and effort to build functional electronic farm-harvesting machines and calculators. Because one is easy and obvious and one is complicated and obtuse.
Little Big Planet is a series of platforming games in which a sickeningly adorable person made of craft supplies runs and jumps its way across a world made of craft supplies narrated by Stephen Fry. And it includes a robust suite of level editing tools that let you create your own games inside Little Big Planet. And the tutorials are also narrated by Stephen Fry. Except the third one which cut out a lot of the Stephen Fry and consequently, it sucks so much. Using the level editor, it is possible to build all sorts of games. You can build scrolling shooters and air hockey games and Tetris and racing games and all sorts of things. But most of the custom levels out there are simple platforming levels. Run and jump. Why? Because platformers are easy and obvious and anything else is complicated and obtuse.
Most people will default to what is easy because extending a system requires creativity, ingenuity, and effort. Combat in D&D is easy. It’s obvious. Anyone can make a combat following simple rules. Anyone can run a combat. And any designer can include combat in their adventures in a simple format everyone understands. Everything else is complicated.
And THAT is why D&D is either “anything” or “only combat.” And ironically, I have this distinct feeling – and I’m ALWAYS right – that if D&D didn’t include a robust combat engine, people would be far more likely to see D&D as a game that does anything rather than a game that does nothing.
Does D&D NEED More Modes of Play?
So, now we come to the million-dollar question: does D&D need more modes of play? And by that, I mean, should there be rules to divvy up the “everything else” into other types of play? Now, I USED TO believe the answer was no. D&D is robust and powerful enough to do anything. It doesn’t need to be bogged down with more rules.
But several things have happened. First, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about different modes of play in video games that I would enjoy in D&D. And I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to pull them off in D&D. And it suddenly occurred to me that that’s kind of f$&%ed up. Because things like “stealth” and “scavenger hunt” and “investigation” aren’t outlandish ideas for D&D. In fact, they are exactly the sort of things that SHOULD fit in the game easily. And yet, it’s kind of hard to fit some of this crap in. In a way that feels good. And I can wing it. I have wung it. I’ve run some damned good stealth and scavenger hunt and investigation scenes.
When I look back at what I’ve done and when I look back at the crap I’ve written about on this very site, I realize I’ve been building specific mechanics for specific modes of play for years. I can rattle off a bunch of articles that are basically just me inventing subsystems for the game. Remember when I wrote about Social Interaction encounters? Abstract Dungeoneering? Or that Wilderness Exploration crap? Yeah, that’s all me inventing structural rules for specific modes of play.
So clearly, I THINK they are worth doing because I’m always f$&%ing doing them.
But that’s not all. When I look at the positive responses I get for my articles, I get a lot of applause for those articles. People love my subsystems. In fact, I seem to have a gift for it. I would call this a humble brag, but humility is for losers who aren’t good at things. This is just a brag. I’m good at inventing systems. Maybe I should write a goddamned RPG.
But beyond even that, when you look at the sort of things people are asking for, especially GMs, people seem to be begging for more modes of play. I look at my own massive pile of Ask Angry questions and see it all the time. But I also watch what people keep asking Wizards and Paizo for. They want crafting systems. They want mass combat systems. And they want better chase and evasion rules. There’s a demand for it. I keep seeing people asking for it.
But, there’s a danger in doing all of this.
It is possible to take the idea of specific rules for Modes of Play TOO FAR. You can build a game that is just a collection of minigames and subsystems. And those sorts of games aren’t always a lot of fun. Sure, some people like them. I LIKE them. But it is very hard to get other people to like them. I’m thinking, for example, of Hackmaster 5th Edition. It’s a neat, mechanically rigorous game that does a lot of interesting things and has the best goddamned production values – and Monster Manual – I’ve ever seen in any RPG ever. But it is also a collection of mechanically complex subsystems, inexpertly stitched together. But then, AD&D and AD&D 2E were collections of subsystems inexpertly stitched together too. And it is trying to emulate that crap that we were smart enough to outgrow.
Any Mode of Play system should serve as an extension of the underlying rules. A specific application of already existing rules. Modes of Play shouldn’t include too many new and unique concepts. The combat system in D&D is resolved primarily using the core mechanic of the game. It adds initiative and a turn structure, defines some special actions, and that’s pretty much it. And even the combat is pushing it in terms of complexity.
Modes of Play aren’t also necessary for every goddamned thing. Everything doesn’t need a subsystem. If something isn’t going to come up frequently, it doesn’t need a system. That said, if systems are presented the right way, you can get away with adding more than you need. If GMs understand that the systems themselves are just extensions of the basic rules that serve as tools and they can be ignored easily enough and the action resolution system can handle them, then a robust list of Modes of Play allow GMs to pick and choose. They can simply ignore the Stealth system. Or the Investigation system. Or whatever. The game still plays well. Those are just overlays. Extensions. Like mods in World of Warcraft.
And honestly, this was what I HOPED D&D 5E would deliver. Remember all that talk about modular design? About engaging with the parts you wanted and making the game as simple or as complex as you want? What the hell happened to that?
Step One: A More Robust Toolkit
This WHOLE pontification grew out of a couple of a few simple things I wanted to do in D&D. As I mentioned, this is all just because I play video games and think things like “wow, this s$&% is fun, how can I get the same fun into D&D?” Crafting? Stealth? Scavenger hunting? Survival? All that crap. I KNOW I can get it all in because I’m in the “D&D is a simple, robust toolkit that can do ANYTHING.”
I’m kind of forced to admit it’s not quite robust enough. The core mechanic has a few weird little holes. Skills have a few odd problems. In trying to do something I thought should be simple, I encountered a few weaknesses. They are tiny things, but they are glaring things.
Ultimately, what happened was this: I was going to write an article about better ways to handle finding hidden things, searching for things, scavenger hunts, secret doors, that sort of crap. But as I started working on that, I realized I needed to start extending the core mechanic and add a little bit of versatility. So, I figured I’d handle that first. And trying to introduce that and WHY I was dealing with skills and ability checks again when I had already done so much to explain it all led to a Long, Rambling Introduction™ that went on too long and became too rambling. Because it became absorbed with the question of “does D&D really need this s$&% and is it all worth it?”
And the answer is yes. So, on Friday, we’re going to be looking back at the D&D Core Mechanic and at action resolution in general. We’re going to codify some s$&% I once called “rules of thumb” and “advice.” And we’re going to spit-shine and expand the whole thing. The changes will be subtle and simple, but they will be versatile enough for us to start to f$&% around and add some Modes of Play.
And now I have, like, four topics to rotate between every f$&%ing month. That should keep me going for a while. Until I have another brain aneurism and add a fifth topic.