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 Theory of Failed Design
This is a series of small essays or statements about how I approach things. I'm sorry it's long and sorry it rambles, but it -is- a genuine essay--writing down an idea to try it out. I hope that if you read it through, you can find some sense in it.
I suppose I should start this by saying no one's perfect. No one has everything they do turn out absolutely perfectly. If they say differently, they're lying.
Now that that's said, some pretty awesome stuff can still happen. Even if it isn't perfect, doesn't mean it isn't good or without any redeeming feature if it isn't good. This is balanced by idea of improvement--that things can be refined and tinkered with so they are made better. The first step in this is admitting that the original is not good.
The best measuring stick I have for telling if something's good is asking 'does it fulfill its intended purpose?' The nice thing is I'm intellectually comfortable applying this standard to all forms of media, tools, systems of organization, pretty much anything. Some stuff I don't like because of personal taste, and I can account for that: For example, the Eragon series by Christopher Paolini. It is supposed to be a heroic adventure fantasy in the mold of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings--but I don't find it particularly heroic or exciting, and I don't find Eragon to be the admirable character he's made out to be, nor do I find the elven society presented as being quite so perfect. So, Eragon does not fulfill its intended purpose for me. However, I can concede that it has a fanbase it appeals to, and I'm sure they have reasons for why the series works for them, just as I have reasons why it doesn't work for me.
Subjective taste will always be a part of an analysis of anything where it could possibly come into, but objective analysis is still possible.
 Why WOTC Is, and Therefore Can Be Wrong
This is where it comes to D&D. Many of the classes written by official D&D writers (even head writers/developers) do not objectively meet the benchmarks the designers set for themselves. The game developers said they were trying for balance, but balance was not achieved--even the idea that casters do 'burst' awesomeness while the melee types can plug along all day doesn't hold up to the fact that a sufficiently savvy player of a caster can find ways around the limitations of spells-per-day (wands of commonly used spells, such as Cure Light Wounds, scrolls, choosing spells or combining spells which just flat kill things, etc). It also does not take into account that melee types often do not pose a credible threat to monsters because their damage does not increase along with monster HP.
 Example of Failed Design: The Monk
Some of the classes fail to live up to their own flavor text or supposed inspirations. The Monk is based on the hyper-trained martial artists in media who use their own body to fight as effectively as those who use weapons and armor--and they get some of the abilities to reflect self-control and inner harmony and all that. So, at high levels, the Monk can say, "I can converse with fish and fowl, angel and demon, have honed my body to the finest possible athletic condition it can be in, have calmed all my inner doubts until I am at peace with myself and the world around me..." but he has to follow this up with, "I have as much chance to hit you as Bard who spends all his time in towns drinking in taverns and chasing women, and the thief who has made it abundantly clear that face-to-face, fair fighting is for suckers if it can be avoided by any means possible."
The official, WotC-brand martial artist class has medium BAB. This does not live up to my expectations of a character who religiously and rigorously trained to be an effectively unarmed combatant. And you can't say that this is somehow balancing that they can't have their weapons away from them, because if the Fighter takes Unarmed fighting and Stunning Fist, he doesn't miraculously take a hit to BAB.
That is failed design, and I can't imagine how it got printed without any of the WotC writers realizing that their highly-trained martial artist class has the same BAB as the druid, the rogue, and the bard. Sure, some martial arts here, on earth, are more formalized, more a form of exercise than a way of self-defense, but I'd expect martial artists in D&D land to be truly fearsome because they can reasonably expect to face actual life-or-death combat.
So, somehow or another, WotC thought it'd be a good idea to give the unarmed combatant class medium BAB. They failed to make its mechanics live up to its flavor. For me, this is enough for me to take SRD and core mechanics with a grain of salt. I'm sure some would require more, so I'll try to provide.
 Example of Failed Design: Paladin
So, to use an example I went over recently (Hi, GD), the Paladin. The Paladin's flavor has a lot to say for it--a holy warrior who fights evil. I like Paladins. I quite like the idea of a White Hat who does what he can to make the world a better place and also gives it to the bad guys good and hard. But the SRD Paladin isn't really much better at slaying evil than a wizard or rogue. They have mechanics which try, like Smite Evil...But the implementation is very lacking.
To stick with the example, let's continue using Smite Evil. Smite Evil is gained at the first level of the class. It gives the Paladin's Charisma bonus to his attack roll, and does his class level in damage if it hits an evil creature. That's not bad. Except...it's 1/day. And the uses-per-day advance extremely slowly. This, combined with the slow damage scaling, is just not enough to make the Paladin a credible threat to evil creatures--the things which are supposed to be worried about him. At level 5, he can do it twice a day--a potential for an extra ten damage a day. That is just not enough. At level 20, when he's got the potential to be adopted as the Junior God of Paladins by Heironeous in five or ten levels, he has the potential for an extra 100 damage day. And that's still not enough for the forces of level-appropriate evil to worry about him. What's more, a depressingly large number of Evil creatures are not stupid or unwise by any means, and if the mechanics of the D&D world is how it works, they'd likely know that most Paladins can only cause evil extra harm a couple times a day, and that getting walloped by a Paladin isn't likely to kill them--and that, once the Paladin has hit them two or three times, the Paladin isn't something they have to worry about.
So, once again, WotC failed to give a class mechanics which lived up to its flavor text, even though an attempt was made this time. But the attempt did not take into account that monster HP scales very quickly, so the Paladin's Smite Evil becomes increasingly irrelevant. People have rightly remarked that the Holy Crusader Against Evil is more fully realized by the Cleric--and that's the melee end of the job.
 Failed Design: Mechanics
So, I've explained, to the best of my ability, how some of WotC's failed classes fail because they do not live up to their own flavor text. I hope that the WotC designers were actually trying to make these classes as awesome as they're described to be, and just failed to do so. If they knowingly and intentionally made some classes bad, then they're not people I want listen to on game design anyway. When I write some game mechanics, I try to make them the best I can, trying to make the mechanics work as smoothly as I can.
 Failed Design: Fighter and by extension, Melee
The poor Fighter. He gets no respect--and I don't mind that in the least. The Fighter is supposed to be the versatile, trained, melee combatant, getting many tricks. The bonus feats are supposed to help him with this, and a system of combat maneuvers was created to allow melee combatants some tactical effects to care about, rather than just, "I hit him."
Except the feats aren't enough, and it's down to their structure. The Fighter, given a decent selection of rulebooks to choose from, is best served and a best able to be a threat by throwing as many feats as he can into making one trick--such as tripping or bullrushing, or whatever--as powerful as he can. If he's taken up Spiked Chain Tripping...but decides he wants to go into archery, the feat chain system means he has to start over...and it'll be many levels before he's gotten some really awesome archery.
I don't want to play a build, but I'm being forced to if I want to make a character who does cool things and doesn't get ignored by the monsters, DAMMIT! Having every mechanical aspect dedicated to a single trick is not a character. I'd rather like to play a game where I could pick something out because it sounds cool, and have it work.
Core D&D, and even non-Core D&D doesn't let me do that. Let's say...I want to play a Fencer who has high dexterity and feints a lot and disarms people with his rapier. The game attempts to let me do that and be viable by giving me the Weapon Finesse feat, which lets me use my Dexterity modifier for attack rolls instead of strength. Except...now my damage is even further behind. And if I want to maintain a decent level of damage as well as attack bonus, I have to also worry keeping Strength and Dexterity up. Making a Fighter who tries to go the dexterous fighting route not as good as one who just buys heavy armor and a greatsword. Sure, one can talk about the Fighter concept, but if I want to play Errol Flynn, this is what I have to work with, and it's not doing the job it says it is.
 "I never noticed a problem"
I'm very happy for you that the games you have played or ran have, hitherto, not had a character fail to do something he should be doing. So if your Paladin has never been so outclassed in melee combat by the party cleric that he can better contribute to the party by holding the Wands of Cure Moderate Wounds while everyone else fights...I'm very happy for you. However, it has happened to me, and in games I've played.
No, I am not particularly concerned that you had fun playing a Monk or a Paladin. I'm sure it was a blast and you and your buddies had a great time. It doesn't change that some WotC classes objectively fail to meet their apparent design goals--and part of this is that some of WotC's mechanics do not function as well as they could.
So, even if you have not noticed a problem, does not mean there is not a problem. If people openly and repeatedly air concerns about mechanics like problems exist is somehow offensive, or if it offends you when they speak like they could do it better, you can either be mature and listen to what they're saying, or you can just go, "NO WAY YOU CAN DO THEIR GAME BETTER THAN THEY CAN," in which case, I'm proud that you read this far. You can go along now, because the rest of this are things you don't want to hear.
 Why I Don't Care What WotC Says About Writing Homebrew, by Genowhirl
I take a sort of bitter amusement that the DMG tells the DMs and players that if a homebrew class makes one of their official classes obsolete, it's probably overpowered. That's an amazing way to try to cover their tailfeathers, especially among people who are especially trusting.
But it destroys any chance that I will take what appears in the WotC book completely on faith. It's saying, "We did everything right, so you're doing it wrong if you disagree or do something different."
I'll let you in on a pet peeve of mine: I hate it when people refuse to even consider the possibility that they could be wrong, even in the face of substantial evidence that this is the case. Always take into account the possibility you could be dead wrong and be prepared to admit this. Crow doesn't taste nearly so bad if they aren't forcing you to eat it.
A second peeve: I hate it when people know they're wrong, but refuse to correct it. This was covered in kindergarten, people! If you hurt somebody, say you're sorry. If you do a bad job, try to go back and do it correctly.
A third motivating factor: Spite is a motivating force for me, though I'm ashamed to admit it. Lo, these many moons ago, when I took English Comp 102, the teacher ejected me from the class room that day because we were supposed to be working on our drafts in-class. I wasn't having much like getting some ideas down, so I wasn't doing much other than doodling and waiting for something to click. She noticed, and told me to get out. I was ticked enough that I went into the student center, got on a free table, and had a five-paragraph essay on video games as an interactive art form done in about twenty minutes. She was confused when I thanked her the next class session.
Because of this, when I write homebrew, I can ignore WotC's writings on the subject and I don't even feel guilty about doing so. Furthermore, the arrogance shown in that 'guideline' of "Don't do it differently or better than we did, or you're wrong" has me amply motivated to look for chinks in their design (yes, it's petty. But I like to think it's pointed at doing something vaguely useful).
Also, don't try to refute my (often rambling) points by saying they're just my opinion. There's two types of opinions: Valid and invalid. A valid opinion is one that can be reasonably concluded from some evidence. I have thus far tried to posit some valid opinions on the matter. If you think I'm wrong, tell me why you think I am, so we can discuss it and get somewhere through the exchange of ideas. Don't say I can't be right just because it's an opinion.
As a corollary, if someone tries to criticize a homebrew melee class by saying it's better than the WotC official version with the implication that this is inherently wrong, I will be vexed. You can play your games and have fun not worrying about mechanics, but don't get on my case because I expect things to do what they're supposed to.
- You kinda have to realize the "...it's PROBABLY overpowered". That one word "probably" is saying that they could be wrong, but they want you to make absolutely sure it's balanced before just throwing it in the game. They are not claiming, as you say, "We did everything right, so you're doing it wrong if you disagree or do something different." They just want to make sure the game is still fun by not having one character be a level 3 with a +17 attack bonus and a few spells to go along with it. Rogue The Demonchild 18:07, 2 July 2010 (UTC)
 Theory of Good Design
How do you do good design work? Pick a goal and go for it. If your initial means of trying to reach the goal doesn't work, tinker and try to improve. Keep what you want to happen firmly in mind. For example...There's a Warhammer 3.x, which is based on the idea that people from Warhammer setting crash-land or otherwise get onto a D&D world. It was explicitly written to be funny and over-the-top, with the Imperial forces or whatever quite possibly running rampant over the D&D world thanks to a mix of personal prowess and lethal futuristic equipment. Here, if you want to read: http://www.tgdmb.com/viewtopic.php?t=49873&start=0. I'll wait while you glance over it.
Are you done? Dungeon Crusade fulfills its stated design goals, whether or not you like the idea of some Space Marines emptying a layer of the Abyss. I also like the over-the-top ridiculousness shown in the class abilities, because the references and wording makes me smile (I don't take Warhammer seriously).
So, for example, say I wanted to write a Paladin fix. I'd probably start with Smite Evil: Drop the attack bonus and just apply the damage to all Evil creatures the Paladin strikes in melee, once per round. Even that would be conservative--I could toy with it and try 2 damage per class level a round, or maybe every successful melee attack. It would help the Paladin become a credible threat to the forces of Evil, and something couldn't send waves of mooks at the Paladin until the Paladin has been forced to use all his smite evils a day, then move in on the Paladin while he's without his signature ability. Instead, it means the Evil Overlord has to directly take the field knowing it will going to sting every time the Paladin hits him. From there, I'd move onto the spellcasting--smooth it out so it also functions off of Charisma, so the Paladin doesn't have to sacrifice supernatural class abilities for spellcasting or vice-versa. There's other concepts which could be tinkered with (like a good Will save so they can tell people trying to mind-control them to go away).
Would you say that's overpowered? That's how I'd try to give the Paladin mechanics to match his flavor.
Some other design goals, besides patching normal D&D so it runs a little better: Given how some different people like over-the-top insane action, some people like LotR-style unflashy combat, some people want long, epic fights, I'd put worthy design goals like this:
- Over-the-top insane action: For want of a better word, God of War d20. For this, melee combat would have to be vastly redone, and it would have to be assumed that characters just get inherently and physically stronger, faster, and tougher by gaining levels.
- LotR: I understand the E6 system tries for this. Haven't played it personally, so I'm not in a position to judge or not.
- Epic battles: Preferably, one would have to sort Epic into some kind of coherent shape first. A good start would be to make Epic use the same progression rules as the rest of the game.
As a final note, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's followed my contributions that I'm an admirer of Frank Trollman and Keith's D&D design work. It's because 1) They're good designers in that they are able to come up with mechanics and rules that do what they want them to 2) They admit they can be wrong but by now have assembled a coherent enough framework of standards that they can write things which conform to that. 3) They admit their limits. When they wrote the Tome articles, they had to decide right at the start what they wanted to do: Either they could fix magic, or they could fix non-magic. However, there's hundreds or even thousands of spells all printed, and many monsters have spells (or spell-like abilities or effects), so rewriting magic would involve rewriting most of the game and they took the lazy way and settled on bringing the non-magic parts up to fit in with the magic parts (i.e., the majority of the game's content). I wouldn't go so far to say I have faith in them, but they're often right in their observations on the game and therefore I pay attention to what they say. Defending their material on the talk page is also a great way to get my brain cells firing, because I have to think. --Genowhirl 10:55, 29 January 2010 (UTC)
- I openly admit I skimmed most of this, but I think you have a fundamental flaw when you are talking about the Paladin: Role Playing (it is, quite literally, the name of the game). The idea that paladins are to be feared by evil creatures everywhere is created by the paladins themselves, who go out of their way to seek out and destroy evil, for the sake of seeking out and destroying evil. Smite evil (which, granted, could be boosted without significant threat of overpowering) and the rest are just icing on the cake, not the cake itself. JazzMan 02:55, 23 March 2010 (UTC)
- Except the character's mechanics do not let them succeed at their big shtick: Seeking out and destroying evil. Assuming the game mechanics is actually how this world works and can be relatively deduced by observation, a fiend would be a lot more worried about a wizard whipping up Solid Fog and Black Tentacles than he would a Paladin with a sword glowing with blue fire. See, I can totally do a story about a warrior going around smiting evil with a blue-flaming sword and have fun with it in total Magic Teaparty mode where I'm allowed to make it up as I go along and don't have any actual rules.
- D&D, while a cooperative storytelling game, is a cooperative storytelling game where people agree to abide by rules and the whim of the dice. And the rules for Paladins, in conjunction with the rules for a lot of other things, tell me that a Paladin character would be ineffective against evil. Therefore, a Paladin in SRD-land would be hard-put to justify continuing as a Paladin when a cleric of the same god or a wizard of any alignment can be much more effective at slaying evil. Ignoring the rules of the world and blindly continuing to play the Paladin as if he were a mighty bane of evil when he can be outperformed by the guy who stops to pray three times a day and the nearsighted asthmatic at his mission in life (slaying evil) would be bad roleplaying and ignoring the contributions of the rest of the players as if the character were in a vacuum.
- If it were any other class, things might be different. But playing a Paladin has half the character motivation written into the class. And when the character is unable to succeed in one of those goals, as in, objectively, undeniably not be very good at it...Well, that's not good for the class, the gameplay, or the roleplaying. A Paladin having a crisis of faith would be interesting to play, but it shouldn't be so easily resolved by changing class to Cleric so he can go on to kill the bad guys. Which is totally a conclusion a Paladin in SRD-land would come to: He is not exceptionally effective at slaying evil, while a Good Cleric can be amazingly effective. Therefore, the imperative to stop evil would likely cause one to take up holy orders and go full cleric and rely on the magic more than a sword. --Genowhirl 03:53, 23 March 2010 (UTC)
- Meh, I'm not sure I'd call him ineffective at slaying evil just because other people can do it just as well (or better). A paladin, all else being equal, is better against evil creatures than non-evil creatures, which in my mind is the point of the class. (In fact, they are the only class who has serious, "crunchy" penalties for going against the flavor of the class.) This is backed up by cruch (smite evil, detect evil turn undead) as well as fluff (a paladin will never willingly attack a good creature, and seeks out evil).
- If you are going to argue that someone else can do it better, that's a matter of balancing all the classes against each other, not a matter of an under- or mispowered paladin. It's also a matter that there's a lot more general agreement about. But I think the paladin, if taken by itself, is designed exactly how it was meant to. (Well, I'm sure WoTC designed everything how they meant to, but that's tautological...) JazzMan 04:15, 23 March 2010 (UTC)
- The Paladin's problem is this: It's. You'd think a...say, level 6 Paladin would be able to do something to a Kyton (CR 6). Heck, I'd expect a single Kyton to be really worried about a Paladin. But the Paladin just has Smite Evil twice a day, for an extra...12 damage. Meanwhile, the Kyton is doing Dancing Chains and that gaze attack and wins. It's not the classes that's making the Paladin look unimpressive--it's the monsters, too.
- That's one of the general points in my above rant: Warriors don't get awesome stuff in 3.x. They aren't even playing the same game as everything else. Sure, you could argue the problem is everything else (casters, spells, monsters), but fixing THAT would require you to rewrite several classes, hundreds of spells, and tons of monsters. It's just easier to buff the warriors up so they fit in. 4e tried to make everything play the same game but they made it a very grind-heavy game and, to me and a lot of other people, a fairly tensionless one. Anyways...the SRD Paladin is just too lacking in things a monster, even an evil monster, of the same level would view as an legitimate threat. A non-evil monster is even more disrespectful. --Genowhirl 05:48, 23 March 2010 (UTC)
- Ah, I see the problem now. A level 6 paladin is supposed to be balanced against a CR 1.5, not CR 6. You need 4 paladins to be an even match against 1 kyton, and now you are talking 48 extra damage -- against a kyton's 52 total HP (don't forget that's on top of their normal damage, and their increased chance to hit through a full BAB.) Those paladins get a bonus to their will save to avoid the chains and unnerving gaze. A paladin is more likely to get a good aligned weapon as well, so they can overcome the kyton's damage reduction, or they can use Bless Weapon. Or they can use their protection from evil to be less likely to be hit. A single paladin is designed to be matched against a dretch (13hp) or a quasit (also 13hp).
- I definitely agree with you that in general the warrior class are overshadowed (on a crunch basis) by caster classes at mid- to high- levels. I just don't see it as a problem with the paladin so much as a problem with overall balance. (Also, one of the very firsts thing I noticed when I played 4e was that everything seemed very the same, so I definitely agree with you on that!!)
- Interestingly enough, I've never had any game where I felt one class was overshadowed by another class, with two exceptions. First, I tried to create a sorcerer/dragon disciple, which it turns out isn't very good optimization. There's a class that I definitely agree WotC missed the mark trying to match their flavor to their crunch. (Though even that wouldn't have been so bad if the GM didn't intentionally gang up on me because "you're the sorcerer and everyone knows to attack the sorcerer first".) The other time was, ironically, when I played with a character in my party who used the Tome of Battle, which was a book whose sole purpose was to bring martial classes up to the level of spellcasting classes. This guy was so much better than everyone else that there were times where I actually didn't enjoy playing, and that was my favorite character I've ever created. JazzMan 19:51, 23 March 2010 (UTC) PS: all this D&D talk is making me want to join a D&D game again. Shame on you! I'm in too many d20 Modern games as it is.
- Genowhirl, I think maybe you forget that a Paladin gets spells too. The spells are actually quite effective against evil. Rogue The Demonchild 17:59, 2 July 2010 (UTC)
 Nice Spiel
Read the whole thing. And I agree. Designing for 3.5e is a tricky business. I blame monster design personally. Some of those beasties are just plain mean. Picky out my challenges is the hardest part of being a DM sometimes. I check the CR and go: "Ah poop, I can't use this. He would whip their party in two rounds. Darn it."
But it's also the fun part too. I let the boys pick their classes and tailor the game to suit their needs. But building classes to suit the games needs? Now thats just impossible, the games to big. Haha. When it comes to being a DM I feel my whole life is "Buff, debuff, buff, debuff, loot, deloot, loot, deloot,". It just comes with the territory I suppose.
I agree with you Genowhirl. Keep up the good work. Power to the players. --188.8.131.52 06:37, 23 March 2010 (UTC)
- After having read through everything you have to say on this topic, I did find a few things that I disagree with; and I'm sure, being a great debater myself we could discuss it 'till kingdom come. Though it would be pointless as, in the end, I completely agree with you on this general topic. So ya, it's nice to see that somebody else has picked up on the flaws with WotC. :)
- Also, as a side note, as a DM I almost always make up DC's, modify monsters slightly, etc. to make things more conducive to the story line of the campaign at any given time (My campaigns often lean towards deep immersion styles). This allows for more fun game play, less need to dig through rule books, and avoid some flaws with WotC material while playing. Just a tip to use if you're ever stuck in a dilemma with their material. :) --Vrail 21:44, 2 July 2010 (UTC)