The Three Pillars of Adventure (5e Guideline)

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In regards to game design philosophy for the fifth edition of D&D, I can do you no greater service than to direct you to the developers' own words near the beginning of the Player's Hand Book, on page 8, "The Three Pillars of Adventure". I think those words far too often go unread and unappreciated by people looking to dive straight into the meat of the game... But there's a reason the Dungeon Master's Guide references that section repeatedly. (Hint: The three Pillars are strikingly similar to the three standard encounter types...)

The three pillars are the body, mind, and soul that makes 5th edition tick so differently from everything else on the market. They are an expression of the philosophy at the core of the system, a philosophy that is explored and expressed by every rule and piece of game content from that chapter onwards. Cynical folk have called it 5th edition's "balancing act", (and in a very shallow way this is true).

When you are designing new character options for fifth edition, you need to understand that every character is expected to be challenged and be functional in all areas of the game, not just one. This is a big change from previous editions, which tended to treat socialization and exploration as after-thoughts or window-trimming for the combat encounters. While some content may lean more strongly to one pillar or another, none should focus on only one pillar, nor should anything neglect a pillar. Everything should have something for someone. Even the fighter doesn't just have combat features. (Exceptions would be things which literally can not serve many other functions. Weapons, for example, are pretty much excused here. Their purpose is to kill things. You can use a sword to cut down a rope bridge, or fell a tree with an axe, but even these exploration uses rely on combat mechanics to achieve their results.)

Now for the important part: why should you care? You should care because it is this property that allows fifth edition to be a game for anyone.

I'm not sure how much you know about RPG theory, but there was an axiom which said that the three player agendas, (the experience they want to explore through the game; gamist, narrativist, and simulationist) are fundamentally incompatible, and that it is impossible to design a game which effectively appeals to all three. 5e blows that axiom out of the water, and for this reason 5th edition is one of the most important RPGs on the market today.

5e does this by explicitly creating content which can be useful to each of the player agendas, making the game flexible enough for each table to explore the game in a way which is appealing to them with little to no rules drift. Now, it won't be appealing to anyone who wants a game which focuses exclusively on one agenda, (like a purely gamist game filled with arbitrary tactical abstractions) but not every game will suit everyone. That's what the 3 pillars do.

By designing to satisfy these expectations, you are making your content appealing to a wider audience, and also tuning your content to the intended center of balance presented by the core rules: flexibility at the table. What this means for balance when designing content, is that you can often resolve an imbalance with a lateral rebalance If the content is leaning really hard toward or neglecting just one pillar. This is done by reducing their power in one pillar, and increasing it in another. For example, a race which is mostly good, but has a trait which deals too much damage and doesn't benefit social encounters, could have its damage reduced and a new socialization trait added to make up the difference!

To get an idea of how your content balances out between the Pillars, ask yourself the following questions for each pillar. You don't need to have a positive answer to every single question, but your content should contribute something meaningful to each pillar.

When designing other types of content not meant as character options, (traps, NPCs, monsters, etc.) you should consider these questions in the context of "How does this content interfere with characters doing these things?" and "How can this content be used to highlight a character doing these things?".

Socialization
  1. If a character using this content was put in a purely social campaign, where checks are rare and combat even more so, what would my content bring to the table?
  2. If a character using this content had to negotiate to save their life, would this help them survive?
  3. Could my content be used to make contacts and bargain for deals?
  4. Could my content be used to quell a dispute?
  5. Could my content protect a character using it from lies, tricks, scams, ripoffs, and cons?
  6. Can a character use my content to obtain extra information from other characters?
  7. Can my content be used to deceive or trick another character?
  8. Can my content be used to alter the attitudes, values, beliefs, or desires of another character?
  9. Can my content be used to gain extra insight into the mental state of another character?
  10. Does my content change the way a character would socialize with other characters?
  11. Does my content give the player using it anything to talk about in character, or to use as justification for their character's social behaviors?
  12. Does my content allow a character to interact with characters who are otherwise inaccessible or uncooperative?
  13. In what ways does my content rely upon or synergize with support from other characters?
  14. Can my content carry a character through a social encounter alone?
  15. Can my content's social-intended properties be leveraged into exploration or combat effects?
  16. Does my content give players more reasons to interact with other people? Or does it give them reasons to avoid this activity?
Exploration
  1. If a character using my content was put in a long-ranging campaign, with characters trekking across unexplored wilderness, surviving the elements, solving puzzles, hiding and sneaking, building stuff, and otherwise interacting with their environment, but rarely fighting or dealing with people much, what would it bring to the game?
  2. If a character were faced by a puzzle, would my content help them solve it?
  3. Would my content help a character survive in the wilderness?
  4. How about survival in a Dungeon?
  5. Can my content be used to make a sustainable living?
  6. Can my content be used to find hidden things?
  7. Can my content give clues to avoid bad stuff, or to find a correct path?
  8. Can my content be used to alter the environment?
  9. Can my content be used to go places otherwise inaccessible?
  10. Can my content allow a character to move through or interact with their environment in a unique way?
  11. In what ways does my content rely upon or synergize with support from other characters?
  12. In what ways does it enable a character to be self-sufficient?
  13. Can my content's exploration-intended properties be leveraged into socialization or combat effects?
Combat
  1. If a character using this content was put in a campaign full of ambushes, dungeon crawls, and warfare, how would this content carry its weight?
  2. Does this content add tactical complexity (more options with different trade-offs) to the game?
  3. Does this content improve a character'set chances of survival? (Note: Survival is not necessarily victory.)
  4. Can this content be used to make combat more dynamic, exciting, and entertaining?
  5. Can this content be used to alter the battlefield?
  6. How much does this content rely on character resources?
  7. How does this content impact the stakes of combat?
  8. In what ways does this content rely upon or synergize with support from other characters?
  9. Can a character with this content win a normal 1PC balanced fight alone?
  10. Can my content's combat-intended properties be leveraged into socialization or exploration effects?
  11. Can my content hold its own (win ~50% of the time) in a fair PvP fight?

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