Many people like many different things about Dungeons & Dragons – the storytelling, the fantasy action, the camaraderie, the layers of customisation. It’s safe to say that I like the philosophies behind D&D Next: understanding what the game means to everybody who plays it (or might play it given the chance) and reconciling those motivations.
However, I did enough talking about general goals in WIHILA D&D Next. Instead, let’s talk about something more specific which I’ve had some experience with during the playtest: non-combat rules in D&D Next (because rules for engaging with games which don’t involve combat don’t generally get enough love). More specifically, new rules for Exploration.
Exploring the Problem
Let me start by framing a pretty big (and relatively common) issue in fantasy RPGs with something from my own D&D experiences (DMing and playing). The problem I’ve seen is that the actual act of exploring or travelling, which felt to myself and the players like it should be a meaty section of gameplay in a game about fantasy adventure, in reality turned into ‘blah blah blah, some time passes and you get where you’re going’.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration, and any number of events could crop up on a case-by-case basis. The DM can put in extra time and effort to interest their players during these sections of gameplay. However, the crucial point is that in the absence of an engaging default framework, exploration just falls into the background compared to other things (usually, combat). This is where the D&D Next rules for exploration serve as a solid example for non-combat gaming.
Like combat, exploration in D&D Next is managed in turns. It starts when the players begin travelling and ends when they reach their destination or are interrupted (by combat, for example). Players individually choose exploration actions (such as keeping watch or navigating), and roll to decide how successful they are (applying whatever character bonuses are relevant). The team as a whole also chooses a pace of travel, which affects the speed of travel and the options available to the players (it is difficult to keep watch while rushing at a high pace).
Difficulty of tasks are defined for a range of representative circumstances (navigating through a jungle versus navigating open plains). Consequences for failure are clear and can have different implications depending on the situation. Failing to navigate causes the team to unknowingly make a turn off course, and failure to keep watch might cause the players to be caught by surprise if they bump into enemies.
As with most things in D&D, the players have room to be creative and use resources uniquely at their disposal, but there is plenty of choice to be had in the ‘standard’ options. Between managing pace, each character’s individual actions and the changing circumstances of travel, you can see the makings of a fun game that integrates well with something D&D adventurers do on a regular basis: getting around.
That’s all well and good, but what makes this a good system for exploration? Why is it even necessary at all if teams of adventurers have been exploring foreign lands in D&D since its conception? I’m glad you asked; this will require looking a little bit deeper at what the player does during a D&D session, and what makes it engaging.
The Core Mechanic
The core rule which governs pretty much everything in D&D is that you roll a 20-sided die, add some numbers to it which represent your skill at the given task, and try to get higher than a different number which represents the difficulty of the task. This mechanic is straightforward and flexible, and other games, like Fallen London and games constructed with the Story Nexus engine, use a similar setup to resolve actions in a semi-random fashion. It was even released by Wizards of the Coast under the Open Game License as an entity separate from D&D: the d20 System.
However, this mechanic only provides one action for the player: rolling a die. This is better than nothing, but not particularly exciting. Combat gives the mechanic a much richer context, where it is used to resolve attacks, defense and any number of other creative actions the player comes up with. This context is important in elevating the flexible mechanic to being part of a fun game and I’d like to break down what makes it tick.
In combat, the player has very clear success and failure conditions (beat the enemy or be defeated yourself) as well as consequences for failure (often character death, even if this can be waived by the DM depending on the circumstances). There is a prescribed progression to the action (you take a turn, they take a turn) a number of predefined choices the player can take (movement and types of attacks or actions) and a solid default option for the times when a player doesn’t want to get a headache thinking about it (just attack).
All of these elements create a system in which the player can get invested, make choices, and naturally progress towards a finish point (whether successful or not). This is all pre-built in, and any effort the DM puts in on top can then enrich the experience, which I think is pretty important.
D&D is often lauded for its open-endedness and the creativity which goes into it, especially by the DM. However, if the underlying defined interactions don’t provide the framework for a solid game experience, then the DM spends much of his or her time and effort building these in to engage players (or worse, never learns what engages the players and creates unsatisfying experiences all around).
Perhaps you see where I’m going with this. In order for non-combat gaming to be as engaging as combat (if not more so), the design task is to create a similar kind of game context which makes natural sense outside of combat. On one hand, it would undermine the strengths of D&D to simply tack on arbitrary game rules. On the other, not providing any structure at all misses an opportunity for more engaging non-combat gaming.
4th Edition D&D began crossing this bridge with skill challenges. A skill challenge involved the players taking turns to gain a prescribed number of successes with non-combat skills before getting a number of failures. This provides success and failure conditions and a basic progression from beginning to end, but misses out a lot of context on its own. Due to this, the skill challenge rules were often at their best when integrated with a combat encounter or given a good deal of extra work by the DM to fill in things like default options, clear consequences, and multiple approach angles for the players.
I personally don’t think there’s a simple ‘solution’ to non-combat frameworks. It’s strange to even think about ‘combat vs. non-combat’, because non-combat covers such a large space of possibilities, even if combat is better represented in games. D&D Next is moving in this direction with two different sets of rules relevant to non-combat encounters: the exploration rules I mentioned above, and character interaction. As it stands, character interaction is still being tested and worked on, so I’ve focused on exploration (also under construction, but at least I’ve been able to try it out myself).
End of the Journey
The rules for exploration in D&D Next certainly have room for improvement, but even just from this we can see how it addresses some of the points that any game must consider when constructing a framework outside the familiar confines of combat. There is a progression from beginning to an inevitable end, there are clear options (allowing for a variety of approaches or straightforward ‘default option’ play), conditions for success and failure, and consequences.
In my mind, these will be important for any number of non-combat rules, from exploration in D&D Next to social interaction in Skyrim to stealth in something more like Metal Gear Solid. Each time the rules may look very different, but they should still provide at least some of these necessary elements to engage the player. I’m looking forward to trying out the upcoming interaction mechanics for D&D Next and using what I’ve learned to improve my own game designs.
Are you a fan of non-combat games? What do you think is necessary or sufficient for a non-combat framework? What games have done this well for you and how did they differ from what I’ve mentioned? Throw some of your thoughts into the comments.
Thanks for reading.
PS – Dyl and I are working on a Sunshine Blogger post, so look forward to that in the next day or so.