Design & Development12/16/2005

Development Doesn’t Like Much, part II

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

Jesse Decker continues his miniseries on his dislikes of the game... this week looking at three pet peaves, and also offering some of R&D's personal house rules.

As promised in last week’s “Some Stuff I Like” column, here’s a list of a few things I feel the game could do without. Next week: why, how, and when the dev team takes problematic stuff out of the game. In addition, I walked the halls of R&D and asked a few folks to describe a house rule that they use in their own game. These house rules typically point at some flaw in the system, some new idea that needs playtesting, or just a way of achieving a specific play experience.

Three Pet Peeves

So here then, are three of my pet peeves, taken from the core rules of D&D 3.5. In future columns, we’ll range further afield to find stuff that could work a little better.

Dear Polymorph,
I just don’t think it’s going to work out between us. You see, it’s not me -- it’s you. Really, it wasn’t all bad between us. There were times when I really enjoyed our relationship -- I remember how much fun it was to flip through the Monster Manual together, laughing at all the possibilities. Figuring out how powerful it was to turn into a troll, an annis hag and a grig was great. But really, your wild ways are too much for me -- I mean the firbolg was bad enough, but then we met the war troll together and it really just seemed like too much. With you, it only takes one monster in a book of 200+ to ruin the experience.

I guess it comes down to the fact that I’ve grown, and you just haven’t.

You see, I like to actually play D&D, not argue about rules, and with you it’s always the same. There’s just not enough time in the day to hear questions like “do my magic gauntlets still apply?,” and “so if I’m an uber-smurf, do I get all smurf powers or only some?,” so I’m moving on. You know, that wasn’t the only way you slowed our games down either. How long did John flip through the Monster Manual during his turn while we all just sat there? I tried to be understanding with you.

I know you’ve done your best. Your makeover to get yourself ready for 3.5 helped a lot, but some of the worst powers still remain.

Antimagic Field
So complex (pg. 200 of the PHB) that it appeared on the development test for a long time. There are a host of rules issues tied up in this one spell -- issues on which the text is largely silent. (Note: we once attempted a Rules of the Game article on antimagic field, which ran into so many issues during R&D's review that the article had to be killed.)

Antimagic Field (Clr 8, Magic 6, Protection 6, Sor/Wiz 6)

An invisible barrier surrounds you and moves with you. The space within the barrier is impervious to most magical effects, including spells, spell-like abilities, and supernatural abilities. Likewise, it prevents the functioning of any magic items or spells within its confines.

If you are outside of the field and attack a creature in the field with a magic sword, does the magic apply? If you are outside of the field and a creature standing inside it attacks with a magic weapon, does the magic apply? If part of an area spell overlaps with the field, is the whole spell suppressed, or just the overlapping portion?

And the questions go on and on and on.

Worse than the rules complexity by far, the 6th level spell has an effect far out of proportion to it’s level and cost to generate. Its corner-case existence also forces an unreasonable amount of complexity into other portions of the game. For example, if you take the antimagic field spell out of the game, the three different types of special abilities (extraordinary, supernatural, and spell-like) become much simpler. All-in-all, this one spell causes many more problems than it solves.

Floaty Shields
Oh wow do I hate the floaty shield. Of course, by “floaty shield” I mean the animated shield property from page 218 of the DMG. The intent of the game is to make using two-handed weapons or two weapons a tradeoff -- you get more offense but must sacrifice the defense of a shield. The animated shield property plus the magic vestment spell make this tradeoff essentially non-existent. For a very small price (compared to the wealth of a high-level character) a two-weapon fighter can have it both ways -- high offense and a big shield bonus to AC.

Fortunately, if you simply apply a duration to the animated shield’s ability to float, so that the character must trigger it at the start of combat rather than having it always on, the item becomes a lot more balanced.

Changing the rules doesn’t help what I consider to be a pretty poor aesthetic, however. A shield floating around a greataxe wielding barbarian just doesn’t jive well with my personal tastes, but I’m perfectly willing to hear others tell me that they find the visual compelling.

Animated Shield

Upon command, an animated shield floats within 2 feet of the wielder, protecting her as if she were using it herself but freeing up both of her hands. Only one shield can protect a character at a time. A character with an animated shield still takes any penalties associated with shield use, such as armor check penalties, arcane spell failure chance, and proficiency.

House Rules

Like you, the folks in R&D create new rule bits all the time to use in their own games. As promised, here’s a compilation of house rules from a few folks in R&D. Join in with your own house rules on this thread (or send them to, and we’ll bring house rules from other members of R&D in future columns.

Andy Collins, Senior Developer
Death Hurts: Instead of losing a level from raise dead and similar spells, characters come back to life with a permanent negative level that goes away only after the character advances in level. This ensures that characters don’t fall behind in experience and more importantly that players don’t fall behind in fun, but it preserves death as a meaningful penalty that does more than simply make the party poorer.

Chris Perkins, Design Manager
9 Levels Ain’t Enough: Chris designed his own 20-level spell system, splitting the existing 9 levels of spells into 20 levels. This does a couple of things for his world -- it generally slows down the sometimes overwhelming power of spellcasters, and emphasizes which spellcasters are good at what (cure light wounds is still level 1 for clerics but is level 2 for druids in his variant system).

Stephen “Shoe” Schubert, Developer
It’s You, Not Your Gear: Treasure is reduced 10-15% and permanent ability score boosting items are banned. Instead, characters get a stat increase at every even level (instead of every four levels) and a feat at every odd level.

Mike Mearls, Developer
Smooth HP Curve: Everyone gets slightly more hp, and hp variance is reduced. Instead of their normal Hit Die, fighters get d4+6, rogues d4+2, wizards d2+2 and so on. Normal Con bonuses apply. This allows longer encounters with a more epic feel.

Matt Sernett, Designer
Action Dice: Like Eberron’s action points system, except that whenever the players use an action point, the DM gets to add one to his pool, as well. The DM’s pool depletes over time, so he can’t just hoard them for some total-party-kill encounter. This gives encounters a very exciting give-and-take feel.

Alright, that’s enough house rules for now. Next week, we’ll discuss why these rules are house rules rather than simply rules. Or, if you want to fancy it up a bit, we’ll look at what it means to have an evolving ruleset and how D&D gets “patched.”

You Craft the Creature

Last week, we asked you what minions our Aberrant Mastermind employs. Here are the results:

Fey: 22.6%
Animals: 16.9%
Plants: 12.4%
Lycanthropes: 10.3%
Constructs: 10.0%
Vermin: 7.6%
Aberrations: 6.8%
Magical Beasts: 5.3%
Undead: 5.0%
Giants: 3.0%

This week, we wanted to flip the question, and ask what enemies the AMM most despises? Some of the choices are similar, keeping with the forest environment theme, though of different alignment.

What enemies does the AMM most despise?
Good Fey (e.g., pixie, satyr, nymph)
Lycanthropes (e.g., werebear, wereboar, weretiger)
Dragons (e.g., bronze, copper, pseudodragon)

About the Authors

Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.

Development: Jesse Decker is the development manager for RPGs at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine; design work on Complete Adventurer, DMG II, and other RPG titles; and development work on numerous D&D products, most of which he can’t talk about yet.


Thoughts or suggestions for this article? Topics for future Design & Development articles you'd like to see covered? By all means, please feel free to write directly to the authors, at:

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