Design & Development05/19/2006

The D&D Rules are Nuclear Weapons

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.

And in the post-apocalyptic future, everyone will want to be the cleric.

When I was in college, I took as many history courses as I could. If you’re a gamer, a history course can really feed your mind, whether you’re playing D&D, Drang Nach Osten!, or Civilization on the computer.

I also had the good fortune to be going to college right at the end of the Cold War. The semester after they tore the Berlin Wall down, the course catalog was full of seminars looking back at the history of the Cold War, collectively wondering what we were going to do now that we had no opponent in the arms race.

I think about those courses a lot, because I have this pet theory: the D&D rules exhibit behaviors reminiscent of the way we thought about nuclear weapons in the late 1980s and early 90s.

Tangent Alert! A lot of colleges have programs where you can essentially build your own major. I often think about what coursework would comprise a “D&D Game Designer” major—especially when I wish I knew more about a particular topic. Expect a future column on this.

Interpret as Damage, Route Around It

As it turns out, the Internet wasn’t built to provide you with constant access to “O RLY?” ASCII art, Nigerian investment opportunities, and this column. It was designed to withstand a nuclear attack and let the survivors communicate. The Internet accomplishes this by being a big huge mess of nodes and connectors, with countless possible paths between one point and another. If Philadelphia gets nuked, for example, email traffic just goes through Pittsburgh instead.

The D&D rules are in some ways an accumulation of nodes and connectors. You can think of each individual rule or game mechanic as a node, and each application of the rules as a connector. For example, you can take a bulette (node) and apply (connector) the aquan template (node)—you’ve created an (albeit oxymoronic) aquatic landshark, and you’ve built a simple system of nodes and connectors.

I often think about something John Gilmore, one of the cofounders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said: “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” If D&D is an Internet-like system of rules, then there’s a corollary for people in my line of work.

Here’s the corollary: “The D&D experience interprets a bad rule as damage and routes around it.”

What’s a bad rule? For the purpose of the corollary, let’s define it broadly as something that doesn’t add to the long-term fun at the game table. And let’s pick on an easy example: the grappling rules.

I get paid to understand the D&D rules backward and forward, and I still have my Player’s Handbook open to the grappling rules whenever it comes up at my gaming table. I still run it in battles, of course. A fight with a grappling monster is an interesting alternative to the standard “I hit him with my greataxe again” battle. Some of the great monsters in the D&D experience—mind flayers, for starters—have improved grab as a key part of their repertoire. And my players are absolute sharks, so we can run big complicated fights with the grapple rules, consulting the text when we must.

But a lot of D&D groups simply don’t bother. They’ve made the reasonable decision that the grappling rules aren’t adding to their fun, and their game has routed around them. They just don’t fight monsters with Improved Grab, or those monsters “choose” not to grapple the PCs. For their part, the players don’t often try to grapple enemy spellcasters.

The aspect of this phenomenon that fascinates me is that it’s often entirely nonverbal. The table never has a “we should stop using the grappling rules” discussion. Instead, they see their game grind to a halt while everyone puzzles out the grappling rules—once. Then nobody ever instigates a grapple again. The D&D table has cooperatively made a decision—even if they’ve never verbalized it—that increases their fun at the table. The more D&D gets its players to cooperatively do beneficial things, the better the experience for everyone. Sure, I wish the D&D network was nothing but fun, easy-to-use nodes and straightforward connectors. But that isn’t the game we have, so I’ll happily accept groups of players routing around stuff they don’t like and getting to the good stuff faster.

Mutual Assured Destruction

It’s been sixty years since Nagasaki, and nobody’s nuked anybody else yet, despite having both the means and motivation to do so. One reason is the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction. As long as the two superpowers were assured that any nuclear exchange would ruin both countries involved, they had a strong incentive to keep the peace—or at least to keep nukes out of things. The massive nuclear arsenals on both sides made sure that destruction would be mutual.

But one of the interesting things about the doctrine of mutual assured destruction is that it emerged naturally. It’s not like the Americans and the Soviets said to each other: “Let’s set up a system where we build expensive arsenals precisely so we’ll never be able to use them.” And because each side had to be able to assure the destruction of the other side, they couldn’t come right out and say, “Look, we both know we’re never going to use these things.”

Jargon Time! When we say “mechanical artifact,” we’re not talking about an artificer’s latest creation. We’re actually talking about the rules elements that together comprise the character’s game functions. Feats, spells, prestige classes, and magic items are all mechanical artifacts. The term doesn’t have anything to do with artifacts in the “magic items of great power” sense.

So how does this relate to D&D? Say there’s a mechanical artifact in the game that’s too good. Countless times at the table, I’ve seen either the players or the DM forego using something that’s broken-good, specifically because they don’t want that same mechanical artifact used against them.

Like the “routing around damage” phenomenon, mutual assured destruction often is never discussed out loud. Sure, sometimes a DM will say, “That feat is too good—pick another one.” But often, either the players or the DM will try something, see it work in a completely awesome, game-breaking way, then never use it again.

Here’s an example: When we were playtesting Eberron, I had a player who came up with a completely abusive combination of mechanical artifacts including the shifter race, the weretouched master prestige class, and the warshaper prestige class from Complete Warrior. When he’d accumulated all the pieces of his combo, he tore through everything in his path with no difficulty. Later, he came to me and said he wanted to respec his character out of warshaper and change a few feats.

I routinely let my players change their characters around; it’s only fair in a rules environment full of playtest stuff (and just look at the PHB II—chapter 8 is all about rebuilding your character). But I didn’t realize that shifter/weretouched master/warshaper/etc. was such a nuclear weapon. From my vantage point behind the DM screen, it just seemed like the PC had a lucky night. I didn’t realize that the PC actually had an unlucky night, but despite that, he was as powerful as all the other PCs combined. Even the other players didn’t realize it right away. The system corrected itself without anybody saying anything.

What motivated the player to “downshift” his shifter? Partly an innate sense of fair play, I’m sure. And in D&D I think there’s an implicit promise to not overshadow the other players at the table—to give all your buddies their moment in the spotlight. But I think another motivator was the notion of mutual assured destruction. Had the PC persisted, I eventually would have noticed. And I’m the DM—it’s not like I can’t find bigger, scarier monsters. I’ve got whole books of ‘em.

To be clear, mutually assured destruction is neither a good way to ensure world peace nor a good way to keep a game balanced. Fundamentally, we’d rather get the rules balanced the first time, rather than rely on mutual assured destruction to correct our mistakes. But one of the great things about D&D—maybe the single fundamental great thing—is that it’s a cooperative game. When something falls out of balance, there’s a nonverbal “mutual assured destruction” at work that can sometimes restore equilibrium to the game table. Non-cooperative games usually don’t have this tendency toward equilibrium. If you come up with a sure-win Magic deck, for example, you’re going to kick your friends to the curb with it. Repeatedly. Until they burst into tears.

Some Help From the Studio Audience

So we have a kind of “damage”—unfun rules—that the D&D game routes its way around. And we have a peacekeeping setup reminiscent of “mutual assured destruction” that keeps “too-good” mechanical artifacts off the table. As I’ve said, these phenomena are particularly fascinating to me when they occur subconsciously—without any table talk about them.

Take a moment to think about your own game. Are there aspects of the D&D rules that your table has interpreted as damage and is routing around? Are there broken-good parts of the game that you’ve collectively decided are off-limits?

And most importantly, are there situations that have evolved without you and your buddies ever talking about them? This is where you engage in a little soul-searching. What decisions have you cooperatively made without ever talking about them?

If you’ve got an example of this cooperative-but-nonverbal decision-making, I’d love to hear about it. Zap me an email at You know how we love mailbag columns, so we’ll share stories of “D&D détente” in a future column.

About the Author

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.

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