Design & Development06/16/2006

Reads Bad, Plays Good

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.

No, this column doesn’t read bad…this column reads awesome...

A few weeks ago, we talked about how groups fix their own proud nails. Among the many interesting emails we got was this one from Sebastian L.:

Did you have to publish that segment suggesting that the mystic theurge is overpowered? I find this to be an unbeatable myth of the D&D message boards. I've played a mystic theurge up to 12th level, and the class is far from overpowered. If anything, it is underpowered. You lose your highest level of spells (which is a significant amount of your power as a spellcaster), you need two attributes rather than one, and your spells are less effective because your caster level is too low. On top of all that, you'll never use up all your spells per day before the rest of the party (and the straight class casters) are ready to call it a day.

In sum: the mystic theurge is not overpowered. I'm disappointed that you guys are even paying lip service to the idea. I was hoping you would kill the idea once and for all.

Sebastian probably didn’t realize it, but he sent this email to the most sympathetic receiver of all. I’m the original author of the mystic theurge. So of course I’m going to defend it, right? Yeah, kind of. I’m going to use it to illustrate a principle I call: “reads bad, plays good”.

Hey Sherman, You Still Got That Wayback Machine?

First, let’s set a little historical context. The 3.5 revisions of the D&D rules appeared in the summer of 2003. A few weeks before Gen Con, the web team asked me in my position as “the 3.5 DMG guy” if one of the new prestige classes would make a good preview. Scanning the manuscript, I think I said something like: “I’ll send you the mystic theurge—that’ll get their attention.”

When my email in-box overflowed with digital hate a week later, I realized that the mystic theurge might be more controversial than I thought. (Confidential to Mark N.: My head doesn’t fit there.) I was a little surprised—and I’ll get to why in a minute—but I figured it would all blow over in a few days.

Fast-forward a couple of weeks to Gen Con. As a designer, I’m a pretty easy guy to find there. I run seminars, sign stuff at the WotC booth, run Dungeon Delve sessions, and so on.

So people upset about the mystic theurge knew where to find me. About ten times a day, I’d have a slight variation on the following conversation:

“Dude, the mystic theurge is totally broken!”
“Really? You gotta tell me—what happened when you tried it?”
“Well, um…”

I often lose design arguments (ask any of my colleagues). But in this case, I had an unassailable advantage: a lot of experience with a mystic theurge at my table. And because the rules had just come out, no one else did. I knew that an assessment like Sebastian’s up at the top of the column was closer to the truth for the mystic theurge. The most fundamental currency of the D&D game is your available actions, and the mystic theurge has no more of those than anyone else. And it’s easy to underestimate how hard it is to keep two spellcasting ability scores up to snuff.

But to me, the interesting thing wasn’t who was “right” or whether the class was broken. The interesting thing was that in the space of three years, we’d created such discerning, balance-conscious gamers—that we’d trained you guys to read a prestige class and quickly assess whether the power level was appropriate. That speaks volumes about the health of the game. When people resisted the mystic theurge, they did so because we’d trained them to expect a certain pattern in a spellcasting class.

I’m the first to admit it: If you read the mystic theurge through the circa-2003 gamer’s lens, it reads broken. I mean, c’mon—spellcasting advancement in two classes at once?—you gotta be kidding me! For many of us (myself included) it takes actual time at the table to see that it plays better than it reads. Because we’d been working on the 3.5 for what seemed like forever, I had actual time in abundance.

Tangent Alert!: It could be that part of the reason that people were critical about the mystic theurge early on is that they didn’t know about a key change to the haste spell that the same 3.5 rules ushered in. Until 3.5 came along, you could cast two spells a round if you were hasted, which was such a common tactic that a lot of players just accepted it as normal output for a mid- to high-level spellcaster. I never tested the mystic theurge under a more permissive haste spell. It might be that the prestige class is indeed broken under such conditions.

The Broader Principle

Roleplaying games are fundamentally different than most other media because the way you first experience the product (by reading it) isn’t the way you experience it in the long term (by playing it). Want to know whether a movie’s any good? Watch it. Want to know whether a CD’s any good? Listen to it. Want to know whether a roleplaying sourcebook is any good? Read it… but that’s just the first step. Reading a roleplaying book just lets you make an educated guess about whether it’s any good or not. You’ve got to play it to know for sure.

Things can “read bad, play good” in a couple of different ways. First, there are game elements that read bad because they fly in the face of what we “know” about D&D. The mystic theurge is in this category.

Second, things can “read boring” but come to life when connected to the creativity of a player or DM. My first assessment of the psionic astral construct power (found on p. 77 of the Expanded Psionics Handbook) was “mechanically solid, but too generic to be interesting.”

I was dead wrong. What I saw as “too generic,” one of my players saw as “a terrific blank canvas.” When his wilder started calling forth “Pandemonic Knife-Beasts of the Thirteenth Dimension!” and “Eldritch Sloor-Fiends!” and “Winged Horrors From Beyond the Black!” I got wise. It read bad to me, but boy it sure played good.

Another example of “reads boring” is the sets of pregenerated NPC stat blocks we put in books. They’re no fun on a read-through. But they might save the busy DM’s bacon at the table—and that makes a better experience for all. (And for the record, we’re working on ways to make that sort of thing easier for the DM to find and use quickly. D&D is nothing if not a work in progress.)

The Reverse of the Principle Works, Too

So can something read good, play bad? Absolutely. In fact, this might be a more common phenomenon than reads bad, plays good. A lot of roleplaying games and especially campaign settings from the mid-1990s (whether from TSR or other companies) are great reads. They’ve got interesting characters, fascinating places, and an intertwined web of factions and organizations vying with each other for dominance. Most had ongoing “metaplots” that readers could follow from sourcebook to sourcebook. They were great reading experiences.

But they didn’t always play so great. It’s difficult to slot your own PCs into a game with an important metaplot. You are faced with an unpalatable choice: either adhere to canon and relegate the PCs to bit players in the ongoing drama, or do your own thing and pitch the provided metaplot (which was probably one of the things that made the game compelling in the first place). There are ways to work with and work around a metaplot, of course. But it requires tricky navigation, and a lot of these campaigns ran aground. In short, they read good, played bad.

How to Get to “Reads Good, Plays Good”

“Reads good, plays good” is a pretty obvious goal. Let’s tackle the parts in reverse order. It sounds painfully obvious, but the way to make sure something plays good is to play it. At Wizards we do a lot of playtesting, but I wish we did more. The D&D rules are an incredibly robust system, and they don’t always reveal their secrets right away. When I’m testing a monster or putting a prestige class through its paces, I’ll sometimes see things (good or bad) in the nth encounter that I didn’t see in any of the previous iterations. While I’m glad for the extra info, I can’t help but wonder if I’d learn more if I ran “just one more” test.

Getting to “reads good” involves all the tools of a writer’s craft, of course. You’d be surprised at how easy it is for me to get into a very utilitarian “rules text mode” when I’m writing. I get serviceable rules that way, but I might put you to sleep en route.

But for a roleplaying rules, “read good” involves something more. We can use what we’ve learned in our playtesting and tell you about it. Not exactly revolutionary, I know. But would people have understood the mystic theurge better if I’d included the following paragraph? Probably.

Note: This class intentionally breaks with tradition by offering simultaneous advancement in two spellcasting progressions. But it’s not as radical as it appears. To begin with, the revised haste spell (see p. 239 of the Player’s Handbook) ensures that characters can’t cast more than one spell per round. Second, our playtests have shown that the mystic theurge doesn’t overshadow a group’s single-classed wizards and/or clerics. If anything, the mystic theurge is a little jealous of the top-drawer spells that more focused spellcasters have. But in a smaller group of PCs or a group that would otherwise lack a healer or arcane spellcaster, the mystic theurge can be a godsend. Third, we tried versions of the mystic theurge that were four or more levels behind their single-classed counterparts, and those versions were a little on the tepid side—they weren’t contributing enough to the party.

In future products, you’re going to see us explain ourselves more and tell you why we do the things we do. You’ll start to see more “designer notes” and other asides that clue you into what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s an effort to get to both “reads good” and “plays good.”


Have you ever hit part of the D&D rules that reads bad but plays good? In other words, something that worked out better at the table than you thought it would? Zap us an email at and let us know.

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.

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