4e: Methods & Practice

Here’s a valuable lesson for tabletop RPG designers of all kinds I want you to learn from 4th edition D&D. I’ve been brewing on it for a while and I think I can summarise it cleanly thus:

Methods & Practices should not be Entangled.

There, that’s it, that’s the tweet.

… And I guess I should explain it more.

Okay, let’s unpack this. There are three terms capitalised in this sentence, so let’s unpack them one at a time in the context of a tabletop RPG:

  • Methods are the way that you do things. If a character needs to get from the bottom of the cliff to the top of the cliff, there are a number of different ways to imagine doing that; teleporting up, convincing someone to carry you, climbing up with rope and piton, climbing up without any tool, shooting your machine gun at the ground with enough force that it throws you up into the air, building a machine that catapults you up there, forcing the earth itself to lift you up — it’s a simple little puzzle, but there are lots of different ways to do it, and the way you do it tells people about the kind of character you are.
  • Practices are the actions you take in game in a way that other characters can interface. In any given game, player characters are going to interact with the world differently (except for some … deliberately odd, but good in other ways games), and that means that the types of actions players should be able to take. So, above, getting to the top of the cliff is a practice.
  • being Entangled describes the way in which two things are, without necessarily being required, are nonetheless adjacent to one another in a way that means they move together; that extraction of one from another is fundamentally difficult.

The example for this that I want to point to is the idea of class roles in 4th edition D&D, and the non-overlapping skillsets of 3rd edition. In 4th edition, each class has a role. The roles represent the kind of thing your character is meant to do in the game – their practice. In this context, leaders all supply healing and support powers, defenders protect their allies and direct damage at themselves, strikers reduce fight duration through damage, and controllers protect their allies through depriving enemies of actions.

The methods of these roles are, however, very different.

Back in 3rd edition, if you wanted to play a character who used weapons and armour and didn’t need to know any magic or have a divine connection, your options for what your character could do were limited to melee combat (fighter, rogue, and barbarian) and ranged combat (fighter). Set aside, for now, quality, but instead focus on the basic role of what you can do. If you want to control enemies, your options are extremely limited, and mostly as a byproduct of your attacking them in melee. If you want to support your allies, you have literally no options.

In 4th edition, if you want to play a character who uses weapons and armour and didn’t need to know any magic or have a divine connection, there’s a term for that; a Martial power source. Then you can look at that power source and consider which of the roles you want to pursue under that power source.

Or, you can look at practices; you can look at player roles. For example, defenders – the characters who prevent damage to their allies by wearing the damage themselves. You start knowing what you want to do, then you can look at the different methods available. The Battlemind, the Fighter, the Paladin, the Warden and the Swordmage (to use the basics).

In this case, this is a game design where method and practice are not entangled. The methods of each mechanical set let them achieve the same practice, even if the method to do so is varied.

There are designs in other games that deliberately entangle method and practice, sometimes as a balance concern. In World of Warcraft’s history, there were periods when certain specific buffs (practices) were isolated to a small number of character types, and those character types were also limited in the types of roles they could fulfill. Paladins and Shamans infamously brought exclusive, different types of buffs to a raid – and Shamans could only fill a slot for a damage dealer or a healer.

Now, set aside the practical balance concern; I know that back in the times I’m talking about, World of Warcraft’s balance was complicated. It’s still an example of a bad design principle, because it forces together play options with player interests. If you liked the idea of being a shaman, your return was knowing that you were there for Bloodlust. Your character, the things you want to do, the things you may like doing, are limited, funnelled in different ways, but you’d always be wanted for Bloodlust. Now, I like the idea of these specialised, niche skills, but by putting these things in these exclusive spaces, your design makes it difficult for players to navigate the choices they want to fulfill because they’re also struggling around the things they have to fulfill.

It’s not a rule. It’s a principle, it’s something I believe in for advice.

I think that tabletop games are creative, moreso than even the way other games are creative. I think that players handle constraints well – I like giving people constraints that are useful for when they want to interact with other players. Players who can consistently understand what moving and interacting looks like, that’s all Practices stuff. Make sure that information players can understand what people do them – that’s Practices.

How they do them?

The flourishes, the style, the aesthetic?

That’s methods, and I like when methods are as free as possible.