(FYI I’m using the metagaming tag on this post and future posts like it to indicate when I’m talking about improving the game or improving gameplay … not “metagaming” in the negative sense, as it’s become known, where players use their knowledge of how the rules work to exploit loopholes or skew encounters.)
The major time-suck in my life is World of Warcraft. I probably wouldn’t be playing this game if I wasn’t told to learn about it so I could contribute to Upper Deck’s World of Warcraft TCG, but I started playing and now I’m hooked. As a Mac user I wasn’t able to play other MMO’s (PC-only, hooray) but Blizzard has dual-format discs so that wasn’t an obstable. It’s a really good game.
So good, in fact, that it makes me not want to play D&D any more.
Seriously. Me, the guy who used to play in 3 D&D games a week at Wizards, who thinks about D&D in his sleep and gets D&D ideas from everything he sees, would rather play WOW than play D&D. And there are a lot of reasons why, which I’ll cover in various future entries. The thing is, many of these WOW-things aren’t proprietary (WOW doesn’t own them), they’re just smart gameplay choices that D&D could do but isn’t doing, and when you compare them side by side it’s not a surprise why other people (for example, potential D&D/d20 customers) would rather play WOW than D&D.
Let’s take low-level play for an example. The D&D xp system is built around the idea that a party of four same-level PCs must defeat 13 1/3 CR-appropriate encounters before they gain enough xp to reach a new level. It also assumes a typical 4-hour night has 3-4 such encounters. That means that it’s usually 3-4 nights of play between leveling times. That means you play your 1st-level character for 3-4 nights before you see any changes to your character other than what gear you’re carrying. And that means that some kid who’s new to D&D has to sit through 12-16 hours of play before his character gets any better.
Compare this to WOW. Do the initial quests in your race’s starting area and you should get to level 2 within about 10 minutes. While the difference between level 1 and 2 is minor (more health, more mana if you’re a spellcaster, minor ability score improvements), it is still an improvement compared to your 1st-level self. Plus at level 2 you can go to the trainer and learn a new spell or class ability. So it 15 minutes, tops, your character has gained a “power-up.” It’s a simple matter to reach level 5 in 1 hour, and level 2 within about 2-4 more hours depending on your skill (leveling tends to slow down after that but is still faster, as the game supports levels 1-70, so you can think of each WOW level is about 1/3 of a D&D level). That’s nine non-gear improvements to your character in at most 5 hours of gameplay, compared to 1/3 or 1/4 of a level’s improvement in D&D for that much time invested.
Needless power creep? No, it’s just the benefit of the increased granularity of the 70-level WOW class system compared to D&D’s 20-level system. When WOW was 60 levels I just mentally divided my character’s level by 3 to get a D&D approximation of what my character would be … a level 18 WOW char is the “equivalent” of a 6th-level D&D character (in terms of how powerful they are to other PCs or level-based creatures). D&D’s 20-level system simplifies game progression but at the same time limits how often you can reward the characters (in D&D you get larger rewards at longer intervals, in WOW you get smaller rewards in smaller intervals).
Why do we care? Because Generation Y has a much shorter attention span than previous generations. If you don’t get that player hooked in the first hour, they’re likely to move on to something else. WOW hooks them fast and keeps them hooked until they have several hours invested in the game and can see a drastic improvement compared to when they started. D&D doesn’t do that (case in point, it’s entirely possible to play a session of D&D where you don’t roll dice at all … which isn’t a bad thing in general but is a pretty poor introduction to D&D if you’re trying to convince someone how fun the game is). (And of course there are bad DMs out there who don’t know how to introduce new players to the game, but I hope to work on that as well….)
If we could give more frequent rewards to D&D characters, we could make up for this game compared to WOW. Why is this important? 7 million people pay $15 per month to play WOW … by comparison, your typical D&D release might sell 100,000 copies at best … that’s barely more than 1% of WOW’s market. Even if you don’t care about the profitability of the D&D/d20 industry (and trust me, it’s barely profitable for most publishers), imagine from a player’s perspective what life would be like if D&D were as popular as WOW … you’d basically have 8x-10x as many people to play with as you do now. If a player dropped out it would be easy to find a replacement, even if you were especially picky about who you played with. Wouldn’t that be great?
Fortunately, there are ways to reward players more quickly in D&D. One of them is to break the improvements for each level into smaller packages and hand them out partway through the xp chart for each level (more on that later); this WOW-ifies the level progression (smaller rewards at shorter intervals). Another is to give lower-level characters “freebie” character improvements in those first few game sessions–nothing too powerful, just minor but effective stuff like +1 hit point, or an extra minor spell per day, or a 1/day ability that adds +1 to attack rolls for 1 round, and so on … all stuff that’s significant at lower levels but marginal at higher levels … enough to make the player feel like he’s making progress and maybe give an edge on a single encounter and make him want to keep playing. Make these freebies frequent enough (perhaps even after every encounter the 1st night, every other encounter the second night) that the player can look forward to the next one and interested in the game during the inevitable periods of downtime for selling loot and talking to NPCs. That will make them feel they’re smart for investing their time in the game, and encourage them to come back.
(FYI, this reward-at-low-level stuff already has a precedent in D&D; see the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, where if you play a PC with a class appropriate to your home country–like playing a wizard from the metropolis with the mage academy or a barbarian from the land of the ice nomads–you get a free piece of gear at 1st-level worth 300 gp. That’s a significant boost to a 1st-level character, helps reinforce the flavor of the various regions, and is almost irrelevant compared to a 3rd-level character who has 2000+ gp worth of gear. Net effect: FR players who take advantage of this feel cool, but FR character’s aren’t significantly more powerful in the long run than a core D&D class … which makes the designers and brand managers for core D&D happy, as FR isn’t “poaching” core D&D players.)