This week the DnD Next blog post was about elegance in game design. It is a good piece and the lessons it talks about would definitely suggest that the folks in charge there have a sense of their goals and a process that works. If they were trying to come up with a game from scratch the things the post talks about would be a great start at making a wonderful game. The trouble they have is that they are weighed down by the burden of success.
Looking at the casting system of DnD Next in particular I see a hilarious disaster. It makes no sense to me even if I look at it from a "I am a wizard in a world full of dragons and zombies and magic swords" perspective. It looks like the ideas of elegance that were discussed in the article above were just absent in its construction. That isn't the case though, rather the problem is that they have to build the best system they can on a foundation that is not elegant at all. When you know that a fifth level wizard has to be able to cast a third level spell called Fireball that allows enemies to make a saving throw to take half damage it very much constrains your design options.
Obviously they could have started the process with something really revolutionary like 4th edition was but they clearly have the directive from on high that the game must be like the old DnD. It must be familiar and incorporate enough of the legacy mechanics of the old games that people get a real sense of nostalgia when playing it. This is a serious issue and is clearly responsible for many of the things that bug me about the current design of Next. Of course the flip side of the coin is that they have millions of people just waiting to buy the product the instant it hits the shelves even if it isn't elegant. This is a game designer's nightmare but a marketer's dream. Heck, I might even buy it despite all of the trash I talk about it since it is a good bet I will end up playing it at some point.
The question I have been asking myself is what I would do if I were offered the opportunity to work on a project like that. If I had artists and production people and testers all lined up and I knew my work would be widely used it would be fantastic but would I be willing to publish a product that was so kludged together to satisfy the demands of the folks wielding the checkbook? Realistically I would I think. The opportunity to see so many people use and enjoy the fruits of my labour would outweigh the distaste of the artistic limitations placed upon me. Now I just need to find somebody to make me that offer. Any takers?