In this new series, Delightful Design, we will be taking an in-depth look at game mechanics from different systems in order to discover why they work so well. Some of these game mechanics can be house-ruled into a variety of systems, and others just feel thematic in the setting in which they were created, but all are delightfully designed. To kick off this new series, we are going to start with the most popular tabletop RPG: Dungeons and Dragons. D&D 5th Edition was released to a great deal of fanfare, and, in retrospect, rightfully so. D&D 5th Edition takes inspirations from it’s predecessors and blends them into unique rule-set that feels D&D. Coming out of this new rule-set is the beautifully designed Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic.
Dungeons and Dragons – Advantage
Special abilities or spells will grant a player either advantage or disadvantage on a roll. This can occur on a saving throw, attack roll, ability checks, or pretty much anytime you need to roll a d20. When you have advantage, you roll two d20s and simply take the larger number. Similarly, for disadvantage you will have to take the lower number… against your will, because the DM is mean. At its core, that’s it, that is the whole mechanic. You may be thinking, “this is so simple, how is this well designed?” I would say the answer is two fold. First, it makes the game easier to learn for new players. I have seen many new players at my local game store try D&D for the first time, and during combat, rather than adding a number of modifiers, the DM just says “Roll two d20 and take the highest”. New players pick this up right away as it feels intuitive. The player is in an advantageous situation, therefore, has a higher chance of success. This is critical, because if I told you tabletop RPGs are easy to learn, I would have to make a deception check with disadvantage. Don’t get me wrong, many veteran players love the crunchy rules of these RPG systems, but we have to understand that dense rule-books, with overly complicated math tables, act as a barrier to entry for new players. Second, it feels AMAZING to roll those two d20. Mathematically, it adds up to being a +6 on average, but the visceral feeling you get when those dice hit the table is magical. If you have ever rolled a 1 and a 20.. o man, I assume that is what it feels like to score the game winner at the buzzer or having a free weekend in which pants are an optional rule. It’s also important to note that advantage/disadvantage don’t stack, allowing combat to move faster as less modifiers bog down play. In turn this means the math curves at a slower rate, reducing the number bloat at higher levels. It’s for these reasons that I believe the advantage system to be an elegant design. Even in other systems, I will often reward players by saying “roll with advantage”. It’s just a nice way for a DM to reward interesting or tactical ideas even if the system you are playing doesn’t have a rule spelled out for any particular bonus.
Tips for Using Advantage/Disadvantage
- Reward creative play with Advantage. It doesn’t always have to be spelled out in the rule-book.
- Use the dice roll as a story telling moment. If a fighter has advantage on an attack and rolls that 1 & 20, then describe how the first sword thrust was blocked, but seeing an opening, the fighter spins, slashing across the enemies side.
- Make trained skills matter. I will always allow players to try anything, but you do wind up with odd situations. For example, a Barbarian fails his strength check to bash down a door, but the Gnome Wizard wants to try and rolls a 20. It makes the Barbarian feel less valuable if the Wizard can do something he/she cannot due to a lucky roll. So, I will often pose disadvantage on players that are not trained or skilled in a particular task. Not all the time, but if there is a character in the party that specializes in that task, I do this to encourage that player to try first or succeed when the others fail.
So hats off to the Dungeons and Dragons design team, because this mechanic makes the game quick to learn, and adds fun dynamic moments.