Cooperative Content Design

The players in my 4E campaign are currently at L10 and a short side-quest away from L11, which means they’re eying paragon paths. We’ve been flipping through a few books to put together some decent candidates, some obvious (the archer is becoming a sharpshooter) and some less obvious (the farmer is becoming a tundra barbarian or something). One of these players came up to me at the beginning of a recent session and largely said “There’s no paragon path I really like, but there are three paths where I like parts of them. Can I take two things from each path to build a custom path with all the things I want?”

My first thought was “Of course you can’t. Why would you even think that? You can’t cherry-pick the most powerful or effective parts of every paragon path to build something better than any other player can have. The system is built this way for a reason, and you’ll have to deal with what’s available.”

Almost instantly thereafter, my second thought was “Of course you can. Why would you even think you couldn’t? Taking pieces of things and putting them together in a new and interesting way is exactly the kind of character-defining build we like. If the pre-built paths aren’t doing anything for you, you’re not stuck with things you don’t want or can’t use just because Wizards didn’t publish your character concept.”

I’m not surprised that my first thought was first and my second was second. After the years I spent running Delve Night, my knee-jerk reaction to somebody asking “can I do something weird?” is to rephrase it in my head as “can I do something broken but presented in a way you won’t recognize until it’s too late?” It’s something I’ve seen since before I started DMing (in the first session I played in my first campaign, no less), and it’s common enough that I had a sort of sorting system for it, where the later a question falls on the list* the more likely I am to say no before the speaker even finishes:

  • Can I perform the following off-the-wall action not described in the rules?
  • Can I create my own action (spell, power, etc.)?
  • Can I create my own subclass (archetype, paragon path, prestige class, etc.)?
  • Can I create my own race?
  • Can I create my own class?

The problem is that the answer to all of these questions is yes, a player can certainly create his or her own content. I’ve just been burned more by players who do it for a numerical advantage than soothed by players who do it because it works for their character or, in a pie-in-the-sky dream, the other players and the campaign at large.

D&D has long encouraged DMs to create new content for players to use. The first DMing book I read, the 3.0E DMG, devoted a decent part of Chapter 6 to tweaking or creating races and classes, mostly by using the existing classes as a baseline and changing abilities from there. But it didn’t go into detail on working with players to make sure the new race or class is something they’d like, and I think that’s both a shame and a big reason DMs tend to be reluctant to accept player-created content. As with adventures the general implication is that DMs produce a game and players consume it. There’s a short essay in why that’s a bad way of looking at it.

The example I like far more is in the 4E DMG2. Chapter 1 contains a half-page sidebar from the author of the DMG1 discussing how his son decided on playing a fire archon because he loved the miniature. After some power tweaking and a dose of Law #3 he ended up with a character that “resembled the fire archon in all the ways that matter.” It remained balanced, it gained flavor, and both the player and the DM were happy. This is the sort of thing that shouldn’t be a sidebar in a supplemental book. It should be required reading for all DMs. Perhaps there should be a test, too.

A lot of this comes down to the designers. In early 3E, Wizards had the opinion that players were consumers who should leave producing to DMs. By mid-to-late 4E they changed their mind to the point where players and DMs can work together. We’re not at a game entirely run by players (and I don’t want us to get there in D&D, because it puts me out of a job) but we’re at a point with high player agency and investment. I don’t have a 5E DMG, and I probably won’t until I intend to run 5E, but I suspect we’ve regressed.

But that’s okay, because DMs are more powerful than game designers by every metric but profit. If the rules want us to design classes for players, we can do that. But we can also let players build what they want, whether it’s a custom race or a combination of paragon paths or even a flat-out new class (I have one player who’s done all three, all in different systems). In that case the DM’s role is to maintain game balance and story continuity, and not much else.

Right around the transition to paragon tier (coincidence?!) my players also stumbled upon some elemental enhancements that would give them new powers. My design space for these powers, which I’ve told to the players is roughly “Think of something mechanical you want more of, like range or damage, and something flavorful you want to do with the element you have. Let me worry about the balance, but I’m leaning toward very powerful effects with significant drawbacks.” The first such power uses an incredibly rare mechanic to produce a totally new ailment, and the player in question volunteered potential penalties the power could inflict on her. When the players are coming up with fresh ways to hurt themselves, they’re excited.

Almost universally, a group of players is smarter and more creative than one DM. There’s little reason to not leverage it.

* — Also on the list, but not relevant to this post, is “can I apply real-world rules to the following action in a way that gives me an advantage the game rules normally explicitly disallow?” such as dealing extra damage on a charge based on momentum or letting spells have deleterious effects on enemy equipment. I struggled with this for a while because I like both simulationist play and clever thinking but was afraid of what would happen if one player recognized this and started exploiting it (again, I’ve had more bad players than good). Now I’m at a happy medium; if I like it I say “yes”, and if I don’t like it I say “yes, but if you do then that sets a precedent, and as a DM I’m significantly better equipped to take advantage of changes like this than a player is.” That usually ends the discussion quickly.

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2 Responses to Cooperative Content Design

  1. JHunter says:

    One thing i have noticed is that in 4e when you use melee weapons there is a feel of uniqueness to each weapon that makes about half potent and the other half that aren’t unusable (for the most part) at least for the sake of flavour (i.e. scythe, club, etc.). On the other hand, the ranged weapons in 4e i find underwhelming in both number and actual usability. For example the shortbow is only useful for small characters while, when i think about, it it seems appropriate for a rogue weapon or at least a more tactical choice weapon than the longbow which is currently better in every way. Crossbows are also of questionable use though i have no idea how to address these problems

  2. Yanni says:

    Always a good one when a player asks for something potentially busted: “Yes, but I reserve the right to change my mind if it’s OP.” … honestly I think any time the DM says Yes to a rules change the rest of that sentence should be implicit, but I don’t know that everyone realizes it.

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