Specific beats general

Reading the 5E PHB, it seems to me like one of the differences between older (as in pre-WotC) D&D and newer D&D is that character abilities more often manifest as “specific beats general” rules. For example: monk class feature: Stillness of Mind: starting at 7th level, you can use your action to end one effect on yourself that is causing you to be charmed or frightened. This is, of course, explicitly discussed as a design principle (page 7), and I think the same language was in 4E as well, though I do not have those books conveniently available to check at the moment.

There are some of these sorts of things in earlier D&D also, though not nearly as many. The paladin’s lay on hands ability is one such power, as is turn undead, and, perhaps, spell casting in general. But they were not nearly so prevalent, and the few classes that made heavy use of this sort of design (as did the AD&D monk and bard) felt different, and maybe even a bit off, like they didn’t fit the system quite as well as classes like the fighter, thief, or magic-user. Spells are the standard bundles of reality distortion available in earlier D&Ds, and while they do certainly increase PC play complexity (especially for those classes that need to make spell preparation decisions also), spells are a bit more cleanly separated from the underlying game engine, compared to the myriad discretionary class features present in the newer editions, and also are usually resources that must be spent, as opposed to options that may continually come into play.

As a matter of game play, such “specific beats general” abilities are cognitively heavier than the choices necessary when playing most classes in older editions. They are part of a catalog that must be kept in active memory. You need to remember that you have Stillness of Mind available as an option when you need to end a charmed or frightened effect. Is this qualitatively different than the equipment inventories that develop with medium to high level characters in older D&D? I am not sure. In any case, equipment inventories are also an aspect of characters in newer D&Ds, so at the very least, when comparing complexities, the comparison is A compared to A + B.

I can’t help but think that the card design paradigm of Magic: The Gathering contributed to this trend. Even when considering alternative system approaches before the onset of WotC D&D, most games seem to focus less on little bundles of rules that accrete to PCs as they develop, and more on a fixed collection of measurements that improve (attack tables, skill ratings, and so forth). For example, the attributes, abilities, and backgrounds in Vampire: The Masquerade are mostly all on the character sheet for all characters to begin with. Characters develop vertically more than horizontally. This is not necessarily meant to be condemnatory, nor is it any kind of ironclad principle (as I am sure there are plenty of exceptions), but it does seem like drift in design sensibilities.

5 thoughts on “Specific beats general

  1. afsrodrigues

    The Rules Compendium for DD 3.5 acknowledges this on a sidebar, and I think it cites the board game Cosmic Encounter as an early example of such design.
    So I guess your Magic: The Gathering comparison is pretty accurate.

  2. Monkapotomus

    I don’t know. I think the trend starts well before the era of Magic: the Gathering. Just from AD&D you have druids and their myriad of abilities and sub-systems, thieves and their skills, bards you mentioned, paladins and the mishmash of things they receive, the pseudo-skill system, and rangers.

    Now, I don’t have any experience with Vampire: The Mascarade or any of those games, but looking at the games I have played outside of D&D, mostly D6 Star Wars and lots of Palladium games (RIFTS, Palladium Fantasy, Ninjas & Super Spies, Heroes Unlimited, and Robotech), and with the exception of D6 Star Wars, they follow similar patterns. New skills and abilities gained as you level up. Lots of sub-systems and exceptions.

    It seems to me that the process and proliferation of sub-systems and exceptions started much earlier than the Magic era. I think with the initial design of 3E, there was better recognition of the sub-systems for what they were and a much more intentional approach to design with regards to them. In fact, I think (and I could be completely wrong) that the design of a lot of games in the 80’s and 90’s was in response to the mishmash of rules and systems that various versions of D&D had become.

    Lastly, I don’t see much of a difference between a monk gaining a new ability and a wizard gaining a new spell. They are both essentially something new that the character can do.

  3. kenco

    I think you’re right about the cognitive load effect; it’s not something I particularly enjoy in a game nowadays. I want to focus on the in-game, not a long list of rules I can invoke. I want a character sheet I can fill out in under 20 minutes without stressing.

    It seems plausible that Magic the Gathering (and all that flows from it) was a significant driver for this shift. I think other important influences include computer games, most obviously CRPGs, but also many other strategy-type games (in turn influenced by developments in PC hardware, programming languages and methodologies), the board game renaissance of the 1990s (driven by… ).

    But as another said, the drive to add more game content (in this context more character options) is visible in the early days of D&D (e.g. Dragon Magazine and the early supplements). This in turn must have been influenced by both the pre-existing DIY spirit of the wargaming hobby and commercial imperatives to a) promote interest in and talk about the product; b) sell new publications (most evident in the Module publication strategy of the following phase, but surely present in the supplements).

    Fundamentally, I think this pattern feeds on the audience’s desire for novelty.

    But since I buy and read far more RPG rules than I will ever come anywhere near playing, perhaps the impact of these things on cognitive load during play is irrelevant. 8)

    1. Brendan Post author


      It is probably also worth acknowledging that much of that RPG content is functional as inspirational reading even if it never hits the table. Or put in other words, there are ways to use RPG materials beyond playing them directly.


Leave a Reply