Design Dials

Recently, Matt Colville of MCDM Productions released a “Game Design 101” video where he walks us through his process for game design by pondering how guns might work in 5th Edition D&D.

It fascinates me to watch another designer’s process. Matt lays his out plainly:

  1. Identify the fantasy.
  2. Identify the behavior that supports that fantasy.
  3. Design rules that encourage that behavior.

How do we actually do #3?

Let’s talk about “dials”.

What is a Dial?

A dial is a design element that you can change. Together, the settings of the dials will determine how powerful a feature/spell/item is. The emphasis we choose to place on each of these dials will determine what narrative we evoke.

Step 1: Identify Your Dials

When you’re designing rules, you first need to identify what your dials are.

Here’s some of the 5e weapon dials Matt identifies in the gun design video:

  • Damage
  • # of attacks
  • Attack bonus
  • Dis/advantage
  • Downtime (reload, misfire)
  • Action economy
  • Restricting movement
  • Defense reduction (AC penalty)

I’ve previously referenced “dials” when hacking the Animate Objects and Magnify Gravity spells. When considering spells, there are a few dials to consider:

  • Damage
  • Conditions
  • # of targets (AoE vs. Multi vs. Single)
  • Range
  • Attack roll vs. saving throw (or both)
  • Action economy
  • Persistent environmental effects

Additionally, some spells are built in such a way to give you extra dials to turn. For example, Animate Objects gives you different size classifications of objects to animate, which in turn gives you dials to differentiate all of the differently sized objects you can animate by giving them different Armor Class (AC), Hit Points (HP), Attack Bonuses, and Damage.

The only bounds at this stage are your own creativity.

Step 2: System Fit

Second, figure out which dials work in your system.

Some dials which are a natural fit for one system might not work in another. If you can’t turn a dial in a specific system without snapping off the knob, leave it alone.

For example, Matt Colville notes that critical fumbles are a generally badfeels mechanic that don’t jive with 5e (I’m paraphrasing; I’ve written on this further in the context of Matt Mercer’s Gunslinger). So, no misfires.

Step 3: Focus the Right Dials

Third, figure out which dials are most suited to the specific fantasy you are trying to emulate. If the important thing about achieving the fantasy of a gun is high damage, we need to turn the damage dial.

That’s why, in the gun design video, Matt constantly modulates damage when tweaking other dials. Because big damage is important to the gun fantasy. We need to make sure it’s within reason, but we shouldn’t crank the other dials up at the expense of damage.

With something like Animate Objects, the damage should be relatively uniform so as to prevent one option from being significantly better than the others (as is the case with RAW). Similarly, they should be within the same range of survivability. So, we should focus on the Attack Bonus/Damage and AC/HP of the objects to differentiate. It doesn’t make sense to focus on things like range or conditions or persistent environmental effects, because they don’t speak to the fantasy the spell seeks to evoke.

At the end of the day, the specific balance of the dials will bear out in play(testing). But, you need to start somewhere. Make sure you’re tweaking the dials that most evoke the fantasy you’re trying to achieve.

Dial into the ThinkDM Patreon to turn your design up to 11.

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