Former Dungeons & Dragons designer Mike Mearls admits flaws in the game's Challenge Rating system

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I remember when third-party encounter tables were everywhere. Did WotC close off that niche?


Cue lawsuit in 3,2,1…

In the grim dark future of 2024, there is only IP litigation.


So when I DM it has always been that I fear making a balanced challenge for players. I don’t want them to walk all over foes, but I also don’t want them destroyed (unless it is by their own, stupid, stupid hand.)

And as a player, one who has not read all the new monster manuals or obsesses about the rules as I have in the past, I am sometimes clueless with how much danger I am in. Especially since my DM likes to make weird, otherwordly horrors. Yes, this person just turn inside out and grew fangs and claws, but should I be worried worried? Or there is a fighter in front of you - is he a level 3 fighter or a level 10, because those are two very different fights. (Intelligent foes could contest the roll to either make themselves more or less intimidating.)

So one mechanic I plan to incorporate is a “size up” roll. One can use a related skill or an intelligence/wisdom roll (or possibly the characters main attribute. A dumb but strong barbarian might size everything up via his strength). A good roll will give them an understanding of things like approximate HP and any special attacks. A crit success will let them know any weakness and give them advantage on the next attack roll. A crit fail will give them a skewed/false understanding which will make them either over confident, or under confident that they could defeat the foe, making the next attack disadvantage. I am sure this will need some tweaking, but I think this will be a fun option, especially for newer players.

Another mechanic I have incorporated in the past is fodder rules. It is for mid or higher level characters, where you can dispatch fodder foes, like goblins or kobolds. this can be done with one die roll, and we have a hit, kill, or miss (two hits will be a kill). It allow players to wade through the fodder and then fight the orcs or other large foes. Keeps it moving, but allows there to be this sort of wave of enemies.

And when I do run games, if things are going too good or too bad, I might tweak rolls, or dribble a few more HP points onto a foe, just to make it balance out.


I still haven’t forgiven Mike Mearls for not only defending sex pest Zak S (Zak Smith / Zak Sabbath) against many of the numerous sexual harassment allegations brought against him, but when many of his victims wrote in to WotC to try to warn them against paying this guy as a consultant, it was Mike Mearls who decided to then forward all these complaints back to Zak, complete with full contact information. Updated info and fresh new accounts from abuse victims sent right to the abuser led to more harassment.

Mike Mearls played dumb, all “oh I didn’t know that was going to happen!” which I think is just unforgivable.

When this incident happened WotC just shuffled Mearls around to the Magic the Gathering team for a while because they knew his remaining on the D&D team was drawing criticism. They eventually shuffled him back in.

I’ve wanted Mearls gone from WotC for a while now and late last year I got my monkey’s paw wish with the other thousand or so layoffs Hasbro did.

WotC’s done so many other things since then to ensure I’ll never send them money again though so it feels especially hollow to hear he got canned.

Edit: oh so yeah my point is I don’t care what this guy has to say anymore


as far as i know, you can’t copyright the mechanics of a game. create clones all you want, just don’t use the fiction, explanations, or art


That is my understanding too. But mere technicalities of that nature have never stopped the mighty adeptus jurisprudentes of Games Workshop before.


As a player, the encounters that I dreaded were with an uncountably large number of not powerful creatures. (eg. sturges) They would keep coming no matter how many you killed until the party was low on hit points and then be vanquished or run away. The DM was doing that so he could he could keep tension up without running the risk of a TPK if he miscalculated, but at a real level, it seemed to remove agency from us as players. “Get in the blender and stay until reduced to 10% of your hit points.” It didn’t feel like what we did made any difference.


Even breaking Challenge Ratings down to granular point-by point measures of characters and monsters will still be wildly inaccurate, as the setting is a major factor too. Taking on a band of Azer on the road is going to turn out a lot different than taking them on in the bowels of an active volcano.


To be honest I haven’t played WH40K since 6th edition but it never was balanced then and from what I’ve seen since it never got balanced.

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I like that a lot. The next time I get to run a game, I’ll try to incorporate that as best as I can into whatever system I’m using. It seems really clever as an in-game solution for players getting information about monsters/opponents they’ve never encountered before.

That sounds like a terrible approach to running a game, especially when used repeatedly. But I’m more in favor of story-driven games than action-driven.


That’s why I made home brew fodder rules, so that they could be PART of a swarm, but at best they would get a lucky hit in or two, and you would dispatch 3 or 4 before engaging with someone of consequence. And it wouldn’t take 2 hours just to kill 20 kobolds.

I also home brewed a hit calling mechanic for lower level foes in the old West End Star Wars game, so you could get rid of storm troopers faster.

I probably made that sound like more of an indictment of the DM than I meant to. That sort of thing was a reaction to two problems with 1st ed AD&D. There was no real challenge rating system, and combat was so predictable that at higher levels, you KNEW that it would take “X” turns for your enemy to wear down your hit points so it was difficult to create an encounter in the sweet spot between “Not getting your hair mussed,” and “TPK.”

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I love the idea of casting around for a more robust points system and settling on 40k or all things :smiley::smiley::smiley:

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That was such a well done game. The books were excellent. I think I lost or sold mine years ago, sadly. I’ve still got the rulebook from the companion star fighter game.

I remember a samurai rpg called Bushido in which there was a class of enemy who only had one hit point. The idea was the GM could throw dozens of them at players to recreate the kind of mass slaughter scenes you have in Japanese “chanbara” cinema. Or the restaurant fight in Kill Bill 1.


Mooks, yes.

D&D 4e used the same concept, with “minion” type monsters. An on-level minion had reasonable defenses, and did reasonable (but fixed, to cut down dice-rolling) damage, so you couldn’t just ignore them. And of course they blocked your way to your real targets, and could mob you if you didn’t coordinate and let your party members get surrounded. But they had 1 HP each, so the PCs could clear them out easily, especially with area of effect attacks and spells.

(D&D 4e was and is the most mechanically robust and well-thought-through version of Dungeons & Dragons. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the most mechanically robust RPGs, ever. The encounter-building guidelines and tactical combat rules were really good; once you got hang of it, you as the DM could build encounters where you rarely if ever had to pull punches or scramble to make up for enemies who folded up like wet cardboard.)


Not just that, but creating your own monsters/abilities/etc was pretty straightforward. It had great guidelines, so if you couldn’t find stats for a monster you wanted, you could just make it up using their rules and it would probably work out just fine.

Unfortunately, it had two major flaws:

  1. Reliance on a grid and the amount of depth in general meant that combat encounters typically took a long time, which wasn’t great for every table.
  2. It came out at an unfortunate crossroads of the internet being ubiquitous enough that hardcore critics could all mutually reinforce each other and jump into every conversation about it, plus a transition from a permissive license to a restrictive one that gave Paizo both the means and the motive to cater to that portion of the playerbase with, effectively, D&D 3.75. With the end result that Wizards/Hasbro learned that they should never again consider making non-magical classes as good as magical ones or otherwise shore up the legacy of issues that 3.X picked up as D&D evolved from a wargame to a roleplaying game.
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I kinda wish for a different dice system, but it seemed well balanced when I played and the writing and resource books were soooo good.

I also liked 4E’s encounter system, I thought it was really robust and you could do a lot of cool things with the tools they gave you.

In general, I feel that every combat encounter should have a very real risk of TPK. Otherwise, it shouldn’t be a combat encounter. I also generally only ran one (sometimes zero, rarely two) combat encounters per session. This is both over 4E and 5E. What I ran in 3.0 and 3.5 is a mixed bag because I was really young.

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Indeed, for while the mighty warbarristers™(*) of Games™ Workshop™ are powerful, they are also pretty dumb.

On the player side, I agree. Putting the special powers/abilities into categories (at-will, encounter, daily, etc.) and making cards for them made combat go a touch quicker as the player knew what stunts they could use and what was tapped out. More elegant than spell slots, maneuver dice, or other mechanics- you had a deck with your character’s stuff in it, and as you used them, you discarded them until you were dead, the encounter was over, or the next (in-game) day. The restrictive license really killed that edition, in my arrogant opinion.

(* Warbarrister should be trademarked by The Tayler Corporation because it’s just an awesome concept.)