The Alexandrian

A few years ago Monte Cook posted an essay on his website called “Ivory Tower Game Design“. It raises some very important points, but over the years I’m afraid I’ve come to find it deeply annoying because whenever somebody links to it or quotes from it, I can almost guarantee you that they’re about to completely misrepresent the essay’s entire point.

What Cook basically says in the essay is, “Instead of just giving people a big toolbox full of useful tools, we probably should have included more instructions on when those tools are useful and how they can be used to best effect.”

But the vast majority of people quoting the essay instead snip some variant of “we wanted to reward mastery of the game” out of context and then go ape-shit because D&D3 deliberately included “traps” for new players.

The methods of selective quoting vary, but they all basically look something like this:

“Toughness [is] not the best choice of feat.”


There are two problems with this.

First, the full quote is actually, “Toughness, for example, has its uses, but in most cases it’s not the best choice of feat.” And then the essay goes on to further clarify its meaning: “To continue to use the simplistic example above, the Toughness feat could have been written to make it clear that it was for 1st-level elf wizards (where it is likely to give them a 100 percent increase in hit points). It’s also handy when you know you’re playing a one-shot session with 1st-level characters, like at a convention (you sure don’t want to take item creation feats in such an instance, for example).”

In other words, Toughness is a special purpose tool. When used properly, it’s a useful tool. When used improperly, it’s a wasted feat slot. The designers felt like people should be smart enough to figure that out for themselves, but the point of Cook’s essay is that it probably would have been better to include more usage guidelines.

Which ties into the second problem. The larger fallacy here is the belief that you can allow for meaningful choice in any kind of complex system without having some choices be inferior to other choices. This is something I discuss with more detail in “The Many Types of Balance“, but the short version is that in order to achieve this faux-ideal of “every single choice is just as good as every other choice, no matter what combination of choices you make” you need to severely limit either (a) the flexibility of character creation, (b) the scope of gameplay, or (c) both. As a goal, it’s not only without value, but it will significantly cripple your game design. It’s like demanding that a2-a3 and the King’s Gambit both be equally valid openings in Chess.

So the next time you see someone misquoting Cooks “Ivory Tower of Game Design”, do us all a favor and link them here. Maybe it’s not too late to nip this bit of false truth in the bud.

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13 Responses to “Thought of the Day: Ivory Tower Design”

  1. Brad says:

    I use “bad” feats all the time because our group plays with Action Points. Using the Emulate Feat ability granted by action points as a free action, I can gain the benefit of a feat until the beginning of my next turn. This allows me to use a plethora of “bad” feats that would normally be sub-optimal, but are great when used in the odd circumstances they’re made for. Looking over the feats lists to pick which feats to do this with, I can’t help but think that some of the overly circumstantial feats were designed with this idea in mind. Maybe it’s just me.

  2. tussock says:

    I think the problem with Monte’s use of toughness in the article is that it’s of temporal use rather than situational.

    You can’t take this useful and thematically cool 1st level feat if you /are/ 1st level but intend on levelling higher. Making it 3 + 1/2 level hp makes it useful beyond first level, but they didn’t want to do that sort of thing with the initial design (each 3.0 feat had to have a constant effect, and to make the effect better had to use a short chain of feats, which they later added for Toughness).

    As they published better feats over time, particularly more powerful high level feats introduced late in the 3.5 era, Toughness becomes worse and worse in comparison, and so the article ages poorly.

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    I would tend to agree that there are better ways of modeling a “you’ve got more hit points” feat for PCs who are anticipated to level up. (I use +1 hp per level or 3 hp, whichever is higher.)

    Cook’s point, however, is that the feat wasn’t designed for that. It’s useful for 1st level NPC wizards and might have some ancillary uses for PCs designed for low-level one-shots. And this can be compared to the situational usefulness of an item creation feat, which would basically be useless for a tournament scenario.

    I think there can be a legitimate debate about whether or not Toughness could have been better designed to have a wider utility (I would tend to agree with that), but what I object to is the idea that Toughness was deliberately designed to be a “gotcha” for inexperienced players; or that Cook’s essay actually says that it was.

  4. David Cesarano, Jr. says:

    This reminds me of the discussion of “Fetishizing the Suboptimal” over at The Tao of D&D. Therein, Alexis talks about those players who get bored with optimizing their character selections and instead choose suboptimal builds, fetishizing the idea that these characters have a handicap they must overcome, which somehow makes them more heroic (think The King’s Speech). He doesn’t always enjoy this, because such players tend to have a prima donna approach to roleplaying their characters.

    Anyway, Cook’s essay is correct, they perhaps should have been clearer on when/where specific feats could be picked up. From a player’s standpoint, mastery of the game involves a great deal of number-crunching and sitting, thinking about the usefulness of different feats in comparison with one another, and also considering situational benefits. This boils the game down to something less about roleplaying and more about optimal character builds.

    Sorry, if I wanted to play World of Warcraft I’d go buy 4th Edition D&D. I never chose feats and weapons based on what would make my character “heroically handicapped” or ideally constructed, but what seemed inherently interesting to roleplay. However, I discovered if I strayed too far into la-la-land with my builds, they became less and less effective in a party, and so this encouraged me to make sure my builds were balanced with an eye to participation in adventuring, not just roleplaying. For example, if I roll up a bard who is completely useless in combat, but a political juggernaut at court, and the DM never sends us anywhere but dungeons, well, I’m screwed.

    So, I guess, in a roundabout way, I’m asking, what exactly is “mastery of the game”? Aside from knowing your situation (and your DM’s bent), is it simply knowing the optimal builds for a given situation? Like I said, I wanted to roleplay a tabletop character, not play World of Warcraft. I’m starting to see why the Old School Renaissance has reverted to much more simple and earlier rule-sets.

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    Thanks for linking that, David. Makes an interesting companion piece to Fetishizing Balance.

    “Mastery of the game”, IMO, takes many different forms. As far as character creation goes, IMO, it boils down to knowing the system well enough to create the effect you want. When a lot of people talk about “mastery of the game”, however, they’re narrowly talking about creating the specific effect of an awesome combat build.

    I talked in The Importance of Choice about the debilitating effect of setting “combat” as the default/sole mode of play in D&D. Once you’ve established combat (or anything else) as vastly more important than anything else in the game, it inherently turns the game into a set of calculations rather than a set of choices. And you can either respond to that calculation by embracing it (looking for the most optimal build), deliberately rejecting it (Alexis’ fetishization of the sub-optimal), or just ignoring it (or being ignorant of it).

    This is largely true regardless of edition. Looking at the White Box-only OD&D game I run, for example, magic-users and clerics clearly have optimal and sub-optimal spell choices.

    The OD&D fighter is about as close as you can get to avoiding this sort of thing. (All weapons do 1d6 points of damage, the best armor is self-evident, and there is no situation in which you’d be better off using two-weapons instead of using a shield. Ergo, once you’ve chosen to be a fighter you’re good to go. Arguably, this was one of the appeals of the fighter class. BID.)

    But even there, I have to note that system mastery finds its way in. My OD&D game, for example, has been all about megadungeon exploration. You bought oil? Your odds just went up. You didn’t buy rope? You’re probably going to get screwed.

    Ultimately, this is why I think that the best solution to this “problem” is to simply run a well-rounded campaign. Present the players with a wide variety of scenarios, let them choose how they want to handle those situations, and I find the problem pretty much disappears by itself.

    To boil all that down:

    Well-rounded scenarios will give you well-rounded characters. Myopic scenarios will give you hyper-specialized characters.

  6. PhelanArcetus says:

    The biggest problem I run into is when there are options that are, in current CharOp terms, “gold”. Gold in many of the CharOp guides means “if you’re not taking this, you are making a mistake”. Toughness is a pretty lousy feat in 3.5. I know. When I first played 3rd Edition, I played a human fighter, and I took Toughness three times at first level. That was one of many mistakes I made with that character. (Some other mistakes were made by the DM trying to run a low-magic game before understanding the ruleset.)

    The ideal to me is a lot of feats which are, in the same parlance, “sky blue” or “blue”, meaning “this is a (very) good choice”. In other words, a situation where there is little generalized superiority of one choice over another, allowing me to take the one that I feel fits my intent or circumstances better than the others, rather than “whichever gives the most plusses”. Feat A might be more powerful than Feat B, but not by so much that we can definitively say so.

    Toughness is a “trap”, mostly because it is a feat whose value effectively declines as you level, rather than increases (Power Attack) or remains constant (Weapon Focus). Improved Toughness is more of a constant value (as you increase in level, the value of 1 hp declines, and Improved Toughness provides more hp as you level). Other “traps” are feats that are just entirely subsumed by some other feat; a common though sketchy example is Combat Casting being trumped by Skill Focus (Concentration). Is +1 to a specific situation (which gets easier as you level anyway) worth -3 to all other Concentration checks? (Aside from meeting prerequisites.)

    My only current character is a rather deadly fighter. Close to all his feat investment is in hitting things with other things. But with some care in how I laid out the class levels and spent the skill points, he also speaks four languages and has party best in Intimdate, and enough Diplomacy, Bluff, Sense Motive, and Spellcraft to contribute usefully in most any social situation. (Aside from Skill Focus and similar, there was really nothing the DM allowed that would have helped him in social situations feat-wise.) He can’t contribute to research situations, he’s a liability in sneak situations, but that’s the curse of being the Big Stupid Fighter In Armor. I made a character who sacrifices virtually nothing in his combat capability but gains substantially in protection against spells (all save effects, but especially spells), and has social skills; I’m very proud of him mechanically and I’m happy with the character himself as well.

  7. dungeonobserver says:

    Listen, you can’t complain about “Character Optimization” and then praise the School of System Mastery which elevates traps and bad feats to the pinnacle of game design. If you have lots of bad feats, or sub-optimal ones, and you want the game to reward grognards and old men like yourself who spend all day with rulebooks between their legs, then the inevitable consequence of that is that people will want to not choose the crappy feats, and someone somewhere will share their ideas of which feats are the best.

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    CharOp is a false idol. It is predicated on the belief that all characters are being built for the exact same purpose, in the exact same campaign, under the exact same circumstances.

    (Ideally, of course, we’d talk about optimizing characters for some particular purpose. But oddly, that’s not what the current CharOp culture does.)

    I’m not going to defend Toughness as the greatest feat of game design (pun intended). There are many ways in which its design could probably be improved. But it was designed for a particular function and, for that function, it does the job well enough.

    Is it a “trap” if you’re designing a character for some other function? Sure. But, by the same token, a Ferrari is a “trap” if you’re looking for a cargo van. That doesn’t mean that Ferraris are terrible vehicles and people should stop making them.

  9. Baalbamoth says:

    Over on the Paizo boards recently I started a thread called “Is system mastery just another name for power gaming?” Of course I got a lot of responses defining that system mastery is knowing the ins and outs of a complex RPG system, while power gaming is using that knowledge to get unfair advantages during character generation and progression.

    But, one point I made was I only ever hear a player mention system mastery when they are trying to justify a min/maxed beast of a character as a “high concept” character. As in “Don’t punnish me for my level of system mastery” IE “I have to min /max because my acute knowledge of this system demands it.”

  10. Baalbamoth says:

    Btw the link at the top of the didnt work, the article can still be found here…

    PS I’m finding that I sort of don’t agree with Monte, if the designer must explain why a feat or game feature needs to exist… It probably doesn’t.

  11. Justin Alexander says:

    Baalbamoth: …if the designer must explain why a feat or game feature needs to exist… It probably doesn’t.

    That would probably be true if people weren’t stupid. That would be a great world to live in, but it looks like we’re stuck in the world where people can’t figure out what the Toughness feat is for even after the designer tells them.

    The link you’re providing is actually the exact same link in the article. And it also doesn’t work. According to it’s been dead for at least half of 2013. Those interested in the original article can find it archived here:

  12. Rhetoric Studios » Blog Archive » Feat Design says:

    […] understand: ease of browsing, accessibility for new players, and good communication practice. While Ivory Tower Design might have some merits, it’s counterproductive to creating an approachable […]

  13. Lee Mohnkern says:

    This is an old post but I feel it is important to add that Pathfinder did “fix” Toughness, essentially making the Toughness feat a combination of Toughness and Improved Toughness, so that after 3rd level it was just +1 hp per level. Pathfinder is definitely plagued by many of the other 3rd edition issues, and the Toughness feat is just an example, but it should be pointed out that a lot of the “trap options” are mostly just bad feat design.

    I also feel like, with the rise of the internet, “trap options” is becoming more an issue where it wasn’t before, because people are getting into gaming through online exposure, rather than through a mentor. A lot of people get into RPGs because of cousins/siblings/parents/friends, and thus they are learning the system from someone who knows it well. As a result, they are going to be told that a feat like Toughness is not a good choice for their character, more than likely. This is a practical viewpoint, though, not a design-based one.

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