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.”
OMG! WHY WOULD THEY INCLUDE A SUCKY FEAT LIKE THAT?
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.