Conway’s Law (and why exploration in 5th edition sucks)

Somehow I ended up seeing a video on youtube about The Only Unbreakable Law, and having a casual interest in physics and a passing one in math, I actually clicked on it. It turned out to be about programming and for computer engineering students, something I really don’t know anything about, but still enough to understand the question if there are actual hard laws in programming and why it’s an interesting one. He takes a while to get to the point, but somehow sat through 20 minutes of it and I am glad that I did. What he is getting to is Conway’s Law, which isn’t actually about programming specifically, but about the design process of anything. Which is where it becomes relevant to the design of roleplaying games.

Conway’s Law is the observation that when you have a design team and subdivide it into smaller groups that each work on different aspects of the project, you are also already breaking up your final product into separate pieces. Whether you intend to or not.

The example given is that the design team for a car might have one group work on the engine and another group work on the wheels. By establishing an engine group and a wheel group, you are establishing that engines and wheels are different parts of the car. Both groups may do a very good job at designing their respective component, but they are working towards different objectives. In the case of designing a car, the connection between engines and wheels might be a smart point where to make the cut. But it is also possible that there could be very significant breakthroughs to be made just at that connection. The engine group stops thinking about possible innovations that affect components that lie beyond the point where the engine stops because those components are not part of their task and the responsibility of another group. And the wheel group is doing the same thing. By having established that there will be an engine group and a wheel group, you are already massively reducing the chances for great innovations at the point where the two components connect. Good communication between groups can reduce that barrier, but it will always be there.

And it’s not hard to see how this becomes relevant to the designing of an RPG system. And it’s even relevant if you only have a single person working on a game or a rules expansion instead of a team. If you are splitting up your game into different components and work on each component separately, there is a big chance that you are missing opportunities for great improvement at the points where the different components interface.

While I am typing out some kind of closing statement for this post, I am right now starting to remember a discussion that has been talked to death a few months ago on Enworld. Basically the topic that span several different threats was “Why does exploration in D&D 5th edition suck?”. And even back then the argument that I kept repeatedly making was that the whole idea of there being an “Exploration pillar” that needs to get the same amount of mechanics as the “Combat pillar” and “Roleplaying pillar” was flawed and stupid to begin with. Looking at them as separate systems was already a fundamental error that everyone was getting wrong. (And why B/X is the best edition ever made.) Conway’s Law provides a more specific explanation for this. By using (and misusing) the stupid term of “pillars” in the design process and communication with players during the development of the game, the designers of 5th edition already split the whole system of a game into separate components to be approached separately. And unsurprisingly, this resulted in these three components not really working together with each other. The combat component still ended up as something that can be played by itself and be relatively enjoyable to certain types of people, but the exploration component just doesn’t work on it’s own. And it doesn’t work in combination with the other components either, because the designers failed to interconnect them.

In contrast to that, exploration and combat are inseparable in B/X. Exploration only works because of random encounters and the high lethality of combat. And the really bare bones combat rules work without class abilities and feats because combat isn’t meant to be fun in itself but as a component of exploration.

Keep this in mind when creating your own rules expansion for your campaign. Don’t just build a new sub-system in a vacuum; as something to be stuck onto the side of the existing system. Approach the design by looking at the entire system as a whole and considering at how many points any new mechanics you want to introduce could interface with existing rules.

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