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Paideia and Ludus - A Comparison of Play and Rules in Dungeons and Dragons

An examination of the advantage-disadvantage system in 5th Edition versus the Situational Bonus system in 3.5 edition from the lens of rules and play.

There has been a sudden renaissance and golden age for Dungeons and Dragons since the release of its 5th edition in 2014.  This new addition to the D&D family has been immensely popular and well received.  Now that the 5th edition has seen additional content released and we have seen it come into its own perhaps now is the time to look at how it truly differs from previous editions.  Dungeons and Dragons has gone over several iterations and each edition of it made changes in how the system allows for both rules and imagination, that is to say: a system for paideia and ludus.  For the uninitiated: Paideia in a game design context is used to reference how a player might play the game purely for its own sake, or that of fun such as building a castle in Minecraft because you want to build a castle.  On the other hand, Ludus is a much more ordered, goal achieving sort of fun like climbing the ladder in StarCraft or League of Legends.  Where Dungeons and Dragons comes to life as a game is where it seamlessly transitions between these two states.  For the purposes of this discussion let’s compare 5th edition’s advantage-disadvantage system to the 3.5’s situational bonus system.

On Play and Rules

A good game contains elements of both Paideia and Ludus as having one without the other can lead to some severe problems.  In a game without the rules that Ludus provides, the game will descend into such chaos as “The Everything Proof Shield”.  If you have never experienced this before, let’s say that you are playing a game of cops and robbers on the playground.  Before a robber is caught, they declare that they have a bullet proof shield, as a result a cop then declares that they have an armor piercing bullet.  This continues until the robber has an “Everything Proof Shield”.  There is no longer a reason to keep playing, as the game has descended into a standstill of one-upmanship.  

Alternatively, a game focused entirely on Ludus takes so long to figure out that it can lead to confusion on how the game is played. For example, many people add extra houses to their games of Monopoly, not realizing that this greatly increases the length of the game. The confusion with Free Parking and whether you gain money when landing there is another such instance. In both examples above, the extra houses and placing money in Free Parking keep money in circulation, extending the length of the game and reducing strategic rewards. Finding the balance between play and rules is an important but varied design facet.  Different styles and genres require different amounts of each. 

The Advantages of Advantage

This balance of Paideia and Ludus is where 5th edition shines.  It differentiates itself from 3.5 by stream lining existing mechanics to reduce the preparatory time investment required by the player. One common problem presented in 3.5 was the large number of situational bonuses that were available to the player for any given situation; while this increased a player’s ability to act and interact with their environment it drastically increased the amount of information and preparation a player was required to do to fully engage with the material being presented for them. In contrast 5th edition offers its new advantage-disadvantage system, and the player merely has advantage when the situation is favorable or disadvantage when unfavorable.  When a player has advantage, they roll a d20 twice and take the higher result; and with disadvantage they take the lower of the two. Furthermore, the advantage-disadvantage system does not stack, so there will only ever be a maximum of two d20 in play. This solves the main problem with 3.5 and players having to stop and add various bonuses and determine which of these bonuses can occur at the same time; following a complicated rule set to determine which bonus types were cumulative and which were not.  The sheer amount of legwork a player had to do to even perform a single action is a sign of having too much Lupus and not enough Paideia. By 5th Edition using this new system it creates a balance for both the player, as a they do not feel the need to overly explore the various abilities of the character to obtain these bonuses; and the game master who no longer feels like the player is making up reasons to gain these bonuses for their actions.

As Game Master Matt Mercer frequently says on the show Critical Role: “You may certainly try.” The game master has considerable pull in determining how advantage works in 5th Edition, rewarding players not just in combat but by exploring play and Paideia.  A character might have advantage on a role to intimidate a noble if said character were to possess a form of blackmail or political leverage over them.  This is not something formally listed in the rules, save for the fact that it puts the characters in an advantageous position over the noble. While this form of Paideia was present in all editions of Dungeons and Dragons it is 5th Edition that has allowed a seamless transition from Ludus to Paideia and supporting the game master in their choices by shortening the feedback loop from player to game master.

5th Edition’s advantage-disadvantage system was an innovative breath of fresh air in comparison to the situational bonus system that 3.5 had provided.  It has allowed for and enabled the transition between Paideia and Ludus in a manner not previously seen in Dungeons and Dragons and granted players more time in their respective game world rather than navigating rule books and character sheets.  Each edition has been built upon the successes and failures of the previous and 5th edition is no exception and its market success proves this.  The additional content that has been released thus far has expanded and reinforced its systems to allow for more robust and flexible design.  I personally have found that I prefer the 5th edition over its parents as it has granted me more time to play with my friends rather than researching rules.

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