So the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is coming down the pike and people have recently been asking me what I think about it.
Well, I’ve written up some of my thoughts in the past. Those thoughts are largely unchanged: The design team at Wizards of the Coast has decided to design a really amazing tactical miniatures game. (Their motivation for doing so probably has more than a little to do with the reports that the D&D Miniatures game is the most profitable part of the D&D brand.) In order to design that game, however, they have apparently decided that:
(1) They are going to fundamentally alter the gameplay of D&D. (The short version: Yes, the game has changed considerably over the years. But playing a basic fighter in 3rd Edition was still basically the same thing as playing a fighter in 2nd Edition or a fighter in 1st Edition or a fighter in BECMI. Playing a wizard in 3rd Edition was still basically the same thing as playing a wizard in previous editions. And so forth.)
(2) It’s not particularly necessary for them to actually make a roleplaying game. (Don’t believe me? Go ahead and read my previous post on this. WotC’s designers are on public record saying the only thing that matters in the game is what happens during combat.)
One of the most pernicious results of this design philosophy, in my opinion, is the prevalence of dissociated mechanics in 4th Edition.
When I talk about “dissociated mechanics”, I’m talking about mechanics which have no association with the game world. These are mechanics for which the characters have no functional explanations.
Now, of course, all game mechanics are — to varying degrees — abstracted and metagamed. For example, the destructive power of a fireball spell is defined by the number of d6’s you roll for damage; and the number of d6’s you roll is determined by the caster level of the wizard casting the spell.
If you asked a character about d6’s of damage or caster levels, they’d have no idea what you’re talking about. But they could tell you what a fireball is and they could tell you that casters of greater skill can create more intense flames during the casting of the spell.
So a fireball spell has a direct association to the game world. What does a dissociated mechanic look like?
A SIMPLE EXAMPLE
Here’s a sample power taken from one of the pregen characters used in the Keep on the Shadowfell preview adventure:
Trick Strike (Rogue Attack 1)
Through a series of feints and lures, you maneuver your foe right where you want him.
Daily – Martial, Weapon
Standard Action Melee or Ranged weapon
Target: One creature
Attack: +8 vs. AC
Hit: 3d4 + 4 damage, and you can slide the target 1 square
Effect: Until the end of the encounter, each time you hit the target you can slide it 1 square
At first glance, this looks pretty innocuous: The rogue, through martial prowess, can force others to move where he wants them to move. Imagine Robin Hood shooting an arrow and causing someone to jump backwards; or a furious swashbuckling duel with a clever swordsman shifting the ground on which they fight. It’s right there in the fluff text description: Through a series of feints and lures, you maneuver your foe right where you want him.
The problem is that this is a Daily power — which means it can only be used once per day by the rogue.
Huh? Why is Robin Hood losing his skill with the bow after using his skill with the bow? Since when did a swashbuckler have a limited number of feints that they can perform in a day?
There’s a fundamental disconnect between what the mechanics are supposed to be modeling (the rogue’s skill with a blade or a bow) and what the mechanics are actually doing.
If you’re watching a football game, for example, and a player makes an amazing one-handed catch, you don’t think to yourself: “Wow, they won’t be able to do that again until tomorrow!”
And yet that’s exactly the type of thing these mechanics are modeling. Unlike a fireball, I can’t hold any kind of intelligible conversation with the rogue about his trick strike ability:
Me: So what is this thing you’re doing?
Rogue: I’m performing a series of feints and lures, allowing me to maneuver my foe right where I want him.
Me: Nifty. So why can you only do that once per day?
Rogue: … I have no idea.