The Alexandrian

Dungeon Master's Guide - 4th EditionSo 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

No Robin Hoods AllowedHere’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.

Continued tomorrow…


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3 Responses to “4th Edition: Dissociated Mechanics – Part 1: Dissociated vs. Associated”

  1. Del says:

    I stumbled across this blog entry from searching after someone mentioned “‘dissociated/associated’ mechanics” on another forum.

    Just wanted to say raging against daily powers is dumb. The reason you can only use Martial dailies once per day is because you’re only able to find *just the right moment* to work in that attack.

    Again, using your Robin Hood example – maybe you use the ‘arrow chase’ ability earlier in the combat, and now they’re wise to your tricks. Or maybe this particular foe has fought you before (or the party’s bard has extolled the mastery of your arrow-chasing skill at a tavern, and this guy’s heard that tale, and doesn’t quite open himself up to the position.

    Martial dailies make perfect sense, and if you say “well, that’s just mental contortions to justify it,” SO IS A MAN MAKING A BALL OF FIRE COME OUT OF HIS HANDS.

  2. Bill says:

    Sorry, Del, but martial dailies don’t make sense based on your arguments to promote them. So Robin has used the ‘arrow chase’ ability earlier in the combat? That’s a good justification for why someone might not be able to use an encounter power again, but how does that prevent Robin from using that power again in another fight with enemies who haven’t seen him use that power?
    Comparing it to fireballs doesn’t work either. Whatever you may think of the Vancian-inspired structure for magical spells, it’s a structure that provides an answer for why you can’t cast that spell slot more than once per day independent of the situation the characters are in. And, even better, you can get around it by preparing that fireball more than once per day as long as you have sufficient resources and desire to do so, something you can’t do in 4e. So even the wizard’s dailies, arguably the most sensible use of dailies in 4e, are more dissociated from the character’s reality than spell slots in earlier editions of D&D.

    For what it’s worth, I could get behind the use of martial daily powers in 4e (or now 5e under development) given a few changes. Give the player a pool of points that he can use to push a more mundane attack into a daily level of achievement and let him use it as often as he wants until he runs out of points. Then it becomes a narrative tool for the player to use to affect the performance of his PC and it doesn’t have to be a fire-and-forget power where you have to come up with some sort of wacky justification for why it can’t be used again.

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    @Del: Sure. But that doesn’t make the mechanic any less dissociated. Your character doesn’t have the power to choose when “just the right moment” will occur; the mechanic gives you, as the player, that power.

    The dissociation between your decision-making process and the character’s decision-making process is self-evident. And this distinction is important.

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