The Flavor of Machinery

Saturday, July 12, 2008 - 10:24 AM

While combing through the 4ed Monster Manual the other day, I came to a sudden realization.

I didn't recall seeing a single monster who, outside of basic skills, had any special ability outside of combat applications.

I did a second look-thru, and though a very, very few exceptions exist, the monsters in the book are nothing but blocks of combat stats. Even in the case of the exceptions, there are barely any indications as to how these abilities are used except in combat situations.

Before I continue, I want to be sure people don't consider this observation a complaint on my part. This is the flavor of 4ed; it is a combat game, and emphasizes combat more than 3.5 by quite a bit. So, it is what it is. However, I think that the significance of this mechanical foundation is being overlooked by a good number of people.

When you build a conflict resolution mechanic for a game, it will influence the overall feel of the game. It doesn't matter how well you story-tell around the mechanics of a system; one way or the other, the mechanic will affect the mood and the tone. Further, what gets delineated mechanically and how will certainly affect how people build their characters, and therefore influence how the characters behave during the course of the game.

In Kult, for example, the system makes combat very dangerous. There is no heroic dodging of bullets in this game; if someone pulls a gun, you take cover, because it doesn't matter how tough you are. By the rules of the game, any slob with a gun can kill you with one bullet. This mechanical emphasis on how fragile a character is enhances the claustrophobia and paranoia of the setting overall. Also, for practical reasons, it influences people to keep their characters out of combat.

Another fine example is Riddle of Steel, where things which are important to your character actually enhance your performance in the game system. This provides a mechanical reward to players who pursue their character's passions and agendas, and also allows them to communicate to the GM in no uncertain terms what they want to do in the game... particularly because these same agendas and passions are given specific game statistics and are responsible for generating experience points in that system.

In 4ed, noncombat skills have been boiled down and reduced to a smaller set of categories. Skill challenges are an interesting new tension-filled way to handle use of skills (though really, some GMs have been doing something similar with 3rd for a while now). However, the vast majority of mechanically defined applications and abilities (and I do mean vast) are all to do with combat. There is a nominal smattering of 'utility powers', and certainly the ritual casting opens up a good few options, but again, it's few options. Combine this with the level requisites for various rituals, and you quickly find that outside of a small parcel of trained skills, your average 4ed character is not, mechanically, very versatile.

I'm going to break my usual rule about comparing 3.5 and 4ed at this point, because 3.5 is the nearest best point of contrast for what I'm observing here. In 3.5, everything was delineated, and skills were fairly extensive. Their use was further enhanced even in an out-of-combat capacity by various feats, prestige classes and sometimes magic items. Monsters often had abilities which were certainly out-of-combat oriented, even if they were only spells and the like. Utility spells complemented skill use, and skills such as Performance provided additional options for players in the social context.

In contrast, I note that, as written, neither the Succubus or the Pit Fiend in 4ed can even detect magic. In the case of player characters, utility-style abilities are heavily level dependent, and you only ever get a limited few. Skill checks are the primary way to get anything done mechanically outside of combat, and in 4ed, anybody can make a skill check. Some are better than others at it, certainly, but if you have a hankering to build a skill-focused character, your options are few. The vast majority of abilities as presented are for tactical combat.

Certainly the GM can add or subtract to a game whatever they like. My policy is that you do not let the system run you; you run the system. But looking exclusively at the mechanical support for given types of actions in 3.5 and 4ed, one can see what the feel of the game is going to be. That said, the feel overall of 4ed may change depending on where they take the game from here (and that is a very big question). As it stands, those people who enjoy diversity in a character and social interactions outside of a peripheral view will probably want to stick with 3.5. How you define your character may start in your head, but the numbers let you know what you can and cannot, absolutely, do in the game. In 4ed, those numbers are almost exclusively, and very specifically, about combat.

Is it wrong? No. A different game than 3.5? Absolutely yes. I'll play both, myself, but I can readily tell what players will enjoy which game more. I still maintain 4ed is a very clean system overall, but it is (currently) a very focused system with a strictly limited perspective on how the world works.

One might think they were planning to make a computer game out of it or something.

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At July 16, 2008 8:56 AM, Blogger MCHossman said...

Too true. The cityscape of the game has been completely ignored or overlooked. No more cutpurses that aren't 'Strikers'. No more haggling over prices, no more cons or con games; it seems that the game is all about the dungeon crawl. Want to do something in the city, figure out your cash/expenditure and then charge into the sewers, after all, that is why cities have sewers... for adventurers!...?

My question is outside of the dungeon crawl, there isn't much story making be had (and this is something I think you have been alluding to). It seems that there is an awful amount of 'fluff' (i.e. non combatty gaming goodness) that has been discounted because you can't sell a miniature of a bazaar scene or tavern keeper who wasn't ever a former adventurer with story seeds to regale his patrons with.

So far, you are correct, there is no basis for characters to have any back story other than to sew adventure seeds to bring the PCs to the dungeon or dragon cave. I think the type of game that has come out is more reflective of the types of DMs there are out there and to what can flip a quick buck. It seems the ST system and the d20 system have gotten even further apart which is surprising to me because I thought that gaming would have begun to incorporate the strengths of both not try to get even further apart.

This may be why WoTC has adopted the new 'points of light' approach; because the game doesn't mesh well with larger cityscapes. They've not addressed how easy it is for a person to become a 'fighter' or 'warlord' without having had some stint in the militia or guard or army service. How does a mage get their spells, what kind of institutions are around for a warlock to learn the secrets of outer planar beings and research the necessities of how to make a safe and proper pact. Unimportant, says the PHB and DMG - make it up for yourself (thank you very much I and most of the people I know use this approach but it is still nice for the company who is putting out these ideas to offer some sort of beginning in which we can spin off from).


At July 16, 2008 8:24 PM, Blogger Montgomery Mullen said...

I think you'll find, when you finish getting a feel for 4ed, that it isn't so ironclad as all that. But in the terms of mechanics enforcing a given feel for a game, I do strongly believe that the cookie-cutter nature of character builds in 4ed so far will powerfully influence the way the game is perceived by many people.

Many of your views on gaming are what I'd classify as 'old school', but I'd also point out that for the majority of my DMing career, I did not tend to run DnD like most people do. I.e., I didn't limit myself to dungeon crawls, taverns and sweeping epic slugfests. This isn't a condemnation of that playing style, of course. I loves me a dungeon crawl. But I got more out of the game by putting lots of character, politics and plot in there.

That said, I found it interesting to explain why every wizard on the planet knows tons of combat spells and maybe 1-2 utilities. It was very entertaining to cook up an alternate history of my usual campaign world where conflict is far more commonplace and events went very wrong more often than not. It's a rare system where I don't find some form of creative opportunism!

I find your mention of the points of light strategy to be apt. They want to have it open ended enough to accommodate easy patching into campaign settings (Eberron and Forgotten Realms, looks like).


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