Dance with me, 4e
(posted originally at Google+ — there will be more of that)
I am going to talk about Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons now. It’s time because there is a lot of discussion about 5e design and we are getting a little insight into how the developers of it are thinking, and this has triggered some realizations about my 4e experience, which was crappy.
4e does not read or play to me like a game in which the designers were committed to producing an awesome game. It feels like there were different objectives. Now, I am not saying that the designers were not committed to producing an awesome game. I am bolding that because this is where I will be mis-read. The difference is subtle. I am certain that everyone was on board with the idea that an awesome game would be made.
The rules, however, read and play as though there was a commitment to a design principle and it was adhered to on the assumption that that would make a great and fun game. I notice this because I do it all the time and must have other people at the testing table to tear me away from it. Fortunately I throw out design principles all the time and no longer get too attached to them. Some will argue that point (hello my great friend +C. W. Marshall ) and they are probably right. Anyway, I’m working on it.
By way of example, one of the joys of earlier editions for me was the fact that different classes had distinct subsystems that directed them. Especially the magic system, where I was presented with a huge list of spells (an invitation to create more implicit and explicit) with functions that were appropriate to narrative including combat rather than being exclusive to combat. And if I found a way to make Magic Mouth function in combat, that was awesome. I was invited to manipulate my tools in interesting ways within the narrative as well as mechanically.
4e seemed to invert this and present a set of powers that were functionally identical within categories, differing largely by mechanically relevant colour: this one does acid damage, that one fire. My imagination was not driven. The upside was that I was invited to make sense of the places where the rigorous adherence to design principle created inexplicable results (the whole “marking” technology for starters), and I happen to like that kind of thing (just as I like getting planet stat results in Traveller that indicate an uninhabitable world with a low technology population that could not survive there — I am not frustrated by the inconsistency but rather an am provoked to find a story that makes it make sense). But ultimately the sameness and the artificiality torpedoed the game for me.
The reason all this is very interesting to me now is because the 5e designers are now stating their design goals and I am seeing some underlying assumptions that I think are questionable. The modularity that would allow players to choose a mode of play that suits them, even if that means there are differences between players at the same table, sounds really cool. It also sounds like a minefield. It at once assumes that the rules don’t matter (you can use any of these rule modules) and that they do (people care enough about the rules to choose a module). That’s a risky starting assumption for any new technology. So while this is a laudable goal, if it’s a design principle that will be followed regardless of context, that is as a principle rather than as a tool, there is substantial risk of creating rules that demand attention as rules rather than as ways to achieve table stories that are fun and surprising.
“Surprising” is something else that needs elaboration. I’ll do that another time, but that was a function of 4e that did not work for me — the simple and consistent design principle underlying it ensured that I did not get surprising results. Older versions constantly surprised me (again, especially with the widely varying spells in the spell lists, many of which did not demand a specific application). 5e better surprise me in play all the time.
So anyway, this is a kind of love letter to the 5e designers from an ex- who remembers Dungeons & Dragons in all versions fondly (yes, even the versions I didn’t wind up playing much). We had some good times. We both grew apart. Now you’re making eyes at me and I want to know how you’ve grown, because you had some scary moments back there that I couldn’t live with. Tell me you love me: that you think your rules matter and that you care how they will play. No matter what you say, we’ll have a dance, I expect, and see if you care about us dancing or the music you chose.