System versus Game

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 06 October 2010

A few weeks ago, I came to the conclusion that one of the things that makes discussing 4e D&D difficult is that it has two parts. On one hand, we have a rules system, largely divorced from any particular setting, which tells us how to keep things balanced and hopefully fun for everyone at the table. On the other, we have the game, set often, but not always, in a world based to some degree on medieval fantasy. The core rulebooks reinforced this divide, separating out much of the canonical story and just providing the bare essentials to support the stories being developed at individual tables. The setting books were tasked with modifying the core so that it fit best with the stories common to those settings.

To be honest, while I sometimes had a hard time picturing certain monsters, I loved this system. It allowed me to easily create any story I wanted without having to find all the ways in which my story was different from canon. However, it made the game less approachable to a fair number of players. What I've gotten from the conversations I've had is that the way they like to tell D&D stories didn't fit as well into the existing expressions of the core system.

For someone who doesn't share that problem, the common reaction is to "blame the victim." If those people were only more creative or would just open their minds a bit, things would be better. This is a weak argument and one I loathe. We all have our personal preferences when it comes to which stories we like to tell or consume and the truth is that for some people it breaks their suspension of disbelief to have fighter dailies. Arguing against it doesn't make any sense, just like telling me that fighters can't have dailies is a futile exercise that only leads to frustration and perhaps booze.

Now the awesome thing, at least in my mind, of having these two layers to D&D is that both parties can be happy. Nothing in the core rules says that a fighter needs to have dailies. I realize it looked that way from PHB1 but we, the outside fans and players, have never seen the actual core system, the math and algorithms they use to determine what is balanced and what is not. What it does mean, however, is that each individual slice will get less of the overall creative time, especially the older philosophies since so much already exists for them. Also, some of 4e's simplicity will be lost since it didn't support all play styles either. This does make teaching the game to others a bit harder, but it's a problem I'm willing to live with if it means we get more people into the game.

Anyways, that's my feelings on the matter, expressed in a way that just isn't possible in 140 characters.


Of course, there are downsides to the "system here, story there, and never the two shall meet" approach. The biggest is that it can lead to a high degree of gameplay and story segregation. Daily powers for martial characters is an example you bring up of something that doesn't have to be part of the system, but, for better or for worse, it has been a part of the system for two years. It is also something that exists purely for reasons of game balance and mechanics. It mirrors nothing in the narrative of the world and each group is left to come up with their own rationale. The game parts of the game (the system) and the story parts of the system (the narrative) can each wander around and do their own thing and it leaves a lot of disbelief that needs to be suspended. Under 4th Edition, I have been called on to rationalize more mechanical effects than in any previous edition. Why should mindless undead that lack anima and souls be affected by psychic damage? Why aren't fire based creatures more immune to fire? What is the narrative description for Hunter's Quarry? If Divine Challenge is a magical compulsion, should creatures be less likely to ignore it than a fighter's Mark? Just what is a Sneak Attack and why is a creature with no anatomy subject to it?

The reason these questions arise is because the system is not trying to model the narrative at all. It is just a set of rules for "generic fantasy adventure game." And I am not saying this is neccessarily a bad thing because D&D fans have seen the opposite extreme. 3.5 went to the other extreme in many cases such that a rogue spent most of his life complaining that everything was immune to his best abilities, fighters had to carry golf bags filled with weapons to deal with things that were resistant to crushing, stabbing, and slashing, and so on. But there is a price - and that price is that the gameplay and the story don't always synch up very well.

4E is an odd duck, though, in that, in some places, it is very over-storied. For example, if I want to customize my divine roster, I either have to relabel or rewrite Channel Divinity feats and Domain Feats so that my divine characters have access to those options. And, on the list of "things I'd like to customize for my homebrew world," religion is pretty much at the top. In fact, a lot of the classes are written with a very specific world in mind and, narratively, a lot of class features and powers have some very specific narrative themes built into them. The whole of the Divine and Primal power sources can be said to fall into this. Even the races can fall into this with a plethora of racial feats that reinforce specific themes and story elements. If I want to completely change what tieflings or dwarves are and how they work, I really should examine all of the racial feats and relabel or rewrite to emphasize those themes. I can choose not to, of course, or simply reflavor things, but that doesn't change the fact that the "out of the box" experience is a mix of a very generic rules system and some very specific themes and narrative elements. Of course, every edition of D&D falls into this circle to some extent. Its nothing new.

My goal is not to cast aspersions on 4E (or any edition) but to point out what is being paid for the system/narrative duality and to point out that 4E seems to be trying to straddle a middle group between emphasizing the themes that have existed in D&D since the beginning and remaining neutral with regards to the setting and the narrative. It is for each player and DM to decide whether this approach is effective or not.

I do wonder if part of the problem is the preconceptions that are brought to the game. It feels like many players want a particular narrative to the game and want all of the rules to explain that one narrative. I understand the issues you raise and I'm not trying to diminish them at all, but honestly, they don't cause the same problems to me. Personally, it bothers me more when I have to remember a ton of legacy elements in order to play. For the psychic characters, I don't really picture it as something I have to do to another creature's mind. I just as easily picture it as I cause tears in the flesh. But then again, I'm not looking for a particular narrative, I build it around the rules of the game.

And I think it's important that players pick the powers, feats and such that call out to their concept rather than assuming that all of them will work equally well for their characters. These areas are where I want more flavor elements, where I want and appreciate the help in creating the characters I like since they are about specific things. The base race and class should be as broad as possible while evoking something that makes that race or class different from the rest.

I wasn't really trying to raise issues as much as provide examples of some places in which the the designers chose to make an even, balanced, and uniform play experience a priority over the narrative elements of the game.

But its a very telling point that you say you "build the narrative around the mechanics" because I work in exactly the opposite fashion. Its a question of whether the mechanics define the game world or reflect it. Of course, there is no one right to play and either way is just fine. But that gulf demonstrates that the system/story segregation may not be a good compromise. Rather, it is a trade off, prioritizing one over the other. That was the point I was trying to make because you seemed to be suggesting that such a style is the one size that really can fit all.

Obviously I love 4E. I love it enough to write regularly about it, discuss it frequently, and invest two years and hundreds of dollars in it. But I do not think it is without its flaws and I personally think it requires more compromise between story and gameplay than previous editions. I can certainly understand the folks who do not want to make those compromises and I, myself, have reverted to an earlier edition for an extended break precisely because of the compromises I've had to make. But, as you say, I value different parts of the game and have different goals for my game world.

To me, a nice side benefit of not having the story in the rules is that we can create character class builds that do what you want without it affecting everyone's game world. I realize that the initial 4e books were so abstract hurt a fair number of players (even as it helped others), but I think the Essentials books point out that class build can take a variety of shapes without breaking the system. So Wizards of the Coast or a third party can create something more driven by narrative if they so desire. Sure, at the end of the day there needs to be some internal logic that drives the whole thing (I mean we have that in the real world, or else we wouldn't be able to have the scientific method). If that logic is relatively lightweight, I think the sky is the limit.

*laugh* And here again we fall on opposite sides. As much as I like the Essentials class builds, I do not like them next to the non-Essentials class builds again because of consistency. A non-Essentials wizard is defined by his implement and doesn't give one whit about a schools. An Essentials wizard is defined by his school and the implement doesn't matter. In my world, I had built wizardly traditions and organizations around the implements so that the mechanics (the implement-based bonuses and class features) had somewhere to fit (in much the same way that school specialization worked in older editions). When they added new wizard builds, they added them with new implements or new styles of using existing implements. Now, suddenly, I have this whole other class of wizards to give a place to in my world - the wizards who specialize in schools which is suddenly an inherent property of most (but not all) magical spells. Moreover, now I have some fighters who have daily powers and some who do not. As I've already said, narrative consistency is important, so I either have to forbid Essentials, forbid non-Essentials, or justify things somehow.

Again, that's just me and my style of play, but it also provides an example of how going too far in divorcing the mechanics from the narrative will leave people unsatisfied just as marrying them up too much will leave people unsatisfied. Ultimately, there is no perfect solution or no approach that won't hurt anyone. It is a trade off.

Oh, I'm not suggesting that all these builds will (or should for that matter) exist side by side. For some game groups, that will work, for others, they will need to choose from the menu what works best for them.

Why can't a non-E and an E wizard co-exist? Is it that you couldn't see Gandalf and Harry Potter being in the same universe? Or that you can see Gandalf as an non-E wizard but not an E wizard? Or vice versa?

Narratives can provide all sorts of reasons why Gandalf and Harry Potter-like wizards would co-exist. I mean, we already have Wizards, Clerics, Druids, and Shamans. Not to mention Invokers, Sorcerors, and Warlocks. That's a lot of different kinds of magic. And doesn't even touch Swordmages, Paladins, etc. (In the 4E senses of those classes). So, an E wizard meets a non-E wizard and they realize that they just see the world differently. If they wish, they can go out into the street at high noon and duel to see who wins.

Its not that they can't co-exist, it is just that the way I build my world means I need to do some more work to make them able to co-exist. To break it down, 4E gave me a definition of the wizard. A wizard is X. I said, "okay, fine, a wizard is X" and I created a world in which wizards exist and have specific places and roles in the world based on X. Essentials came along and said "some wizards are Y instead of X." Unfortunately, my world was based on wizards being X. I never addressed Y at all. But Y is a big thing. I can't just ignore Y if I want to allow wizards who are Y. Y needs a reason just like X did.

Sure, I can come up with a reason and a place for the Y wizards in the game, but I'm still a little cheesed off by it. After all, for two years, every wizard build started at X. That was one of the definition features of wizardishness. Why was it neccessary to come up with a new defining feature that completely ignores the other defining feature that already existed?

It's not that hard to do. "You're not/I'm not from around here."

Sure, it might change things for you, but writers have been doing this for years. There's also always the ret-con.

Don't be too cheesed at it. It isn't going away, in 4E or anywhere else. Defining features have this habit of changing, after all, I could argue "whoever heard of a paladin that didn't ride a horse?" And yet, mounted combat isn't part and parcel of a standard 4E paladin.

Best to leave yourself -openings- in your story, so that new-ness can march in, than worry about ways to keep the doors closed.

The ease of incorporating new material depends heavily on how much detail the DM and the players have invented in their world. The "not from around here" cop out just doesn't work for everyone.

For example, when creating my world, I asked myself what it means to choose one implement over another. Why does a staff imply physical hardiness whereas an orb implies insight and willpower? How did it come to be that a wizard's implement says so much about spell preference and physical and mental capabilities?

Implement choice, in my game, is not just a mechanical choice. There are magical traditions that developed, that came to be as the result of the very nature of how magic and how magical implements work. When my players encounter a wizard using an orb, that means something about the wizard. That is because we want classes to be more than just a random slate of abilities and the world is a rich, detailed place.

So, when they change the central definition of a class, a feature that has defined every wizard for two years, it requires me to either figure out how and why a completely different form of differentiation came to be or else forbid it from the game. And, if one of my players wants to use one of those traditions, they deserve to have the same rich, detailed place in the world.

As for the argument of leaving 'openings' because anything might change, that doesn't work because anything might change and I don't know what central ideas might change. That leaves me with two options: run a generic fantasy world where everything just is with no history, no common assumptions, and no details beyond the limited write ups in the PHB; or keep a careful control on what newness comes in.

First off, I want to say I completely agree with you on how D&D 4E has a tendency to stick mechanic driven fluff in where it doesn't belong at times, without leaving obvious opens for those that do not follow the set path, and it's getting worse over time. That said...

It has always baffled me when people feel the need to "justify" why dailies happen only once. I always thought that was the last thing that needed justification, but maybe it's my cinematic upbringing that does it. I can't help to think of the Raiders of the Lost Arc, where for most of the movie, Indiana prefers his Fists (At-wills), will occasionally use his whip to get out of a sticky spot (encounter), and maybe once every hour fire a gun (Daily). To me, the power set up helps model this kind of play very easily, and it's how I look at the character.

I think it's legacy of the system, and the disconnect that it provides, that creates a lot of the problems with the current power structure. For some reason, people think that big heroic efforts using muscle are not as hard to do as big old arcane efforts, and that's fine, but that's not what I think the system is emulating. It's more You Get One Big Movie Moment, and if people thought in that way, I think there would be a lot less complaining about dailies.

On the dailies thing:

First, consider the hypothetical situation in which Indy has just shot the swordsman in the streets of Cairo with his daily gun power. A few minutes later, he finds himself pinned down by a gun-wielding Nazi and he can't get close enough to use his fists or whip. Of course, he will pull out his pistol and resolve the situation because he demonstrated he (a) has a pistol and (b) is willing to use it when his life is in danger. Consider the same situation in a 4E game in which an expended daily is the obvious and most effective solution to a new problem. The narrative suddenly becomes a little awkward. Why doesn't the fighter do that trick he just showed he could do two battles ago? Its as weird as watching a movie in which a character demonstrates an ability and then never uses it again even when it would clearly resolve a problem situation. And that takes me out of the narrative.

Second, the problem is not that the system provides a weird or nonsensical narrative justification, it is that the system provides no justification whatsoever. It doesn't even make the attempt. Vancian magic was well explained in previous editions as part of the 'physics' of magic. 4E remains silent on the issue. Now, if you aren't the sort of person who is bothered by the above narrative inconsistencies, the omission isn't going to bother you either. But some people (like me and my players) do trouble over that sort of consistency in the narrative. But the fact remains that it is a place where balanced mechanics take priority over the narrative in the game design.

Again, I think the issue is that not everyone wants the rule system to provide the narrative consistency. Personally I dislike Vancian magic as a way of describing a magic system, enough so that I don't want to play a game where it figures prominently. There's no reason why the system can't support multiple 'physics' of magic and each game setting and table can decide how that translates to their game.

Also, I don't think of dailies as tricks that the character uses but rather an entire scene that is likely to come up relatively rarely. For instance, the baseball player who makes a twisting, diving catch, quickly gets up and is able to throw to home before the runner crosses the plate.

How about... his gun jammed?

There's a challenge you can set the player - if he or she needs to use a daily power a second time in a day and can't, try and find an explanation.

Why doesn't the fighter use his whirlwind attack of blah a second time? Maybe it makes him dizzy and he doesn't want to risk it; maybe he missed the chance this time in the flurry of battle; maybe the day's efforts had worn him down and he didn't have the strength; maybe he thought the opponents were moving too fast and didn't want to risk turning his back on them.

Just because the mechanic says it's once a day, doesn't mean that the role-play aspect of the battle requires that to be the explicit, stated reason.

e.g. Jack is pinned down under the beast, and yells to his gnome companion "shoot it!!!" His gnome companion doesn't reply "sorry, can't use my gun 'till tomorrow" and leave him to die. Rather, his companion does what you see in movies all the time and flies into a rage, charging forward to beat the beast; or the gun jams; or he realizes he left his ammunition back on the horses; or the gun is empty, and in a moment of snap judgment the gnome decides to rush forward rather than risk the reload time; or the gnome saw a vulnerable spot he thought he could get a knife through more effectively than trying to shoot through the beast's carapace.

I don't specifically accuse you of this, Angry Dm, but a lot of people claim these powers reduce the role-playing element of 4e. I think it depends on how you play them.

You've missed my point, I think. I can certainly come up with explanations - a different explanation every day, of course - and my players can do the same. But my point is that the DM and the players are now in the position of using the narrative to explain the mechanics. In other words, the mechanical needs of the game come first and the narrative has to rationalize them. And, again, the rule books don't offer any assistance or even any mention of this. It just is.

I'm not arguing that RP is impossible, I'm arguing that this is an example of the design of the game putting mechanics before narrative. There is a trade off involved. If you are the sort of person who doesn't mind that, its no problem for you. But if you are the sort of person that feels the mechanics should be secondary to the logic of game world, its going to bother you.

Sarah Darkmagic put forth the idea that by divorcing the mechanics and the narrative in 4E, the game has the potential to accomodate many different play styles and provides the "best of both worlds." I'm saying otherwise: that divorcing the mechanics from the story has a cost and it does leave play styles out.

I'd also like to point out that this seems to be a long-winded, more subtle version of the "if you were more creative..." argument that Sarah Darkmagic specifically refers to as "blaming the victim." I don't like making excuses for rules.

I think someone should be allowed to respond to a direct question about why he wouldn't just use the gun again. That said, I think the whole discussion gets difficult because it talks about the limits of one's suspension of disbelief and/or play style, both of which are very subjective topics. If I don't like the color blue, telling me how awesome blue is and that I just don't get it, feels like blaming me for not liking the color rather than saying "Hey, everyone has their own tastes."

Sorry AngryDM, it's not intended as such. But it doesn't matter how creative you are if you think that the mechanic needs to be taken literally as a description of the world, which it doesn't have to be.

You can treat it that way of course, and describe a fighter's special powers as chi-based or semi-magical. But that seems to me like just as much a case of mechanics driving the narrative as my suggestion.

A lot of combat in RPG games lacks any narrative hooks at all and is just a boring series of strike and counterstrike. Incidental mechanical demands like this ("why didn't he shoot a second time") actually add a layer of representation or narrative to the game, giving people reasons to describe details and surprises in combat.

I don't really see how any game system can privilege narrative over mechanics. Vancian magic, power point systems, fatigue- or chi-based approaches to combat all involve non-narrative ways of constraining power that then need to be explained away by the players and GM. The 4e approach is just a (IMHO very shallow) attempt to use cooldown-type methods to enable fighters to do more than just hit people over and over. It's no different in essence than the restrictions place on magic users in D&D.

So, in order to widen a fighter's range of actions a mechanic is used that needs to be explained narratively. That's exactly what happens with wizards in every system.

Of course it doesn't have to be. As soon as you say something "has to be..." you are wandering the path of one true way-ism. But, in my game, I want it to be. I want the rules to represent the world, not dictate to it. Call me a simulationist if you must, but that is the side of the spectrum I lean on. And sometimes, 4E leans a little too far toward the other side of the spectrum for my tastes. I'm not asking you to agree and I don't really care if you do, but you're trying to argue a matter of personal taste which is sort of a waste of time.

Beyond that, you're making my point for me. My point is that the narrative and the mechanics ARE seperate entities and do not always work together as two sides of the same coin. The mechanics, in this case, do not work as a literal description of the world (as you noted yourself). Whereas SarahDarkmagic sees that as a strength of 4E, I see it as a weakness. Again, that is a matter of personal opinion. Gameplay-story segregation is something that takes me out of the narrative whereas it draws SarahDarkmagic into it. Likewise, you are okay with that. But Sarah tried to present that as a "one size fits all" and I'm saying it doesn't fit me and here's why.

I am very happy that you like the idea of martial daily powers. I don't. That's immaterial. The point is we both admit that it is an example where the mechanics do not reflect or describe the reality of the world but instead constraint it. You like it, I don't, one size doesn't fit all.

AngryDm, if you check out the Sage Advice column that Grognardia recently linked to, you'll see there's a lot of instances where the designers of OD&D tell their readers that a rule was simply put in for game balance, and has no non-system explanation. This is not unique to 4e.

Actually, my point was that the underlying system can be changed in a myriad of ways and it's very likely a game could be crafted on top of it that represents what you want from a game of D&D. No game can be one-size-fits-all, but an exceptions-based system can get close.

If I understand your post:

You'd like the mechanics to support options or descriptions seen in story elements used for the game. And I disagree. In the same way that a novel written for D&D should not assume that it would take several dozen (or hundreds) of magic missiles to take down a monster given a +N to hit and 1d4 + Int damage (or whatever the heck it is now ;) ). Fiction/stories aren't the game. Nor is a game the novel or the fiction used to give players/DMs some ideas.

This isn't a new conversation. People have been asking this sort of question and arguing about it since the beginning of games. "Why can't my wizard be like Gandalf!/I can't make a Gandalf that is 'realistic' in this game system!" But folks suspend their disbelief for different things. Some are willing to concede the need for a THAC0, but aren't willing to believe that a god would grant power to a cleric but not intervene directly to a prayer. *shrug*

Since folks -do- interpret or approach games differently, I believe that it is incumbent on the maker of the game to make a decision or decisions, whether to support one or more of those interpretations and if possible, provide tools for other viewpoints in the game. If they don't support all viewpoints, you can hardly blame them, they'd never publish anything otherwise. However, it is equally incumbent on the player of the game to understand that not all viewpoints can or will be supported in the game. That having been said, there's nothing wrong with modifying the game at home to suit your desires/needs. Nor with accepting that some "options" will not be presented in the game as-is and must either be tacked on, or added by the players. Or, simply dropping the game if one really doesn't like it. There are other options out there.

The other point I think you're asking about is why mechanics have to have certain limitations that don't make narrative sense? Ok, that's a lot of GNS bother I don't want to bother with (and I suspect you don't either). I think it boils down to "those were the choices that the designers made to make it fun." Sure, -you- may not agree that it is fun but as I said above, the designers have to make some choices. In this case, they choose to make certain limitations a part of the game to help it to appeal, perhaps, to an audience they thought would like the game.

That's not to say that because that choice doesn't appeal to some, or even some of their target audience, that it is a bad choice. It might be. Clearly the game sells, so it isn't a horrible choice. Time will tell.

I can't tell for sure, but maybe I didn't make my point very well. What I'm suggesting is that there are two levels for 4e D&D. There is an underlying system, along the lines of say Fate or Cortex which provides an understanding for how to create a game. On top of that, there is the game itself, an expression or translation of the system which modifies the underlying system in a way that makes sense for the design decisions currently being made. So a particular class build is not the expression of the system but rather an expression of it.

I tried responding but I think you may be right. There's way too many ways to take this. On one hand this is a GNS discussion and been done far better by others, in another sense this is, I suspect, a desire on your part to separate the underlying design rules from the game so that you can make a game more like what you'd like. And that's fine too, but not my cup of tea.

Finally, I think I may well be misunderstanding what you mean by folks not being able to tell the stories they'd like the way that they'd like in 4E. If that you mean that they can't play characters that are capable of doing things the way/as often/as quickly/as powerfully as they'd like ... that's where the pencil and eraser come in.

However, I disagree that class builds are expressions of the rules system. They are expressions -in- the rules systems and I find that to be a not inconsequential difference. You could make similar expressions of those builds in other systems if you chose, but they are not the game in and of themselves. The Rogue build is not 4E, nor are all of the classes and their different builds, 4E.

Bare in mind, I have only a little experience with 4e, having ran an Eberron 4e game once and read rules over again in another context for an aborted plan to check out DnD Encounters. However, from play other d20 systems (BESM d20, d20 Modern, Saga Edition, Pathfinder, core-only 3.5, and kitchen-sink 3.5), the primary concepts that needed explaining were mostly grounded in the item creation within respects to the Artificer class. This led to a LONG debate between a friend and I about the economics of Eberron, and the edge Artificers have over your standard Wizard in creating magical items. My friend made a point to highlight the clause that the DM sets the price of magical items and those prices can be, if a DM were to chose, representative of a more robust economic system. The point is that this conversation reinforced the concept that system mechanics and the fictional world have a very, very close relationship. But, at the end of the day, it is up to the Gaming Group to decide upon what that relationship will be during the game session.

Whenever I think of class abilities and/or powers, I don't see them as anything more than rules and numbers in a book. They aren't given life until the Player and/or DM describes them in his or her own terms for the Group. Every Barbarian rages differently, every magical missile is never the same, every Sneak Attack is sneaky and stabby for a different type of Rogue. If the intent of the rules are understood by the Gaming Group, such as Kensan_Oni's example of the fact that Daily Powers represent One Big Moment. Then the question to gamers is, "What is that One Big Moment?" A question which is answered differently each game session, for each individual participant, in any given game setting. Let the Group decide; they'll come up with surprising answers.

I'm going to have to agree a lot with this.

I have yet to play under 4e rules yet, I'm coming back to the game after a very very long layoff (14 years to be exact). One thing I remember from my DM's guide from long ago, Gary Gygax said in the introduction (I think..) that the rules in the DM's guide and more or less the Players guide were just some basic frame work - and that if you didn't like something you didn't have to use it, or you could bend it to what works for you.

I think a lot of times we get caught up in 'the rules', why doesn't this do this..etc. etc. Again I believe that these rules, regardless of campaign setting or 'world' are still there as a guide. Once you get comfortable, move on to whats best for your game. Hell, when I played we didn't have things like Eberron and Dark Sun. Mostly just adventure modules, creating the 'world' was the DM's job really.

Ok, enough from an 'old timer'. I need to go yell at the kids on my lawn...

"Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent is must function also as a deflection of reality." -Kenneth Burke, 1966

Plain-Common: Emphasizing one thing by nature backgrounds other things.

In the case of game design, you have to make tough calls on what's a priority and do what you can to mitigate the fact that you can't completely satisfy every type of gamers' mental model 100%.

I like 4e, and I like that we're seeing new ways of expressing the mechanics. Though I'm wondering how the company will progress once essentials is out there. A cynical part of me says that they might not go back to doing much for non-essential 4e. For some classes this isn't a big deal. The PHB1 martial classes have had two supplement books and lots of dragon magazine articles. But what about the runepriest or the seeker? Are we stuck with them as they are? I know that a company can only produce so much material, but I'd like to see some of the older parts supported as well.

I have a friend that hates the idea of daily and encounter powers for martial characters. The only way he can see them is as coming from some internal magic (much the same way all adventurers in Earthdawn progressed in power due to magic). I've made some of the explanations that have come up here and in many other blogs, but he can't see those explanations in his mind. I'm glad there's now another option for him.

If it's any help, Mike Mearls said on a recent interview that they are still working on support for older classes. He's working on one for DDI now I think. And I'm really glad there are more options for players. I want to get more people playing.

I think we also have a tendency to over isolate aspects of the game. Many of the separate systems in the recent editions of D&D map onto each other readily. For example, one of the above comments mentioned suspension of disbelief for THAC0. I assume (s)he was comparing it to the later editions with their unified to hit number systems, but THAC0 maps straight to to hit numbers. In fact, my gaming group back in the early to late 90s did exactly that. We all knew our hit progression, we all knew how bonuses and penalties work, and we worked with target numbers. "Does a 23 hit?" is the same question no matter how you go about figuring the target number.
I've liked the essentials rules thus far. I'm especially happy with the no failure skill challenges, with their complications and advantages. It is a piece of Mouseguardian tech I've been working into my adventure design since I bought Mouse Guard.(A mouse Guard Adventure is essentially a pair of skill challenges, which also works well for 4th edition.)

I've been thinking about this and in the end I have to settle on the 'disagree' camp. While there is a continuum of setting and system, they bleed together much more than you suggest. The rules in 4E DO suggest much about the setting, as others have said, and not just in trivial ways that can be wallpapered over. This causes some clashes that truly are a headache for the DM or worldbuilder. The types of wizard is a good example, and I sympathize.

Creating a truly setting-agnostic system is theoretically possible but pragmatically impossible. It would amount to a total simulation of real life plus all possible fantastical additions - heck people have different world-views and conflicting paradigms for the actual world we live in. Rules suggest certain thinking about the way the world you are playing in works and the type of stories or events that are happening in it. A truly neutral system would need to cover every possible point of the Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist triangle.

I think 4E made a good decision to be more vague on the setting, but I also think some of it's authors have been lax in letting their own assumptions creep back into the class descriptions and powers. The poor dissociation of these powers exacerbates this (see the Alexandrian essay on this). I guess I'm placing myself squarely in the 'System Matters' camp here, a stance that has become unfashionable recently and suffered some backlash. But there we go, that's what I really think about intelligent RPG design.

D&D of course is a toolbox, and only an idiot uses every tool in the box for every job. If a particular class or power source or monster does not fit your world, THROW IT OUT. That's my advice. Divine power classes are going to be this square peg a lot of the time, since very few fantastical worlds have religions that work in the way that divine power classes imply. They are peculiar to certain D&D settings, and no-one should feel bad for dropping them, or any other tool, if need be.

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