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4E: Structure to Play With

July 4, 2008

Just finished listening to the Mike Mearls interview on Critical Hits and it seems to me that the most dramatic shift in the game is the expectation of how the group interfaces with the rules themselves, above and beyond any rules or setting changes.

That is, 4E seems to have grabbed a specific style of play from older D&D – it’s not Rule Zero, it’s also not Mother May I, it’s that the rules work as a foundation upon which to work with the Fictional Positioning in play. (Edit: with further reflection- Tunnels & Trolls probably exemplifies this in the old school play tradition)

Because it’s not the binary of “Use ONLY exactly what the text says/Ignore the rules”, but rather, “Use the rules and use the template of the rules for things beyond what exactly the rules say”, gamerdom is probably going to flail about this for years to come unless they lay out some really clear advice in a DMG 2 or something. The myth of “role vs. roll playing” has poisoned the well deep.

On the other hand, it sounds like my guess that there was bad mixup somewhere about skill challenges is on point. My theory is that there was a couple of competing skill setups and there was different design philosophies that got slammed in at the last second because it hadn’t been finally hashed out:

– Classic Fixed DCs (you see this in the skill descriptions)
– Scaling DCs (you see this in the chart in the DMG)
– Arbitrary DCs (Mike’s suggestion in the interview)
– Player Assigned (The option to choose between easy, moderate, hard skill rolls during a skill challenge, as reported from earlier demos)

I bet we see full, functional versions of these offered as “optional skill rules” either in Dragon online or as DMG2 material later down the line. It makes me a little sad, because none of this is really that innovative or complicated, which indicates to me that the issue wasn’t a matter of design, but that of competing design philosophies amongst the team. Instead of having any one setup fully there, it feels like we have a bunch partially there, stumbling over each other, which is especially dangerous given that they’re trying trying to sell the idea that rules are a foundation for the fiction to a group with years of habits and play otherwise.

Oh well. I suppose it wouldn’t be D&D if you didn’t have to kludge something together.

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