I’m just like everyone else; I get stubborn and stuck in my perceptions. I like to think that one of the things that sets me apart from the average grognard, however, is that I’m at least capable of setting aside my viewpoint and looking at the problem with fresh eyes. This happened to me as I slogged through Mearls’ latest column on RPG theory. Now, it wasn’t anything that Mearls said himself that got the ball rolling for me. It was a comment in the responses:
“Our 4E games are not about the story – of course it’s there… my campaign planning has not changed, but the plot goes out the window once the fighting starts. As I look around the table, players are madly shuffling through cards”.
That’s when it hit me. Mearls isn’t shilling the “new concept” the suits at Hasbro think will solve the “money problem.” I mean, I wasn’t sure that was what he was doing, but there was something definitely off about the tone and direction of his posts. When I read that comment, I had an epiphany.
Mearls is describing the growing rift between narrative and mechanical combat. In the first two editions, combat was very abstract. The downside to this was that it paved the way for GMs to torment their players. The upside was that very little was unthinkable. If you wanted to do something, you just said that you were doing it and hoped that the GM agreed with you. The skill system both helped and hurt. It gave GMs tools to be less arbitrary, but it also set limits on what was possible. Looking back, I can see that, the more rules there were to cover things, the less people tried to do things outside the rules.
What I find amusing is that this ossification is a “there’s no roleplaying in 4e” argument that I can get behind. It makes sense to me. It’s not the argument that any of 4e’s detractors have been making, but that doesn’t matter to me. I see something that I didn’t see yesterday.
I want the players to feel that they can just “try stuff”, but I also want that stuff to have some built-in balance. So, I went ahead and created a series of powers:
Obviously, this is just a very crude start. I think that narrative powers should follow some basic guidelines:
- They’re based off skills, not attacks.
- Anyone can make the case for an oddball use of a skill.
- The moderate DC is used in most cases. The hard DC should only be used for the absurd.
- They require the player to describe the action.
- The GM can assess a penalty or grant a bonus based on the quality of the description.
- Healing surges are an acceptable “fuel” for particularly potent narrative powers.
- Most of them should be minor actions.
I’m aware that expressing these things as game mechanics is somewhat contrary to the principle of making narrative combat more viable, but I think there needs to be a middle ground and these are intended mostly to get the players used to the idea of narrative combat.
Things I learned from HERO System
If I’m right about Mearls’ desire to swing the system away from hyper-tactical play, he can learn from HERO System. In HERO, especially problematic powers are marked with a warning symbol or stop sign. It’s explicitly written into the rules that the GM has the authority to say, “no, I don’t want that in my game.” I’ve done similar things with GURPS and D&D, but using my own definitions. I try not to do it with 4e.
I think what can be done is to divide 4e mechanics into three tiers.
Tier 1: Essentials rules. There are some things that would only exist at this tier. Races as classes, for example. The game would still use the same actions and gridmap combat (I don’t think it’s worth creating a mapless RPG at this point. Let the people who want that level of abstraction do what they will).
Tier 2: 4e.
Tier 3: 4e rules, powers, feats, etc. that make the game rules and tactics intensive. Come and Get It would be the first item on my list, but monster powers have to get the same treatment.
With those decisions made, a GM could look at the following chart and say, “I’m running this type of game.”
This system would empower GMs to tailor their campaign to their players and what they’re capable of running, without exploding the game system into modular chunks.