Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Keeping 4e's Skin

First, here's an important qualifier. I like 4e a lot. I think the combat is a ton of fun, and it's full of good ideas, so please do not take what is about to follow as a broad criticism of 4e. It's not. It's a solution to a problem I wrestle with at my own table, nothing more.

With that out of the way, let me lay something down. As much as I enjoy 4e as a miniatures combat game, if you were to remove that entirely, there would still be a lot that I really dig. In terms of pure color, I really rock out to a lot of what 4e brings to the table, from races to classes to paragon paths to epic destinies (and even, to a lesser extent, themes and feats). There is something powerfully essential about 4e classes that let's me say "This guy is A Halfling Warlock, and his ladyfriend there is a Warforged Warden" and wham, I'm off to the races with ideas.

The rub is that none of those ideas have much to do with the crunchy bits. I care about their stats in an abstract way - I assume the Warden is strong and tough and that the Warlock is probably pretty cunning - but not in terms of specific numbers. I don't care much about their equipment - it tells a story and has some practical considerations, but I'm not really asking for a laundry list. Even if I'm curious about their magic items, I'm inclined to think about them in more of a "one or two interesting widgets" sort of way. I'm not even that interested in their levels, except insofar as how that informs on other things (like their tier and whether Paragon paths or Epic Destinies are in play). I don't care about their feats, except for ones that I can really see in the character, like an exotic weapon proficiency.

There are things I do care about, but even those are off kilter. I care what skills they have, but not at that numerical values they have them. They're just important in terms of what they can do. I care what powers they have, but not in terms of the specifics of them - rather, I am interested in what kind of picture they create of the character and what kind of color they bring to the fight - a fighter with a lot of big heavy hit powers is different than one with a lot of tactical mobility, for example. Curiously, I care a fair amount about their respective power sources.

In this mode, I have a similar take on monsters, treasure and much of the rest of the game. I have at times spoken about re-skinning 4e for certain effects, but this impetus is quite the reverse. I'm inclined to do without the innards and just keep the skin.

Why would I do this? First, it frees me up to change the focus of the game a bit. Yes, 4e can do things other than combat, but it does combat SO WELL that it gravitates towards it. This is a sign of good design, but it creates a problem when the time and prep required for combat are too much for my schedule.

In a similar vein, it potentially eases the bookkeeping. The prospect of single page characters and not needing to dig through my buckets of minis and tiles has a certain appeal at times. This becomes doubly true when the reality is that some of my players will only play 4e if pushed into it. It's just way more bookkeeping than they're interested in.

Lastly, I find it a clarifying perspective. When I was talking about the academy game, I ended up really thinking about what play would be like when the only real mechanical differentiation between characters was race. It was far simpler than standard 4e, of course, but that very simplicity really made the differences FEEL more meaningful. The desire to shed certain mechanics is similar. It is not a desire to move away from 4e, but rather, a desire to move towards those things that I find most compelling within it.

Not sure if this will ever be more than an idle though, but it's absolutely a more frequent idle thought these days.


  1. I attempted something like you described with my aborted 4e Modern game. I always liked the idea of an encounter ("per scene") power that was something like:
    Freudian Slip
    Charisma vs. Will
    The target inadvertently reveals one important detail while in conversation with you.

    There's a lot about the 4e powers system that is underused IMO for only gearing it towards the tactical system. For instance, I think it would still be a solid combat engine if all the utility powers were completely non-combat, and would add a lot to the flavor of the game.

  2. Excellent idea, I look forward to seeing where this musing takes you. Just this week on my blog, I started exploring using D&D skin with PDQ# guts pretty much like you describe here. It's a fascinating exploration.

  3. I share your fondness for the vivid color in 4e. It's excellent fodder for my current favorite, HeroQuest, and I was thinking just the other day that it'd work equally well for Over The Edge.

  4. As a random aside, I'm glad I'm not the only one who mis-types "thought" as "though".

  5. My question would be this: Do you care about these things (the exact skill levels, laundry lists of magic items etc) in other games?

    I feel the same way about 4E as you describe when it comes to what I care about in the characters, but that's how it works for me in any game. When I play HERO I don't care if my character's RKA is 2d6 or 3d6; I care if it's a gun, laser vision or the ability to make truly awful puns. And so on.

  6. @anders Depends a lot on the game, but no, I generally lean the other direction. 4E is definitely more detail-driven than my average game of choice.

    But, weirdly, that's part of the rub for me. In the abstract, 4e should not be to my taste at all - there is no other game for which I will tolerate grids and minis for anything but cachet - but in play I really end up enjoying it. It's contradiction that fuels a lot of my thinking about the game.


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