Gah, gonna be a short one today. Wrenched my back, and my attention span is SQUIRREL.
I am cautiously optimistic about some of the things WOTC has had to say about the future of 4e at Gencon, most of which I received via Critical Hits coverage of the new product seminar. The funny thing is that I'm not terribly excited about any product in particular (except perhaps Lord of Waterdeep - people I trust keep saying good things about it) but there seems to be a shift in emphasis in adventure, setting and material design that gravitates towards a little more setting buy in and dramatic focus. That's ambitious.
I'd be excited if it could work. Every now and again I get the urge to drastically crack 4e open to better support such things. It wouldn't be hard - the core engine is pretty robust, and it would be easy to make a handful of changes (Change skills, connection between stats and attacks, revamp rituals and try some different power ideas) to make a game that would probably be a lot of fun to try. However, it would be terrible to share and on sufficiently shaky legal ground that it's just not worth the risk. Still, there's a specific area where this raises my curiosity, and that is setting.
4e tends toward static settings. This Is not a failure of writing so much as a function of the way NPCs and powers are handled. Very little in 4e has much effect longer than scene length, and there is barely even a concept of recurring enemies. The result has been settings which are magnificent set-pieces but which don't necessarily have a lot of dynamism to them. Coupled with the fact that the system is a fairly abstract one (rather than representational) it's hard for a setting to come to life on its own.
While there's some criticism in this, I feel I should also point out the upside - 4e material has been much more focused on going from Zero to playing something cool in no time flat, and that's a pretty good goal. What's more, the desire that a setting be dynamic is directly at odds with a lot of the source fiction people draw on - settings are often static backdrops except where the main characters interact with them, and there's a lot of virtue to that. Like many things, it's a trade-off, and how well it works depends a lot on how you value the elements and how they're balanced.
But the thing is, while the mechanics exert a certain gravity, it's far from inescapable. I feel that encounter design has matured a lot since 4e came out, and it's mature enough that focus can now be shifted to setting and adventures. If so, I'll be really curious to see what comes of it.