Today was originally going to be more Golden Century, but twitter discussion lead to a realization that I really want to talk about something core to D&D 4E and how that interacts with power cards.
The appeal of power cards is obvious in play with 4e – the number of powers and their exception-based design makes cards an excellent bookkeeping method, at least on paper. But there’s a catch: the actual fiddly numbers make pe-produced cards impractical – even with the description of the power it is necessary to look up the character’s attack and damage modifiers, often on a case-by-case basis. This means that the custom-generated cards from the character builder are really the only option, and even they need to be updated and re-printed regularly.
The rub is that it feels like it should be much easier than this, but the breakdown is hidden under a bit of sleight of hand. The practical reality of 4e is actually pretty simple – if you’re fighting something of your level, then you’ll probably hit on an 11 or more and miss on a 10 or less. There’s some fiddliness within the range – a 15 or more should pretty much always work, a 5 or less should pretty much always fail, but it’s really not much more complicated than that, whether you’re first level or thirtieth level. If your opponent is higher level it might be a little harder, if they’re lower level it’s a little easier.
The bottom line is that it’s all pretty much relative. Because the attack and defense modifiers scale up at roughly the same pace, they’re almost irrelevant. You could dispose of most of them and couch things entirely in terms of relative advantage, and it would greatly simplify things. But doing so would strip away the sense of advancement that comes from watching numbers getting bigger.
Relative advantage would allow for the necessary information to exist purely on cards. When people imagine using power cards, they imagine something akin to Magic: the Gathering (with good reason – it’s a great model), but that’s just not practical with 4e. The number crunching not only calls for data external to the cards, but it also keeps the cards themselves from having any kind of elegance to them – a lot of what makes the magic experience work so well is that individual cards can be quite simple, with the complexity emerging in play.
But what makes it so problematic is that 4e is so *close* to being card-able that it invites frustration when the reality differs so much from the expectation. Arguably, this suggests that the space exists for someone to create a game which does fill that niche. Warhammer 3e might exist in a similar space, but it’s a big space and there’s lots to done in it.
1 – So, imagine the baseline of hitting on an 11+ against an equal opponent, and cards (assuming monsters are also covered by cards) simply introduce modifiers on that baseline rather than requiring the tracking of persistent modifiers. A particularily tough monster might be at +2 to its defense, a mook might be -1. That’s the basic shape of a pure relative advantage approach .