So, the new Red Box is out in common distribution now, and D&D essentials is coming down the pike. I have the former and have pre-ordered the latter, and I’ve been holding off on talking about it too much until I’ve had a chance to really get my hands dirty with it, but a recent Escapist interview with Mike Mearls has created a bit of a furor.
The conventional wisdom is that Essentials is an acknowledgment that 4e was a mistake in direction for the game. This is usually declared with a smug sense of vindication and a plug for Paizo but I find myself disagreeing with this interpretation. I’ve been equally willing to discuss the things I like and dislike about 4e, and I think that a lot of interpretations of Essentials are more about people’s opinions of 4e than their opinion on Essentials.
Now, first and foremost I think Essentials will fall short of what I would hope for in one big way. I do not anticipate it resulting in any new opening of the 4e system, and that’s a terrible shame. 4e is hard for a fan or small publisher to support. The rules for doing so are complicated, and any mechanical elements you may create will be relegated to the ghetto by the online tools. The quality of the tools, which is quite high, creates a barrier to anything that falls outside its bounds.
However, Essentials represents a potential crack in this facade. If essentials characters are sufficiently different from core characters, then the tools might need to be modified to allow for more flexibility. Realistically, I expect they’re just make the character builder offer a branching choice (Create standard character or essentials character) but it’s nice to hope.
This is important though because it speaks to the other problem I have with D&D – the disconnect between the rules and reality. That is to say, when a power does something mechanical like, say, stun two targets and damage and push a third, it’s not always clear what has actually happened in the “reality” of the game to produce that sort of outcome.
This is one of my biggest hurdles in dealing with D&D is this disconnect but what’s interesting about it is that it’s not essential (if you pardon the pun) to the rules. There are plenty of powers that are easy to visualize, and there’s nothing that mandates this confusion, it’s just _easier_. If you think of mechanics first and describe a mechanically interesting outcome, it can be hard to reverse engineer a coherent explanation, and there’s very little incentive to do so. Easier to just add something vague and handwavey.
This also plays into why it’s harder to write martial classes than anything else. The “everyone’s a spell caster model” that is kind of implicit in the power system gives other power sources more tools to fake this stuff. For a martial character, there are only so many ways to describe HIT BAD GUY WITH SWORD with the kind of simplicity that goes into other powers. It can be done with a lot more attention to detail (just listen to any fighting enthusiasts nerd out for a sense of how) but not easily.
The bottom line there is that if Essentials opens up the powers system to support more descriptive and “logical” powers, that’s a very promising thing, something I’d be very excited to see. But doing it part way won’t cut it. With an open system, you can put in most of a good idea and trust in the ecosystem to bring it to maturity. With a merely closed one, you can expect people to find a way around the weaknesses and patch things up. But with a strongly closed system, you’re stuck with what you got, for good or ill. This fact has been far more of an anchor around 4e’s neck than any failure to be “real D&D”.
Because the reality is, 4e _is_ very well designed. It’s a fantastic engine and a well thought out game. That doesn’t make it perfect, or the best or only game out there, but just as people are complaining about the players 4e left behind, it’s important to realize that a lot of people enjoy 4e. Trying to change 4e into something else that won’t support them is a losing strategy. But making it into something bigger, something that can make room for old and new players.
Maybe it will be that. Maybe it won’t. But I look forward to finding out.
1 – And while I mean no sleight to Paizo – they’re awesome – Pathfinder ends up being a blunt instrument that gets misused terribly in these conversations. Pathfinder really is that good, and quite big, but i point out that despite being open and fantastically well designed, it does not invite the same raft of d20 products surrounding it that D&D did. There are many ways in which this is a good thing, but as a yardstick for inspiration it is pretty short.
2 – This is also an issue with things like Daily powers, which I understand Essentials forgoes.(EDIT: Some people have informed me that it’s the martial classes -fighters and rogues – who forgo dailies. I actually kind of dig that).
4 – I very nearly killed myself with this on the Witch Doctor because I hadn’t realized how loosely the color was tied to the mechanics in 4e. I designed those powers as color first, then expressed in mechanics, and in doing so I made much more work for myself than I needed to.
5 – Which is why 4e is really such a fantastic match for Earthdawn.
6 – And if it’s not? Well, I’ll probably get back on the heartbreaker horse.