I had a good twitter discussion yesterday about the structure of adventures that lead to me chewing on what it would take to do a breakdown of a fantasy adventure (a quest, at the suggestion of gamefiend) similar to the one in SOTC. This lead to some paper brainstorming, which in turn lead to my realizing something about 4e (and to a lesser extent, D&D in general). Basically, I came to the question of “Why are _you_ the guys going on this quest?” and I hit a wall.
4E characters are, by design, somewhat interchangeable – at least in the context of published adventures. You might need five folks of a given level to clean out the dungeon, but which five folks those are doesn’t matter that much (except insofar as you might want a balanced group). Even more problematically, they are universally unexceptional except in their capability to kick ass. They may kick ass in different ways, and those difference matter on a tactical level, but in the big picture they kind of run together.
This is problematic in the case of the quest model where people are recruited based on talents, knowledge or other specific criteria. 4e characters do not have such distinctions, or more precisely, the system does not support such distinctions. And that’s rough. You can overcome it around the table in the specific, but that is an extra layer you add to the game.
So, there’s the problem: why do these characters matter in the eyes of the setting, other than as interchangeable ass kickers?
The first answer that springs to mind is one that 4e does not answer, and that is the role of classes in the setting. Specifically, is the simple fact that a PC is a member of a class something outstanding? In some games, the implicit assumption is yes. If you have someone in your group playing a ranger, he’s _the_ ranger, or at least one of only a few. There might be other guys running around with two swords or looking outdoorsey, but big R Rangers are few and far between. In other games, there are any number of rangers, and you are just one of them.
Curiously, older editions pulled an interesting trick of kind of doing both. There might be any number of rangers in the setting, but the game still gave you big props for being a ranger when it came time to do ranger-y things. Tracking? You rocked. Some big random outdoorsey roll? You got a big bonus. Even if you weren’t necessarily unique or rare, it was acknowledged.
4e offers no such acknowledgment, at least outside of the scope of combat, and that’s rough. It reveals (to me, at least) that the big problem with the skill system is not the shortage of skills but rather the lack of opportunity to be exceptional within their sphere (since that sphere is, by and large, most of the non-combat world). The difference that being trained in a skill makes is nice, but it does not really create a sense of “AND NOW I’M AWESOME AT THIS” which, I admit, I want at least a little of. I like rangers who can track anything, anywhere. I want a rogue who is the finest lockpick in the realm. Stuff like that helps bring a game to life.
This, in turn, casts a light on something I consider the most problematic dichotomy within 4e – awesomeness vs “zero to hero”. Something that probably merits its own post, but for the moment I’m left with the question: If the combat game is all about being awesome, why is the non-combat game about being kind of a schlub?