I realized yesterday that my genre expectations for 4e have been skewed. I think of it (and most RPGs) as being adventures, but I think it might be more accurate to describe 4e as part of the related-but-different action genre.
What’s the difference? Speaking in terms of films, think about adventure movies vs. action movies. In an adventure movie, the hero or heroes are taken out of their usual context, face an array of challenges. While many of the challenges may be dangerous, they are not necessarily fights. Eventually the hero finishes the job and returns home (or to his original context). Essential in this is the idea that the hero’s non-adventure existence is important to him. Indiana Jones teaches. Jack Burton drives a truck.
On the other hand, the action hero gets into a dangerous situation because that’s who they are – the guy who gets into danger. He might have the trappings of some other life, but usually that life is an avenue to action (soldier, cop, dangerous courier) or a forgettable façade (like whatever Schwarzenegger does for a living in his flicks). At best, it provides an excuse to put the character in the situation required by the story. The character will then overcome successive challenges with escalating violence. There will be elements external to the violence, but mostly they’re just there to move things on to the next fight.
Now, the lines here aren’t clean cut. Die Hard, for example, has elements of both, and most exciting moves pull a little bit from column A and a little bit from Column B. What’s more, the genre is not a measure of quality. Action may have interchangeable Van Damme flicks, but it also has Jackie Chan. Raiders might be an adventure film, but so are the vast array of direct-to-video Rutger Hauer masterpieces. They can be done badly or well, just as in the case of a game.
4e is designed for action. It’s characters are primarily defined by their relationship to action, and elements external to that are very thin at best. Their arc is one of progressive violence, and the mechanics of the game steer things that way. This is perhaps best exemplified by the primacy of fights and the shaky footing of skill challenges.
But so what?
It would be easy to stop here as some sort of sneering dismissal of 4e, but that would be a waste of effort. The important thing to me is that in understanding what 4e is skewed towards, it makes it easier to tweak it. It means that if I want to play is straight up, I might get a more satisfying experience if I am in the mental space where I recognize that these characters would be played by Jason Statham or Milla. That is to say, I would be well served proceeding under the assumption that they are not adventurers, but rather, awesome badasses.
On the flipside, if I feel that I want something other than the action movie formula, I can do it with an understanding of _why_ it is that anemic skill challenges and boring skills feel like they’re not working. Knowing why they don’t work (because they’re designed for action, not adventure) is incredibly useful if I want to change them since I can do so with better understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish.