4e design philosophy: Players vs. DM

There was obviously a problem in earlier editions when it comes to the responsibilities of players to keep the game running compared to the DM’s. In essence the player described what he wanted to do and then the DM figured out a way to roll for that. This meant that the DM had to know not just almost all of the rules, but also what each character was able to do. The DM – who was already minding storytelling, plot handling and monster running – also had to know the mechanics of each character well enough to come up with answers on the fly to questions like: “How would a rogue do a backflip up the left wall, landing on the shoulders of the ogre?” And how would a fighter try the same thing?

In my experience this was alleviated a little bit by 3rd edition – though I’m not sure why, since it’s ages since I looked at the books – and in actual play the DM was often able to rely on a trusty rules lawyer among the players. In the best of worlds there existed a communion between DM and players where they worked together to figure out how to get the system to do what they wanted. In the worst of worlds people literally and reliably acted like Knights of the Dinner Table. In the most of worlds I guess the game was somewhere in between.

Enter the possibility of a 4th edition. The designers seem to have taken a look at this dynamic and correctly identified that it was part of the overload of work facing every DM. How could this be addressed?

Now, I have no inside information, but the way the power system worked out seems very much like an answer to this. Now it is very clear what kind of cool stuff each character can do. It is integrated into the very mechanics of the classes. If a rogue wants to do that backflip, he can use Close Quarters. The player even knows this, typically has the text of the power in front of him/her, and can inform the DM how the rules are written. The DM is free of having to know what each character can do and can focus on other, more DM-y things.

In my experience this has worked quite well. When my players are in doubt about a power, they simply ask. We read the power together – okay, that sounds a bit like school, but it’s not – and agree on an interpretation based on a fusion of fluff and crunch. Yes, I value the flavour text in my rules interpretation. Maybe I’ll post about that some other time.

There are however a couple of problems, some of which were pointed out in the recent blog post over at rpgmusings by Alio the Fool:

  1. The system I have is tied to the “core” world in 4e, since we’re simply playing a version of that, modifying it as we go along. If you alter too much in the powers – even the flavour – the system will probably begin to falter.
  2. What if the fighter wants to do the backflip? Either he can’t, which is always a bummer. Or he could do something similar with an athletics or acrobatics check, maybe making it into a skill challenge, though that would kind of suck for the rogue who’s using a daily to do the same thing. Or he could multiclass into rogue and exchange one of his powers for the Close Quarters power, which is quite a lot of foresight to expect of a guy who is – let’s face it – just a fighter 🙂
  3. But the most serious implication is this: when responsibilities are so sharply divided and well defined it will make the game run smoother. But it also creates two very sharply drawn groups with differing viewpoints ready to clash over rules questions. The essence of the game is “players vs. monsters”. When the DM solely runs the monsters and the players have responsibility for what their characters can do, it can quickly turn into a “players vs. DM” where the real competition is whether or not the DM knows the characters’ capabilities and the rules better than the players, and not players and DMs “competing” in the art of storytelling.

The third of these points refer to Alio the Fool’s post. Since the players have been given very specific rules for what they can do, and since these powers more or less make up the entire capabilities of the characters, the players have to be able to rely on what the powers tell them. This gradually, but surely, extends to the rest of the rules.

This attitude is not helped by the current edition’s view on errata, which will be the subject of my next post about 4e design philosophy.

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