There’s a recent argument regarding the perceived absurdity of certain 4e rules. The focus of this argument is “The Tyranny of Fun,” as one of its proponents put it — a phrase that seems to be propagating a bit. The original argument spawned from this RPGSite thread, whose original subject was the use of game jargon by players during combat, as opposed to narrative description. In other words, a player might say “I want to shift and then attack the orc” rather than “I leap across the table, my blade darting toward the orc’s throat.”
The following quote by James Wyatt was brought up: “In past editions, we’d describe things like cave slime as if the DC of the Acrobatics check to avoid slipping in it were an objective, scientific measurement of its physical properties. “How slippery is cave slime? It’s DC 30 slippery.” Bur setting a fixed number like that limits its usefulness — cave slime would be too challenging for low-level characters and irrelevant for high-level characters. In 4th Edition, we tell you to set the DC to avoid slipping based on the level of the characters, using the Difficulty Class and Damage by Level table. So when 5th-level characters encounter cave slime, they’ll be making a check against DC 22, but 25th-level characters have to make a DC 33 check.”
A poster by the handle Jackalope, in reply, wrote: “This is the most absolutely idiotic thing I’ve ever read. So basically, no matter how good a character gets, everything should remain an identical challenge? Nobody gets better, the numbers just get bigger. I just don’t get it.” (Note, this poster has not read the 4e rules, nor played the game — he’s going by the description, which is fair enough.)
To which a third poster replied, in part (the full post can be read on his blog or on the previously-linked thread), “Jackalope, its based on the absurd and utterly idiotic idea that the PCs have to be ABSOLUTELY AWESOME at all times or else the world ends. […] FUN MUST BE HAD AT ALL TIMES! […] They’re idiots. […] the domination of Jargon in 4e is part of a conscious attempt to try to destroy (exterminate, if you will) the very possibility of experiencing “immersion” in D&D.” This poster later used the “Tyranny of Fun” phrase to refer to this… idea.
So that’s the background.
I’d initially come across it, shrugged, and moved on. But then I came across it again, while reading The Chatty DM’s rant on the subject.
Needless to say, I broadly agree with Chatty on the matter. I’m reproducing below my comments in response to his blog post:
I find the argument boils down to two things, really:
1. “Change is bad.” These are the arguments that are recycled from previous edition changes. (Seriously, I remember reading some of these posts almost word for word when 3e came out… and when 2e came out.) This is, arguably, the biggest change to the game yet, but these arguments still boil down to liking the old system better.
There’s nothing stopping anyone from playing the old system. True, there won’t be any first-party support, and probably there’ll be a lot less third-party support. That never stopped the die-hard 1e players, though. If the desire’s still there, the rulebooks (and modules, and whatever else) are still there.
2. “I wanted a different style of game.” Over the years, the focus has changed. 1e was really a low-fantasy, swords-and-sorcery style game, until you got to high levels. There was a real chance that a character wouldn’t have so much as a +1 weapon at level 6, or maybe even at level 9. At the higher levels, this broke down some, and if you got into some third-party stuff (like Primal elements), it could be as epic-high-fantasy as anything in 4e, but the root game was more pulp-style. And it was designed with the expectation that very few would reach those high levels, anyway — in fact, most PC races simply couldn’t, if you applied the rules as written. Half-elf cleric? Level 5 maximum, thanks.
2e was much the same, though it relaxed level restrictions, and allowed for a bit more flexibility on the part of the players. Thief skills, for instance, were no longer set quantities.
3e shifted more toward the high-fantasy aspect, with ‘expected wealth.’ Wizards were still broken, at even earlier levels. Noncasters were still increasingly useless at higher levels, but now “higher levels” started as early as level 7 or so. But one thing 3e did, even more so than earlier editions, was to simulate a world.
4e is high fantasy, unabashedly. It’s not as wizard-slanted as earlier editions, and the overall power level is a bit lower because of it, but the game’s slanted toward providing an epic-fantasy feel. And it doesn’t simulate a world. PCs aren’t the same as NPCs, even in theory. PCs are different and special.
Some people don’t like that. Some people just want lower fantasy, which is reasonable. Some just don’t like PCs being special, which I don’t get. But fair enough.
But 4e doesn’t cater to them.
In a nutshell, 1e would be a comfortable setting for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. 3e would be a comfortable setting for Elric or Conan in his more over-the-top appearances. 4e would be a comfortable setting for the more mystical Arthurian tales, like Gawain and the Green Knight or the more fantastic Merlin stories, and for epics along the lines of most Lord of the Rings imitators. (As for the Rings themselves, I’m not so sure… that’s hard to classify.)
4e does that sort of game very well, mind you.
What I can’t understand are the people complaining about the “loss” of such mechanics as save-or-die and level draining. Just goes to show you, I guess.
But now it’s been on my mind, and I feel the need to go further into the matter. Because it really is an absurd argument, from where I stand.
Now, I’ll want to be clear on this: Reasonable people can enjoy different styles of game. Some people like a game where they’re average joes bootstrapping themselves and (assuming they survive the whims of fate) becoming great heroes. Some people like a game where they’re hapless saps caught up in a word beyond their control, where every day is a struggle to survive, and where there’s little glory to be won and victory means living to fight some more tomorrow. I’ve enjoyed games like that.
Fourth edition is not that game. That’s not the kind of world it assumes. This is not a design flaw, it’s a conscious design decision. Even the “Tyranny of Fun” bandwagon seems to mostly acknowledge that; they just feel that it was the wrong decision and it’s not true to the history of the game. Additionally, many feel that it’d responsible for the erosion of roleplay. One or two seem to feel it’s responsible for the decline of Western civilization, but they’re not representative.
Thing is, they’re wrong, on just about every count.
On the original poster’s comment, and as noted by many other replies in the thread: 4e doesn’t cause the use of jargon. I’ve been in games in 3e, 2e, 1e, and OD&D where mechanics intervened to the detriment of narrative, too. No shifts, of course, but plenty of “I make a full attack” in 3e or “I start casting my spell. It’ll go off on segment 6” in 1e. Narrative is entirely the responsibility of the players and GM. Insofar as 4e is a “crunchy,” rules-emphasizing system, it does encourage the use of some jargon, whereas a diceless game such as Amber or Nobilis doesn’t — but even in those systems, there are times when the mechanics intervene. (“I spend 2 miracle points on a Lesser Creation of Strength.”)
On to immersion, then. To a small extent, they’re correct here: 3e was more simulationist in nature; it modeled a fantasy world with more verisimilitude. DC 30 cave slime is “realistic” in that it’s always slippery to a certain extent. 4e is more narrativist in nature; it models a fantasy epic, where the story matters more than the “realism” of the world. Cave slime is more slippery at higher levels in order to pose an appropriate challenge, because if it wasn’t more slippery, then it might as well no longer be there at high levels.
Does it break immersion more to have higher-level characters encounter slime that’s more slippery, or to effectively no longer encounter it at all?
But leaving that aside… another comment was that you’re supposed to work up to the dragon. This is based on a misunderstanding of 4e: not every monster will automatically be an appropriate challenge. The DMG doesn’t even come close to suggesting such a thing. If your first-level characters go dragon hunting, you won’t run into a first-level dragon.
Furthermore, an interesting comparison: In 4e, the weakest dragon is the white wyrmling (a level 3 Solo monster). In 3e, the white wyrmling was… 3 HD. In the D&D basic set, the white dragon was 6 HD, and a note in the dragon description suggested that younger dragons might have about 3 fewer HD, which would make a white wyrmling… you guessed it, 3 HD. That’s not a lot to “work up to.” Bigger dragons? Well, the ancient red in 4e is a level 30 Solo monster… maximum level seems like some “working up” might be involved.
And third, there’s the implication that previous editions encouraged immersion, where 4e does not. This is untrue on both counts. For the latter, the 4e DMG does talk a good deal about encouraging immersion — because it’s part of the fun. It simply recognizes that there are times when game jargon should be used for clarity. For the former, in any D&D game I’ve ever played, in any edition, there were times when the rules and mechanics simply killed immersion. Why, exactly, can’t half-elves reach level 6, or level 60, as a cleric? The DM could come up with a reason, but the real reason was: The rules said so.
(Of course, like most groups I’ve ever heard of, mine house-ruled away the level restrictions. We also allowed humans to multiclass.)
And for that matter, “cave slime is DC 30 slippery” doesn’t sound very immersive to me, either. I prefer “the blue-tinged slime that coats the rocks underfoot makes every step potentially treacherous as you face down the illithid band.” Who cares if my party is level 29? The slime makes every step potentially treacherous. Because that leads to a more interesting combat than “Slime? That won’t bother anyone above level 5. We’ll just treat it as a level, dry floor.”
PCs have to be ABSOLUTELY AWESOME at all times? Damn straight, I say. And their opponents should be ABSOLUTELY AWESOME too. Maybe not at all times — the walk-over or the “way out of our league” keeps things fun and varied too (and the rules encourage this, explicitly — another thing the Tyranny crowd seems to have overlooked in its complaining about balance). But in 4e, yes, each and every fight should have the PCs doing awesome things, and most of them should have the NPCs doing awesome things right back. They should largely take place in awesome settings, with awesome scene elements making for a more awesome fight.
I can’t see this as a bad thing.
Finally, the Tyranny crowd is wrong to equate “4e should be fun” with “the players always get whatever it is they want without effort.” The effort’s fun, too. Hell, losing can be fun — just as long as it’s not arbitrary. And that’s right there in the rules, too.