Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What are meaningful choices?

I often go over to the Wizards of the Coast Dungeons and Dragons board. This is not because I have any interest in Fourth Edition, but rather because I've taken somewhat of a liking to seeing people's head explode over the Legends and Lore columns written by Mike Mearls.

The vast majority of contractors to these columns are raving fanboys. They also presume things about Dungeons and Dragons as a brand, as well as past editions, that are quite false. Its often amazing to see how people there can be so wrong about the hobby as a whole and the role of it's flagship brand.

However, something was said that got me steaming.

  "Balance isn't just encounter balance, it's presenting players with a wealth of /meaningful/ choices, class and race might be a starting place, but you need a lot more than that."

The passage above was written by one, Tony_Vargas of the WotC boards. Now, what about this stirs me up and makes me shake my head? Well, there seems to be an implication on what 'meaningful choices' are and what they are not. To say the least, I disagree full heartedly with this implication.

So, what are meaningful choices to Mr. Tony_Vargas? Well, it seems that they are a number of feats, powers, skills and other class mechanics - and only that. I find this a repugnant notion, and one that is antithetical to role playing.

What about in game choices? Is it not a meaningful choice to choose to save the princess or not? Or to believe the begger giving you a rumor rather then throwing it away as a lie? Why must Power A or Power B be necessarily a 'meaningful choice' while others are not?

I agree that race and class are the base of the 'meaningful choices' that you get in Dungeons and Dragons, as well as the idea that more then simply that is needed. However, what those things that are needed is something that I'd dispute.

You see, the beauty of the older editions (0e, 1e, 2e etc) is that they didn't offer too many mechanical choices beyond the basics. The player would make choices based on the present action of the game, not based off of the idea of 'character build' (I shiver at the mention). Should my fighter jump up on the table to get a better vantage point? What if I cut the cord to the chandelier, and have it fall on top of my foes? What if I try to bargain with my enemies (and I don't mean some BS skill roll either)? What if I betray my employer at the last minute, or if I strike and alliance with the orc band?

Conversely, it seems that 'meaningful choices' in later editions boils down to: What feat should I get? What about power? Prestige class/Paragon Path? What mechanics should I use?

Now, I'm not suggesting that the meaningful choices as I see them are impossible to be addressed in modern games. That would be deceptive. However, it would be equally (if not more) deceptive the suggest that the focus of later editions are on such meaningful choices that involve the present action of the game (chess board battle tactics aside) rather then the "build" of a character. (By the way, characters are not built - they are developed - and that is a topic for another post)

Don't believe me? Ok, I'll give you a rundown.
When I speak with my friends who enjoy Fourth Edition about said edition, what are the topics of the conversation? It's about feats, about power combinations and other mechanics. What conversations, oh non-believer, do  you have when discussing 4e with friends? What about the WotC boards? The conversations mostly come down to, once again, mechanics.

I'm not saying mechanics is all that bad of a topic. Hell, mechanics get talked about a bit with older editions as well. However, the overwhelming focus of conversation regarding 3e/4e are on mechanics. This is not so with older editions. 

1 comment:

  1. I think it's possible you misinterpret Tony_Vargas's statement (since I don't have the context of the full conversation) but you make a good point nonetheless.

    Mechanical choices and choices made over the course of the narrative should come together to tell the story of the character. The problem as I see it is that there are so many mechanical decisions to make in the later editions of D&D that they become the focus of the game and force in-character interaction to the background.

    I'm sure good players can overcome this but the analytic in me has a hard time seeing beyond the decision matrix of 3E and 4E.