RPG Codex Interview w/Mike Mearls


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Crazy Jerome

First Post
Side note: I'm going to have to disagree with your assessment of WoW, at least as far as the vanilla content goes. (I stopped playing pre-raid in TBC, so what you say may be/probably is true now.) For me, the experience of playing a shadow priest was vastly different than playing a mage. Likewise, playing a pallie felt a ton different than playing a warrior. Same with warlock vs. hunter.

Compared with vanilla LOTRO, I would say that my WoW experience felt at least as varied, albeit with more professional polish. (Although I liked Lotro's "over the edge of the wild" feel. A lot.)

I don't really tend to stick around for xpacs, though, so this is only a comparison of the vanilla experiences. YMMV and all that.

Well, I got into both games late, WoW on two different expansions. And I've never been much of a raider; so can't speak to that. For all I know, the variety there across the games is different. I did play Turbine's Asheron's Call shortly after launch, and have played other Blizzard games. So I think my characterization of the companies is fair. WoW was a lot more fun for me around the first expansion than it was the second time around, and all kinds of changes to make the characters more alike was a big part of my distaste.

Whereas, I can completely believe that LOTRO was very similar at launch, but changed as I have described by my late entry. Turbine just can't help themselves. :D AC launched in October or early November the year it came out. That winter, they had a "holiday" upgrade that included snowmen with snowballs all over the landscape. Except, some of the snowmen were animated, tough, and very hostile. They put some right next to roads. So you'd have some poor character walking from one town to the next getting whacked from a hostile snowman camoflagued in the landscape. And then you had to go run back and get your stuff off the corpse. It was one of those things that was mostly funny, but not so much when a bunch of your friends got whacked at 11:00 P.M. when you really needed to get some sleep before work the next day. :angel:
 

Ratskinner

Adventurer
The first paragraph rings true to me. I don't know much about MMO design, but I don't see how a skill challenge could be run in an MMO - it depends very heavily upon narrative logic for adjudication. And even 4e's combat rules have many non-algorithmic aspects, from the use of forced movement (especially sliding) to the interaction between keywords and fiction (freezing things with [cold] damage, setting fire to things with [fire] damage, shattering glass wtih [thunder] damage, etc).

How suitable 4e might be for a digital tabletop I don't know either - having never used one - but that seems a pretty different question from running it as an MMO.

I definitely agree here, and I think this was the mistake. It seems to me that the thoughtlines went something like "We want D&D to run online. MMOs run online. Therefore, we should adopt MMO stuff." The problem is, I think, that they adopted all the wrong stuff, in an attempt to force players onto an online system that never materialized fully.

I don't agree with the last sentence - it implies that "flavour or fluff" is not relevant to action resolution in 4e, and that's not true either in or out of combat (I've given counterexamples above).

With the exception of skill challenges. I can see programming all of the things you mentioned, and I really don't see how they indicate anything that requires at-table narrative mediation at all. They may require at-table decision making for the DM/players (choosing targets, directions, etc.), but that's not the same as requiring narrative from players to resolve.

Also, I find it unusual that a 4e fan would take your position on "fluff." Years ago, when people complained about 4e's rather strict take on playstyle, they were often told to just "refluff the power". Which shouldn't be possible, if the narrative fluff is vital to the resolution of the powers. Refluffing should, in that case, cause 4e's careful balance to break.

I see a bigger influence from indie games than you - in skill challenges, in the attempt to tightly integrate mechanics and fiction/story elements, and even in the way that different PC story elements (race, class, paragon path, epic destiny) are so squarely aimed at locating the PC within a thematically rich fiction.

I'm not an expert on 4e by any means. I ran it for two years before my group kinda split over it. Nonetheless, when I hear people complain about their ability to "trip" a gelatinous cube or the like, it gives me serious doubt about how tightly integrated combat/power mechanics and fiction/story elements are. None of those elements you mention are particularly unique to 4e, and are pretty obviously descendant from 3e (prestige classes) and earlier editions (race/class). I don't think any of them had indie-game origins (though I could be wrong on that.)

When I think of games that tightly integrate fiction and mechanics, no version of D&D rises to the top. That's okay, too. D&D's unique origins give it a bizarre special position where the rules don't quite apply to it as they might to other games.

For me, the "D&D experience" is much more about the tropes, themes and story elements than the particular techniques. Maybe that's because I've GMed non-D&D as well as D&D systems while still running thematically very similar heroic fanasy RPGs. Or maybe it's because I enjoy mechanics, and experience them as tools for play and "immersion" rather than obstacles to those things.

D&D does have its own unique set of tropes, maybe even themes and story elements. I don't question that at all. I've run a lot of other games....sometimes I think too many. It sounds to me like we have similar perspectives on the importance of story and narrative, but you have a more gamist or simulationist bend than I do. Which is not a big deal.
 

pemerton

Legend
I find it unusual that a 4e fan would take your position on "fluff." Years ago, when people complained about 4e's rather strict take on playstyle, they were often told to just "refluff the power". Which shouldn't be possible, if the narrative fluff is vital to the resolution of the powers. Refluffing should, in that case, cause 4e's careful balance to break.
I think the limits on "refluffing", in 4e, are keywords.

The rules discussion of keywords is quite inadequate - in the main rules text, they are discussed only in "mechanics to mechanics" terms (eg [Fire] spells interact with [Fire] feats and [Fire] resitance). It is only in an obscure corner, namely, the discussion of the interaction between powers and objects, that you see some reference to what is far more important, namely, that keywords mediate between the rules and the fiction. The reason [fire] damage can set things on fire is because of what [fire] means in fictional terms. Likewise [cold] damage can freeze water.

This sort of keywords-to-fiction mediation (i) puts limits on refluffing - for example, whatever a Magic Missile looks like, it has to be the sort of thing that would do [Force] damage and not [Thunder] damage. It also puts limits on how far you can make resolution happen on an AI basis - because the AI would have to interpret the relationship between keywords and fictional properites of things (eg timber hates being burned more than it hates being frozen).

Keywords are also the basis for Page 42 stuff: using Icy Terrain to cross a stream by freezing it, for example, or using Twist of Space to free someone from a trapping mirror by teleporting her out. The fact that magical abilities have far more keywords than martial abilities also helps establish and reinforce the difference between magic and martial abilities which many say they feel is elided by the common power structure and notation.

Whereas some people are very praising of the 4e DMGs, I think they're rather overrated. Their failure to discuss any of this stuff, to link it into the general approach to adjudication in page 42, etc is a huge gap which I think is partially responsible for some negative percpetions of and negative experiences with 4e. I personally think that refluffing - changing the colour - is less important to a good play experience than action resolution in which fictional positioning matters. And for this, in 4e, keywords are crucial. It would have been better to play them up, while letting the possibility of refluffling the colour around them speak a bit more for itself.

I can see programming all of the things you mentioned, and I really don't see how they indicate anything that requires at-table narrative mediation at all. They may require at-table decision making for the DM/players (choosing targets, directions, etc.), but that's not the same as requiring narrative from players to resolve.

<snip>

when I hear people complain about their ability to "trip" a gelatinous cube or the like, it gives me serious doubt about how tightly integrated combat/power mechanics and fiction/story elements are.
I think some of this comes back to keywords. For example, the Deathlock Wight has a Horrific Visage power which is a close blast, attacks Will, has the [Fear] keyword and causes forced movement. From these mechanical features you can tell (without any need for flavour text) that what that power represents is the Deathlock Wight looking at its enemies (the close blast occurs on only one side of the creature, as is appropriate to something looking) and revealing its true undead form, and that the forced movement represents the enemy recoiling in fear.

The power is not perfect - it is not a gaze attack, and so works against even a blinded enemy. I can see two ways of going here. One is to treat that as an error, and to house rule in the [Gaze] keyword. Another is to treat this as correct, and take the view that when the creature reveals its horrible form this is metaphysically awful, and can cause even the blinded to recoil as they sense the horror. Even in this case, though, I would regard it as open to the GM to grant a PC a bonus to Will (+2 is the default circumstance bonus in 4e) if his/her player narrates the PC turning away from the Wight (and therefore perhaps taking a -2 to hit in turn).

And even if nothing like that has to be adjudicated, and hence all the above analysis of the power provides mere colour to a mechanically determined resolution of the power, it is still a fact in the narrative that the PC recoiled in fear from the horrible true form of a Wight, which is something that can be picked up in later play (eg some social or religious context) and feed into the fiction in that more indirect fashion.

I'm not saying this is White Plume Mountain, which at places becomes nothing but free-form mediated fictional positioning (like surfing the doors over the super-tetanus pits). But it's not a complete absence of fictional positioning either. And the other frequent place where fictional positioning comes into resolution (although less so by way of narrative and more by way of simple GM adjudication) is terrain: setting DCs for jumping and climbing, determining the cover provided by walls, tables, hedges, trees, etc.

As for the gelatinous cube - it seems to me there are two ways the game could go here. The cube has the ooze kewyord, and I think had the rules said "No ooze may be knocked prone" no one would have complained. But instead the rules go the other way, and say that "prone", when applied to oozes, snakes and the like, means "out of position such that some recovery is needed, and in the meantime it has a harder time attacking and is more vulnerable to melee attacks". On this way, which the actual rules have adopted, there is still one weird consequence - prone oozes and snakes get a bonus to defence against non-adjacent ranged attacks. I don't think it's ever come up in my game. If it did I'd probably apply it by default for simple reasons of simplicity in handling a corner case, but if my players lobbied against it on grounds of incongruity between fiction and mechanics I'd probably relent - it's a corner case, and provided they're prepared to process the additional complexity what do I care!

I don't think any of them had indie-game origins (though I could be wrong on that.)
What I see, in comparison to 3E, is an attempt to present a coherent and thematically laden cosmology, with a deliberate design of PPs, EDs, races, classes etc that embed PCs (and therefore players) within that conflict.

I also see this as part of the logic of the long lists (of races, PPs, EDs, etc): instead of choosing your Beliefs or descriptors freely (as you might in Burning Wheel or HeroWars/Quest), you pick the ones that grab you off the long list that WotC has sold to you!

This theory of the logic of long lists is my own, and maybe it's crazy. But the deliberate rationale for the presentation of story elements (monsters, races, gods, etc) as suitable for a certain sort of approach to play is set out in Worlds & Monsters, a very good GMing book in my view (and unlike Races and Classes not a mere preview). And it is this deliberate attention to the role, in play, of the fiction that the game presents, which I think is indie-influenced. (Also the attention to gameplay consequences, especially narrative pacing, in combat, the approach to scene-framing and the scene as the unit of play more generally, and of course skill challenges.)

It sounds to me like we have similar perspectives on the importance of story and narrative, but you have a more gamist or simulationist bend than I do. Which is not a big deal.
I would say that I like fairly thematically trite narrativist play (in the Forge sense of that word), but am very happy with the techniques of classic rules heavy systems (D&D, Rolemaster, RQ, etc). I would think that I'm pretty much the target audience for Burning Wheel. And 4e. Whereas something like My Life With Master or The World, The Flesh and The Devil are games that I might admire from afar (and there are some Paul Czege posts on the Forge which have really helped me with my GMing) but I'm not sure I would actually want to play.
 

Ratskinner

Adventurer
<much snippage>
I also see this as part of the logic of the long lists (of races, PPs, EDs, etc): instead of choosing your Beliefs or descriptors freely (as you might in Burning Wheel or HeroWars/Quest), you pick the ones that grab you off the long list that WotC has sold to you!

This theory of the logic of long lists is my own, and maybe it's crazy. But the deliberate rationale for the presentation of story elements (monsters, races, gods, etc) as suitable for a certain sort of approach to play is set out in Worlds & Monsters, a very good GMing book in my view (and unlike Races and Classes not a mere preview). And it is this deliberate attention to the role, in play, of the fiction that the game presents, which I think is indie-influenced. (Also the attention to gameplay consequences, especially narrative pacing, in combat, the approach to scene-framing and the scene as the unit of play more generally, and of course skill challenges.)

I think I get most of your position pretty well. I don't agree with your impressions/experience, but that's a matter of just not being the same people. A lot of the things you see as "narrative", I see as gamist/simulationist. I just wanted to highlight the "long lists" bit above. I definitely agree that that is their intention. After all, they want the money you pay for the long lists. Again, hardly a new concept in 4e, but the degree of impact and necessity it had in 4e was one of 4e's major turnoffs.

In any case, I think we've drifted far afield of the topic.:blush:
 

Cadfan

First Post
You have also mentioned you are after the "essence" of D&D. Could you talk a bit about this? What aspects have you found that unify the different edition cultures? How do these translate into concrete game mechanics? Have you also looked at ideas that do not translate directly into rules, but instead are more about playing or GMing philosophy? If so, could you talk a bit about them?

The essence of D&D lies in the cultural elements that tie the game together across its editions. It’s things like wizards losing spells when they cast them, magic missile striking unerringly, trolls that regenerate, and so on. That’s all down in the details, but those are the kinds of things that make D&D stand out.
Welp, I'm out. I'll check back in when either the game is released, or a serious and substantive amount of material is released, so that it can be evaluated on its own merits. And I'll check once or twice for replies to recent comments I've made. But no involvement in new threads.

Mearl's is probably just engaged in marketing speak. But he's managing to make 5e sound like a nostalgia driven kickstarter.
 


Tuft

First Post
With the exception of skill challenges. I can see programming all of the things you mentioned, and I really don't see how they indicate anything that requires at-table narrative mediation at all.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I recall people posting about skill challenges from WoTC adventures which consisted of a limited list of approved skills, target numbers for those, and a pre-defined narrative declaring what succeeding at each particular skill meant in context of that encounter. Is that correct?

If so, a program need only present the selection of skills, accept the players choice, simulate the die roll, and present the canned narrative if the roll was successfull. Trivial to code.
 

howandwhy99

Adventurer
article said:
That’s really the key to us. We want to be able to have a clear, easily understood definition of what a wizard or paladin is. We can then transfer that definition into other games. As long as the feel and key story beats are there, the specific rules are secondary.
I would say "Do Not Do This". Yes, D&D is a setting, but it is an inclusive setting where the breadth of it is there because it supports so many settings within it without heavy labor on the part of DMs. It looks vanilla because it covers all the most popular myths, legends, and histories of the world. It draws from our own fantasy world and is the farthest thing from Branded Uniqueness. Please run as far as you can from that. Bloodthirsty goblins are a passing fad. Genre emulation of a fantasy world, like drama or comedy, can endlessly change without going out of style (as long as it is well fed by innovation).

"As long as the story beats are there, the specific rules are secondary." That one just misses completely. I've played plenty of D&D videogames. And Star Wars videogames. Some are great, some or horrible. The story is not going to save a game. Great game design, something radically different than storytelling, needs to be there or a game will fail. Story brands are really just getting people to the table anyways. The real innovative parts of D&D are when the game is so great the players want to create their own story elements for it (like campaign settings and adventures).

I do not deny there needs to be emotionally evocative stories to draw people in, but there are plenty of good and bad games with the same story. Game design matters more.

Modularity starts with a simple core. The simpler the core, the fewer the basic interactions, the easier it is to see how things work in the game. I’ll be very happy if this edition of the game is the most hackable version of the rules that we’ve released.
There is such a thing as too simplistic. TWERPS and plenty of other One Note systems are boring. Look at the skill challenge "system" before it was diversified. Elegant games are not necessarily simple games. In fact, I'd say elegance isn't simple at all, but easily understood complexity. Wizards could really improve on this with 5e and the by changing the current limitations of the roll check mechanic.

One of our design goals is to create a unique mechanic for every class.
3 core classes = 3 core game systems. A combat system. A magic system. And a clerical system. I think simply trying to say "Turn Undead" is the unique cleric mechanic, for instance, will only lead to obsolescence in terms of fun in the end. It's use up and throw away when dull design. Sooner or later that single power is going to become boring. It's far easier to keep a whole system interesting with endless modifications to it as play progresses than to rely on a single power per class and then trying to brand that.

EDIT: Even the single resource/multiple purchases model that the new fighter has still is a limited thinking IMHO. An entire system dedicated to each class for unique play for each offers far more opportunity to modify as it has multiple elements, resources, and so on.


I should say, even with these few points I do like a lot of what was mentioned in the interview.
 

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