I’ve come to realize that in a very real way I am no longer playing 4th edition D&D.
I don’t mean I don’t follow the rules. I very much enjoy the balance and (for an encounter- and monster-designer) predictability of 4e’s rule set. And when I make houserules, they are nearly always a novel application of an already existing rule, with careful attention to game balance. No, what I mean is, the way I run my games is philosophically very different from the way I think a typical 4e game is run.
One concrete example of that difference relates to a difference in the relative merits of “crunch” and “fluff” in the game. In 4e, the flavour text of powers or other rules elements is expressly irrelevant to how they function. This can lead to a disconnect between the narrative depiction of the functioning of a power and the effects of that power in particular circumstances.
For example, a character has trained in a particular move, a sweeping blow that knocks the legs out from under a creature. Mechanically, the creature is now subject to the “prone” condition. So, how does this work on a gelatinous cube? The rules tell us that in these circumstances, the cube is not physically prone, but is “writhing or unsteady, rather literally lying down.”
I have two issues with this. The first has to do with the functioning of the condition. Among other things, the “prone” condition grants the cube “a +2 bonus to all defences against ranged attacks from attackers that aren’t adjacent to it.” That makes sense for a humanoid, who is lying flat, and makes a smaller target from range. But it makes very little sense for a 10′ × 10′ × 10′ creature. Knock it over, and it is still the same sized target.
So, maybe you squished it flat instead? But then there is a disconnect with the narrative – remember, the warrior trained in this leg-sweeping move, not a flattening move. So instead, we narrate that the character used an entirely different move, doing so proficiently despite the fact the PC has never encountered this situation before.
That may be fine for some people, but it isn’t for me. The narrative continuity of the world has established that the PC has trained in a particular move. He can use that power, as opposed to other powers that he does not know, because of that training. The physics of that power are now baked into the game. I dislike changing the physics, or narrative continuity, out of slavish adherence to game mechanics.
Now, it is possible that with sufficient application of imagination, I can come up with a solution that resolves all of these problems at once. But I haven’t yet, and certainly am unlikely to do so on the spur of the moment at the table, for this and a multitude of other similar situations that can arise.
A similar issue arises from the fact that the mechanics of a power do what they say and nothing more. Unlike the mechanical-narrative-game physics disconnect, this is more of a playstyle issue. As an old-time gamer, I prefer a game where the characters have the ability to resolve problems with the creative application of their existing abilities.
If there is a fire, and a PC has a power that is described as creating a whirlpool of water, I want them to be able to use it to put our a fire even though the mechanics do not specify that “any flames in the area are extinguished” (with a caveat that it doesn’t apply to zones that do fire damage).
My solution? The descriptive text tells us what the power actually does; the mechanics, on the other hand, are merely the recommended method of adjudicating the effect of using the power, which the DM can vary in appropriate circumstances.
For this to work, it is essential that both player and DM understand, and are in agreement respecting, the way a power works in the physical game world. Nothing is more frustrating for a player than when a DM vetoes an action that clearly works in the player’s mind. And the DM should not lightly interfere with the mechanic, but only in the clearest of cases, especially if the player has a reasonable explanation as to how the PC adapts to the circumstances.
On the other hand, you are not limited to the existing flavour text, much of which appears to have been written without a great deal of thought. Any physical description of the effects of the power that matches the mechanics should be acceptable, as long as both player and DM agree on it.
So what happens if the PC hits a gelatinous cube with a proning power? Well, with the power described, I can understand how damage to the base of such a creature would unbalance it until it rights itself with a move action. And I understand how that could make it harder for the cube to move, or attack, or defend itself. So you could retain all of the mechanical aspects of the “prone” condition, except the defence against ranged attacks.
Note, if the attack was against an ochre jelly, which is low to the ground anyway, slicing it up a bit might make it a harder target to hit from range. Maybe I’m reaching, but I would like to rule in favour of the mechanic working as designed whenever possible. And if it was some sort of shield bash attack against fortitude, instead of a leg sweep, I might rule that the cube had been flattened somewhat. Like I said, only interfere in with the mechanics in the clearest of cases.
All of this is contrary to the philosophical approach to 4e, as expressed in the rules. If my interactions with other 4e players on the internet is any indication, my approach is anathema to the average person who still chooses to play that edition of the game. But it is absolutely necessary in order to play the sort of game I want to play.