I’m finding it a little difficult to dive into this post because this last part is so tied to the previous issues about always saying yes. In retrospect, the two should have been together. That said, I want to define a little what I mean about the paralysis of freedom. Because this isn’t about player issues, it’s about DM issues.
Players often contend with a difficulty the theory people like to call “analysis paralysis,” which means that players have so many character building options that they have trouble analyzing the options in any efficient manner. I certainly agree that 4E has this problem in spades, but it’s certainly not the only game to fall to this trap. 4E also does a great job of trying to mitigate this problem with resources like the Compendium and the Character Builder. Even though these are online and the CB is only for subscribers, these resources are still excellent. The paralysis I want to talk about is that afflicting a DM trying to create home brew content for 4E. And for my first example I want to discuss the Malkind.
The Malkind were inspired by a picture I saw of a lion-like creature, clearly a quadruped, but it had very human-like paws. Something like the paws you’d see on a raccoon or an otter, but with claws. The other inspiration was the Prairie Cats from the Horselords novels. So, I started creating stats for these guys. I thought about how their claws would be represented and balanced, I started creating barding-style armor so that they could be members of heavy armor classes. I made up some weird new weapons for them, so they could have the same variety of weapon proficiencies that normal PCs have – and then I was talking to a friend and she pointed out that they couldn’t use ranged attacks – Um, no, they can’t really use bows or crossbows. I thought about it. How could the Malkind use bows? Nothing seemed plausible or interesting. And after a week of thinking about it, I realized that just because a Malkind can’t be an Archer Ranger or Seeker shouldn’t be a big deal… Except that every race in 4E has to be able to participate as a member of any class… And that’s the problem. That little restriction, and the design philosophy it supports, limits the design space for home brew races.
This same issue appears when I considered setting up regions in my new world. I tried my best to be sure that every race would have a place in this new world. I wanted to “Always Say Yes.” Unfortunately, this thinking meant that I had to explain why Goliath aren’t in Al’Ara. I don’t want to have Eladrin at all, but if a PC wants to play one I need to have that option available. I can’t exclude races without changing the design/player expectation of 4E. I’m certain that some readers think this sounds like a stupid gripe, after all, if I want to exclude Eladrin, just do it right? Except that I don’t really have the luxury of playing with a group of people who are always the same or particularly close-knit outside of the game – or even in-game really. So when you mostly game with strangers or semi-strangers, it’s hard to have agreed upon changes at your table.
The issue is, as mentioned in the comments of the last part of this series about Eberron, everything in 4E is Core. Everything in 4E is expected to be included in every setting. (And everything fits into the narrow design range of “humans in funny costumes.”) So instead of having a lot of options that DMs can add at their decision for a setting or adventure, the game assumes that everything is always present in every setting. Put another way, instead of allowing a DM to choose to allow (for example) “a unique Warforged, who has been marked with a mysterious dragonmark” the setting/4E assumes that it’s okay for any Warforged to have a dragonmark and a DM has to say No if this is inappropriate in their setting. This takes away from the uniqueness of each setting and really creates a very generic feeling for all settings. After all, why play Eberron if it doesn’t feel like Eberron? I mean, when you run Star Wars games, you don’t normally include Vulcans, right? This approach is also prevalent in the application of Backgrounds. After all, how many PCs have you seen with the Windrise Ports background? Lots. The mechanical benefit of being able to take two multiclass feats is excellent, right? How many characters are actually created in the Windrise Ports region of the Forgotten Realms? But again, this becomes an issue of the DM saying No instead of the game reinforcing the DMs ability to houserule to say Yes.
A big reason why I object to this way of thinking is the paralysis it creates for DMs. It puts the entire burden of every choice made by the designers on the shoulders of the DM. The paralysis comes in when I start plotting out a region in my home brew world and I say to myself, “Well, how am I going to fit Githzerai in here?” “Would this culture have shamans, or ardents, or X?” “Why would Wilden be in this desert kingdom?” I’d like a kingdom where Wizards ruled everything and felt that only arcane power gained through study was acceptable so they impose restrictions on Sorcerers, Warlocks, and other amateurs. This kind of design is unthinkable in 4E though. Because everything has to have a place at my table, in my world, and in my thinking, because everything is Core and it’s my job to say Yes.
I’ve spoken about this at length in other places, but I don’t really like to “House Rule” because I see the rules as the “common tongue” that players of a game share. D&D4E has a very restrictive vocabulary for DMs though. Something has to really torque me off to get me upset enough to actually ban it for mechanical reasons (like the *expletive* Expertise feats and the changes they’ve wrought on the game) but I enjoy tinkering with world-building and with adding new ideas to the game. I feel that D&D 4E has such a narrow window of what works that it might be time to just move on. The problem is that 4E does some things really well, and if I want to play high fantasy, no system does it better than D&D. So now I’ve got to make a decision. As a DM I’ve never been so frustrated with a system as this one. I hate trying to design for 4E, for all the issues mentioned above. I added constantly to my 3.5 campaigns. I add freely to Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2e. But I feel paralyzed when creating for 4E. So, I’m learning to hate it.
Any suggestions on a good high-fantasy, class and level style system to play instead of 4E? Or am going to have to just switch back to Pathfinder?