On Different Mechanics for Different Classes

A forum post over at the Penny Arcade forums highlights something I like a lot about OSR style D&D over 4e D&D. Abbalah there writes:

This is why trying to actually make a game where the classes all use
different subsystems is a terrible idea.

The best argument that can be summoned for it is 'Doing things the
4e way is good design, but I'd rather have broken and badly designed in
order to get marginally more mechanically-enforced flavor'

I think this is very badly missing the benefits that can be obtained by having different mechanics for different classes. Consider the 4 basic D&D classes, and how they used to be mechanically different.

The fighter was the simplest and most straight forward. Load him up with gear and weapons, point him at the enemy and let him go to town. Mechanically the simplest, the fighter pretty much rolls to hit as his only real mechanic. This not only makes the fighter a good class to start with if you’re unfamiliar with the game from a learning curve standpoint but it also makes a basic fighter the easiest enemy NPC to create. The fighter is the basic stock from which all the other classes are derived.

The thief takes the basic fighter mechanic and twists it and adds some unique thief only skills. Climb walls, sneak, back stab, find/disable traps, these are all unique skills and mechanics to the thief which when combined with the lower hit die and armor restrictions gives you a character you must play differently from the fighter. Those mechanics should be the first clue that if you play your thief like a fighter, she will probably find herself on the wrong end of a sword much sooner. The mechanics encourage you to not think of your thief as a smaller, weaker, less armored fighter, but as your out of combat resource. Where it should be dangerous or impossible for mere men to travel, she should be able and willing to risk life and limb to secure a victory for the party, or to help avoid a deadly combat all together, or to obtain that gleaming treasure.

Then there is the magic user, who’s new mechanics and even lower hit die let you know that this is no thief and certainly no fighter. The wizard instead is more frail and more reserved. Where a fighter might prefer to reach out and stab someone, the magic user would prefer to use her access to the arcane powers to disable, disarm, or destroy her enemy, preferably far out of harms way. Even more, the magic user is one of the two basic classes that MUST as a matter of their mechanics carefully track her resources. Where as a fighter can continue to hack and slash for as many hours as there are in a day, the magic user must be more nuanced. Her limited number of daily spells, and the requirement that she must rest and sleep to regain these spells means that a waste of arcane power now will leave her defenseless and in danger for the rest of the day. That mastery of the arcane, however, makes her a formidable foe and an invaluable ally. Read through an early D&D module and note the number of times where the party would come up against surely overwhelming odds; even just a band of 12 goblins is a huge threat. Now consider just how valuable that sleep spell which can put 4d4 <1HD monsters out of commission really is. The magic user has much responsibility on her shoulders if the party is to survive.

Lastly, consider the cleric. Having a better hit die and better access to armor a weapons than the magic user makes the character mechanically different from the magic user, even if at first they might appear the same. As the only class with access to rapid healing, the cleric is a vital party member for any long term exploration. As a character with access to decent armor and hit dice, the cleric can defend himself without a need to meter the spell usage lest he become defenseless. But, having a smaller hit die than the fighter, and being the only healer means that you can’t play a cleric as a fighter. A cleric’s death likely marks the beginning of a short end to the adventuring party. His vital role in keeping the rest of the party capable means that the cleric must be extremely careful to avoid situations that his HP might suggest he could handle. Unlike the magic user, the cleric obtains his powers not from his own intellect and his spell books, but directly from his chosen deity. This means that the cleric’s ability to keep the party healthy is directly related to his staying in good graces with his deity, and stepping out of line could mean a sudden loss of healing or other utilities that the party relies on. The cleric is not free to act with the impunities that a fighter or a thief might be able to, he must temper himself or face a loss of power.

Each of these different classes has a different feel when you sit down to play them, and their mechanics indicate to you that they play differently and you must approach them with a different mindset if you are to succeed.

By contrast, on the surface, the mechanical differences between the classes in 4e are largely in the hit die used, and the range from which they attack. One can pick up a fighter, and they play the same way a wizard, or a ranger plays. On the one hand, this is a good thing, because a player does not need to invest a lot of energy into learning a new play style to pick up a different class. On the other hand, this requires that all characters use a base mechanic that is essentially as complex as the most complex character class, making the game harder to pick up and start with overall. Indeed, in examining 4e, you could make a very good argument that they didn’t do away with Vancian magic (arguably the most complex mechanic in OD&D), but rather that they extended the idea of Vancian magic to all the character classes, who must now all do the daily book keeping that was once the domain of the magic user and cleric. And this mechanical complexity is tacked on top of a skills system reminiscent of the OD&D thief’s mechanics. New players must learn and manage all of these mechanics — a high upfront cognitive load — to reduce the cognitive load later if they choose to switch classes.

I’ve played different character classes in 4e, and it’s true that the cognitive cost in switching classes is very low, but as a result all the classes feel very much the same. A magic user doesn’t feel any more magicky than a fighter feels hands on. In fact, in the cases where the hit die difference between a fighter and a magic user shows up in 4e, it feels much more arbitrary. The fighter has his daily and encounter powers, and his at wills are as generally weak as a the wizard’s, but the wizard is in much more trouble when his encounters and daily’s run out, and for no greater benefit.

From the original post, and from what I’ve discussed above you might be under the impression that 4e did away with different mechanics for different classes, but that isn’t quite true either. Instead, 4e does have different (and in some ways very different) mechanics, but they aren’t for the different classes per se, rather they are for the different roles (“striker”, “controller”, etc). When you look at the individual powers, it is clear that depending on the role chosen, the wizard is about dealing small amounts of damage to lots of enemies, where the fighter is about dealing damage to and keeping the enemies centered on him, and the ranger is about dealing huge amounts of damage in single large bursts that are one and done type fighting (similar to the way the magic user was in OD&D). The downside is, you don’t find this mechanical difference until you’ve already chosen and worked with your class for a while. Identical surface mechanics in 4e suggest that the classes play identically, and are easy to switch between, and only the powers that you choose provide hints that the class will require a different strategy on your part.

So which is better? Obviously, I prefer the system OD&D chose. I don’t find it “broken” or “badly designed” for “marginal” flavor. Rather, I find that the flavor which surrounds the basic classes are backed up by the mechanics. The mechanics don’t enforce the flavor, rather they provide hints as to how the flavor impacts this character class. I suppose that one could view that as hair splitting, but to me it’s an important distinction. The different roles, combines with a healthy dose of flavor injection could indeed make a 4e wizard play a lot like a 1e, and same with the thief, but if that’s the case, why pretend that the classes are similar? Why not acknowledge, and embrace their differences?

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