Simulation vs Disassociated Mechanics

I was looking at the recent Escapist interview with Mike Mearls, and the following piece caught my eye.

(speaking of 4E D&D, Jason) Alexander damned the powers mechanics and marking system in 4E because they were not simulating anything that happened in the game world. For example, why could a Rogue only pull off his fancy Daily power once per day? The only answer was because those were the rules of the game, not because that was how combat ought or should work in the fantasy setting.

As I said in yesterday’s post, I don’t think there’s One True Game. Each system appeals to different people for different reasons. But I feel that this is missing the point of what the power structure of 4E is trying to represent.

Let’s look at Trip.

In 3E, Trip is a maneuver that anyone can use at any time. You might not have a great chance of pulling it off, but you can try it. Of course, when you do try it, there’s a complex set of calculations, but that’s more realistic. You can use feats and special weapons to make your character a master of tripping, and you could spend an entire combat tripping people.

Is this realistic? Absolutely. I knew a police dog trained to trip people, and if he wanted you on the floor, you were staying on the floor. Which, frankly, made hanging around that dog kind of annoying… but that’s another story.

In 4E, there is no Trip maneuver. Either I have a power that trips, or I don’t. If I do, it’s probably an Encounter Power – and also, if I hit you, it just knocks you down, with no other rolls.

So: I can trip you once. Why can’t I trip you again? It’s dumb. It’s artificial. It’s rules interfering with my simulation. Right?

In my mind, the issue is that if you’re looking for a realistic simulation, you’re in the wrong place. 4E isn’t trying to be a documentary about martial arts, realistically showcasing what can and can’t be done. Instead, it’s a Jackie Chan movie. In the typical Jackie Chan fight scene, he performs a crazy assortment of over-the-top martial arts moves. He’ll grab a mop and then knock three people down with it… and then drop it to do something else. Wait a second – why doesn’t he hold onto that mop? Why doesn’t he do the same thing over and over and over again? He’s a trained martial artist. That move was great. He COULD do it again – so why doesn’t he?

For me, this is exactly what limited-use powers are. If my adventure is a movie, they are the moves that only get used a few times in the movie – the cool movies that ad some flair and excitement to the scene. This is tied to what I mean if I call 4E “cinematic” – because when I say cinematic, part of what I mean is that flavor is more important than realism. I don’t storm out of the Jackie Chan movie saying “Why didn’t he just trip that guy?” – because I know going in that realism isn’t what he’s aiming for.

The article also criticizes Marking. While there may be ways to improve the mechanic, I have to say that the CONCEPT of Marking is something I really like. From the beginning of D&D, the magic-user has been the soft squishy guy and the fighter has been the good-AC, high-hit-point tank. But a persistent problem I found in many editions was the fact that any creature with the brains enough to recognize what the wizard is will ignore the fighter and go for the wizard, because the wizard is potentially far more dangerous than the fighter and can be brought down far more quickly. So from a purely mechanical standpoint, I like the fighter having a way to ACTIVELY defend his allies – to draw attention away from the wizard. With that said, why I prefer the current marking system to the MMORPG Taunt or the the save-or-fight-me Challenge of the 3.5 Knight is that it leaves the tactical decisions in the hands, of me, the DM. Unlike the 3.5 Knight’s Challenge, it doesn’t FORCE me to attack the knight, which  I find dull and unrealistic. Instead, it presents me with a tactical choice. I still CAN ignore the marking character; there are simply consequences for doing so. As for what it represents, to me it highlights the fact that the fighter is, frankly, a better melee fighter than any of the other classes. If he’s got his eye on you and you drop your guard or turn away, he’ll make you pay for it. The rogue may know where to hit to do more damage – but the fighter is the one who can force your attention; give him an opportunity and he’ll take it.

Anyhow, my real point here is that I feel someone who criticizes 4E D&D for not being realistic is missing the intent of the game. It’s not SUPPOSED to be realistic, any more than a Jackie Chan movie. The emphasis is on colorful action. If what you want is realistic simulation, it’s the wrong game for you – and hey, that’s OK.

With all that said, I will note that in the vast enormous tide of powers and feats that have come out for 4E, there are an increasing number that lack any sense of flavor and concept of why they do what they do. I’m not trying to defend that. I’m saying that the concept of limited-use powers in and of itself doesn’t bother me – but I still want the power to have some flavor.

Furthermore, I’ve been testing the following house rule: All Powers Are Reliable. If you miss all targets with a power and it has no automatic effect or miss effect, you keep it. If it’s an encounter power, you can try it again. If it’s a daily power, you can’t use it again that encounter – but you can try again in the next encounter. Note that if the power is reliable on it’s own (as many fighter powers are), I’ll let you use it again in that encounter; this is specifically for the normally unreliable powers.

If the power DOES have an automatic effect or miss effect, you can choose whether to take that benefit and lose the power, or accept it as a complete and utter miss with no effect whatsoever. If you’ve already used an effect of the power before you find out if you miss – for example, Otherwind Stride, where you attack people as you teleport – you lose the power, since you’ve already benefited from the teleport.

I haven’t played with this enough times to see if it’s balanced, but I do hate the anticlimactic feel of a player using a daily power and missing. Following my movie metaphor, I’m fine with a character having a trademark move that he only uses once in the movie – but sooner or later, I expect to see him actually do that move.

Again, looking to the post yesterday: Every system appeals to different playstyles. 4E isn’t a realistic simulation, and as I look at it, it wasn’t supposed to be. If that interferes with your enjoyment of a scene, it’s the wrong game for you – and there’s many other systems that can give you what you want.

20 Responses to “Simulation vs Disassociated Mechanics”

  1. benensky says:

    I agree with your point Keith. I like the simplicity of the mechanics of 4E. If players like accuracy, they can play other systems. They should not be changing 4E because it does not do what they want it to do. 4E is good for its simplicity, cinematic action and cooperative play mechanics. They should keep it that way. If Mearls wants to sell to the old school player why don’t they develop new books for the older systems.

  2. Jason says:

    Excellent post! Very well put.

  3. Keith Baker says:

    To be fair, Benensky, the piece I quoted was from an essay by Jason Alexander quoted IN the Mearls interview by the interviewer, not Mike Mearls. It may be a sentiment Mike shares, but it’s not his words.

  4. Dean says:

    Hmmm…I’m liking the idea of your proposed rule. I’m writing on my blog right now about putting more pulp into 4e D&D and that’s a pretty good way to

    1) reduce grind

    2) increase the workday, especially with the reduction of importance of milestones.

    I might combine that with Action Points though…give the player an option to expend resources to make that power reliable.

    And of course, this should apply to the monsters too. :-)

  5. Keith Baker says:

    I’ve done it with action points – let the people make a reroll by spending an action point – but I didn’t really care for it. I like action points be available for the big heroic push, and the reroll ends up being a) useful enough that it often ends up being the way the majority of action points are spent and b) makes the point use go by almost unnoticed.

    Another house rule I’ve used is to let people spend a healing surge when they miss by 1 to turn the miss into a hit (and no, you can’t spend five healing surges if you miss by five). The idea is that you’re pushing that little extra bit. That one’s worked quite well so far.

  6. Mike Moscrip says:

    “..As for what it represents, to me it highlights the fact that the fighter is, frankly, a better melee fighter than any of the other classes. If he’s got his eye on you and you drop your guard or turn away, he’ll make you pay for it.”

    In two sentences you’ve successfully reset my opinion of 4E. Hats off! Not that I was a ‘hater,’ I just had developed a ‘meh.. I don’t know if I like the sound of this or that detail’ attitude, despite only reading the book and not using it in practice yet.

    I’ve felt the same way for years, about regretfully trying to sidestep the frontliners to get at the wizards. Generally, I encourage my players to use blocking and various stated specific moves (of their own on-the-spot creation) to keep me busy. I thought the same stereotypical thing when I read about marking.. ‘aw man, what a cheap blah blah’ and was disappointed because I had really liked everything else I’d read. Well duh.. marking is doing exactly what I try to get my players to do.. it’s just a way of codifying it. It’s all in how it’s related.

    I don’t have any problem with realism anymore. I tried to insert a lot of it into my 2e games. What did I get for it? Combat rounds that took an hour to resolve.. ugh, the horror! I still love realism in a combat, but it’s something me and the players insert, not the rules. Especially since the game I’ve been running lately is OD&D.

  7. DBV says:

    Hey Keith,
    This is the player of Mandible from your PAX:Prime charity game. As someone who has experienced your house rules directly, I have to say that they were very effective at making the game more fun. Especially given the format of a one-shot, the ability to ensure that a character gets the impact of their signature move in an adventure was excellent. I really liked the healing surge to get that extra +1, it’s a lot like Extra Effort from games like Mutants and Masterminds, and I think it enhances the cinematic nature of the game. I also think that it helps actually use healing surges for back-row style classes, and also helps to create that moment in a story, where a character’s heroic nature is what overcomes adversity, the difference between victory and defeat. I think the direction of the reliable powers is interesting as well, in that 4e has almost always had that emphasis on a daily power doing *something*, even on a miss (whether through effect, or on miss functions). I think that the new things I’ve read about Essentials (specifically the Mage and Warpriest) show that even encounter powers are moving in that direction as well. No one likes to waste a turn. That all having been said, I wanted to say that I had an amazing time, and you are a great DM. Thank you for the opportunity to play. Ever since PAX, I’ve been super-motivated about running a game with some of the things I’ve learned. You’re awesome.

  8. Vrykerion says:

    A great read, Keith!

    I’ve used a similar house rule in which Encounter powers are all reliable, and you can recharge one daily on a milestone. It really gave my players that incentive to keep pushing between extended rests. Very fun rule in my book.

    As for realistic gameplay, I actually ended up coming to 4e to escape it. I used to GM a Shadowrun 3e game in college and while the setting was fun, the rules were just brutal when it came to realism of combat. Explaining to your player that their character just died to a headshot from a sniper one round in to the fight is never fun for me. So after stumbling upon the Penny Arcade/PVP D&D podcast, I gathered up the 4e core books and have never looked back.

  9. pdunwin says:


    I have to admit that I feel like people who don’t get this aren’t trying or are trying /not/ to get it, but I’m trying to get to where I think some of the designers are (by economic necessity): that some people prefer that the rules to conform to their imagination, rather than the other way around.

    And that’s okay.

    The point about the Jackie Chan movies is important. Some people /hate/ that powerful techniques are used once and then apparently forgotten about. Why doesn’t Voltron come out swinging his sword and get the fight over with?

    There are probably pages on about this viewpoint. Don’t go looking.

    It’s probably a GNS Theory thing, God help us. Anyway, D&D is now able to serve more than one view point more easily, even at the same table. Not that all systems can say that.

  10. badmojojojo says:

    This is a fantastic article. In all truth it is 4e that has brought me back to d&d after a 14 year absence. I absolutely love the new mechanics and I really like how you logically support some of the new elements of the game like marking & dailies. I’ll definitely point my friends to this article if they question some of the changes the developers have made.

  11. Rory Toma says:

    I haven’t run into any game that is a realistic simulation of combat. I’m sure if I did, I wouldn’t want to play it, either. 8-)

  12. Uncle Matt says:

    It is worth noting that Jackie Chan usually has an in-movie excuse for why his Daily Power only works one time. The mop he uses is broken after the mighty blow; the ladder he climbed up is then shattered; the house he dropped on the Wu Axe Gang is, well, dropped. He doesn’t get to drop another house the next day just because he rested.

    I like colorful action, but I also like internal consistency. If my character can do One Cool Thing each day, can it at least be a Different Cool Thing each day? You know, like Jackie Chan?

  13. Keith Baker says:

    Funny you should mention that, Matt – If you check the House Rules post I made yesterday, you’ll see that I was suggesting the same thing!

  14. Uncle Matt says:

    One thing at a time, Baker. I can only innovate so fast – I’m more of a story designer than a systems designer…

  15. Michael Pfaff says:

    Honestly, I think “simulation” is a poor word for what disassociated mechanics are contrary to. You can “simulate” something and have the mechanic be disassociated.

    The real disassociation is from the fiction.

    So, we have fictional vs. disassociated.

    Marking isn’t disassociated because it doesn’t “simulate” something correctly – it certainly does. It simulates the fighter keeping on eye on the monster and threatening him if he does something to an ally.

    The real disassociation (and if you read Justin Alexander’s article, he expands on this) comes from when those mechanics aren’t tied to anything from a fictional perspective – like when a Paladin’s mark overrides the Fighter’s mark.

    Why does this happen? There is no reason fictionally. There is no explanation. It doesn’t mimic any fictional event. A paladin’s “mark” may – When you lay the wrathful eye of your god’s judgment down upon a creature, it becomes marked. Right? You’re fictionally doing something. And, fictionally, something has to happen for that mark to “kick in”. Once the creature is marked, if it attacks anyone but you, the radiant energy from your faith (or the god directly) burns into it (dealing damage). Not bad.

    But, what about the paladin’s mark fictionally overriding the fighter’s mark? It doesn’t make any sense. There’s nothing explaining it. It’s detached from the fiction. It’s there for “game balance” and nothing more.

    This is where the disassociation comes from.

    I’d like to call it “fiction enabled mechanics” and “fiction detached mechanics”.

    The daily powers are fictionally detached. Like, you said yourself, “why can I only pull off this move once per day?” It’s not because of any fictional happenings (like the above poster mentioned, in a Jackie Chan movie, he falls down, the mop breaks, he comes upon a stairwell and can use it against the mob, etc… He doesn’t have a “one move” he can pull off “every once in a while”. He has a series of (at-will) abilities he can use and they interact with his environment and enemies in ways that make them seem only usable once in a while.

    It’s an interesting design philosophy 4E has picked up. It doesn’t have anything to do with “simulation” in my opinion.

    Let’s look at a solitary example that has been in D&D since the beginning. The monster “medusa”. Does a medusa “simulate” any reality? No. It can’t. Medusa’s aren’t real. But, we have a fictional basis for medusas. When they gaze into a mortal’s eyes, the mortal can turn to stone. Holy crap!

    In older editions of D&D (3E and prior), you had to fictionally look into a medusa’s eyes in order for it’s “gaze” to affect you. Without this fictional action, there is no effect. In the 3E SRD, the description even states, “It uses normal weapons to attack those who avert their eyes or survive its gaze…”

    This makes sense. I can fictionally say, “My character closes his eyes, or shields them from the medusa’s gaze.” Right?

    However, in 4E, the medusa’s power is written with no fictional backbone, only it’s mechanical weight:

    “Close blast 5; blind creatures are immune;”

    It has the keyword, Gaze, which means:

    “A type of attack. Blind or blinded creatures are immune to gaze attacks, and a creature cannot make a gaze attack while blinded.”

    So, by RAW, my character can only not be affected by this attack if he has the “blind” or “blinded” keyword.

    Nothing I do fictionally matters. I can avert my eyes, I can conceal my eyes, I can close them. I’m not “blind” though, am I? So, the medusa’s gaze attack affects me none the less.

    This is the disassociation (detachment) from the fiction many critics of 4E are talking about.

    Now, some of us may not really take those mechanics to heart. We’ll be like, “Oh well, if you avert your eyes or bandage them, well, I’ll consider you blind.” But, that’s not what the rules say. The rules are detached from the fiction.

    Some people seem to actually prefer this detachment. I don’t. I think it breaks my immersion in the fiction. I feel like sometimes when we hit that part of the game that’s “roll for initiative!” we go into “boardgame mode”. Now, I try to prevent this as much as possible with liberal descriptions of the powers and encouragement to use custom fictional maneuvers (page 42 DMG ftw!), but it’s still an issue. “Handwaving” it, as Alexander puts it, isn’t a solution – it’s just concealing the problem. There’s still a problem.

    I think Mike Mearls has taken these criticisms to heart, and he’s (hopefully) taking strides to make 4E more attached to the fiction. The new “Defender Aura”, for example, is a step in this direction in my opinion.

  16. Keith Baker says:

    Good points, Michael. And you’re right; the Defender Aura is an improvement over the 4E marking system for many reasons, from the paladin overriding the fighter to the weird situation of the fighter still marking you from across a crowded room. Note that what I said about marking was “While there may be ways to improve the mechanic, I have to say that the CONCEPT of Marking is something I really like.”

    At the time I wrote this, I hadn’t seen the Knight. As a result, I was unaware of the Defender Aura, and my fear based on the name of the class was that the Knight was going to return to the Knight’s Challenge of 3E, which simply forced the target to attack the knight. As I said above, I feel that this mechanic lacks flavor and makes the game less interesting. The Defender Aura, on the other hand, is a fine way of representing the character’s active interference with nearby opponents without requiring the use of marking tokens. In fact, I’ve changed the defender character in the game I’ve been running around the world to use a defender aura mechanic. I’m happy to see the mechanics improved to better capture a scene.

    Looking to the medusa example, the rules clearly state that blind characters are immune to gaze attacks. You can say that “The rules never clearly state that a character can voluntarily blind himself by covering his eyes”, but in doing so you’re really missing the flavor I LIKE about 4E, which is that in encourages improvisation. The 4E approach to skills has always been “Rather than concretely stating everything that can be done with a skill, we expect you to be creative in your application of it, and for the DM to be the final judge of what can and can’t be done.” This is spelled out more clearly in the Rules Compendium and Essentials, but it’s always been the premise, and again, it’s always been my favorite thing about 4E. If you apply that same flexibility to combat, then the idea that a creature can voluntarily blind itself by tying a rag around its eyes is simply common sense. I don’t NEED a system to spell that out precisely for me, if it’s clearly stated “blind creatures are immune” and suggests that players should be creative. If the player says “How about a blindfold”, I know the consequences of being blind and I can let him do that.

    Of course, we’ve also got the point that the ORIGINAL Medusa didn’t actually have to look into your eyes; it was just the case that anyone who looked at her directly was petrified, which was after all why her head retained that power after death. We’ve picked up the directed-gaze from Clash of the Titans and previous editions, but if we wanted to go mythological, it would probably work better as a no-action interrupt effect that targets any non-blind creature that takes any action that targets her.

    Anyhow. 4E isn’t a simulation. That’s an aspect of the game that won’t work for many people. I’ve been checking out Essentials and there are things I quite like about it. And one thing I like is that it calls out that underlying principle that was always there in 4E – to encourage improvisation and use the rules as a guideline rather than a rigid force.

  17. Keith Baker says:

    And in any case, it may be that my issue was with The Escapist’s brief excerpt of Jason Alexander’s essay than his actual point – since I’ve only read the Escapist interview with Mike, and not Alexander’s piece.

  18. Michael Pfaff says:

    Oh yeah, I’m not entirely disagreeing with your original post. I just think the “simulation” term is thrown around and not really a good opposite to disassociated. I’m not even sure “simulation” is even a realistic goal in an RPG, but that’s for another blog I think. ;)

    However, mechanics that represent and are associated with fictional actions? That’s what I prefer in my RPGs.

    I too like the concept of “marking” in 4E and think that the Defender’s Aura is a more refined method of presenting the fictional concept mechanically, if you know what I mean. Basically, let’s take a concept, and then make it work mechanically instead of having a mechanic and leaving it to be “explained away”.

    As far as using rules as a guideline and not rigid constraints, I totally agree! This is how I try to run my 4E games.

    Many people, however, are opposed to this. They see those rules as foundations for their play. Any “leeway” in the rules left for DM and player interpretation is strictly against the type of game they’re trying to play. So, what happens is that we have a set of people who play the game RAW – that you aren’t technically blind (i.e. have the keyword blind), therefore, the Medusa’s gaze can still affect you even if you fictionally describe your character as covering his eyes with his forearm or whatever.

    I’m of the impression that the rules are there to mimic the fiction – that blind is a condition that means you can’t see fictionally. However, some people would argue against this. They see the Blinded condition more as “Condition Red” imposed by “Attack Yellow”. Same thing with other mechanics in 4E, like Grab. It’s not your character “grabbing something fictionally with his hand” but performing “Attack Red” to impose “Condition Purple”.

    I wonder if 4E’s design ethos has created unintended consequences like this? Does 4E encourage improvisation? Or, does it encourage rigid mechanical application of the rules?

    Look at people on ENWorld and the WotC forums _right now_ freaking out about the new Essentials Wizard utility power called “Instant Friends” and you’ll know what I mean. ;)

    Essentials seems to be reeling the game back in and Mike Mearls has said they are trying harder to emphasis the mechanics’ place in the fictional world of D&D. I like the new direction and hope it brings out the true strength of 4E’s system (the strength that you and I both seem to be enjoying already).

    Here’s the original article by Justin Alexander btw:

  19. Keith Baker says:

    Does 4E encourage improvisation?

    I think it was MEANT to, and it does for some, but I don’t think the original 4E PHB did a great job of getting this idea across. I had no problem understanding that 4E skills were intentionally abstract so you could adapt them to different situations as you see fit – but I have encountered many people who didn’t get this at all and instead felt that skills were extremely undeveloped and had no real role in the game. The Essentials books have called this out more clearly with the “examples of improvisation” sidebar.

    So yes, I’m glad to see more focus on bringing this sort of thing to the fore.

  20. del says:

    The thing about “Why can’t fighters use encounters over and over” is that, when you approach it from a narrativist or cinematic viewpoint, it’s very obvious.

    Say I have a power, “Kick Sand in Your Eye.” In theory, as long as there’s dirt and I have a foot, I should be able to use it. But it’s more than just, “Is there dirt? Do I have a foot? Power = Go!” It’s, “Is there an opening? Is the monster guarding his face? Did I just kick dirt, and now they’re looking for it?”

    If you approach encounters and dailies from the viewpoint of, “I as a player am seizing narrative control, and am now saying, ‘This is the moment when my dirt-kicking will be effective’” then encounters and dailies make perfect sense.

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