Two examples of D&D play. First example:
Dungeon Master: The treasure chest looks to be made of an unearthly metal: it is a deep, slate grey color, but in your flickering torchlight it shows tints of magenta, lime green, and a nauseating purple which, when you gaze at it too long, seems to shrivel your eyeballs. The clasp is worked to resemble a face somewhere between that of a preying mantis and a giraffe. If the chest isn’t locked, it sure as hell doesn’t look inviting, either.
Fighting-Man: I’m gonna try to get that chest open.
Dungeon Master: How?
Dungeon Master: As you and your allies try to scramble down from the Titan’s bookcase with the scrolls you found, its bookends–worked in brass to resemble an otherwordly hybrid of a purple worm and a lion–begin to roar in alarm. As the Titan’s pet wyvern, hearing the noise, beats its wings furiously against the bars of its cage, hissing at you, the worm-lion bookends detach from their bases and come slithering toward you. Now what?
Fighting-Man: I attack.
Dungeon Master: Okay, roll.
The first example cannot be resolved without obtaining additional fictional inputs from the character. This can slow down the pace of the game to an absurd degree, but it leads to a richly imagined scene.
The second example may have some pretty nifty things operating on your character sheet (exhausting your spells one by one; losing hit points; getting enhancements due to your magic items), but usually the fictional events in the game are imaginatively anemic.
Gygaxian Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t require much in the way of fictional inputs for combat. In the worst case scenario, the situation in the second example can degenerate into “I hit . . . 6 points . . . You miss . . . I miss . . . You hit, 5 points.”
This isn’t inevitable – a good Dungeon Master or good players can always gussy up this basic exchange – but the rules operate without that degree of creativity and imaginative investment, and there’s always a drift toward laziness which can result in less scintillating play.
(Case in point: in Tavis’s White Sandbox game, Tavis allows players to narrate how they land the killing blow against an enemy. Sometimes this results in some very nice additions to the fiction: although Eric’s Halfling Archer was the one who reduced the Beast Lord to 0 Hit Points, Eric used his narration to describe that it was Adrian’s character who lopped Stronghoen’s head off. But often we’re too lazy to say more than, “Um, I just totally kill him.”)
Giving some situational modifiers (+2 for high ground) is a step in the right direction, but these tend to get lost in the spread of a 1d20 roll.
Contrast Gygaxian combat with D&D 4e. Fourth edition requires zillions of fictional inputs in order to work, it’s just that the fictional inputs are largely confined to relative positioning on a battlefield. I find it hard to imagine how 4e could be played without figuring out exactly where people are standing, and exactly how they’re attacking.
As a result, combat in 4e is imaginatively rich, in the sense that how you attack someone both requires input from the imaginary environment and also changes the environment in a way that impacts later decisions.
The downside is that in 4e there are so many inputs to track that fighting slows to a crawl. This isn’t a problem if you’re fighting the Beast Lord, but it stinks when you’re just mowing down encounters that only exist to bleed resources prior to the big showdown.
What would be nice is a version of D&D where resolution has a scalable complexity. When you’re frustrated by bullshit caltrops on a staircase, just roll the Remove Traps skill and get it over with. When you’re trying to do something really complicated, like blowing up a Lich by re-binding its booby-trapped spell books to deceive it (as Maldoor did), do something pretty freeform to enable the players to show creativity. Stupid fights against lame-o’s, use the baseline combat system. Big fights against major enemies, adopt a system where, say, special abilities or feat-type things come into play, allowing for some more tactical complexity.
Credit where it’s due department – Vincent’s making the same point here, over a year ago.