Descriptive Loss

I was talking with one of my fellow forum members over at The Gamer’s Haven about some of the Actual Play sessions that those guys have posted. We were discussing how different it is to listen to a session of a 4e game, as compared to just about any of the other systems that have been run. We couldn’t quite put our respective fingers on it, but something about the 4e sessions was less compelling to listen to then the others. We finally settled on the the combat being the culprit, what with the tactical nature of it, and the near-need to see a battlemat to make it interesting.

But something kept gnawing at me. I’ve been thinking about it all evening and the following morning, and it finally dawned on me:  it’s the descriptions, stupid! In every game that I have ever played in, or listened to, the absolute best part of the combat was hearing how both the players and the GM describe combat actions. From the thump of a club into skeletal bones to the crack of a revolver, no matter the system, descriptive, cinematic combat really brings things to life.

4e changes all of that, and I think the problem lies in the powers that every class has. No longer do you have the warrior describing his sword-strike, instead you have Furious Smash. Instead of the wizard or the warlock being unique because they have powers and spells with names, now everyone does. And what’s worse, each of the powers has its own little block of flavor text, and it’s the same every blessed time. There’s no difference from one Vengeful Strike to another, and every time you Split the Tree, it’s the same.

Sure, it’s really cool when you use those powers for the first time. But as you keep playing, and you go through multiple combat encounters, there are only so many times that you can read the same descriptive text before it becomes massively dull and repetitive. As well, I run into what I call the “Anime Problem.” If you’ve seen any of the recent rebirth of the Transformers cartoon, you know what I’m taking about. It’s not enough for Optimus Prime to fire his laser cannon, no, he now has to shout out the name of the attack that he’s using. Every time I imagine a 4e combat independent of an actual game session, all I can do is imagine a party running around, shouting out the names of the powers they are using.

I realize now that it’s this problem more than anything else that has driven me away from 4e D&D. Because the players and the GM, by and large, are prevented from describing what their characters are doing in combat, everything just gets same-y and repetitive.

I don’t really have a fix for this problem, aside from not playing that system. While I don’t think that everything needs to be described and created by the players and GM, there needs to be some flexibility to those descriptions so that every fight doesn’t degenerate into a basic calling out of powers used, to-hit rolls and damage dealt. If you’ve got a way around this, I would love to hear it because I think 4e has a lot to offer. Right now, though, I can’t use it.

[tags]tabletop, rpgs, GMing, systems, D&D[/tags]

7 thoughts on “Descriptive Loss

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  1. On one hand I understand what you mean, but it’s not really /4E’s/ problem. It’s more a problem with how people perceive 4e.

    Those power fluff texts are not the word of god. Ninjas won’t appear if you get creative with it (Well, maybe they will if a power were to be creating ninjas…). And no one has to (or really should, for the vast majority of games) be ICly shouting out their power names. All it takes is for the people involved to be creative.

    Now from playing it, the problem I do see is that often people treat that flavor text as a rather large crutch and don’t bother being creative. I don’t feel that is how 4e is really intended to be used, but it’s easy to use it that way and that’s a real disservice.


  2. That’s true. However, I’ve heard a few different, very experienced, roleplay groups fall into this trap, so I’m not sure it’s an easy one to escape.

    Also, given that 4e does have some strong influences from MMOs (where all the powers are named), I think that is the way that WotC designed it. I think that there could be more depth, but when the GM needs to know the name of the power so there’s a touchpoint for what it does, then I think you end up not giving a description of what your character does to deal the damage.


  3. I was directed to this article from your posting on the Gamer’s Haven website, where I am a frequent lurker. I must respectfully disagree with your assessment, to an extent. As was pointed out by ‘justaguy,’ the flavor text is simply just text, and can be adapted by skillful players to fit the mood and flow of a particular instance. A good DM should be able to urge his players to engage the combat in specific ways, and reward those players for adapting their descriptions. I also would wonder, how does a system like pathfinder, Deadlands, or 3e give you any more license to move beyond the descriptions in the text that 4e does not? Spells each have a name, descrption, and means of casting (verbal,hand gestures, the like). This seem as limiting as just a few lines of flavor text.

    That being said, I believe that the inherent problem with 4e is not the system, but rather the prefab modules. Keep on the Shadowfell, and the rest of its ilk, are focused on systematic and rather continuous combat. This approach doesn’t lend itself well to actual play podcasts, or to long arching stories. I don’t want to listen to dice rattling, numbers being added, and such. I want story. In the case of Gamer’s Haven, I think that they, unfortunately, stuck too hard to those published packets and had individuals with strong negative biases about the game attempting to play it.

    I would strongly suggest that if you wanted to give 4e a serious look,
    try podcasts that focus on non-WotC published games. RPPR, Nerdbound, and Thursday Knights are all good examples of 4e done well.


  4. I thought this when 4e first came out and have played only a few sessions. I started looking at a bunch of smaller, more universal rpgs like PDQ and FATE. Heroquest 2 is the best I’ve found so far for the roleplaying inclined. It is flexible enough to be very thorough and crunchy though. It’s my new default system.


  5. @Roosterj: I will say that I do really enjoy RPPR’s sessions, and they lose nothing from being 4e. However, having played it, run it, and listened to other good gamers player it, losing the combat descriptions seems more common to me than not. And all of what I’ve personally experienced has been DM-made stuff, not pre-fab.

    Also, post more, lurk less on GH. =) Love to have more posters there.

    @Kyrsen: I love Pathfinder, but I’ll have to give Heroquest a look-see.


  6. I have also noticed that for some reason, despite very experienced role play groups, a decrease in the exciting banter of battle in 4e. Yes, of course players and GMs can force a difference and make RP happen, but I think that the new 4e system just suppresses it for some reason.

    I think equating it to kind of a video game, or a full-on table-top war game, is an apt. I don’t think it’s a bad or good thing, it just is what it is. So, if I want a heavier RP game, I just look to different systems.

    That being said, I can’t wait until my friend’s 4e Dark Sun game starts up…


  7. One of the other things to do is to simplify the weapons, and damages in general. I hate all the damn fiddling with weapons. Make weapons basically do a fixed amount of damage based on size and type.


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