Monte Cook’s inaugural Legends & Lore column is an inauspicious beginning. Taken as a whole, the column introduced Monte Cook to readers and discussed his take on the skill system proposed by Mike Mearls in his August 16 Legends & Lore article Difficulty Class Warfare. As if rehashing a used topic wasn’t bad enough, Cook didn’t present it nearly as well Mearls did a month earlier. If you haven’t yet read Monte Cook’s first Legends & Lore column, Very Perceptive, I encourage you to do so before reading my running commentary and opinions on the highs and lows.
The purpose driven column
Cook began by giving a description of the job he is undertaking; he is working with the Research & Development department at Wizards of the Coast as a remote consultant. His primary role is to explore options. The reader can only assume this is research for a future edition; however, it seems likely that his writing could lead to new 4e D&D content long before a future edition.
Cook attests to D&D as an evolving game that must move forward and remain true to its roots. That sounds like an excellent morgue file for future topics. What makes up the identity of D&D? Have any 4e D&D mechanics, systems, or lore become a necessary part of the D&D identity? Unfortunately, this is not the topic he chose for this column.
That was no swan dive
Cook dives right into his perspective on skills and role-play. This is the system he proposed to Mearls only a few weeks ago. However, Cook’s presentation appears distinctly less developed. It comes away as a lost opportunity. This column is a good place for Cook to write his own article describing how to implement the system in place of 4e’s skill system and provide guidance on using it in play. But, the result sadly lacks strength by forgoing mechanics in favor of an example based on the cover art from the first edition’s PHB.
Moving forward, there is a distinct lack of bite with regards to adventure design. It is true that a DM acts as the sense of the PCs; if a DM doesn’t give description, the PCs are left unaware. What is missing in Cook’s analysis of adventure design is a depiction of a DM choosing to include content. A designed adventure has already generated the rewards, hidden traps or hazards, secret doors or levers, and set dressing. The what ifs and maybes of players attempting to open every nook and uncover every stone doesn’t generate things which the DM didn’t choose to include.
Cook suggests rewarding role-play with special secrets or stunts. Why are readers being told to reward role-playing in a role-play game? One would not expect a baseball player to gain a bonus for talking about baseball? Role-play is the method of driving a story forward in the adventure. The reward of role-playing should not be a mechanical bonus. It should be the benefit of telling the characters’ tale and participating in a collaborative story.
Furthermore, this kind of benefit rewards the player’s skill and imagination more than the character’s. This creates an unfair platform for those that have little role-play talent or inclination. It removes player capacity to depict their character as written (unless it is a roughly equal copy of the player). Lastly, Cook bemoans the truth that a bad dice roll could cause all that good role-play to fail. Dice provide an unbiased equal footing for all participants. The dice create a bridge for players to embody their character while erecting a wall between player’s stats and character’s stats.
What is seen in Cook’s attitude is a fear of permitting failure to exist in a role-play game. His proposed system removes failure in one of two ways: first, those without sufficient chance of success are excluded from failure by not allowing a roll; second, those with an overwhelming chance of success are not required to roll at all. Thus, the chance to permit failure is reduced to only the smallest range of possibility. The risk of failure is not a system flaw to be corrected. Attempting to do so is a user error. Role-play needs to include the response and decisions of a character faced with failure. Perhaps if he had started with the debate of storytelling vs. game playing this would have been covered. Unfortunately, this debate is postponed until further notice.
The worst two paragraphs
In the limited description of a word-based skill ranking system lies a serious question: Does Monte Cook have any comprehension of 4e D&D? His writing leaves one with an impression that he has no comprehension of the core rules. The proposed skill reimagining appears far too similar to the existing 4e skill system. What is the purpose of replacing a functional system with a new system that appears little different?
There was a need for Cook to give a more developed presentation of the system and methods of implementing and testing the ideas for readers of Legends & Lore to parse and respond. The conceptual suggestion is a lost opportunity for the lack of a defined system of implementation.
Open to what comes next
Despite the troubling first column, there are several good topics already alive in the piece which can be approached during the coming weeks. A more inclusive debate of the identity of D&D could spur fantastic research of what content should be provided. A strong debate of storytelling vs. game playing would lead to improved guidance for DMs and players for better campaigns; it could also show where rules can step back to allow better stories or better games.
However, the discussion of the skill system is burnt out. It is time to move on and time to let go of force-feeding the idea of word-based skill ranks over number-based skill scores. Readers have seen two presentations of the concept. The forum threads have discussed it. Some readers will quickly attest it is not as good a system, especially without more development and possibility of play-testing.
As a readership it is time to hope for the best of Monte Cook and plan for the best. Yes, we should plan for the best of his work. During the weeks and months that Cook is permitted to write Legends & Lore we are certain to see his best work come forward.
What are your thoughts on the identity of D&D as a game? Has 4e presented elements that should be included when speaking of D&D’s roots? What topics are you interested in from Legends & Lore?