Mike Mearls is saying interesting things about the mechanics of D&D, which is leading a lot of people (including me) to believe we’re facing a coming Fifth Edition. I think Newbie DM was right when he noted it’ll probably be a 40th Anniversary Edition.
But based on Mearls’ columns, I think he’s going the wrong direction. Bashers say they hate 4e’s mechanics, but I think what they really hate is the presentation.
I think the best argument against 4e is that it discourages thinking outside the power card and the tactical encounter. An old-schooler would talk about how, back in the day, the PCs would set traps to lure monsters into, pepper the lair with arrows from range, and do other creative things to avoid combat. They don’t see that in 4e. Having DMd 4e, I can tell you those things are there, but they have to come from the player. The books are weak on telling the players those options exist.
Remember the AD&D 1e PHB? It was like 50 percent spells. And the 4e PHB is like 50 percent powers. But spells were a chapter in the back, while powers are pretty well up front. Crack a PHB open to a random-but-near-the-front page and odds are you’ll see a big pile of powers. And any particular class entry is mostly powers.
If the 4e PHB were reorganized so that the how-to-play chapters, the two big chapters on adventuring and combat, were more to the middle of the book, that would help. But the chapters also need stronger sections on improvising actions.
Also missing are more rules for talking before or during combat. The tactical encounters are set up for roll-initiative-and-fight. There are some rules allowing use of Intimidate to force bloodied monsters to surrender, but I’d like to see more explicit statements to the players that you can bluff, intimidate, cajole, wheedle and parlay your way out of a battle, too.
It’s little things like this that would return D&D to its perceived former glory. 4e is the best D&D ever, and 3e was pretty great too. The mechanical innovations that created these systems shouldn’t be discarded, but I think that’s where Mearls is heading — a mechanical solution to a perception problem, which is to say it won’t really solve the problem at all.
(We should totally go back to the classic alignments, though.)