Having spent part of last Sunday working on a level 8 character in 4e, I was struck with several of my concerns from my previous post. Forgive me as I rant here.
Ability score assignment provides a limited number of reasonable options. This is reflected in the result that three of four characters at the table Saturday have an INT of 8. Mind you, two are semi-feral nomads of Athas and the third is a brutal gladiator, making this not too out of order, but still, it's not surprising that our ability scores are more or less the same with differences largely in which ones are our primary ability scores and which are secondary. The benefits of such narrow specialization is such that 4e players complain about classes with multiple ability dependence. Having built a less efficient PC as my first character, it was hard not to spend all my time unconscious and not helping my fellow players. The latter was more frustrating. The lack of swinginess in the math behind the scenes can mean that a lone inefficient PC at the table will feel pretty useless.
It made me think that the new Gamma World set might have a useful contribution in the idea of promoting semi-random abilities. Maybe a house a rule might allow a primary ability of 18 and a secondary at 16, with no racial bonus, or perhaps primary and secondary based on class and race, roll the rest on 3d6 in order. This gives some mechanical stability and allows for some chance that has some mechanical value, but is limited in impact to a supporting rule. Unless a character puts both set scores into a pair of abilities that affect the same defense, this only puts a lot of swing into one of a character's defenses, and may restrict some feat access, particularly for fighters choosing weapon feats. And this will drive some players nuts, particularly those who do a lot of optimizing and planning out their character over several levels.
I'm sure I must be missing some ramifications here, but I am sure someone will point this out.
Multiple Significant Choices That Interact in Complex Ways
The way that feats, class abilities, and individual powers are structured allow some very satisfying levels of character customization, but they also lead to some very complex interactions. It's hard to make a totally ineffective character in 4e in my experience, but skill in character building makes the difference from having a decent time and spending your time envious of the player sitting next to you whose actions shift the tide of battle several times a session. Granted, I still think the disparity of efficient builds between this and d20 3.5 is significantly reduced, but I find that new players struggle a lot with the feeling that they suck compared to experienced min-maxers which doesn't lead to stoking the fires of competitive builds. People want to stick with their characters.
For those of us who don't frequent the message boards looking for extremely effective builds, this can be frustrating. Part of this is the exceptions-based rule structure. You need to master both the rules and the exceptions, leading to a high level of required game mastery to be an effective character builder. This also punishes those who don't see the challenges of particular player types. If a player doesn't see that a rogue is reliant on flanking to do extra damage, while a ranger is not, or who can't do the math of how much damage a barbarian does vs. a warlock, this can feel as if a player is given a lot of false choices, the comparative value of which is not apparent.
Reducing options and increasing the clarity of their value vis-a-vis each other increases the ability of new and casual players to make meaningful choices with no surprises. This king of choice is the strength of class-and-skill systems. And making clear trade-offs helps players feel they know what they are getting into. 3.x did a lot to muddy the water here, though the problems in these choice are real issues across several games (GURPS, Hero System, even Basic RolePlaying). Clear pros and cons of classes and their value in the game make it easier to make choices. Older versions of D&D make this clear: MUs are weak at the start, but they can infrequently change the whole tide of battle; Clerics are moderately useful in combat, starting as fighters with lower damage output, and slowly adding magical versatility, and really shining against undead; Fighters are very useful at low levels and lay out steady damage in combat; Thieves stink on all levels except in occasional surprises and when their skills can solve problems no one else can. The trade-offs and limitations are clear.
So increasing options is a balancing act between giving players more choices and making those choices clearly matter when they are made.
Of course, this can be addressed by decreasing class choices, but Essentials with its stance-based mechanics goes one step further, offering some classes that also have limited internal choices that provide more clear distinction.
Not Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater
So, it's clear to me that there are ways to streamline elements of character creation in 4e to suit my tastes, and maybe even without a huge pile of house rules. But it remains a struggle as I realize that my desire to truly master these rules is less than those who are its big champions. I want a game I can just sit down and play, and that will need a mix of trimming down options, fiddling with conventions, and finding the right players to play with.