Preamble: None of this post has very much at all to do with making video games except in the most broad ways, but I like to think about design and about how game systems inform the user experience. I choose to post this first because it lets y’all know a little bit about me: I think about game design a lot, and I like to play pen and paper games. I hope you enjoy.
There are those who believe that the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons is complete and utter crap. They say that roleplaying has been pushed so far to the side that it might as well be a board game. They say, variously, that it is too complicated and/or too simple. They say that playing wizards no longer feels sufficiently awesome.
Fie, I say unto them! Except for the last part, which is mostly true.
My stance on 4th Edition may be surprising to those who know where I come from, roleplaying-wise. My desire to tell a compelling story is the heart of my play style. I love games like Dogs in the Vineyard and Spirit of the Century – games that revolve around storytelling and character development rather than crunchy combat mechanics and complicated character building. As a player, I’m the guy who goes over to the dark side, and loses my character, because it makes the overall story that much better. Why, when I value the story aspect of the game so much, do I enjoy this system that is so combat-centric?
One of the things I really enjoy about more descriptive games is the ability to play combat out in a cinematic, overblown way: flips, explosions, running across the ceiling, &c. Because the descriptions are so centered around the just the game of combat, 4th Edition abilities have a lot of room for awesome description. For example, the fighter ability Cleave — which damages two enemies adjacent to you — could be described as the suggested flavor text, “[I] hit one enemy, then cleave into another,” or you can spice it up: “I stab my sword through both goblins. Greenskin shish kebab tonight,” or as, “I slice the tendons in the goblin’s arm, causing it to fly sideways and hit his comrade-in-arms.”
The basic point is that, because the rules are so tight and specific, your descriptions can range all over the place as long as they map, generally, to the rules. You can really spice up the wizard by going big with the description on his abilities — for Burning Hands, for example, you could say, “I begin to scream unholy syllables and, as I speak, my words become broken and garbled. At once, searing light shines from my mouth as my words become tiny snakes of flame, seeking something, anything, to burn.” This description breaks nothing about the game.
The other thing I think 4e really has going for it is that the combat is clear and doesn’t get bogged down as some other systems tend to. You always have a clear set of things you can do and you can choose to do any of them. Every once in a while you want to do something cool and, usually, there’s either a system for it, or a power you can have that does it. A smoother combat flow makes for more interesting, engaging description. It also makes for more time doing other scenes. Now, if you’re in a dungeon crawl you’re probably not doing a hell of a lot of roleplaying in towns but you just don’t have to be in a dungeon crawl. Like in any other game, combat can be an occasional spice used here and there to keep things exciting.
This is all by way of saying: if you want to tell good stories 4th Edition really doesn’t do anything to stop you. In fact, it offers real opportunities for good description and storytelling. What it doesn’t do is force storytelling upon you nor does the game itself particularly reward good descriptions. If you and your group want it, however, you can have a pretty awesome time. Even if you are a wizard.