"Elegance means that your game not only works, it works well."
Going off of that definition I would have to say that Next is not elegant. "Well, no duh," I hear some of you saying, because apparently people have this idea that I venomously hate Next for the crime of merely being different, as opposed to legitimate reasons or criticisms. Hell, according to some this hatred even extends to the flavor content: it is not because it makes no sense or is silly, it is obviously because it is in any way associated with Next.
Hate is pretty strong. I do not hate Next, though I will admit that I am disappointed with it. It seems like much of the design is just rehashing old mechanics, which is fine for some but to me comes across as lazy and uninspired, especially considering that there is a design team on the job and they have been at it for over a year, and this article is actually a pretty good example of why I feel that way.
First, in the section of the article on solving a problem by removing it Mearls states—immediately after misquoting daleks—that early on they had an issue with saving throws, namely that calculating and tracking Fortitude, Reflex, and Will "added time to character creation and placed an extra level of detail on every monster".
I...guess technically they did add more time, about as much time as it takes to add two small numbers together, which is frankly not an unreasonable or even meaningful amount. Given that you still have to add two numbers together due to proficiencies I assume Mearls agrees, which just makes this entire statement strange, almost as strange as when he goes on to say that saving throws are "obviously important" to the game. Are they? Are they really important for any other reason than "tradition"?
Would it not be more elegant to have contests and conflicts resolved in a uniform manner like, oh, 4th Edition, 13th Age, Numenera, FATE, and Dungeon World? Or is it really more elegant to tell a player that if you want to hurt something, you roll a d20, except when they roll a d20? I think this is exactly the kind of thing that should be removed, but despite his statement of "putting everything on the table as potential fodder for the chopping block" obviously they will not because, again, tradition.
Mearls claims that he loves the solution of simply removing a problem, as it is "the experienced designer's way out of even the thorniest corner". He is even willing to remove any problem, except when tradition rears its ugly head: rather than "delete" the saving throw rule, weigh it against non-Armor Class defenses from 4th Edition or 13th Age, or even pitch an alternative idea he simply alters it so that, thanks to proficiencies, we still get essentially the same thing as we had in 3rd Edition.
Of course this is not the only inelegant part of the game to persist for tradition's sake:
- Classes: The class structure and advancement works if the concept you have in mind is exactly like the ones that have been arbitrarily constructed. It does not provide any sort of flexibility or organic progression, which is why I will concede that it technically works, but it does not work well. There are many other games with simple character creation procedures that still allow you to make decisions and alter your character as the game progresses.
- Healing: Is it really elegant to require groups to have magical healing on tap just to keep going? I get that even to a point 4th Edition demanding a leader role to help ensure survival, but at least you had a lot of classes to choose from, and it was mostly necessary in combat. Does it assist the story and pacing, or does it hinder it? Given all the games out there that do not require magical healing, do you think that Dungeons & Dragons is doing something beneficial by bucking trends, or would the game be better served if you found a way to just remove the need for constant magical healing?
- Monsters: Traits and actions are basically formatted as paragraphs. In some cases they are not so bad, but some end up looking like walls of text. This is much less elegant that 4th Edition's formatting, which made it a lot easier to pick out the details. Same goes for spell-like abilities; is it considered elegant to have to refer to another book to figure out what a monster can do?
- Magic: So...some spells can be cast whenever you want, but others are divided into levels, and you can only cast a certain number of a certain level of spells in an entire day. Some spells can be cast whenever you want without using a spell slot if you take a longer time to cast them, once per day mages can regain spell slots, but no higher than 6th for some reason, and you can slot spells into higher level slots to make them inflict more damage. Is this the best magic system they could come up with? Of course not, but neither will they create a new one because tradition demands that the game adhere kinda-sorta to the works of Jack Vance.
Another issue is that it only increases your reliability, not your capability: if you need to hit a DC of 25 and only have a +4 bonus or less on the roll, all the advantages in the world mean nothing. What about changing it so that instead of having a variety of modifiers, that assets and complications just give you a +1 or -1 respectively? You would just need to tally up all the advantages and disadvantages, and apply the net result as a bonus or penalty. It sounds simple to remember and utilize.
Not really related, but his description of action points in 4th Edition makes me want to question if he has ever played 4th Edition. I mean obviously he has, so I am confused as to why he would claim that "most often" you would use action points for rerolls: most encounter and daily powers were expended on a miss, so you could not use them for a reroll. In fact most players spent action points to set up combos, get to where they really needed to be, to use second wind and still do something, etc.
Really the only case you would use an action point to reroll an at-will is if the enemy was under the effect of some ability that did something extra on a hit and you were out of encounters and dailies, or if you were out of encounters and dailies and really needed to drop a monster.
So, there you have it. That is why I think Next is inelegant, lazy, and uninspired, especially when this is all they have to show for their efforts after all this time. Of course I think that much of the reason is that they are afraid to push some mechanics and discard others is due to traditionalists, which is a shame because I believe that by challenging the design and mechanics of older editions—4th Edition included—that it would result in an amazing game.