For the past few weeks Mearls has been talking about design elegance, citing criteria that 5th Edition does not meet in order to I guess help justify his decisions and direction (or at least sway us into thinking that he is doing the right thing), instead of taking the best mechanics from previous editions and building upon them, and perhaps even looking to other games to help innovate something better.
This week he moves the goalposts from elegance to the "ever-elusive feel". According to him the feel is correct when it matches your actions, thoughts, and decisions to that of your character. In other words it is good when the mechanics help immerse you in the game, and bad when it reminds you that you are just playing a game and causes you to think purely in terms of mechanics.
Before I get into his example on orcs and armor I want to know why, if "good feel" leads to immersion, you are still sticking with a pseudo-Vancian magic system? Spell slots, spell levels, per-day usage, and components with arbitrary gold piece requirements are not immersive, because there is no in-character explanation or rationalization for any of it. What do spell slots and levels represent? How come you can only memorize/prepare spells once per day? How come some spells can be used whenever you want, others have daily limitations, and still others can be used whenever you want if you have enough time?
Everything about the magic system resonates bad feel: it is artificial, clunky, predictable, unimaginative, and so very, very safe. I imagine it would be incredibly easy for them to come up with a magic system that both makes sense in the narrative and actually evokes the feel you normally get from fiction, but because of tradition it is still with us many editions later. Kind of like the orc in plate armor, actually: his argument is that it would not make sense for an orc in plate armor to be easier to hit, but are they sticking with a largely binary attack mechanic because it makes sense, or because of tradition?
Maybe the orc should be easy to hit, but because of the armor it should be hard to damage. Think about it: normally you roll to hit and if you succeed you deal some damage, but if you miss absolutely nothing happens despite hits and misses representing a variety of things. This might make sense for a goblin or perhaps even a human, but what about a minotaur? Or an ogre? Or a dragon? Do you really expect me to believe that a fighter can withstand the brunt of a dragon without any ill effect? Like, does wearing heavy armor magically help him evade everything, because he should at least be getting tired from having to dodge so much.
This is ironically one of the strengths behind the bizarrely controversial damage-on-a-miss mechanic. Imagine a Dungeons & Dragons game where massive monsters could deal damage even on a miss. Big monsters would be more dangerous, it would convey that you are getting worn down despite not taking a direct hit (which would reasonably kill you), and it would not even have to be anything particularly complex; just add in a Miss: x damage to the unorganized wall of action text, or a Brutal x trait.
Another simple rule that would better model how armor protects you? Have armor grant damage resistance, like in Dungeon World and Numenera. Not the half-damage resistance they have going on now, but something more granular, like what we had in 3rd and 4th Edition. This way you have an orc that is easy to hit but harder to hurt, and it could be a much needed step forward for a game that does not require magical healing to work (especially if classes have the option to boost their armor rating).
But of course it does not matter that there are clearly better suited mechanics for getting the job done (or making existing rules work better) and immersing players, because the real qualifier is that they fulfill, in Mearls's own words, the "much more important criteria of evoking the feel of Dungeons & Dragons". Or more accurately the feel of a certain edition of Dungeons & Dragons, because after all that is all the game really needs: not innovation, not refinement, not an evolving game, but just slightly rehashed mechanics that they can charge you for all over again.
In the second part of the article he does his best to try and convince you that the new model for classes is somehow better than 4th Edition, claiming that it takes the middle ground between 3rd and 4th Edition, when really it is more like 3rd Edition with a just a bit of added flexibility, which is still not much. The funny and sad part is how he uses early arguments from the anti-4th Edition camp to sell his points, namely how roles somehow restricted you and the so very, very tired complaint of, "I do not want to play a ranger, I want to play a fighter that can use a bow like a ranger and use lots of ranger skills!"
Seriously, he describes the "dilemma" of the poor gamer who wants to play a fighter that is "a cunning archer and survivalist", but had to "settle" for a ranger, because of course it was totally possible to play a survivalist fighter when most of the skills you wanted cost twice as much as the ranger would need to spend, and your budget was all of two skill points. Yes, I am so very sure that fighters pretending to be rangers were commonplace back in the day, and that that complaint was not created to try and prove how bad 4th Edition is because, despite it giving you a class that did exactly what you wanted, it had the wrong label.
He also tries to claim that 3rd Edition was open ended and that all the parts acted as doors to near-infinite options, when the fact is that not only did many of those so-called options and combinations not play well together, some of them did not even work at all. Stuff like fighters in general, multiclass spellcasters, and numerous feats that players would never take and seemed only to exist to justify things that NPCs and monsters could do. Frankly I found 4th Edition to be both more flexible and functional. Not only could any race and class work just fine, but that issue of players interpreting fighters differently? Yeah, they can all be represented with minimal effort.
A strong, tough half-orc fighter just needs a decent Strength and Constitution, an axe or hammer, and martial exploits that give you bonuses when using an axe or hammer (which often were based on your Constitution, so it did more than just give you more hit points and a better Fortitude defense). A lightly armored, agile elf warrior just needs to have a decent Strength and Dexterity, some hide armor, a spear or sword, and martial exploits that let rely on your Dexterity modifier (which were generally heavy blades, light blades, and spears). For added effect there is even a variant class feature called combat agility that lets you chase enemies down and prone them.
Not that characters need to be as complex as they were in 4th Edition. No one is saying that, and I think that even the most diehard 4th Edition fans would prefer a streamlined game where, among other fixes, players choose fewer things at the start, but still have that ability to adjust and readjust their character as they progress instead of making a choice early on that locks them in for the rest of the game. You could even cater to players who want pre-built concepts by just making builds. That is all subclasses are after all, except that you cannot change your mind later and most of your other choices are made for you.
In the end I think that Mearls is indeed getting the feel from previous editions, but I do not think that it is a good or even right feel. He seems to be trying really hard to convince us that it is not only the right direction, but the best one, and I disagree. I disagree with all of it. I think it is lazy and uninspired, especially after all this time, and it shows in these more recent Legends & Lore columns. I know that there are people who do agree with him, but I have to ask: do you agree with it because it is the best mechanic and design for the job, or because it is what you grew up with?