This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.
Mike Mearls was "a Lead Developer" for D&D 4E. At his personal Weblog, The Keep on the Gaming Lands, he posted I Hate Resistances on Saturday. Let's just ignore the implications of posting something expressing his hate for something on Valentine's Day, and focus on what he said, and what I have to say about that.
He said that while he was working on the (at the time upcoming) 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, he argued against the inclusion of resistances to energy types in the game. His reasoning:
Resistances create a disparity in value between energy types, but only if the DM uses a particular mix of monsters. Fire attacks blow in the campaign that has lots of red dragon and azers, while cold attacks such in an arctic campaign.
Story-wise, resistances mess up intuitive themes. Take my second example from above. If you were playing in an Arctic themed campaign, you might think it's a cool idea to play an ice wizard. Well, if you're fighting lots of ice creatures, that's actually a terrible choice. The folk of the frozen north should study and use fire magic. The desert nomads use ice magic. Sure, you can explain around that, but it's a jarring inconsistency. I'd rather have the flexibility to do it how I want.
He makes a point worth considering. It can be frustrating when a character concept is essentially invalidated by the rules as they apply in a given setting. One might think "Oh, tough titty — it's called 'roleplaying'. You play what fits the setting. If you want to play something that doesn't fit, you suffer the consequences for the sake of your roleplaying experience." On the other hand, he's also right about how the setting concept itself might seem to favor using (for instance) an ice wizard in an icy setting. Sure, you could say that it makes more sense in a given setting for fire wizards to be more common in an icy setting, but that doesn't mean there can't be a campaign setting where the opposite is true, too.
Nobody ever promised D&D would be the universal set of FRPG rules, no matter what setting. Well, I hope not. If someone did promise such a thing, he or she was wrong to do so. That's not the point of D&D, y'know. It's D&D, not GURPS or Fudge or Fuzion (or the game I'm working on right now, which has the working title "Apotheosis RPG").
That doesn't mean there isn't a solution to the problem, though. Mike Mearls actually says he prefers two possible solutions to the problem.
First, I think it's OK if a monster has limited access to damage denial. Maybe once or twice a combat it can reduce the damage from an appropriately themed attack.
Unfortunately, I can't think of a reasonable, in-game explanation for why that particular rule would apply. This strikes me as a metagaming approach to "fixing" the problem, and seems to fit with the way 4E was designed from end to end. The game developers focused on game balance so much they forgot about the verisimilitude aspect; to a nontrivial degree, it seems they just ignored the suspension of disbelief concerns of having to explain why something would play out the way it does in a way that makes sense to the characters. Why, for instance, would a fire elemental be immune to a Burning Hands spell twice, then suddenly start taking damage?
It also encourages metagaming on the part of the players to do that; they stop thinking like their characters ("Oh, damn, it's a creature made of fire! I bet it's immune to all my fire magic!") and start thinking like tactical miniatures wargamers ("I need to hit it twice with my lowest power fire spell, then unleash a Fireball!") The way 4E seems like it has been dragged screaming halfway from RPG to tactical miniatures wargame, I guess that's not inconsistent — and that's basically my point: Mike Mearls' first solution strikes me as exactly the kind of thinking that, as far as I'm concerned, "broke" D&D with the release of a new edition in the first place.
For his second option, he offers:
What I'd prefer, though, are special abilities and bonuses that trigger when you use the "wrong" energy type. Blasting the red dragon with fire hurts it, but it also lets the dragon use its breath weapon again. Using a cold attack on the frost knight gives him +5 AC for a round. Blasting a ghoul with necrotic energy gives it an action point.
I like those sort of drawbacks because they make battles more interesting. You can try to finish the dragon off with your fire attack, but you risk giving it a powerful counter-attack. You can more easily dial the power of such abilities up or down, whereas resistance in even its weakest form (resist 5) is powerful at low levels and still quite useful at epic.
He's right, that it could make battles more interesting. He's also basically playing to the tactical metagaming side of things again, which doesn't really scratch my itch for roleplaying. Worse, he's actually increasing the complexity of playing the game — thus reducing playability — without producing a clear and obvious benefit to the verisimilitude of the rules. The idea that blasting a red dragon with a Fireball lets it blast you back (if it lives) with a breath weapon it wouldn't otherwise get to use doesn't help my suspension of disbelief, and seems a little counterintuitive.
This is sort of the opposite of a problem with his first solution. In the first solution, creatures made of fire don't make sense, because there's no reasonable explanation for why they'd suddenly stop being immune to fire. In the second solution, creatures not made of fire don't make sense, because there's no reasonable explanation for why they'd both take damage and get stronger. At least there's some reason to believe a fire elemental could get stronger from getting hit with fire weapons (ignoring for the moment the weirdness that they still take damage).
I think this entire approach to trying to fix a problem with game balance under non-mainstream circumstances is very shortsighted, though. Mike Mearls looks at the situation, sees that innate energy resistance can make it difficult to damage the majority of creatures in a setting that seems to mandate the sort of magics that are least effective in battling those creatures, and decides that the problem is energy resistance. As a result, he comes up with these convoluted "solutions" to the problem that may not really solve the problem at all, and introduce more problems of their own. He doesn't bother to even consider that there are other factors that play into the game imbalance issue.
I, for one, would have looked at the other obvious part of the immediate problem, at least, even if I didn't start considering less obvious factors. I speak of the magics themselves. Sure, a Fireball is less effective against a fire creature with fire resistance — and fire wizards seem to have an obvious place in a fire-dominated setting. That doesn't mean that a Fireball (or Burning Hands, or anything else) necessarily has to be one's only recourse. Maybe the problem is a lack of fire spells that aren't limited by fire resistance.
For instance . . . a spell that actually steals heat and flame from something to empower something else could be a very effective weapon. Think Enervation, only limited to fire-based targets, and with the side-effect of charging some other capability, or otherwise producing another effect. That's off the top of my head. I'm sure there are millions of other spells that could be added to a fire wizard's repertoire. Maybe the problem isn't energy resistance (which has a high level of value for maintaining suspension of disbelief), but the versatility of fire magic. Improving that versatility could also help improve the verisimilitude of your game.
That's certainly an aspect of supernatural effects such as magic, psionics, et cetera, that I'll keep in mind while working on (working title) Apotheosis RPG. Too bad the 4E guys didn't think that way. Instead, they thought about how many spells they could cut out of a game, and how much they could force spellcasting to focus on direct damage-dealing combat effects — and how much they could make swinging a sword act and casting a spell play out exactly the same way, for that matter. Tactical play concerns trumped everything, I guess.
Is it any wonder I prefer Pathfinder RPG?