flavor text considered harmful

I really don’t like the “flavor text” used in 4E D&D power descriptions. It is far too often just flavor, with no subtance. It isn’t clear what the power really means. It’s just a sentence or two trying to remind you that this abstract tactical maneuver is supposed to be related to your class’s theme, and not just a set of mechanics. This goes back to the Alexandrian’s excellent Dissociated Mechanics post from 2008.

Here’s an example:

Shared Madness, Avenger Attack 1, Ranged 10
Encounter Power
Keywords: Divine, Implement, Psychic
Standard Action
Target: One creature

The wrath of your god sears the mind of one foe and echoes to assault
another enemy as well.

Attack: Wisdom vs. Will
Hit: 1d10 + Wisdom modifier psychic damage, and a second creature you can
see takes the same damage.

The flavor text is the paragraph beginning “the wrath…” What the heck does that flavor text mean? Here’s what I can tell you about the power: it does psychic damage to two potentially distant targets, only one of whom you have to roll to hit. If you have a powerful holy symbol, the attack will be more effective.

Okay, so what is my avenger actually doing? I have no idea. So, I want my players to describe their actions, and not just say, “I roll to hit.” This flavor text does nothing to explain what they might be doing. I get, “I use Shared Madness.” What does that mean? Who knows! I can press for a description, but this slows gameplay and frustrates players. At least with “I make a basic melee attack,” the player can very easily imagine what he’s doing: “I hit it with my axe” isn’t great, but it’s a significant improvement.

This problem is particularly prominent among powers that force movement.

Some flavor text – in fact a lot of it – is much better, so I don’t want to say that everything is lousy. For example, the powers directly before and after Shared Madness are quite well, and minimally, described:

Avenging Echo: Your weapon sweeps in a deadly arc, leaving in its wake swirling radiant energy that keeps your foes at bay.

Whirlwind Charge: As you charge your foe, divine light surrounds you in a protective nimbus, then erupts at your foe.

This is good stuff. It gives a “I just wanna kill stuff” player just enough to say something, and can serve as a starting point for players who like to give more elaborate descriptions.

There’s another extreme, though. For example:

Reaping Strike: You punctuate your scything attacks with wicked jabs and small cutting blows that slip through your enemy’s defenses.

What if I’m using a mace? Or a great axe? Or a two-handed sword? That description sounds great for someone fighting with a short sword, but not for lots of other things. What happens when the flavor text makes the power seem impossible to use in given conditions, but all the requirements are met? It seems somewhat perverse to disallow a power because of its flavor text, but then what does the power actually represent?

I’m hoping that Wizards will use their “constantly editing the rules” powers to continually edit flavor text to give things simple, easy-to-adapt, unrestrictive flavor text.

Written on August 22, 2011
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