Neubert wrote a good comment in an earlier post, suggesting that the problems with the daily powers mechanic could be solved by recharging the powers after a certain number of encounters rather than per day. This is basically equivalent to changing D&D from a daily system into a more cinematic system. When describing the ups and downs of the daily mechanic, I have not really written much about its main alternative, the cinematic approach.
The contrast to the classic D&D approach of pacing the adventure in terms of days and other units of real time is the cinematic approach, as exemplified by Torg and D6 Star Wars, where the adventure is more like a script and time is tracked in terms of Acts and Scenes. In a cinematic adventure, the passage of time has no great meaning to the game mechanics; if it has no signficance to the story it doesn’t usually matter how much time passes between encounters. Time is actually kept track of in terms of scenes, where a scene is one major element of the story – a fight, or a dramatic skill check, or a major puzzle or roleplaying event. A cinematic adventure is written out in terms of scenes, not in terms of maps and event locations, like a traditional 1st edition D&D adventure. Torg organized Scenes into Acts, but precise organizational details are not really important for the discussion.
In a time-based game like D&D, time is kept track of in terms of real terms. Powers recharge after 5 minutes, you can use your Might Swing twice per day, you heal one hit point per hour, or whatever. In a purely cinematic game, time is kept track of in terms of scenes. A power can be used once per scene, or you regain your stamina at the end of a scene, or you earn hero points at the end of a scene. Cinematic games can achieve this more easily by keeping track of resources using cinematic concepts like hero points (which deserve a whole article of their own).
Keeping time in the cinematic way makes adventures much easier to write, because the flow of time is not tied tightly into the game mechanics. The story can take place over one hour or several weeks, and the game mechanics still work the same way. There is no need to worry about characters filling time while they wait for things to happen – the way to recharge your powers is not to delay the action, but to make the action go forward. I always enjoy the cinematic style best myself.
4th edition D&D seems to owe a debt to the fun feel of the cinematic games in many ways – the adventures have a more structured, cinematic flow, the powers are exciting and have limitations that seem more dramatic than realistic. But the core time-keeping process is still daily. The milestone idea tries to put a little cinematic veneer on this, but it is a pretty thin veneer.
Transforming D&D to use the cinematic approach – recharging powers after every 4 encounters - is a fine idea, and something that I’ve been considering. I think it is certainly far superior to the “15-minute adventuring day” approach. But I should note that the technique of allowing the players to rest and recharge at any time, while keeping the adventure on a tight time constraint, has one advantage. Using the fully encounter-based recharge, if the players use up their powers after some bad luck in the first 3 fights, there is no way to get those powers back if they desperately need them for the 4th fight. With the time-constraint approach the characters can rest, accepting that they have to make up time later in the adventure of accept a less successful outcome to the adventure. With the encounter-based recharge, their options are less flexible. A real cinematic game has hero points to get the players out of a jam, but D&D doesn’t have that concept. On the other hand, the characters can probably figure out how to survive 4 encounters with one dose of powers, especially if healing surges are still daily. Or you could just give the players a certain number of “party recharges” per adventure, and let them decide when to use them.