4E has very rigid rules for character generation, treasure allocation and how powers are gained. Everything is balanced against a core baseline that causes everything to be balanced with each other (with maybe the odd minor bump here and there). The system even includes for a way to alter a player’s decisions about their character’s abilities (with the ability to swap out powers and feats when a character reaches a new level); essentially providing a means to “break” and modify the system. By having this system in place there is an unspoken restriction to arbitrary character changes; it comes across as “we the game designers and the rule set have provided you with a way to ignore and break the rules, stay within those boundaries and you’ll be fine, otherwise you are doing it wrong”.
In addition, the use of the Character Builder changes the playing field. While it is not required to play it is extremely helpful and useful when running a campaign. After awhile, it starts to act as a crutch, making things so easy that without it things become difficult. However, the Character Builder does not allow for custom additions. If a DM adds or allows for something outside the bounds of the Builder it either puts up a message stating the character is “not legal” or outright doesn’t allow for the addition. In this way, this is another method by which the game is kept “fair”.
The only way to have an “unfair” advantage is to go outside the bounds of the rules.
Earlier editions were a lot more open, or at least it seems that way to me. Treasure was random and a bunch of lucky die rolls could see a low level character running around with an artifact (when artifacts were these super-powerful things meant for high end games) far beyond their level. I remember that DMs tended to do as they wished when it came to giving out gear and abilities; it was easy and almost expected for a DM to go outside the bounds of the rules. Some would even say there were no real bounds to the rules.
In addition, as a game’s life cycle lengthened there would be more added to the system that caused balance issues. Races, classes and treasure would be added that were clearly unbalanced. I remember once being in a group where one was a vampire and the other a githyanki with all of that race’s abilities. Needless to say, my normal human druid, with horrible stat rolls, was clearly and constantly outmatched by them.
Is this perception of rigidity of the rules only a perception thing? Do we, for some unknown reason, simply expect people to adhere to the rule system of 4E? Is going outside the rules in earlier editions accepted and expected? Is 4E more of a “fair” game system by virtue of this perceived rigidity of the rules?
Or does “fairness” always fall back to the GM of the game? Does a GM’s ability to ignore rules and inject his own biases mean there is no system that can be “fair” all the time?