"BTW, who knew that so many people disliked Vancian spellcasting? The entire audience in yesterday's seminar cheered and clapped when we told them it was (mostly) gone." -Mike Mearls, in his blog at Gleemax.com (Gleemax? WTF is up with that name? Brain Candy, anyone?)
So 4th Ed is coming. They're turning the game on its ear.
I you recall back in the day, 3rd Ed was simply 2nd Ed D&D rewritten by engineers - "Why have eleven different mechanics (THAC0, saving throw tables, etc.) where one will do, each with different specifics (d20+bonus vs. difficulty class/armor class)?" Most of the mechanics stayed the same, though they did introduce a few new concepts, like the new Sorcerer class.
4th Ed seems to be throwing a lot more stuff out the window, leaving the mechanics in place, but changing the nature of the game. Rather than a reframing of the same content in a more structured set of language, it's much more about changing the content of the game.
The guiding principle for a GM in 3rd ed is "each encounter should take away 25% of the party's resources" making the game almost completely a resource management game. Here, let me just quote James Wyatt:
See, in 3e there's a basic assumption that an encounter between four 5th-level PCs and one CR 5 monster should drain away about 25% of the party's resources, which primarily translates into spells (and primarily the cleric's spells, which determine everyone else's total hit points). What that actually means is that you get up the morning, then have three encounters in a row that don't reallly challenge you. It's the fourth one that tests your skill—that's where you figure out whether you've spent too much, or if you still have enough resources left to finish off that last encounter. Then you're done. So basically, three boring encounters before you get to one that's really life or death.
It kind of makes sense, mathematically. The problem is, it's not fun. So what lots of people actually do, in my experience, is get up in the morning and have a fun encounter: there are multiple monsters that are close to the PCs' level, so the total encounter level is higher than their level. There's interesting terrain and dynamic movement. Sometimes there are waves of monsters, one after another. Whew! It's a knock-down, drag-out fight that could really go either way. And it's fun!
So you get up at 8:00 AM, you have that fun encounter, and you rest "for the night" at 8:15 AM. Repeat as needed.
They're designing this out of the system.
I think I got a taste of things to come at this Gen Con. Setting up characters to play with my friends in the Undermountain mini-campaign, we were told that if anywhere was the place to twink out characters, this was it. So I made a moderately powerful character (I still don't have 3.5ed twink-fu, even though I have skimmed most of the books) while my friends made characters based on the two books I don't have, Magic of Incarnum and The Book of Nine Swords.
They had totally alien mechanics. "Soulmelds", "Maneuvers"... and they were able to continue using them through the whole adventure, long after my Favored Soul was reduced to using a Cure Light Wounds wand to do all his healing. Used up all your maneuvers? Take a swift action to get them all back. That soulmeld's bonus isn't good for this fight? Switch it out for something else.
I didn't quite understand everything that was going on, but... the more I think about it, the more I realize that these books represent a test injection of the new mechanics into the D&D community. Another thing to look at for hints of where they're going is the new "Skill Tricks" in the book Complete Scoundrel, I think.
Anyway, as far as the game goes... the fact that these things are slipping into 3.5 has made me feel like the game needs a reboot. Incarnum and Nine Swords characters totally outclass traditional characters, in a way that not even the twinkiest new Complete book classes ever did, and it's throwing the system out of balance. So I guess in some ways I'm glad to see it become official.
What does this mean for my campaign? Well, I'm going to wait and see. But one thing I am sure of - I will be buying 4th Ed when it comes out.