Category Archives: 4e

An Idea I Love But Can Never Use

This idea came to my while considering how to use 4e to run a Magic: the Gathering inspired game, and was refined some in discussion with Gamefiend. The problem, of course, is that 4e is not open enough to allow something like this, and there is prettymuch no likliehood of a M:tG RPG ever being something allowed within the bounds of any reality we know. But this is a fun idea, so it continues to rattle around my noggin with no hope of escape, so I’ve decided to finally sketch it down on paper (so to speak) just to get it out there, in part because soem recent discussion has touched upon elements of it.

At its core, this sticks to the basic form of 4e, though it would pretty much toss out the existing feat list in favor of something bigger – I’ll call them talents – which are effectively feat bundles. This, in turn, allows for the use of a single character class – let’s call it the adept – with great depth of customization.[1] Other changes would be within the existign scope – ritual magic would get fixed, skill list might get tweaked and, perhaps most importantly, the model of powers would get tweaked.
Specifically, the only “powers” would be the at will ones. Everything else is a spell.

Now, spells woudl be structured in the same manner as existing powers (and, honestly, most of them woudl just _be_ existing powers) but with the enounter and daily elements removed, and replaced with a mana cost. This cost will look familiar to any magic player, as it will use that familiar icon language,
Sample Spells
This is, I imagine, pretty self explanatory (provided you’re already familiar with 4e and M:tG). They’re used the same way as powers, but you have to spend the mana to make them go. So the question is where mana comes from.

In this case, that’s where at-will powers come in. By and large, they’re on par with basic attacks, but as an effect, they generate one mana of a specific color. Now, this means that there must be at least 5 potential at-will attacks, but will probably be more, just to cover other styles.
Characters start play as just a blank slate (stats + race) and the choice of a few talents[2]. Talents are the building blocks of characters, and there’s a whole discussion that can be had about what the non-M:tG talents woudl look like, but that’s another topic (and something of a genre decision). Suffice it to say talents do one of the following things:

  1. Mundane talents provide blocks of skills, proficiencies and maybe even normal (non-charging) at-will powers.
  2. Mana talents grant charging at-will powers (probably 2 per talent) and other abilities to increase or improve the characters “mana pool”[3]
  3. Spell talents give spells. Honestly, I’m not sure how many spells a given talent might provide, or how to group them yet. Striking the right balance between range of options and overwhelming the player takes experimenting. It might even require some sort of “hand size” limiter, so the hero can know any number of spells, but only use those in his “hand” at any given time.

And with that, you have the bulk of it. Grant new talents as characters advance, maybe tweak magic items a little so there’s a bit more emphasis on items able to carry a charge of a certain color or allowing mana manipulation rather than having expendible powers of their own.

Oh, right, ritual magic.

So, ditch the entire list, and the whole magic-item recycling element of it. Keep some of the effects in mind.

Next, add the capability to generate “non-combat” mana. I’m not really going to dwell ont his too much: it’s tied to talents, and it’s basically some amount of mana you can raise (but not keep) outside of combat, and possibly costs and means of exceeding that.

Next any ritual may have up to 3 effect: minor, lesser and greater. Not every ritual necessarily has all three effects, but most should. Those that don’t had best be kind of awesome.

The minor effect (the “cantrip”) of a ritual is the equivalent of a utility power, and is used the same way (and, in fact, will probably be written up as a power).

The lesser effect takes a few minutes (that is, a short rest) to complete, and has a more potent effect.

The greater effect takes hours (that is, a long rest) to complete and has an even more potent effect.

So, for example, the “Invisibility” ritual might break down as follows:

  • Cantrip: Invisibility for a single round, or perhaps invisibility until you move or take an action. Something minor.
  • Minor Ritual: Classic D&D invisibility – invisibility while you move and act, broken only when you attack or cast a spell.
  • Major Ritual: Mass invisibility (or alternately, old ‘improved invisibility’).

In theory, there are “ultimate” rituals, with plot level effects, but their requirements are basically plot-device level, so there’s not a huge need to dwellon them now, except to note they make good player motives if they learn one (and preventing someone else from casting one can also be a fair motivator).

Talents basically affect how much and what mana you have access to, as well as how “big” a ritual you can learn. A novice ritualist might only know minor effects (aka “cantrips”), for example.[4] There are probably even tricks for speeding up rituals with preparation, but that’s a whole minigame of its own.[5]


I’ll probably end up using elements of these ideas in other games. Charging powers with attacks is super useful, and the ritual magic model is one that I admit I like a lot. In a less 4e model, I might get rid of spells entirely in favor of makign them all cantrips, but that would take some experimentation (and a bit less focus on diversity of combat effects).

As a final note, I obviously _could_ write this. It woudl not take much to shave the serial numbers off both components to make a non-copyright infringing game, but the reality is that I’m not sure that would be much fun. If I need to go through the effort of making it no-something else, it would probably be better to spend the effort making something new.

1 – In a perfect world, this game might be more modeled after the awesome Gamma World boxed set, in which case these modular components would be used to build a set of templates for speed of play. In this perfect world, this is properly productized and marketed, and also has rules for the mechanical use of actual M:tG cards (instead of GW’s custom decks) as well as creating a setting element to allow “between game” elements to be resolved with Magic duels.

2 – My gut says 3. 1 mundane, 1 color-generating, one spell set.

3 – For example, a talent might allow you to have a built in mana charge – say, 1 green. That 1 green recovers after a short rest, so it’s usually available at the beginnign of a fight. Simple enough, but I would totally demand a geomantic component – that mana comes from _somewhere_ – there’s a physical location (land) which the player has attuned to that the mana comes from, and if that land is lost or stolen, the hero needs to either recover it or find a new power source to attune to. Why yes, that is a built in plot goal.

4 – There’s a bit of ars magica here: greater rituals are not hobbled by dungeon balance. They’re a big deal, as they should be, and a more than fair tradeoff for not choosing combat-efficacy instead.

5 – In the published version, players probably have different Combat, Ritual and Greater Ritual mana “pools” (rather than lesser and greater rituals just requiring more mana) so that cards can continue to be used as direct mappings into the game. That is, if we want to have an in game of Armageddon (3W, destroy all lands) then we declare it a greater ritual, so that the player needs to accrue 3W in that pool, something their “combat mana” won’t help with. Shades of unknown armies!

Heroic Adventuring

I ran a game last night on relatively little prep. I was using Dave Chalker’s Marvel Heroic RPG-D&D 4e hack, and I threw together some notes to create the adventure as quickly as I could and threw them up on google plus, just because they’re a nice showcase of how I think (NARCISSIST). However, fate conspired – the children would not go to sleep, and we went to bed much later than planned, which meant I needed to abbreviate things. At which point I then discovered that while we were waiting, one of my players had read the notes anyway. So much for that.

So, I used two guys with swords. Strapped to the altar of something best unnamed, brought there by the gods’ demand, wheedling and pushes, and the assassins have found them. As ever, it worked like a charm, and I’m being asked to run more of it tonight, so that’ nice.

It was also very informative to me as I ran the hack, both for Cortex+ hacks in general and the 4e hack in specific. For reference, we had a human ranger, human rogue and half-orc cleric. A lot of the system went really well, but there were definitely some bumps. Breaking it down:

  • First off, in general, the heart of the MHRPG system is basically bucket based. You get a set of buckets (affiliation, powers etc) and you get to build your pool by taking a die from each bucket (assuming it applies). On some level, creating a hack is as simple as coming up with your own set of 3-5 buckets and filling them in. Buckets may have their own rules (the distinction bucket works differently than the powers bucket), so when you add a pool, it’s also the place to hang more or fewer rules.

  • Physically, I represented each bucket with an index card, so players picked a card for race, a card for class, and so on. This worked well for chargen, but also had a neat effect in play – the players started using them to physically build their pools, putting the die on the card as they used it. If there was no die on a card, it was a cue to check that card for a contribution to the pool. Once there was a die on every card, they could pick them up and roll them. Ended up working with assets too, since they just grabbed them physically and put the die on them.

  • The cards worked so well, that I may design a game based solely on that hook sometime.

  • I added an extra bucket for Gear. It had weapons, armor and focus items. The base die value for weapons and armor was based off the weapon and durability ratings of the character. Thus, the rogue (weapons d8, no durability) had Daggers d8 and Leather Armor d6. The Cleric (Weapons d8, Durability d8, divinity d8) had Spear d8, Chainmail d8 and Holy Symbol d8. I was prepared to make things magical by effectively adding powers or extra dice (fiery d6, etc) to them but I ended up skimming over that in play. Curiously, I’d really put this in to help the fighter classes have an area to stand out (fighter gets a step up in weapon or armor, and Paladin’s get an armor bump) but ended up with fewer of them on the table.

  • I did not bring enough d8s. I need to buy a TON more.

  • Part of the reason I needed so many is that the pools really gravitated that way. The game was colorful and novel enough that I don’t think it really got in the way, but there was a lot of sameness to the final dice pools.

  • I changed up the area attack rules to curtail them a little bit. Basically, to make an area attack (assuming you can – powers, PP and stuff play in), you remove a die from your attack pool, and ad a number of targets based on the step-size of the die (so d6 gets you +2, d8 +3 and so on). Any hit that you don’t have a damage die for is a d6. Classes with area attack abilities got a bonus die that they could spend without reducing their pool (so, the ranger could add a d4 to his pool for multi attack purposes, meaning he could attack 2 targets all the time). It worked ok, but the interaction with d4 is a little weird, so I’d probably change it so it starts at d6 (d6 for +1, d8 for +2 and so on) and not allow d4s to be spent in this fashion.

  • I also ended up taking a more conservative approach to Plot Points that made them much more tightly tied to opportunities. This was a genre shift, and while I’m not sure I’m 100% happy with it, it had some very nice properties in play that I think I need to explore a bit further. Distinctions still paid out as normal, but the trick was in the rolls. Basically, Opportunities were the central point of everything – an opportunity was a chance to spend a PP *or* to earn one. If you did not use an opportunity (that is, spend a PP or use an ability) then it earned you a PP. Net result was fewer PPs, but when PP’s were spent, they were more concretely tied to the action. One mixed result is that the results of the dice ended up standing a lot more often than the do in Marvel – not sure that’s good or bad, just different.

  • One thing I’d tweak with this is probably end up going a little bit closer to Leverage and it’s use of d4s for a variety of effects. More opportunities is probably desirable, and may be a better way to address the fact that limits end up working a lot less well outside of the super-hero context.

  • But that said, making opportunities a little more front and center provided a really nice area to hook in mechanics. The Rogue, for example, got tweaked, so it could use an opportunity for a damage step up (no PP Cost). Didn’t come up all the time, but the one time an assassin handed the rogue two opportunities and turned that d8 hit into a d12 hit went very badly indeed.

  • Initiative system is still solid gold.

  • Doom Pool ends up being an interesting balancing mechanism. If you find you’ve slightly over-powered the opposition (as I did) you can offset it by not spending from the pool. Handy.

  • [EDIT] Just remembered. We had two fights – I did nto make much use of scene elements int he first one, but did in the second, and the players (not experienced Cortex players) absolutely gravitated towards them with no real urging on my part. One more argument to maybe dip a little more into the Leverage bag.

Still some room for fiddling, but I feel like I’ve got a lot of good data to work with here. There will be more heroic swordplay in the future.

I Want To Borrow 4e’s Foundation

Ok, here’s an important thing about 4e that I would suggest that even die hard fans of other editions consider: it’s foundation is excellent. In my opinion, it’s a better foundation than any previous edition of D&D, though I leave that comparison up to the reader. But what does that mean?
I mean that if you took some characters and stripped them of classes, powers and almost everything else, you have a very solid little set of skirmish rules that strike a very strong balance between speed and depth. Boiled down to that level, it’s easy to see that there are just a handful of refinements from 3e, and the line from the original dungeon skirmishing is very easy to see.
I’ve steadily come to realize that the thing that keeps drawing me back to 4e is the simple power of that foundation. You could build entirely different games on top of it which could be entirely awesome. Different stats? Different classes? No classes? No Powers? Totally different power models? it would be easy to build such a thing on top of that chassis to capture almost any flavor or style of play that you want.
See, that’s the thing about the classes and powers as they exist: they represent a decision about how the game should look and feel. This is not a bad thing – the designer’s vision is a large part of the reason you buy a published game – but because this look and feel is so striking, it creates a sense that it’s the foundation. That is, it’s easy to look at 4e and think that if you want to change it, you should change powers and classes. 4e makes it feel like those are low-level changes while they’re actually quite high-level.
I don’t think this is good or bad in and of itself, but it mingles interestingly with the other realities surrounding 4e, specifically it’s semi-openness (which encourages high level tinkering) and it’s model of game-as-web-service (which discourages many types of tinkering). Altogether, it reveals my frustration – I want to take that foundation out and play with it. Doing so is how you can get awesome things like the (very much not open content) awesome of Gamma World.
But that’s not an option, at least not for anything public. I suppose it might be possible to build it forward from pathfinder or to create something similar from scratch, but both of those feel like inelegant solutions. But I want to find a solution, and I can tell you why:
I want the game I can _make_ with 4e.
Stop for a moment and consider what happens when you start looking at all those powers in 4e as building blocks for a simpler game. If you’re starting from scratch, unbound by what’s at-will, encounter or daily, then you can build almost anything using these parts and a little duck tape. Like spell points and spell lists? Make a list out of a set of thematically similar powers, and give them mana costs. Don’t like encounter and dailies for non-magical characters? Adopt a system where lower level encounter powers become higher level at-wills. Want to make power sources more important? Maybe come up with new ways to recharge dailies? It all opens up.
Obviously, I can already do this at home, but I’m a social guy. I like sharing. And that – the game I can make with the 4e parts – is the game I wish I could be sharing.

Roleplay and Exploration Rewards

I was struck by a tweet this morning regarding the difficulty with handing out XP awards for exploration and roleplaying, specifically, that such rewards are arbitrary and hard to rightsize. This immediately struck me as a very valid complaint, but also one that’s very easily addressable – it’s just a matter of identifying the behaviors and experiences to reward, then plugging them into the reward system. For illustration, I’ll be using 4e to show how to do this (primarily because it’s standard reward model is very robust) but the basic idea can be used for almost any XP-driven game, especially ones with the idea of an encounter.

For purposes of awards, I’m going to provide a loose definition of both roleplaying (as a specific subset of play) and exploration. RP is, practically, engaging some element of the setting. This may seem like a strange definition if your first thought is that it’s talking in a funny voice or getting very emotional at the table, but those are just ways to go about engaging the setting – that is, ways to meaningfully interact with the setting as if it matters. This can range from involved conversations with NPCs to hard choices about the fate of nations.

Exploration is a little bit easier to quantify – it’s the process of adding something to the mental (and sometimes physical) map of the campaign. When the players explore The Dungeon of Doom then they get certain rewards just for being there (assuming that there are fights and challenges in a place called The Dungeon of Doom) but they have also added TDoD to the landscape. In the future, new enemies might take it as a lair, or maybe people will try to reclaim it. It’s now a thing, and that makes it part of the campaign. Exploration is the process by which these things (which might properly be people, places or things) get added to the game.

These two elements may seem difficult to standardize for rewards, but they share a common idea which can tie this all together. Both rotate around the idea of campaign elements – either engaging them or adding them – and it’s not difficult to systemize that. All it takes is a list.

I’m going to call this list the Game Log for simplicity sake, but the name isn’t important. What matters is that it’s a list of the elements that come up over the course of a campaign. It will grow over time, and it provides a valuable resource for GMs, both to handle XP awards and to provide a little inspiration when designing adventures. The log looks like this:


(You can download a PDF of the form here)

Using the Form

The Name column is for the name of the element. Elements might be anything that can recur in a game, limited only by the taste of the GM. This includes locations, NPCs and organizations, but it can also include character elements. Themes (as presented in the Neverwinter campaign setting) are another great example of a possible element.

Just keeping a list like this is useful to an GM, and most of us already keep it in one form or another, if only to answer the “Ok, who was that guy with that thing that one time?” kind of questions that pop up during play.

The level is a little bit less obvious. While it’s tied to the idea of character level, it does not have exactly the same meaning. Practically, level is a measure of how important an element is, with the most important elements having a level equal to the current level of the characters. Mechanically, this is tied to XP rewards (we’ll get to that in a second) but it also is a useful way to keep track of what is an isn’t used in a campaign.

Generally speaking, when an element is introduced, it will probably be at the character’s current level. It may “level up” any time it is engaged (see below) but it shouldn’t go beyond the character’s current level unless it’s something the GM really wants to emphasize. That’s the default assumption, but there are a few tricks that can be played – GMs looking to experiment in allowing players to introduce elements in play may allow them to do so, but start those elements out at level 1, and force them to grow in importance through play.

The checkboxes are for use in play, to indicate what’s happened. “Explored” is the most straightforward – you check that box the same time you add something to the list (or, if you already had it on the list, when the players first encounter it). An element should only be explored once in its lifetime, so once this box is checked, it stays checked.

The other boxes – Touched, Engaged and Critical, see a bit more action. When an element comes up in play, you check the box that corresponds to how it came up.

If it was a memorable but unimportant part of play, then check “Touched”. This is appropriate if an NPC was visited, a scene happened at a particular location, or the players talked about a thing.

If it was a noteworthy part of play, then check “Engaged”. The line between touched and engaged is a bit subjective, but that’s an intentional nod to GM taste. In general, something should be considered engaged when it provided a strong motivation for play or created a cost or a choice. If the players had to have an extended negotiation with an NPC or their favorite bar burned down, that would be engaged.

One trick that comes in handy is looking where else rewards are coming from. if the negotiation with the NPC is also a skill challenge, then the negotiation itself may not merit an Engaged tickmark (though it probably merits a “Touched”) but if the skill challenge _also_ engages the players and characters, then yes, it totally merits a check.

“Critical” is like engaged, but moreso. If the interaction is particularly central to play, or is a turning point in the campaign, then Critical gets checked. The GM will probably know when a Critical interaction is coming, since it’s usually a result of the GM doing something awful to or with the element, but it’s possible to be surprised, and this is what to check if your players really blow you away.

The notes field is, as you might expect, where you keep notes. Hopefully self explanatory.

The Form and Rewards

At the end of a session, you should have a few checkmarks that indicate the things that your players found and engaged. Turning that into a reward is based on the idea of a standard award, and this is why I use 4e to illustrate.

The standard award is an amount of XP equal to that given for a monster of a given level, in this case, the level of the element (I told you that would come in handy). The basic idea is that an “Explore” or “Engaged” checkmark gets the standard award, while a “Touched” checkmark awards a fractional reward, and a “Critical” result provides a bonus. In 4e terms, these line up roughly with a minion and an elite (so 1/4x and 2x respectively).

Thus, for example, let’s say that the players interact with a level 4 elements.
For discovering the element, they gain 175 XP.
If they touch on it, then the award is 44 XP.
If they engage is, then the award if 175 XP.
If engagement with it is critical to the game, then the award is 350 XP

Note – Only give the highest award, though you may give an exploration and engagement award if both seem warranted.

Run down the list, tally the awards, pool them, then divvy them among the players. Simple as that.

Notes and Thoughts

Exploration Games: You can change the proportions a bit if you want to emphasize or de-emphasize exploration. If exploration is critical to the game, then the reward for an explore tick might be as much as 5x a standard award.

Long List: So, what keeps the list from getting crazily long? While GM editorial oversight (especially the decision whether or not something goes on the list or not) plays a role, then I suggest the following trick: After an element gives its exploration award, drop its level to 1, and let it level back up in play. This means that players will get better rewards for working within a smaller list than they will by constantly having things get added, which nicely simulates the conservation of characters and locations you see in most fiction. It also provides the GM a handy tool that reveals which elements the players actually care about based on which ones get leveled up.

Personal Awards: Note that this model explicitly rewards the entire group equally for roleplaying, and I admit that’s something I very strongly endorse, but on the off chance that you want to reward star players, then it’s a fairly simple matter of noting the star performer in the notes column, then not adding the reward for that element to the pool, and give it directly to the player.

Slightly more complicated is the issue of personal character elements – that is, should everyone get rewarded when a given character’s theme becomes important to play. My answer is a profound “yes”, but if that is not to your taste, then you may consider some elements to be “owned” by a specific character, and have the reward go directly to that character rather than into the pool.

But I really suggest against it. Not only does it introduce the bookkeeping hassle of mismatched XP and the social hassle of rewarding the loudest players, it removes the incentive for players to celebrate each others awesome. If only you get rewarded for your character theme, then only you will look for ways to hook it in. If everyone is rewarded for it, then everyone’s looking to bring it into play. That’s a vastly preferable arrangement in my mind.

Other Systems: As noted, while it’s easiest to do this with 4e, if you can figure out the standard award for your game, the model translates easily enough. Heck, you can even do thematic versions. For example: for a white wolf game, I’d forgo levels in favor of rating things from 1-5 dots and just be a little more stingy about how they level up.

4 on 1

I had the unexpected pleasure of playing in a first edition AD&D game this past weekend. It was a long-standing game that my brother in law participates in, and they had an opening. This was pretty much the classic AD&D game in just about every way imaginable. They’d looked at other editions, played a little third, but stuck to first as adjusted by elements from dragon magazine and a few house rules. They were sufficiently committed to this that they had their own modified PHB, which was basically a scanned PHB with all the classes, spells and such inserted into it, and several players had printed and bound copies of it (I used the PDF – iPad FTW).

The DM did a clever thing where I was effectively a ghost helping the party out because my body was deeper in the dungeon, allowing me to establish rapport with the party before actually joining, so it’s a bit less of a “You meet a guy on the road” sort of situation. Unfortunately, the pacing of things was such that despite the very long session. We did not actually reach my body, so while I had fun, it was mostly observing and making wry comments (which I enjoy). But it also really created an opportunity to think about the game and contrast it with my 4e experience in a way that has only really been hypothetical for me until now. It’s been long enough since I really played 1e that I was doing a lot off old memories.

It was pretty interesting, because it really highlighted to me a lot of the things 4e (and, to be fair, 3e) did right, but it also cast into relief the bits that were missing that were very clearly part of the groups enjoyment of the game.

First and foremost, man, 4e makes the actual moving around and fighting better. There are several reasons for this, but the one I really want to call out is clarity. There were a lot of situations where figuring out what someone could do was sufficiently involved as to really bog things down, especially with regard to movement. This was particularly highlighted by one of the more RP-oriented players very clearly getting frustrated by her inability to engage in the fight the way the more twinked out guys were. (The fact that this was addressed with Manly Explanation likely did not help).

4e also really keeps fights more dynamic. Things took a kind of dull turn when the Big Climactic enemy cleric got silenced and cornered. It was a reminder about some of the insta-win elements of magic, but more, it made me think what a shame that there was no real push/pull/slide to keep things moving.

Where things were more telling was on the borders of the fight. Planning for an encounter and using spells and trickery to overcome a fight were really big focuses. The group made heavy use of Haste & Invisibility to make the fights into these terrifying blitzkriegs that were twice as much time spent prepping as fighting. Not necessarily as satisfying as fights, but definitely scratching a problem-solving itch. The ability to make a fight unfair through clever planning is very rewarding and not particularly supported in 4e.

There was also a lot of use of out-of combat magic, things like animating enemy corpses or using the item spell. This was most interesting to me because it was clear that some of it (healing, identifying stuff) was pretty much just exercises in bookkeeping, but other stuff (like item or enemy zombies) was cool stuff that the players felt it was cool that they were able to do.

There was really no more or less roleplaying than there would have been in 4e. The scenario only gave itself to that so much (Old temple, overrrun by Yuan-Ti) but the system really didn’t speak to that. Outside of the fight, the amount of RP really came down to the player’s interest in it.

There were also small things. The use of the vs. Armor Type table made weapons selection a little more interesting, though I’m not sure it’s addition is worth the tradeoff of complexity. Chargen was also interesting: creating a level 10 1e character using only paper? SO MUCH EASIER than 4e.

Now, this comparison has all been useful to me so far, and offers interesting insights into the two games for me. I think it partly underscored why encounter powers are a cognitive problem for some players while daily’s aren’t. 1e is FULL of once per day kind of abilities, so that’s part of the logic, but narrative time is a different method of thinking. On some level, I think that if encounter powers were framed slightly differently – perhaps in terms of needing a few minutes rest to recharge – they’d probably have more traction.

But what was also telling was that there were definitely two big elements that clearly were part of the fun for at least some of the players, but which are not necessarily things I’m inclined to support.

The first was related to system mastery. There was a very clear range of powers within the group, even though everyone was at similar levels. Some characters just had better powers, better gear and (not coincidentally) a better understanding of the rules that allowed them to exploit that (and yes, this included a guy with psionics). Worse, there was clearly some self-perpetuation of this. It was pretty clear in the dynamic that the most badass guys had first dibs on loot because making them more badass was “good for the party”. I don’t blame the guys for this – there’s a solid tactical argument for it – but that’s not the kind of arrangement I’d want to encourage.

A corollary of this was that it had clear balance issues. The big fight included enemies who were clearly tuned to be a threat to the party as a whole, which meant that they were keyed off the most powerful members of the party. Upshot being those powerful guys got their awesome on, and everyone else got to kind of play a supporting role. I admit I was watching that fight and I am not sure that my character would have been able to contribute at all, had I been corporeal.

For players who thrive on this element of the game, 4e must feel like castration – system mastery (and magical gear) can only pull you so far ahead of your peers. I can completely understand why that would be frustrating, but that’s definitely not my bag. I’ll play along – I’ll have to to be effective – but it’s a necessity more than something I’d enjoy. It also reminds me of the statement made early in 4e that it’s less about the choices you make in chargen than it is about the choices you make in a fight. Looking at that now, that statement really holds up.

Anyway, the second element is a little more mixed, that of preparation. Now, I actually like the idea of prepping for a fight, arranging to bushwhack guys and generally benefitting from my own cleverness, but I think there’s a balancing act. While there were a few bits of trickery and strategy, there was a lot more brute force application of “I Win” spells like Haste & Silence (to say nothing of the illusions) which feels a little bit less rewarding, but at the same time is utterly necessary because the DM needs to prepare for the possibility. There’s sort of a vicious circle/arms race element to it. I actually remember this being an issue in 3e as well, but it’s really noticeable how profound it is in this case.

But at the same time, this is perhaps the most interesting question to take back to 4e. Is there a way to support prep that’s rewarding but not so overwhelming?

I think the answer is a clear yes, esp since I can think of two different ways to do it. But that’s probably fodder for another day.

4e Skills

Mike Mearls wrote one of those great articles that so typical of him that reveals that as much awesome 4e stuff we see, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of his understanding of the game. It’s about skills, and you should go read it if you haven’t.

Since I show my love through graffiti, I’m going to suggest that the idea is really, really good, but I’d tweak it a little bit in play. For those too lazy to go read, Mike proposes that skill ranks be broken down into a descriptive ladder:







And that the DM should use those guidelines for setting difficulties, such as “It would take an expert climber to go over this wall”. If you have the skill at a level higher than expert, you don’t bother to roll, you just succeed. If you have it lower than Expert, its out of your league. If you have it at expert, then you roll against a DC of 15 to see if you succeed.

This is pretty slick, and because it explicitly removes the “+ half your level” element of the skill rolls, it makes skill difficulties feel more coherent (rather than requiring EPIC WALLS to challenge climbing at level 25). Mike also slips in a nice trick whereby player cleverness and planning can change the difficulty category of the check rather than give themselves a modifier to the roll. Very slick.

Admittedly, there are no guidelines for how to determine character expertise, but that’s a two line rule – Everyone’s a novice at everything, everything you’re trained in you’re a journeyman at. Each feat bumps it one step. If you want to support epic chars being awesome at everything, then characters get an-across-the-board bump at 10 and 20. There, done.

Anyway, I want to call it out as a nice tweak on things, but also as one destined to disappear. If Mike could convince the Character builder to support ideas like this, I would be SHOCKED (and utterly delighted). But I’m intrigued because – unlike most web mods – it’s not impossible that it could be supported. I’m going to keep one eye on this, just to see.

Zooming In On Neverwinter

There is a writing technique that is commonly used when writing about a physical thing. The author starts from a very high level view, sketching a brief picture of the broader context, then steadily zooms in on the scene until focus is at the level of whatever’s being written about. Lots of novels start out this way, zoomed out to the empire or nation then slowly narrowing in on our farmboy protagonist or the like.

It’s also the default mode for many setting books, and I gotta say, the Neverwinter Campaign Setting book has really left me wondering about it’s use as a technique in setting books, because it very nearly poisoned my impression of what is otherwise a pretty solid book.

The rub is that NWCS is a Forgotten Realms book. It’s presented as more of a free-standing thing, but there’s some smoke and mirrors going on there. The first ten pages of the book are basically a summary of everything I dislike about the Forgotten Realms, a mix of contextless proper nouns and uninteresting background elements given special focus because there was clearly a novel or other tie-in related to them. It’s pretty bad, and I was willing to press on because so many people had so many good things to say about this book.

I’m glad I did. Not to say what follows is flawless, but people are right to be excited because NWCS has done some things very well indeed. Every time it steps away from the Forgotten Realms at large and focuses on play in its own context it becomes a stronger product.

Now, it’s worth noting that this is basically a city book. There’s more stuff in it, but it’s really all the material for a heroic tier, city based campaign. Cities are one of my favorite things in games, and I had been wary. The previous city from WOTC – Gloomwrought in the Shadowfell boxed set – had erred too far on the side of gamey-ness for my tastes. It was interesting, but the city felt like an excuse for colorful encounters.

That may seem like enough, but I admit I kind of feel that this is what dungeon’s are for. Cities (or, more broadly, campaign elements that players keep coming back to) need more of an internal dynamic, a sense of how they self-sustain and behave when the adventurers aren’t looking. Gloomwrought lacked that, but Neverwinter seems to have hit the right balance for 4e. It still streamline’s some details, but there’s a sense that the mundane considerations of a city (like where food comes from and how trade happens) are actually in play.

More tellingly, I think I could happily run Neverwinter without ever using any of the adventure material in it. I wouldn’t, because they’re good (sometimes great) because of the amount of time and effort put into laying out the factions in play and making them playable. If anything, I could have happily taken more material like that, but I think there’s enough.

(Also, the factions benefit from the explicit Heroic level range of the setting. It means you don’t have to come up with strange logic to explain how one faction has a bunch of level 5 guys and another has a level 25 patron, but both of them are players in the context of the city.)

Still, all this pales next to 4e finally doing something that has been lacking from many games – tying chargen directly into the adventure. This is accomplished by introducing character themes which are a) mechanically more potent than themes we’ve seen before and b) explicitly hooked into the campaign book.

For example, if you take the Noble theme, the adventure in the book dealing with intrigue among the nobility has a special sidebar about tying this adventure into that character. Basically, this is the closest thing a published adventure can do to writing things for specific players, and it’s an idea that’s been a long time coming. The rest of the book could be crap, and I’d still celebrate it for this addition to the technology.

It makes me a little sad as a writer, though. This is one of those ideas that you could really go crazy with in a third party product, but since third party themes won’t have character builder support, there’s no real point to it. Still, that sadness is the refrain of 4e – not much to be done about it.

Anyway, the book is worth a read, and it’s good enough that it could probably be used for something other than 4e. Just be prepared to just sort of blah blah blah over some stuff if you’re not already steeped in Forgotten Realms lore.

Using Less

I had an interesting conversation about 4e yesterday that revealed something I’ve been waiting for. Somewhere along the way, it has crossed the tipping point where the way to do really awesome things with it is not by adding things, but rather by taking them away.

This point was easy to see coming. As early as the PHB2 it was reasonable to look at things and think “What kind of setting would I have if I removed this class or power source?” This kind of pruning makes for a great thought exercise, but early on it had the problem that if you removed any significant portion of the game, you were limiting the range of available play. If, for example, you were to remove all Arcane classes back when the only options were PHB1 and PHB2, you’ve just really diminished your options.

But now there is enough material that a decision like that is a lot less impactful. Yes, you might create a problem for someone who wants to play a specific class because they want that specific class, but you’re not creating a situation where a player has a really narrow class selection if they want to play a particular style. The bucket is big enough that you can take a big scoop out and still have a large element remaining.

One very nice example of this was put forward by Gamefiend on twitter, suggesting that you could treat the new Thundercats as all being psionic heroes (an idea I like at least in part because none of them have the stupid looking halos that apparently denote psionics in default 4e). Story-wise this is pretty cool: they have a world where powers are defined by certain boundaries (the psionic power source) but are now encountering enemies and ancient mysteries outside that understanding (the arcane power source). It’s a classic theme, and it’s classic because it works well.

Now, admittedly 4e supports this sort of things very haphazardly. Power sources have very little mechanical weight, and they have almost no meaning beyond how they apply to character classes – settings, monsters and the like have no real resonance with these ideas, which is kind of a shame.

However, while the idea has very little support, it’s very supportable (and one could point out that the Dark Sun setting is pretty good evidence of this). The rub is it’s never going to be an idea that WOTC is really going to get behind because it hinges on removing things, and that’s bad for their business model. But they’ve made it pretty easy for a DM to decide what power sources mean in his world and remove things that suit his sensibilities.

Now, obviously, there’s more to this than the DM tossing things willy-nilly, but I wan tot come back to the premise: 4e has reached the point where you’ll get more out of it by treating design of your game as sculpture rather than painting – what you add is less important than what you take away.

(Huh. Note to self – maybe the alternative to multi-classing rules is multi-power-sourcing rules. What happens when your Warlock switches from Arcane to Divine? Must think on this. )

Ow Ow Ow

Gah, gonna be a short one today. Wrenched my back, and my attention span is SQUIRREL.

I am cautiously optimistic about some of the things WOTC has had to say about the future of 4e at Gencon, most of which I received via Critical Hits coverage of the new product seminar. The funny thing is that I’m not terribly excited about any product in particular (except perhaps Lord of Waterdeep – people I trust keep saying good things about it) but there seems to be a shift in emphasis in adventure, setting and material design that gravitates towards a little more setting buy in and dramatic focus. That’s ambitious.

I’d be excited if it could work. Every now and again I get the urge to drastically crack 4e open to better support such things. It wouldn’t be hard – the core engine is pretty robust, and it would be easy to make a handful of changes (Change skills, connection between stats and attacks, revamp rituals and try some different power ideas) to make a game that would probably be a lot of fun to try. However, it would be terrible to share and on sufficiently shaky legal ground that it’s just not worth the risk. Still, there’s a specific area where this raises my curiosity, and that is setting.

4e tends toward static settings. This Is not a failure of writing so much as a function of the way NPCs and powers are handled. Very little in 4e has much effect longer than scene length, and there is barely even a concept of recurring enemies. The result has been settings which are magnificent set-pieces but which don’t necessarily have a lot of dynamism to them. Coupled with the fact that the system is a fairly abstract one (rather than representational) it’s hard for a setting to come to life on its own.

While there’s some criticism in this, I feel I should also point out the upside – 4e material has been much more focused on going from Zero to playing something cool in no time flat, and that’s a pretty good goal. What’s more, the desire that a setting be dynamic is directly at odds with a lot of the source fiction people draw on – settings are often static backdrops except where the main characters interact with them, and there’s a lot of virtue to that. Like many things, it’s a trade-off, and how well it works depends a lot on how you value the elements and how they’re balanced.

But the thing is, while the mechanics exert a certain gravity, it’s far from inescapable. I feel that encounter design has matured a lot since 4e came out, and it’s mature enough that focus can now be shifted to setting and adventures. If so, I’ll be really curious to see what comes of it.

Streamlining Snags

4e classes are interesting because, by and large, they’re pretty distinctive. There comes a point in play when you know they’re working. The Barbarian rounds a corner and becomes a damage output machine. The Warden stands his ground against an impossible foe. The Warlock kills a lot of people, really horribly. It’s the point where you really feel like the class has paid off.

It’s a weird moment and hard to pin down. For some classes it seems to work right out the gate, while others seem to depend on a bit of maturation of feats and powers for things to gel. But it kind of fascinates me because it speaks directly to the idea of what the class is and what it’s supposed to feel like. It’s also kind of important because it reveals one of the big problems with playing a “stripped down” version of 4e. The fact that the essential elements of different classes can be found in different places can make it very hard to find a one-size-fits-all solution.

And, in fact, it even gets more complicated than that when you start drilling into specific classes. Some classes have very different “builds” within their possibilities. Rangers are probably the most obvious of these, but really almost any split stat class (especially Clerics) have some of this. Essentials muddies this picture, of course, but as long as WOTC keeps saying it’s not a replacement, I’ll work with that. Also, honestly, there are some classes that I’m not 100% sure about what they’re supposed to feel like.

This is probably a limitation on my part, rather than a bigger issue with the game. For example, as much as I _love_ the Battlemind mechanically, I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be like. The Warden and Swordmage have some very distinctive elements that distinguish them from a Paladin or Fighter, but I don’t actually get what makes a Battlemind a Battlemind. Yes, it’s Psionic typed, but that’s not an answer in and of itself.

Now, assuming one was thinking about doing a streamlined 4e (perish the thought!) it would be perfectly reasonable to just set aside things like the Battlemind as problem cases, but that sort of saps the fun out of the whole process.

So I put this out there – Can anyone make a pitch to me about what the essential nature of the Battlemind (or, really, any Psionic class) is? And similarly I ask, are there any other classes that people have trouble seeing the shape of?