Retrospective on D&D 4e, part 2

Having examined lessons learned from running a lengthy 4e campaign in the previous post, today I will take a look back at this very blog. Over the years I’ve used it to consider the problems raised and ideas inspired by my game, and try and find solutions for them. That, and lots of theoretical blathering. So as the previous post was a guide to 4e, this post is a guide to this blog, or at least its 4e-related bits.

House rules

The most straightforward ideas, I’d put two of the posts in this category: Death and Danger in D&D offers my thoughts on the topic, and they still hold. The house rule proposes replacing “dead” with “incapacitated” to prevent death from becoming cheapened by resurrections. While this hasn’t come up too many times in our campaign, I did manage to bring down a couple of PCs after this rule was introduced. And the rule did its thing: we avoided unnecessary, random deaths without changing anything about the way the game plays. For an example of how I’ve handled deaths that were actually meaningful, see another post: Duty is Eternal.

Marvelous Initiative – a hack of the initiative system enabling a more tactical approach. It works, and works great. Occasionally, it may cause a power to fizzle, and sometimes it makes it easier to gank a fallen PC. In those cases, remember that it’s up to you, the GM, whether you’ll actually do so or not. As this is a meta-game system, it won’t strain credibility of your monsters if they pass turn to PCs instead. That said, I’ve very rarely felt the need to do this – and there were similar situations with regular initiative system, where I didn’t have this escape. Overall, I’m very happy with both of these house rules, and would recommend them for any 4e game.

Monster Design

Quite a few entries in this category. By the end, all of my monsters were custom, whether modified or fully original. Some people praise reskinning, and sure, I did that, too. But more often than not, I’d start with a monster, and keep changing it to fit my idea for the encounter, until almost nothing of the original remained. Tweaking them was fun in itself. Was it worth the time investment? Not all the time. Though as I grew more proficient with the system, it became easier and easier to do it. Lets take look at a few examples.

Boss fights: Anathema, Patient One/Two. Everyone loves a huge terrifying monstrosity. The latter post is of particular interest, as it contains an example of a multi-part solo, whose body parts function as separate monsters. Those posts include the impressions from running them, and there’s not much to add. Unwieldy Contraption is a special case, a monster that really should have been a solo, but wasn’t for story reasons. It is complex and mad and beautiful in its own special way.

Also fitting in this category is Dragon Tipping, which offers a decent way of safeguarding solo monsters from condition effects. There are plenty of other methods, though this one has the benefit of being generic, and doesn’t require giving special abilities to your bosses. A useful addition to the monster design toolbox.

Sequence on interaction

First sequence of posts in this blog, based on the observation that in 4e character, terrain and monsters don’t do things to each other, they do things at each other. It starts with a discussion of terrain effects in Perfectly Spherical Adventurers in Vacuum. It presents some decent ideas (if I say so myself) for terrain that works as a function of characters’ abilities. While I hadn’t used these very often, they worked when I did.

Here’s an actual example from the finale of our game: in the encounter, characters were trapped inside an enormous shadow dragon construct, intent on devouring the sun. They had to stop it, by disrupting it from the inside. It had two types of crucial elements inside: bones/columns and muscles/gears: it wasn’t quite real, or quite sane. And so, they had to destroy a given amount of these elements scattered around the battle map, while dealing with endlessly spawning enemies. Each element had 200 hit points; bones took extra 10 damage for each square of forced movement they were subjected to (they didn’t actually move), to represent them being bent out of shape; and gears took extra 25 damage at the end of each round when they were slowed or dazed, and 50 extra damage at the end of each round when they were immobilized or stunned, to represent the strain put on them by every other part of the engine/body trying to move them. Simple enough that most characters had a way to use these traits, yet still evocative.

The sequence continued with I Kick Sand in His Face – a rare example of a post that doesn’t have a stupid joke for a name, and I still regret it. In it I offer a framework for player-driven minor terrain interaction. While the theory is sound, it would have been yet another ability for high-level characters to remember, and so we didn’t try it. It should (hopefully) work for heroic tier, but I wouldn’t advise introducing it in paragon or epic.

Then, finally, there was Collision of Perfect Spheres, applying the same idea, of player abilities interacting with a game element, to monsters. I’ve used it every now and then for solos, though, again, not very often. Overall, the ideas in this sequence suffer from going against the grain of how 4e actually works. They also require more work to put into play, which is another difficulty: there isn’t a list from which you can pick the one ability that fits your idea, unlike with pulling a ready monster out of a book.

Power, Level, and 4eLite

Power vs Levels features a pretty fundamental discovery that changed the way I look at character progression. Namely, that those are two different things, and the link between them is strenuous, especially in 4e. It is a post I’m still 100% behind. Which can’t be said for its follow-up, Practical Applications of Power. It’s not bad, and still worth reading, but it’s an in-between-ideas solution. Not taking things far enough.

Thankfully, I did take it all the way later, in 4eLite – a simple, fully functional 4e mod. No one has called me out on it spelling out not just “4e lite” but also “4 elite”, which, frankly, disappoints me. I’m still unhappy with the clunkiness of the way it handles skills (though paradigms are an interesting concept by themselves). One complaint I’ve received after playing with this variant came from a resident character optimizer, who’ve said it disrupts the usual combos and developed methods of character creation. Which is not to say you can’t optimize in it if you so choose, it’s just somewhat different. One thing I’d add to the changed rules is flat-out removing any permanent bonuses to attacks. Overall, I’d use 4eLite if I were to run another 4e game.

Evaluation of Combat

Given combat is such an important part of 4e, its no wonder there are a few posts here examining it from various angles. The Unbearable Inconsequentialness of Combat starts off this sequence, and I’m still proud of it. It challenges the way we construct adventures by forcing GMs to ask themselves: what question does this fight answer? Because it sure isn’t “do PCs die?” most of the time. It is applicable to other games, too. I still sometimes struggle with actually following my own advice, as it’s just so much easier to throw several rooms full of goblins at the party, but it is something I always keep in the back of my mind now.

Next posts didn’t contain such (ahem) profound realisations. Rather, Self-Defeating Strategy and Tactful Tactics examined various issues that arise when players employ strategy and tactics, instead of just kicking dungeon doors down as 4e expects of them. These posts won’t change your outlook on the game, but they still contain decent advice.

Finally,  Inconsequential Combat examines when and how to have a purposefully inconsequential (and fast!) combat – as distinct from most 4e fights that are inconsequential by accident of design.

GMing Toolbox

Following posts don’t form a sequence, and rather loosely fit into the “might be useful for GMs” category. Some of them are not even about 4e specifically (gasp!). The first one, Vignettes, is the very first post in this blog. It describes a different type of scene GM may wish to occasionally use, with players controlling NPCs. Then there is Are You Sure?, which contains an important to the point of obviousness advice on avoiding misunderstandings between players and GM.

Reality Breakdown is based on a couple of games we’ve had, and contains several ideas on messing with your players’ heads. Psychodrama on the Battlemat, a recent post, explores bringing personal conflict and emotional resolution into combat. And, finally, an even more recent post, Odds & Ends, offers a number of assorted ideas, ranging from a variation of dominate to narratively handling mass combat.

Honorary Mention

These posts don’t quite fit into any given category, but I still love them. They’re all special to me. First, the wishful thinking D&D4e Do-Over, talking about narrative grouping and control over character building options, something I’d still like to see in D&D or a D&D-like game. Ars Magika has this with mystery cults, to some extent. But it’s an entirely different game, with an entirely different approach to characters.

A case for Supernatural fighters is a curious post. It is obviously right to some people, and obviously wrong to others. Worth reading for that alone.

A Fistful of Gold Pieces is an essay on money in roleplaying games, and how our expectations of what they are and can do tend to disagree with those of the designers, leading to cognitive dissonance. While it does offer a suggestion for enhancing the monetary system of 4e with a complimentary “actual” currency, it should be of interest even to people who don’t care for 4e.

The End

Whew. Hope you find my ramblings useful. That wraps up the topic of 4e in this blog, as I have no intention of running it again. Not because it’s bad, though it definitely has its quirks; but because I’ve done it, from start to finish. Time to move on.

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