I’ve been thinking about 4th Edition, its strengths, its weaknesses, and ways it might have gone differently. Over the last two weeks, I’ve put together some house rules, made some core changes to game play, and gave the updated system a spin. Today, I’m just going to go over why I made the changes I made. Later, I’ll talk about the results. And, there’s no secret agenda here. I’m indulging in some game designer wankery or something like that.
I’ve been working on the next iteration of D&D for a while now. Travel, conventions, real life, and workload have conspired to chip away at the time I have available for sitting around the table and playing games. I’ve been playtesting, of course. I’ve even managed to squeeze in a board game or two, to say nothing of taking the first tentative steps back into video games. Nothing quite filled the hole left by the regular campaign and so I’ve been easing back into regular gaming. I need a gaming experience that doesn’t relate directly to my day job, something that doesn’t have the same kind of pressure intense play testing imposes. So that’s why I pulled out the 4E books and gave them another look.
Even as a fan of 4E, I grumble about some of the creakiness in 4E’s rules. I’ve never been satisfied with the magic item rules, their acquisition, or the game’s reliance on their distribution. I’ve also been frustrated with the “treadmill” effect, where numbers get bigger to no real impact on game play. DCs creep upwards to keep pace with character advancement. Higher-level monsters exist to fill holes left by lower level monsters when they drop out of the game. And, a monster’s viability in any game almost never lasts more than 5 levels since PC defenses scale far above what a monster can reasonably hit.
With these issues in my mind, I made a couple of changes I hope will improve game play.
Level Bonus: A player normally adds one-half his or her character’s level to checks (ability and skill), defenses, and attack rolls. A monster’s check modifier, defenses, and attack rolls always equals some number (determined by role) plus its level. It should be obvious if PCs grow at a rate of one-half level and monsters grow at a rate of level, there’s a gap that grows wider and wider over time. Magic items shoulder the burden of filling the gap. The game expects PCs to earn a magic item four out of five levels. Of those, one delivers accuracy improvements, one delivers AC improvements, and one delivers FRW improvements. Leaving one magic item slot to improve the character’s ability to perform specific ability-related tasks. Generally, gloves boosted Strength or Dexterity-based tasks, belts boosted Strength or Constitution-based tasks, headbands and orbitals boosted Intelligence-based tasks, and so on.
I wasn’t on the 4E design team, but I can imagine this approach sought to solve some fairly big problems that revealed themselves in 3.5. Monsters in 3rd Edition were built somewhat independent from player character power. Challenge Rating was more guesswork than it was hard math based on expected outcomes derived from accuracy, damage output, and resource expenditures. This led to some weird results. Two CR 4 monsters could offer the same XP reward and yet one was often far more difficult to defeat than the other and thus consumed a greater chunk of PC resources.
The math behind 4E monsters generally mirrors the math underlying PCs. There are rough spots, but monsters of a particular level more or less consume the same number of resources combat after combat. This approach gives designers better insights into predicting game play, but at the cost of a feeling of sameness that seems to pervade the game. If every fight of n level consumes x% resources, it doesn’t really matter what monsters the DM uses provided the monster is of the same level.
As good as the intentions were, pressure on magic items to allow PCs to keep pace with the monsters took away one of the most vital jobs from the DM—treasure distribution. You could hand out treasure like you did in previous editions, but the effects were significant in game play. Delaying when the fighter got his magic weapon meant the character lagged behind right out of the gate. Furthermore, since magic items were integral to character development, the wish list became an essential component to magic item distribution and almost always led to disappointment when the DM decided not to give the players everything they asked for.
Even with the most liberal magic item distribution, the gap was still wide. A 5th-level PC has n + 2 defenses. A monster of equal level has n + 5 accuracy. Even with a +2 amulet, the PC is still behind by a point. And so, to throw more gravel into the gap, “math feats” crept into the game. Feats to boost defenses, accuracy, and so on began to populate feat lists. Although this helped player characters keep pace, it diminished what feats were supposed to do—provide customization beyond class and race.
Face with this, the solution seemed pretty obvious to me. Ripping level bonus out of the game meant I could stretch low-level monsters to higher levels since the game wasn’t promoting PCs out of fighting certain monsters. And, I could get away with using higher level monsters since defenses and accuracy stayed close throughout the game. I could also distribute magic items in whatever way I wanted and whenever a character got one, it meant a meaningful upgrade.
The effect of this rule is that players do not add 1/2 level to their characters’ defenses, attack modifier, initiative modifiers, ability modifiers, or skill modifiers. Monsters and traps and hazards reduce their defenses, attack modifiers, initiative modifier, ability modifiers, and skill modifiers by their level.
Training Bonus: In addition to ripping out the level bonus, I also dropped the training bonus from +5 to +3. The +5 bonus eclipses the character’s ability modifier. This creates some weird distortions in the game. I honestly feel that bounding 4E’s accuracy means this bonus should be even smaller, but we’ll give +3 a spin.
Monster Hit Points: I’ve talked before about how draggy the game can be using hit points as written. Monsters have a bit more hit points than they need and thus the tension in combat drops off after the 3rd round. Increase monster damage output (in the Monster Manual 3 and on) has helped, but monsters still live too long.
My last system change was to adjust monster hit points down in a big way. The formula I’m using is as follows based on monster role (n = level):
Artillery, Lurker: (n + 1) * 4 + Con score
Controller, Skirmisher, Soldier: (n + 1) * 6 + Con score
Brute: (n + 1) * 8 + Con score
These numbers may still be too high, and I am thinking about dropping the multipliers by 2 for the next session. Here’s what the changes look like: A 5th-level lurker with a 14 Constitution has 50 hit points using standard monster math. Using the above math gives the monster 38 hit points. Dropping the multiplier to 2 more gives the monster 26 hit points. Hmm. This might be too low.
In the end, I’m just screwing around with the game to make it more palatable to my evolving tastes. I’m interested in seeing the repercussions of these system changes and I anticipate there will be complications—the math feats are too good in this model and all accuracy and defense boosters should live in the paragon tier or go away entirely. We’ll see.