Tuesday, October 18, 2011

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.


  1. Strange you mention that you keep coming back to 4e. After reading (yet again) my PHBs, DMGs and MMs I and II I finally discovered that I can't like this game. But there's something there that keeps pulling my attention back (usually after a few months without reading it)... I believe this is what you're talking: the structure itself has some great ideas (like the fact that the classes are differentiated by their powers, not their progression bonus), but the static way in which it is sold is "turn off" for me.

  2. I have started to see the framework beneath, but it's in sparks and glimmers. I too would love to strip to the frame and start there, but I'm wondering how much work would really be involved.

    Oh, and just so it's out there, if you did this, I'd love to help.

  3. To be clear: You could do this without issue as long as you rename some of the relevant mechanics and market it appropriately.

    Say, for example, if a third-party publisher were looking to do this very thing with an existing sci-fi setting....

    [You realize, I'm going to keep needling you.]

  4. I don't think I'm quite clear on what you're calling the foundation of 4e. It sounds like you're talking about the action/combat engine, but I don't think I'm quite right.

  5. This is at the root of why Chris and I talked about stuff like Gamma World as a good product direction for 4e on That's How We Roll. The 4e engine behind new editions of, say, Top Secret, Star Frontiers, even Boot Hill, could be pretty great.

  6. I was really hoping after the apparent success of Gamma World we'd see a Star Frontiers along the same line. 3 boxed sets. The first covering the basic rules. The second featuring a revamp of the Volturnus trilogy. The third a revamp of Knight Hawks.

  7. Dean Gilbert (Arcane Springboard)October 18, 2011 at 9:13 PM

    That all said, I'd love to see a '4E Basic' game that would dial back the complexity of the combat system, allowing more faster combats, yet still allowing the potential for epic set piece battles.

  8. I'm not sure if there's anything inelegant about working from scratch with similar design concepts. It's not as if 4e's minions suffered from not being called mooks or w/e they were named in feng shui.

  9. It'd be lovely if we had a saner copyright system that allowed for derivative works without licensing extortion. As it is, yay, yours is just one of countless ideas and inspirations crushed by monopolies on "intellectual property."

  10. I think a stripped down 4E would be a phenomenal foundation for a Supers game. Using just At Wills and Encounters boosted by something like the Power Points the used for their Psionics thus representing extra effort. I would also go head over heels for a 4E'd Star Frontiers as well.

  11. One thing I keep coming back to is expansion of skills, possibly to the point at which they replace powers entirely.

    A lot of people complain about how skills are trimmed down in 4e compared to previous editions, but I think it works for the preloaded fiction and the rest of the game. However, if you're going to use the foundation for something different, those skills are one of the biggest changes before you. Certainly, you could eliminate skills entirely, defaulting to ability score rolls, but that's a big hit with the homogenization bat in my book.

    Anyway, while you're reworking skills, you can embed more stuff. The most obvious is specific templates for skill challenges. A descending meter for survival, allowing you to spend successes on keeping that meter from depleting or towards achieving other goals. By contrast, a chase could have an absolute time limit rather than a meter you could bump over and over. You can add class-specific skill challenges, like tracking for a ranger or enchanting for a wizard. Effectively, you can create your own subsystems.

    One such subsystem is for modding actions in combat. Each skill could be attached to certain combat effects, and you could bundle a skill roll into your attack to modify a basic attack into a whole host of special things. And for a game entirely without classes, everyone has access to every tweak, but it's simply more difficult to pull off if you're weak in the corresponding skill. If those tweaks don't ring true as corresponding to skills, it's no problem to make a whole subsection of skills that revolve around martial arts and combat forms. That feeds right into combo-like skill challenges in combat for more over-the-top action.

  12. I'd definitely like to see lower level encounter and daily powers become at-will and increase in power at higher level. Why must we wait till level 11 and 21 for power increase?
    I'd like to see it bounce every 5 levels. I'd also like to see PC hit points go up s bit. I don't know about you, but I was Damn near killing a PC every other encounter when they didn't get a short rest. Healing surges were meh. From Red Box adventure, but with character builder PCs I was kicking their
    I would also second the vote for a more open Gamma World do we can have some user published modules. Dave Flor got an emphatic NO from WoTC on that.
    And a second on the vote for a 4E Star Frontiers. Randall Walker (@deadorcs) of DMRT & 4geeks4E has been working on a Star Frontiers 4E. I've bookmarked it for myself w/ intention of reading soon.
    If WoTC gave us a bare 4E system, like I assume d20 was & like Savage Worlds is, we could have some sweet toys, like a Super heroes, SiFi, pulp, etc type of world. For now, you can build it yourself, use what others have already built or switch to Savage Worlds.

  13. This idea wouldn't make it past the secretary at WotC. Too bad, because it is a potential path to success for them.


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