Tweaks to 4e D&D

The mechanical elements of the Dungeons and Dragons’ Fourth Edition rules are, in my opinion, a significant improvement over previous editions. The improvements I see are in organization of the material, mechanics that act as templates for multiple applications, and a concerted effort to actively involve all players as much as possible. As with any edition of D&D rules, I’m sure there are as many house-ruled variants as there are dungeon masters. In light of that, I’ve decided to brainstorm some changes, and consider their possible effects on the game.

Powers

One of the key concepts in 4e seems to be the heroic nature of the player characters. Early experience levels are referred to as the “Heroic Tier”. Unlike early editions of D&D and other role-playing games, where the PCs are often presented as “fresh off the farm”, 4e PCs come complete with a suite of at-will, encounter, and daily powers that are full of flashy effects.

I suspect that the design intent behind powers was primarily to liven up the toe-to-toe slog that often defines RPG combat. Saying, “I make a ‘Reaping Strike’ against the orc!” is more flavorful than, “I swing my sword at him.” The aforementioned Reaping Strike is also packed full of crunchy gaming goodness for the battlefield tactician. Stuff for the player to ponder between turns in a combat. All this creates a stronger sense of involvement and immersion, and thus a richer gaming experience.

In practice, the tactical elements of powers seem to have lengthened combat, and the heroic nature of the characters has been met with resistance by some players. (Some of these players will never consider playing 4e, or variants thereof, due to contentment with their rule system of choice. This isn’t a criticism of that attitude, nor is it an attempt to convince anyone that they should be playing another edition.) If you are one of those players though, perhaps you might consider the following variant:

Special Powers

Would it be possible to make powers more interesting simply by moving them down in frequency? If an at-will power became an encounter power, and an encounter power became a daily, for example. The basic melee attack then enters the vocabulary of the player again. The “power” becomes more special by it’s lowered frequency. Think of this as meeting half way between the slog of seemingly-endless, identical attacks, and the highly-specialized, tactically-crunchy attacks of 4e rules as written. Removing some of the tactical options may, in fact, lead to faster combats.

The Fighter, or other martial class, now has fewer tricks up her sleeve. The Fighter’s player is going to have to settle for the occasional basic melee attack. No frills, just a way to grind the monster down. Maybe not as flashy as a Reaping Strike, but full of the old-school wonder at whether or not you’ll actually kill the monster before it kills you.

But what of our poor 1st level Wizard, who now has only two spells to regularly use in combat (with two others that could be called upon if the situation looked to be the toughest one of the day?) Reduced to ineffectively swinging a dagger or staff, the Wizard would likely perish, or the player die of boredom.

This is a good point to consider the recharge mechanic used for some monster powers in 4e. Perhaps after casting a spell, the Wizard (or other arcane class), could roll a d6 to determine if the power recharged? In the heat of combat, reordering the formula in the mind might take an extra moment or two. If the recharge failed, the player could try again at the end of their next turn.

Also, consider the possibility of allowing a greater number of encounter powers than the 4e default. The end result is you’ll still be encouraging the mechanically swift basic attack, but your players will have a few more tactical options. The best way to decide what works for you and your group is to playtest the options.

Conditions

4e D&D has 16 conditions that can afflict your character, with an array of effects to take into consideration. In addition, they have varying durations. Some can be ended by saves, others terminate at the end of the author’s turn, etc.

Conditions play a significant role in the tactical applications of the rules. By including conditions in spell effects, the rules allow a spellcaster to effectively control the battlefield, or otherwise influence the encounter. It’s part of the design effort to actively involve all players as much as possible.

In practice, conditions (which I’m addressing here) and buffs (which use some of the same mechanics), can quickly become onerous to track. Once the players have lost track of them, the importance of the spellcaster’s contribution to the resolution of the encounter has been lessened.

Condition Categories

One of the gaming groups I host uses a set of rules I refer to as “primitive”. They’re simplified, taking the essence of a mechanic and condensing it to speed game play and simplify recall. The primitive version of conditions includes four categories: Will (Dazed, Unconscious, Surprised); Perception (Blinded, Deafened); Mobility (Slowed, Restrained); and Fortitude (Weakened, Poisoned).

The nine conditions in the primitive rules affect different combinations of defenses and abilities. There is a card for each condition, color-coded and with an icon for it’s category. The front of the card explains the effect (penalties to a defense, attack, and/or movement), and the back of the card explains the mechanic for resolving the duration. At the end of the player’s turn, the player is instructed to turn the card over, and follow the instructions. In most cases it reads: roll d20: Result = 1-9 Effect ongoing; Turn card over. Result = 10-20 Effect ends; Return card to GM.

By grouping conditions into like categories, providing a physical reminder of the condition that is easily managed by the player, and simplifying the duration mechanic, you can streamline elements of the game and provide greater opportunities for other play that may better suit your group’s interests.

Obviously in something as complex as 4e D&D, many hours have been devoted to designing and testing the mechanics. There are, I’m sure, endless reasons for things to be just as they are. In practice though, I have been involved in, and heard tale of, over-long combats. Rules errata are issued by the publisher. I’ve listened to players dither about whether they should Reaping Strike or Cleave. There is a comfort zone for length of combats that will vary from group to group, and a finite amount of tolerance for those players that seem to feel that their individual turn in combat should be the most important event of the day for everyone at the table. The rules as written are not going to be ideal for all players and groups.