Chris, from Dias Ex Machina Games, drops by once again with a few tips on improving storytelling under 4th Edition D&D.
In April 2008, Dias Ex Machina Games released Amethyst utilizing the 3.5 OGL, considered the standard for over a half-decade. The book enjoyed positive buzz, glowing praise (except for that one accusing it of having a creationist agenda…irony), and initial promising returns. Thirty days after, WOTC released 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. To say that I despised 4th Edition at that point is putting it mildly. By the release of the GSL on my birthday less than two months later, my group had come to the consensus to drop any further development of the 3.5 Amethyst and rush blindly into new ground with 4th Edition. Knowing what we know now, would we have done anything different? That’ll depend on our capacity to be psychic, of possessing some clairvoyance of events to come. If we did possess such talents (and assuming we were stupid enough to not claim the million-dollar James Randi prize) we would have altered a few rules but the decision to keep with 4th Edition would have remained. In our opinion, it was simply good business. At the time, there was waning support for the older system and no evidence that anyone would pick up the slack and offer any kind of provision that would trounce the benefit of having the Dungeons and Dragons logo on our book.
Did we think it was a better system (noticing how I hadn’t commented)? The answer is also yes. If the system was horrible, we wouldn’t have adopted it. I thought it was malleable and the open playing field was liberating compared to the congested system we had just left. As for personal reasons, I can only speak as a DM. My entire experience as a player is limited to a six-month Mekton Zeta campaign and dozens of short-term “one-offs” that never reached anything resembling a satisfactory conclusion. As a DM, I ran three games that each lasted over a year. I have four others that ran even further, in excess of two years. Amethyst, if you add up each campaign, has been running nearly uninterrupted since 2002. Strictly speaking as a DM, 4th Edition is far more beneficial. I absolutely dreaded combat in my 3.5 game. It placed so much on the shoulders of the DM. Players got impatient waiting for me to figure out what to do next. God help it if a dragon ever showed up. In my current 4th Edition game, battles occur frequently and there is no anxiety with their inclusion. As a DM, I love 4th Edition. It addresses the concerns for the one member of a game group I thought had been ignored until that point, the guy running the game.
But the complaints started rolling in about how 4th Edition was killing the role-playing game–that what emerged was the antithesis of long-term character-based campaigns. I am here to say that just ain’t true. I have come to offer come solutions that may alleviate concerns over running a character-based long-term D&D campaign. I am looking at you, DMs. I’m talking to my kin. I am here to help you storytellers out there. (Note: Some of these ideas have been tested but others have not.)
1) Beef Up Your Milestones. After two encounters pass, you gain an action point. This is called a milestone. Not much else happens (you can also reset one weapon power). I say keep it going. I suggest having a milestone allow a player to reset one daily power (increasing to two powers at paragon and three at epic). Further, a milestone also allows a player to regenerate a quarter of his healing surges. You can then add homebrew rules that removes extended rests completely from the game (or only offer it under special circumstances, like at a castle or at an inn).
2) Tokens. Here is an interesting alternate to the above rule, and something reminiscent to you Warmachine players. Replace action points with tokens. Perhaps have the value random (like 1d4) for each milestone, perhaps with +1 and +2 boosts for paragon and epic or base it off of your primary attack attribute (thought that may result in a higher value). Use a token to cook off one of the following actions: A) Reset one daily power (but not activate it); B) Regenerate one healing surge; C) Gain one action; D) Gain an attack boost or a damage boost to your next attack/hit.
3) Not Always About the Fighting. You can allow certain characters to drop a daily attack power and replace it with another utility power (the utility can be a daily, encounter, or at-will). Obviously, they character must be at the appropriate level to drop a daily and acquire another utility.
4) Noncombat powers. If you want to create homebrew powers that attack but inflict no damage, it’s a fairly easy process. You could simply drop the damage and keep any other effects the power inflicts. Fluff will also need to be changed as well. As a balance, I would definitely make such non-damaging attack powers move actions (once again, depending on the specifics of the power). If the PC remains still, they can still cook off a damaging attack power if it still suits them. Additionally, I would make all encounter powers reliable so that such a non-damaging power is not wasted.
5) Swap out your Attributes: In the old game, a fighter could be Dexterity based as long as you employed the right combination of weapons and feats (even these weren’t entirely necessary). If a player can offer a reason to swap out his primary attribute (like Strength for Dexterity), I’d say let him. This is no more unbalanced than anything else that has emerged from WOTC. If you wish to impost a limitation, you can add that such a player would need to use his Intelligence for his AC instead of Dexterity. You could extend this to make a Wisdom wizard or a Constitution fighter as well. Such swapping could be regional, allowing players to create customized back stories to their characters to explain it.
6) Make the Epic Epic: On those rare occasions where you want to throw down a huge battle, like those climactic end-of-campaign confrontations where lives are lost and kings are made, increase the number of minions. If minions add up to more than half the total value of the encounter, double the number of those minions, rendering them half XP for the building of the encounter. In addition, stack multiple encounters back-to-back. The time between battles would hardly be considered a short rest but for the sake of the epic conflict, let’s assume it is. I did this a lot before implementing Rule 1.
7) Missed Opportunities: Hate it when you miss with an encounter? I would suggest adding a rule where you can re-use any previously activated encounter power in the same encounter by using an action point to do so. This would work along with any other effects involving action points.
Will all these work for you? Maybe not. When you are running a long-term campaign, you may not want to stack all your battles in one day. I tried that for a few months. After a while, it just doesn’t hold water. As for the non-damaging powers, you’re probably wondering about critical hits. Waste of a roll, you might think. Not necessarily. If you score a critical hit with a non-damaging power, perhaps your next attack roll on the same target using a similar power gains a +4 power bonus. There are always solutions. Each game/campaign is unique. It’s up to the highest authority, the DM, to make these calls.
Dias Ex Machina Games