D&D 4E Dissociating what I (we?) like from the mechanics

Undrave

Hero
We’ve had a few talks recently about reviving 4e and the impossibility of a proper retroclone due to the way the game license works. These talks also got me wondering if 100% copying the mechanics would even be a good idea, as 4e had its flaws and bloat that I would rather see streamlined.

This got me wondering if it would be possible to capture the SPIRIT of 4e without outright copying it. What was it about 4e that appealed to me, beyond its exact mechanics? In this thread I want to list the design principles and ‘big ideas’ of 4e that I would like to recapture in a game for it to satisfy me as a 4e successor. I hope you guys will pipe in, either in agreement or disagreement and maybe with new elements. These are not placed in any particular order, it’s just the order I thought of them.

Class based and level based: This one is fairly simple. I’ve tried a few and I really don’t particularly like class-less system. They feel overwhelming at times and it’s really easy to mess up the balance if there’s no decent restriction. It’s also simpler to progress a character with clear cut levels instead of like… build points. It’d be really easy to rebuild 4e as a pseudo class-less system where you have your power source and a boat load of powers but I think that would just end up as a mess and I would miss the strong identity of more rigid classes

Visible Design: The game designers had no problem telling us ‘This is how the math works at each level and the parameters if you don’t want to break it. Feel free to do so but you’ve been warned’. There was no pretention that this wasn’t first and foremost a game and not some sort of physics treatise on another world or something. It abstracted things for the sake of playability with no remorse and made all the dials very easy to tweak.

Classes with clear purposes: I liked that each class was built with a clear goal in battle and a distinct playstyle. The much maligned ‘roles’ were pretty brilliant IMO. Told you right away what to expect from a class. Your class does a thing very well and has a clear synergy in all its powers so if you take the path of least resistance you’ll end up with a good character with very little effort. You can, of course, twist the classes to play differently than the basic build as long as you have system mastery, but it doesn’t break anything. You didn’t have a class like the Monk that just feels like a checklist of ‘monk-like things’ with no real consideration given to how the class would actually play or be effective at its job.

Choices at every level: There’s nothing more boring than a dead level. When I level up, I like that it means something and that something is one that I pick, even if I only have two options to pick from, all the previous choices means that I can do multiple characters of the same class and still have different experiences.

Balance: Every option presented as equivalent was relatively equal in power. You didn’t have single overpowered characters, you really only had powerful synergies that emerged through teamwork. Party that knew how to play to each other strength felt incredibly powerful without one member specifically outshining everybody. Furthermore, the fiction you wanted to realize had no bearing on your strength or the complexity and flexibility of your character.

Same clock for everyone: While it wasn't executed perfectly, the use of Healing Surges showed that you can come up with mechanic that ensures everybody works on the same clock. No Short Rest/Long Rest class divide and magic can't extend that clock indefinitely. When the call to take a long rest arrive, it's rare that only part of the party agree and the other wants to keep going.

Defenders that really defend: Regardless of the method chosen, 4e was the first to really feel like being a frontliner meant something. You could, for once, become an actual wall that enemies had to overcome to get to your allies. It wasn’t just the DM’s courtesy resulting in the trope playing out, it had real underpinning mechanics.

Support that matter: Beyond simple healing, it felt GOOD to hand out bonuses. Being a good support character could do wonder and make you feel like a boss, even if you weren't the one doing the big damage!

Tactical Combat: Not much to say beyond that I like it. Moving around the battlefield and making the right decision mattered. Using the environment mattered. Paying attention to your allies mattered. You didn't just win in the character builder like you could with a spell caster in 3.X.

Attacker always rolls: This one is pretty simple but I really like a universal resolution mechanic. If the player wants to do a thing, they're always the one rolling. This also makes it much easier for support characters to support any type of characters equally.

Universality: Through the use of a consistent vocabulary, consistent syntax, consistent presentation, and a clever use of keywords, there was never any doubt that you were reading game rules and not just a piece of lore. Lore and flavor were their own things and the rules their own. Furthermore, if you knew the basics and had played one class, you had almost no learning curve to play another. When a new class was released I had no problem understanding it and being ready to play it right away. This universal language also applied to monsters, making the switch from player to DM all the smoother.

Intuitive encounter building: With monsters having their own roles in combat, with build in variety within specific species, and a simple XP budget system that no only worked but was easy to tweak to your desire, and suggested encounter groups, building encounters was a breeze. You could just grab the Goblin page of the Monster Manual and have an interesting enemy party without having to look much further.

Incomplete Lore: The 4e Lore was not in your face. You didn’t have, at the start, giant chunk of detailed History. Most of its world was hidden in the margins and you had to piece it together from all sorts of pieces, from introduction chapters to power descriptions to Paragon Paths introduction. The world was vast and filled with unknown areas you had to build yourself and connections you had to make on your own. The world wasn’t presented in a detailed painting, but rather as a coloring book page and you had to bring your own pencils. And when the game did give you giant chunks of exposition, it was mostly limited to being DM-facing, and all of it was in service of stimulating your imagination and getting you to create new adventures.

Cosmology for Adventurers: the universe was created as a place to have adventure in, not just as a working cosmic model. The gods are flawed and have complex relationship that can cause frictions. And alignments are vague abstractions of goals, desires and values, and not cosmic forces.

Truly epic epic levels: Every class, thanks to Epic Destinies, had access to insane endcap abilities that boldly and earnestly pushed you into the realm of mythical heroes. There was also a consideration to the END of your character’s career with prompts to help you reflect on what the ultimate goal of your character was and their claim to immortality, whether it be in legend, spirit or body. Your last level wasn’t just another bump, it was the end of a journey. This last one is a 'nice to have but not necessary' in that I wouldn't mind the game not starting with Epic levels available until later on.

Well that’s It for now. There might be more later but that’s the important ones. A game wouldn't need to be 100% the same mechanic as 4e to be able to hit those. I don't need the 6 D&D attributes and AC/FORT/REF/WILL defences for it to grab me, for exemple. Maybe there are some I'd have no problem compromising with some but not others. Who knows?

So, your turn guys... Go any of those you'd like to add? Anything you would rather not keep in a pseudo-clone? Things you disagree with or dislike among what I got laid out here?
 
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payn

Legend
So did I! But that might be more precisely mechanical than what I'm talking about above.
Gotcha. Going by the OP, Id say im not down for "attacker always rolls". I guess I should say I'm not down for most 4E as D&D. Thats all entirely subjective though. My ideal D&D game is somewhere between OSR and 3E/PF1. Funny thing though, as soon as somebody suggested I reskin 4E to Mass Effect, I started liking the system a bit more. Healing surge because medi-gel application, and shields/armor down equals bloodied. The paper rock scissor role design works well as soldier, biotic, tech, infiltrator. Maybe the clone is best in a genre shift?
 

Kannik

Adventurer
Combining a few of what you listed, one additional bit for me is/was the way character classes were crafted to combine character roles with the various "power sources." In this way you had a weapon-using defender, a divine-inspired defender, a nature-wielding defender, and so on. Each of these worked differently and had their quirks as they fulfilled their roles, which made them interesting in use.

Even better is that this allowed each class to also be be packed with plenty of aesthetic and narrative flavour. :)
 

Undrave

Hero
Gotcha. Going by the OP, Id say im not down for "attacker always rolls".
It doesn't seem like such a big deal, and I get that people like that "it makes Magic feel different" when you have the whole saving throw thing... but having a uniform attack resolution makes it WAAAAY easier to have a support class like the Warlord not being hosed by now having other weapon users in the party. I've tried MULTIPLE times to write a 5e Warlord and the fact that some part members never roll to attack makes any simple "Here's a +2 to your next attack!" feature impossible because they're too party dependant. They're either useless or you have to write a giant wall of text to let them account for those darn spellcasters and their fancy savng throws.

We don't need two different mechanics to see if we can make a dude dead. Pick one and stick to it.
Combining a few of what you listed, one additional bit for me is/was the way character classes were crafted to combine character roles with the various "power sources." In this way you had a weapon-using defender, a divine-inspired defender, a nature-wielding defender, and so on. Each of these worked differently and had their quirks as they fulfilled their roles, which made them interesting in use.

Even better is that this allowed each class to also be be packed with plenty of aesthetic and narrative flavour. :)
Oh definately! The Warlord, the Swordmage, the Warden, the Avenger, the Invoker, the Shaman, were all pretty much new to 4e but they all fit in SO well that they felt like they should have been there long long before. And, without the Primal power source, Barbarians would just be an Angry Fighter.
 

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
The mechanics were not my favorite thing about the system. It was the design, the format, and the way the game played. It didn't always make sense, but the intent was very clear. Every player would feel as equally valued and equally powerful regardless of the choices they made for their character, but they would also feel unique.

For example, look at the way the other (non-AC) defenses were derived. Back in 3e where they first appeared, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will were each tied to a single respective characteristic (i.e. Constitution, Dexterity, and Wisdom). This gave added weight to some attributes that were underperforming, while giving Dexterity way more than it needed.

In 4e, each defense had two key attributes and took the higher modifier (Str // Con, Dex // Int, and Wis // Cha). Not only did this create more versatility in the way we viewed their narratives, but it also insured certain classes would not be forever penalized because they relied on better scores in other characteristics. Or worse, the designers needed to find other incentives or options to compensate for these inherited shortcomings.
 
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Undrave

Hero
Every player would feel as equally valued and equally powerful regardless of the choices they made for their character, but they would also feel unique.
That's a great way to put it!
And since we're talking about ditching retroclone and going full rework, let's start by ditching the d20 and come up with a better mechanic to better support the elements of the game that matter. (I already came up with something but it's likely to be a thread of its own.)
d20's just a familiar frame that makes it easy to convert other players, and 'roll high = good, roll low = bad' is pretty intuitive, but I'm curious what you got in mind? If you want to just give us the outline.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Incomplete Lore: The 4e Lore was not in your face. You didn’t have, at the start, giant chunk of detailed History. Most of its world was hidden in the margins and you had to piece it together from all sorts of pieces, from introduction chapters to power descriptions to Paragon Paths introduction. The world was vast and filled with unknown areas you had to build yourself and connections you had to make on your own. The world wasn’t presented in a detailed painting, but rather as a coloring book page and you had to bring your own pencils. And when the game did give you giant chunks of exposition, all of it was in service of stimulating your imagination and getting you to create new adventures.
Regardless of edition, this is something that would annoy the hell out of me were I relying on the game to provide me with a setting rather than designing my own.

If I have to look all over the place for disconnected scraps of information about the default setting, what's the point of even having one? And how is this of any use to new or inexperienced DMs, or those who don't have the time or inclination to fill in all those holes and-or homebrew large parts of the setting?

Either give me a complete setting in one place that I can use and run right out of the tin, or give me nothing and honestly tell me up front that setting design is my responsibility.
 


Undrave

Hero
Regardless of edition, this is something that would annoy the hell out of me were I relying on the game to provide me with a setting rather than designing my own.

If I have to look all over the place for disconnected scraps of information about the default setting, what's the point of even having one? And how is this of any use to new or inexperienced DMs, or those who don't have the time or inclination to fill in all those holes and-or homebrew large parts of the setting?

Either give me a complete setting in one place that I can use and run right out of the tin, or give me nothing and honestly tell me up front that setting design is my responsibility.

Well I was mostly speaking on the Player facing side. It felt more immersive that, just as the characters themselves in the world, the Player only had an incomplete view of the setting's History.

The DMG had a more consolidated chunk of lore, but it also outright stated that the default setting was purposefully vague so that you could add your own things. The Points of Light setting, so to speak, was about giving you some of those points and you filled in the blanks. The DMG described the Nentir Vale and some important parts of History, the cosmology in broad terms, but it didn't detail the world beyond the vale with like hard geography and current powers and stuff.

A singular die rolled with a huge range and even distribution of variability gets to decide whether you succeed or fail in whatever you try to do in the game. Go ahead and call it luck or fate or randomness. Things happen, right? Absolutely! Is this game really supposed to be about chance? Not entirely, but the degree of probability we lend to chance is something we can mitigate. I like to think we can do better.
Well, when you do a thread about it feel free to add a link here!
 

Aldarc

Legend
Regardless of edition, this is something that would annoy the hell out of me were I relying on the game to provide me with a setting rather than designing my own.

If I have to look all over the place for disconnected scraps of information about the default setting, what's the point of even having one? And how is this of any use to new or inexperienced DMs, or those who don't have the time or inclination to fill in all those holes and-or homebrew large parts of the setting?

Either give me a complete setting in one place that I can use and run right out of the tin, or give me nothing and honestly tell me up front that setting design is my responsibility.
The ironic thing is that this is there is significant overlap between how the OSR and 4e's Nentir Vale approaches setting creation. It's often sketched out with wide open spaces for the DM to hack for their personalization and then with additional details slowly gleaned through supplemental materials.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I love the list. And for the most part agree with it.

But I have an observation about the list that I want to couch in the most positive (+) way - every point on the list that focuses primarily on a single pillar of play focuses on combat.

Instead of Utility powers that could apply to combat or could apply elsewhere as a sort-of nod to "everything non-combat", I'd love to see progressions of powers for other pillars of play as well. Roles for other pillars of play. Which means have the same sort of tactical robustness to require mechanics and multiple approaches.

Heck, pick a power source and then pick a combat class, a social class, and a discovery class to match. That would be 4e, but more-so.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Regardless of edition, this is something that would annoy the hell out of me were I relying on the game to provide me with a setting rather than designing my own.
All you really need to get a game going is a place to rest, a place to adventure, and some familiar fantasy tropes to give the players something to grasp onto and build off. The rest, you can riff.

If the book descriptions give the players a place name and a general image of what it means they they can use, all the better.

When I ran a 4e campaign, I used some ideas my players got from the books, a general sense of the surroundings from Eberron, and a bunch of planar stuff I stole from 2e Planescape.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
The ironic thing is that this is there is significant overlap between how the OSR and 4e's Nentir Vale approaches setting creation. It's often sketched out with wide open spaces for the DM to hack for their personalization and then with additional details slowly gleaned through supplemental materials.
Agreed. Other than detailing a couple of small towns (which isn't really different than, say, the Village of Hommlet), 4e focused primarily on the development of cosmological tropes and "deep history" lore. And if you wanted/needed a gazetteer type book, 4e had both FR and Eberron available.
 

Undrave

Hero
I love the list. And for the most part agree with it.

But I have an observation about the list that I want to couch in the most positive (+) way - every point on the list that focuses primarily on a single pillar of play focuses on combat.

Instead of Utility powers that could apply to combat or could apply elsewhere as a sort-of nod to "everything non-combat", I'd love to see progressions of powers for other pillars of play as well. Roles for other pillars of play. Which means have the same sort of tactical robustness to require mechanics and multiple approaches.

Heck, pick a power source and then pick a combat class, a social class, and a discovery class to match. That would be 4e, but more-so.
Ah that's a good observation! Hmm... I didn't have any sort of reflection on it but now that I think about it I guess I do? How about these:

Separation of combat magic and utility magic : Combat magic was all the instantaneous and short duration effect. Anything longer fell into rituals and used a different resource. Doing cool things in combat did not diminish your ability to over come obstacle, and rituals were also an avenue any character could explore if they wanted to. If you really wanted to spend on them, you could be more magical than normal, or you could decide to just rely on mundane means to solve out of combat problems (options for a martial/mundane equivalent to ritual would arrive alter in the edition).

Magic doesn't always do it better but is convenient: A Knock ritual was pretty expensive at low level, and it was loud, but it was a good replacement if you didn't have someone with the right proficiency, and if you DID have someone with the tools and skill to use them? Well then you just saved components for another ritual later down the line. Magic could be used to replace a missing skill or team member, but it wasn't cheap enough to do so every time all the time to the point of making mundane skills obsolete, but in a pinch it would be good enough.

I did float the idea of replacing Utility powers with Skill Powers, but having them more geared toward the non-combat pillars, but that felt too 'mechanical' for the point of my thread.

I don't think people would appreciate TOO much mechanics for social and exploration, but I think more is a good idea. I also had this character creation concept that I think could fill the 'social class/discovery class' space : First you pick your Ancestry (what you are, i.e. your race) and get your racial powers that way, then you picked your 'Hometown' (the place you grew up in, which could be built out of a mix of environment and cultural templates by the DM or by picking already created ones in the PHB), then you pick your 'Background' (what you did before being an adventurer) and only then do you pick your class. Each of those would basically add layers to your character and probably to their attributes and abilities outside of combat. I think it would be cool in that you could create vastly different characters that could still share one of those three elements across the party (like, everybody from the same hometown but one's a Dwarven Noble and the other a Human Artisan, etc).
 

Undrave

Hero
Agreed. Other than detailing a couple of small towns (which isn't really different than, say, the Village of Hommlet), 4e focused primarily on the development of cosmological tropes and "deep history" lore. And if you wanted/needed a gazetteer type book, 4e had both FR and Eberron available.
And they had the Nentir Vale stuff at the back of the DMG to act as a home base.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Well I was mostly speaking on the Player facing side. It felt more immersive that, just as the characters themselves in the world, the Player only had an incomplete view of the setting's History.

The DMG had a more consolidated chunk of lore, but it also outright stated that the default setting was purposefully vague so that you could add your own things.
Ah; I thought you were speaking from the DM's side. This makes way more sense. :)
The Points of Light setting, so to speak, was about giving you some of those points and you filled in the blanks. The DMG described the Nentir Vale and some important parts of History, the cosmology in broad terms, but it didn't detail the world beyond the vale with like hard geography and current powers and stuff.
Excellent. I've always meant to give the Nentir Vale setting a much longer look, though at the moment I've no pressing need for a new setting given that my current one should last me several years yet.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
All you really need to get a game going is a place to rest, a place to adventure, and some familiar fantasy tropes to give the players something to grasp onto and build off. The rest, you can riff.
Indeed, but some (many?) new DMs kinda need a bit more than that, or will once the campaign gets going beyond that first adventure.
If the book descriptions give the players a place name and a general image of what it means they they can use, all the better.
Agreed.
 


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