D&D 4E Jacob's 4e Redesign Journal

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
Please refrain from making posts or comments in this thread. There is an ongoing journal with a lot of information, but it is going to take me a long time to write it. If you like, I have created a separate discussion thread that you can find it by following this link. Please direct any comments, questions, etc., there. Thank you.


There has been a lot of discussions about 4th edition D&D recently, and it's got me thinking about my own design ideas once again. I don't usually share them, mostly because its always a work in progress. Frankly, I know that it won't get a lot of support because it is radically different than what people want or expect. Everyone has their own ideas and opinions, so it just seems like a waste of time for me to share my own personal ideas for such a divisive community. But I've decided to give it a shot anyway. I'm only getting older, and I don't want my ideas to remain a secret. Somebody might find it useful, or maybe inspirational. We'll never know if I don't put it out there.

So I've been working on these ideas in my head for several years now. Its not complete, and I haven't figured out everything. But it has reached a point where I'm starting to see the bigger picture. I have a lot of information to share now that should give serious readers a better understanding of what I have in mind. But it's going to take me a long time to write down everything, and then organize it. And while I suspect many readers won't sit through a lot of thorough and lengthy posts, it was never intended for an audience with short attention spans and a lack of patience.

Defining My Goals​

I think its important to clearly state what my goals are (and aren't) for this project so that others won't make incorrect or false assumptions. My goals are not necessarily the same as everyone else's, so keep that in mind if you intend to have a discussion with me.
  1. I am not making a "retroclone". I'm not trying to recreate a faithful duplicate or adaptation of the original 4th Edition game. If I wanted to play a game like 4th Edition, then I would just play 4th Edition. I have most of the books and materials I need to create and run countless campaigns and adventures without needing the extra work.
  2. I am not creating another Open Game License (OGL). Despite recent discussions regarding licenses and gaining a better understanding of how they work, I am neither qualified nor inclined to create a new OGL just to work around the useless 4e GSL. There are others more talented and dedicated working on that already. Go bug them about what you want.
  3. It doesn't need to be backwards compatible. This kinda goes with my first point. If I thought the game was perfect, why would I want to spend this much effort reinventing the same game? Likewise, if I wanted to use my old books and materials, I'd just play the game as it is. Believe it or not, its still playable and fun as written.
  4. It doesn't need to be D&D. Fourth Edition took a lot of flack for not being "D&D" (or "D&D enough") because they changed a lot of the familiar assumptions and ditched a bunch of "sacred cows". But it is those differences and deviations that attracted me to the game. The fact that they tried to keep some of those fan-friendly elements is what kept the game from becoming much better. Compromising ideas in order to satiate norms and expectations is the quickest route to mediocrity.
  5. I don't intend to publish or make money. I need to be clear about this because a lot of people automatically assume that is the goal of everyone who does work like this. Everything is measured in dollars and cents, which is horrible IMO. I do this because it is my hobby and my passion. That doesn't mean I'm any good at it, nor do I want to be judged for doing what I love. I'm doing this because I want to see it done right by my standards and my expectations.
So the obvious questions you might be asking yourself already are: why doesn't he just make his own game? Or play another game system? Or another edition?

The simple answer is that I love D&D, and I loved fourth edition the best. I'm not saying it was perfect... none of them are, really... but there was more that I liked about it than any other version to date. And I could see that it had a lot more potential if so many things had happened differently. If somebody tried to go further than they did. If they didn't walk back so hard to try and appease the older fans. If... if... if...

If someone could just see what I see.

This is what this excursion is really about. I see a way to do something different and wonder why nobody else ever sees it? More importantly, how can I explain it? I'm over 50 now, and my problems with writing and staying focused have only gotten worse. It takes me hours to write a post. And often, I'll go back and revise my writing because I lost my focus along the way, or I'll forget what I wrote, or the point I was making. And sometimes I'll slip in a snarky comment without realizing it and need to fix it. Let me tell you, getting old is not for the timid.

Still, I want to put this out there. These are just ideas of how I would evolve the 4th Edition D&D game, to make it better for the way I would want to play it. Even if nothing comes of it, I can point others to it as an example of what I would do and how would I approach such things. The simple matter is that there are no meaningful changes you can make to a system without potentially upsetting the balance or integrity of how it all work. If its only a minor alteration, then it's really just a house rule that leaves the game largely intact.

What I have in mind is evolution.
 
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Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM

Changing The Core Mechanic​

The twenty-sided die, or "d20", has been at the heart of the Dungeons & Dragons game since its inception. It is what is commonly referred to as the core mechanic, which defines the rules and parameters of how the players interact with the game system and create the narrative experience. The d20 has become so synonymous with the system, in fact, that it's a large part of its identity. D&D without a d20 just isn't D&D, is it? Well I'm not here to argue semantics and opinions over this particular subject. But since I'm not trying to preserve the integrity of key features (i.e. "sacred cows"), this isn't a concern for me.

But let me be clear; I don't think the d20 is a bad mechanic. It is simple, quick, and easy to use. Most of us will agree that these are very attractive features in any game. In a complex game like D&D, these are qualities that make playing (and running) the game faster and efficient, thus leading to a more enjoyable experience. Just to refresh ourselves, allow me to reiterate how it works:

Whenever you declare an action where the outcome isn't certain, you make the appropriate skill check, ability check, or attack roll using the following steps:
  1. Roll a d20.
  2. Add or subtract any relevant modifiers.
  3. Compare it to a target number or an opposing roll. If the result is equal to or greater that number, then you succeed. Otherwise, you failed.
The die itself can generate a value between 1 and 20, and the modifiers can result in even higher (or lower) values. Despite the large range of possible numbers, however, there are only two outcomes that actually matter: either the check was successful (pass) or it wasn't (fail). This is essentially a binary test where the results have only two possible values: "true" or "false". If you're familiar with how computers work, you'll recognize this as the fundamental basis of all programming languages and operations. To put it in more human terms, the results can only answer a simple question with either a "yes" (pass) or "no" (fail).

So what kind of questions can we answer with yes/no results in D&D? Some of the most common are:
  • Did you hit the monster with your weapon?
  • Did you climb over that wall?
  • Did you convince the guard to let you pass?
  • Did you pick the lock?
  • Did you find the secret door?
  • Did the enemy resist your spell?
These are all very simple, very common, and very basic events that happen in the game. Of course, the game session is not comprised of a single one of these events, but a series of them which take place over the course of an encounter, a adventure, a campaign, etc. This is what the d20 is designed to do, and for the most part, it works quite well. And if that is your preference, there's no reason for me to recreate something that does what already exists and works well. So what's the problem?

So What's Wrong with d20?​

Here's how a typical D&D session might go:

The characters are searching through the jungle for the lost city. The ranger wants to look for any tracks that might lead them in the right direction. He rolls a Survival check and succeeds. The party moves in the right direction.

Next, the DM notes that the group is about to stumble onto a pit trap. She asks the rogue who is scouting ahead to make a Perception check. He fails the check and falls in. The fighter throws down a rope and helps to pull the rogue out of the pit. She makes an Athletics check, and so on.

We can see that the d20 works adequately at the most basic, fundamental level of the game. Whenever a character attempts an action, a single throw of the die tells you whether they fail or succeed. You're either rewarded or you earn consequences. If you hit the monster, you may roll damage. If you miss the secret door, you don't get to see what's behind it. No more, and no less. As far as the rules of D&D are concerned, that is all you need to play the game.

Now consider this: Let's say my character is attempting to climb a 10' wall. I roll a 16, apply the modifiers for his Athletics skill and Strength, and determine that he succeeds. Then, he attempts to climb a similar wall, using the same values and modifiers as before, but this time he rolls only an 8. And he still succeeds! What does that tell me?

We can infer a few possibilities just from the results of the d20 check.
  1. The wall was not very difficult to climb. In this case, the DC set by the game (or the DM) was low enough that anyone with a decent modifier had a good chance to climb it even with a poor skill roll.
  2. My character is either highly skilled in Athletics, a natural climber because of his high strength, or both. My character's modifiers are high enough that he can easily compensate for a poor skill roll, even if the wall is more difficult to climb.
  3. A combination of the above. A skilled climber attempting to scale an easy wall rarely has any difficulty unless the dice roll is really, really low.
Notice that the rules provide a good logical explanation for the difficulty class (DC), the ability modifiers, and the skill modifiers in the game's narrative. The DC represents the difficulty of the task being attempted, while the character's modifiers represent their training, competence, and natural talent. The system, however, seems to make no distinction between the two check results. A success with a 16 has the same results (and consequences) as a success with an 8. So what role does the dice play in the game exactly? What do they inform about the narrative?

Dice are basically the "What if..." factor in the game. As written in the Rules Compendium (pg 14), "The d20 roll... reflects luck and the unpredictable nature of action and adventure." This makes it a surrogate for those untenable forces we like to call "fate", "luck", or "destiny". And while there is a place for such influences in our made-up stories and adventures, there is also such a thing as giving it too much influence.

Admit it. We've all had those nights when the dice are taking things out of our control and ruining an otherwise fun experience. You can't seem to roll high enough to do anything at all, which leaves you on the sidelines during most of the action. Meanwhile, your buddy rolls three 20s in a row to take down the boss monster almost single-handedly. Now you begin to question why you decided to play a barbarian in the first place when its the halfling bard that is suddenly the brute in battle.

Of course, most of us might actually enjoy the unexpected surprise that creates a funny or memorable moment for everyone. But not when it undermines our personal choices or expectations in the game. The purpose of the dice is not only to make things unpredictable, but also to inform us about what happens in the game. There is a balance between the amount of influence our choices as players (and GMs) in the game have, and the power that random dice rolls have to indiscriminately override them. And in my opinion, the d20 has way too much power and not nearly enough purpose. But it goes even deeper than that.

If this is primarily a storytelling game, then where are the rules that help you interpret the mechanics into the narrative? We've heard the tagline for years that says it is a game of your imagination. They are literally telling us we need to use our imagination in order to decide everything that happens. The dice and the rules are simply there to guide you. How, exactly? By answering "yes" or "no" questions? That's not nearly enough. Everything else is entirely up to you.

And I mean everything.

Go back to the example of my character trying to climb two walls. I rolled a 16 the first time, and I knew he succeeded. Then I rolled an 8 for a similar wall, but he still climbed it. So what happened in the narrative? Did he stumble a bit on the second wall? Was there a foothold on the first one? I have no idea. But we can either a) come up with some details to describe what happened differently, even though we come to the same result, or b) ignore it knowing that it won't affect the game any differently and just move on. There's no wrong answer, by the way. I've been known to do both.

So when I consider the d20, I often think to myself 'why do we need such a large range of numbers just to answer yes or no?'. The actual values generated have little significance to the outcome, unless you count 'natural 20s' as critical hits. But that has nothing to do with the character options, skill, or the choices of the player. It is purely random luck. Ever notice that most rolls are predicated by a sense of tension and excitement from the players? You see similar behaviors when people are gambling, even with low stakes.

This is where I start looking for different mechanics to work with. I want dice to have a more direct influence in the game itself without taking away from player agency. I also want the dice to inform more about what is happening than just "hit" or "miss". The d20 is ill-suited for these purposes, and that is why it has to go.
 
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Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM

Better Mechanics for a Better Design​

We all know the d20 mechanic works. We know how it works, why it works, and all the pros and cons that go with it. But that doesn't mean we have to like it or hate it. We just accept it for what it is. If its doing the job well enough, then there's no reason to mess with it. Like I said, I'm not going to waste my time or energy to revise a game system with the same mechanics. That game already exists; several, in fact. So if I want to do more with the system, I need core mechanic that will better support the kind of play that I enjoy; the kind that 4th Edition inspires me to want to play. The ideas that I have, however, will require something more than just a d20.

Before I go into any specifics, I want to talk a little about general mechanics and good game designs. Problem is I'm not very good at describing my thoughts and ideas. I'm not an expert or had any professional training on the subject (aside from personal study and interest), but I do recognize good designs when I see them. So I'm going to use a different game as an example, and then do my best to explain what I like about their mechanics.

The game is called The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth by Fantasy Flight Games. Yes, it's a board game. But we're talking mechanics and design here. Plus, it shares some of the same elements as your typical D&D game: exploration, combat, etc. One of the unique features of the game is the use of a skill deck for each character instead of dice. That's right. No dice are used in this game. Since they're better at explain their own game, I'll just modify their overview for a quick summary about how it works. (You can read more on their site -> LINK.)

(Ed. Note: Also, I highly recommend this game for many reasons, but I'm not going to get into those here. That's for another thread.)
As you interact with the creatures and locations of Middle-earth, your hero will rely on their own unique deck of skill cards to overcome the challenges they face. Rather than leaving a player’s fate up to a roll of the dice, the heroes must turn to their skill deck while exploring, encountering threats, attacking enemies, and interacting with the people of Middle-earth. To perform a skill test, a player simply reveals cards from the top of their skill deck equal to the value of their tested skill, hoping to reveal enough success icons to pass the test.

Revealing these skill cards determines if you succeed at your tests, but that’s far from their only purpose. In addition to the icons in the upper left corner, each skill card also offers valuable abilities that can be used when you take the time to prepare those skills—removing them from the skill deck and placing them below your hero card. Preparing your skills lets you access powerful abilities, but it also means those cards are no longer in your skill deck, and no longer helping you succeed at skill tests. You’ll need to carefully choose which skills to prepare, balancing their effects against your need to pass your skill tests!

1653326624712.png 1653326835415.png
So each skill card has two distinct roles. First, it offers a special ability that the character can use during the game. But in order to make it available, you need to remove it from the deck. This disables its secondary function, which is to generate success or inspiration points during a skill test. You'll note that the better abilities typically have one or two success or inspiration points, thus making it valuable in and out of the deck. This makes the player's decisions more meaningful knowing that there are only so many possible success and/or inspiration available in their skill deck. There is a balance in play that the players must gauge for themselves, which makes strategy and choices very meaningful for the player.

Also note the efficiency of the design itself. You don't have separate cards doing one particular thing (like drawing success or inspiration), and another for special abilities. But there's more examples of efficient design in this game. Here's one of my favorites:
Beyond your hero’s skills, exploring is its own reward. On the game's Standard difficulty, each journey map tile has a square box where an exploration token may be placed when the tile is added to the map. When a hero explores this new tile, they discard this token, converting it into an inspiration token. These tokens can then be used during tests to convert fate icons (the silver leaf icon) to success icons. With danger lurking everywhere, you must carefully manipulate your skill deck and choose the best time to spend your inspiration tokens if you hope to survive in the wilds of Middle-earth!

1653327517305.png
Rather than making two different types of tokens (one for exploration and one for inspiration), the designers simply printed tokens with each symbol on one side. When I first got my copy and started organizing the pieces, I was confused why they had done this. I hadn't read the rules yet, so I didn't know that the two were actually connected. I knew characters would collect Inspiration tokens that they could use during play. But I did not realize they could earn one just by entering an unexplored tile. So rather than removing the exploration token into a pile and having the player pick up a different token for their inspiration from another pile, the player just takes the exploration token from the board and keeps it, flipping it to the inspiration side.

This might not seem like much, but it accomplishes a number of small things. First, it reduces the amount of materials needed to produce the game (i.e. there's no need to create separate exploration and inspiration tokens). This also reduces the amount of clutter around the table while playing. It also keeps the tokens "in play" longer. Imagine the sole purpose of the exploration token was to simply mark which tiles haven't been explored yet. Once a player lands on it, they simply toss the token back into the pile. Instead, the player collects it for future use. It also has the added benefit of making the player feel more rewarded because they gain a physical object that can be touched.

Obviously, a board game is going to have some significant differences than an RPG. However, they can (and do) share some common ground with each other, especially where similar design principles and practices apply. This is where I take my queues when making decisions on how a certain mechanic might work better or more efficiently. That's the kind of thing I'm good at. So even if you don't see it, or can't imagine how something is possible, that is one of my greater strengths. Let's see how this goes.
 
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Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM

The Mechanics of 4th Edition​

When I talk about mechanics from other games, I don't just consider the ones obvious or related specifically to roleplaying games like D&D. That opens up a wide spectrum of mechanics and options that may not fit into the typical RPG system.
 
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Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
Revisions, changes, and new posts are made above this post.

The Bell Curve Roll (3d6)​

The best place to start when rebuilding an engine is at the core (or in this case, the core mechanic). The basis of my remodel begins by replacing the archaic d20 mechanic and develop a 3d6-based system instead. This is not a simple swap, however. Every edition of the game has been built around the core mechanic, which affects actions, balance, abilities, and everything else. You cannot just replace one set of dice (or die) with another and expect everything else to fall into place. That's why it is called a core mechanic.

Using 3d6 is not a new concept. The idea is actually quite popular. The problem is that no one seems to give it much more consideration beyond substituting the d20 in the regular rules of the game, and then hope that everything else just works out. When you change the core mechanic, the defining backbone of how the entire system works and designed around, you got to make some changes. Or in this case, just start building from the ground up.

One of the attractive features of the bell curve (for me) is that it has probably the most reliable chances of probability in real application. Unlike a single d20 roll, you can safely assume that the majority of the rolls will produce a result between 9 and 12 before any modifiers are applied. Likewise, a roll above 15 or below 6 are going to be extremely rare. This does not eliminate the possibility of rolling extremely high or low, but it does mitigate them to become rare occurrences. Thus, the chances of a high or low result are completely in the hands of the dice (or chance, or fate, or whatever you want to call it).

(Check out this page for a breakdown on 3d6 rolls and some probability charts! Link.)

So how does this change the game? Well first of all, it emphasizes the competence of the players and their characters when they perform actions in the game. There is still an element of chance, luck, and unpredictability with the dice. But those chances are significantly reduced from what they were with a single d20. In my games, I prefer the characters to have more control on the outcome determined by their decisions rather than the dice.

If you think about a typical D&D game, rolling a d20 usually indicates an skill check of some sort. Whether its an attack roll to see if you land a blow with your weapon against an opponent, or a skill/ability check to try and scale a difficult wall, you are rolling to see if you can achieve a specific goal.

Suppose your character is a fighter with good strength, exceptional proficiency, and some experience. In game terms, this may amount to a decent modifier (+6) for most actions where he is expected to excel, like melee combat and climbing walls. He encounters a monster with an 16 AC, so he needs to roll a 10 or higher to inflict damage. We are led to believe that the average result on a d20 is 10.5 because math. So it shouldn't be a issue. In truth, the math doesn't tell you the whole story.

Dice are stupid. They have no memory and no conscience. You could believe that if you roll a d20 100 times, then it should hit every number from 1 to 20 about 5 times each. And you would be wrong. Once you roll a die, everything resets. You have the exact same chances you had the last time you rolled. The only thing that might have changed is the results you're hoping for. That is why you have some nights when you make a dozen rolls and never get anything over a 5, and other nights when you can't roll under 16. Now imagine how long you would hold your job if your productivity and attendance were this inconsistent.

Don't get me wrong, though. I like some degree of luck in games. We are relying on dice, after all. But when it comes to determining the resultd of our actions, I want choices to matter more than dumb luck. If I built a ranger character to be really good at survival and tracking quarry in the wild, then I should expect him to be able to perform consistently and with some level of competence. The more difficult tasks might prove more challenging, of course. But those are cases when he may not be expected to succeed. Then again, my specialist character should not be easily outshined by another character who just has better luck with their dice rolls.

This is how d20 consistently undermines the design, the narrative, the expectations, and the choices of the players and the game. It gives more relevance to chance and luck, and strips away control from player choices and game design. Beyond that, there is much more that can be done with a bell curve roll. I'll be discussing that more in the next section.

Critical Results​

Since the 3d6 creates more than the average number of average results, the question is no longer can the character do what he is supposed to do. If they are competent at it, they should be able to do it adequately with average results. Let me emphasize: average results.

What is an average result in D&D? Its the average fighter swinging his average weapon and hitting the ogre for the average 1d8 damage. That is what is expected, and you have to roll a d20 to get permission to make sure that it happens. But regardless of what you roll on the attempt, it only allows you the opportunity to roll your normal damage. And what happens when the d8s give you nothing but 1s and 2s? Well that just shows how luck is actually stacked against you. And scoring a consistently average result isn't going to upset the game balance.

Rolling doubles, however, is the real key to this engine. The total result determines if you succeed in your attempted action, but doubles are the kicker and they're not always to your benefit. Like most previous editions, rolling high gets you better results. So rolling double 3s or lower can trigger bad effects, while double 4s and higher get you good effects. Regardless if its good or bad, its called a critical result.

Doubles Rolled​
Critical Result​
Example​
1s​
Critical Failure​
Break weapon, trigger monster reaction, etc.
2s, 3s​
Bane​
Suffer minor damage, give enemy advantage, etc.
4s, 5s​
Boon​
Find a secret, give friend advantage, etc.
6s​
Critical Success​
Critical damage, recover ability use, etc.


Please refrain from making posts or comments in this thread. There is an ongoing journal with a lot of information, but it is going to take me a long time to write it. If you like, I have created a separate discussion thread that you can find it by following this link. Please direct any comments, questions, etc., there. Thank you.
 
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