So, I made a homebrew version of D&D4E, and I’m making my poor players suffer through it.
I know. I know.
You don’t need to tell me its flaws or sell me on another version of D&D (I’ve tried them), or another game (yup, those, too), or explain how there’s no audience for it or how nobody wants to play it. I know.
It’s like one of those weird-ass, chihuahua mutts looking at me with sad eyes, shivering in the cold. “Love me”, it says. “Play me. Please. I’ll let you dress me up in stupid doggy clothes and give me unnecessary hair cuts.”
Or maybe a better analogy would be more like 4E is like a run down house on some theoretical HGTV special. “I’d need to gut the skill system, and the classes have flavor and balance issues,” I’d absentmindedly mumble to cohost, “But the bones are good.”
“Are you sure?” says the theoretical cohost, “I don’t know if it’s worth salvaging. Maybe it would be easier to just get something newer. I hear they’re building some really great things over in the NEXT neighborhood, and Paizo just announced they’re coming out with…”
But no. Just hear me out. Here are what I love about 4th edition, and what did to make it work for our group.
What I love about 4E mechanics
NPCs aren’t treated like PCs
This probably grates on the simulationists like nails on a chalkboard, but I love it for two reasons. First, it makes NPC creation ridiculously easier, so as a GM, my prep time is focused on plot, tactics, and snacks. Not on the drudgery of figuring out stats for skills the NPC will never use. Second, there are a lot of powers and tactics that are fun to play against but not to play and vice versa. For example, an intimidating crowd of minions are fun to pop, but no one wants to play a minion-type character. And every party needs a healer, but you don’t want combats with dedicated healers stretching out the inevitable. Or at least, I don’t.
Combats are tactically interesting
In 4E, different NPCs will have different tactical roles and approaches, and you can easily come up with combat that requires the PCs to use different strategies at different times. It’s not just “hit it until it dies” or “buff forever and then use your strongest spell.” Figuring out different strategies and tactics is FUN. For me. Any anyone who likes tactics. YMMV.
There’s a core focus on balance and distribution
I can admit it. I have a balance and distribution obsession. Don’t look at me that way. It’s not feet or furries or cheesecake. Okay, maybe it’s cheesecake, too. (And not that there’s anything wrong with feet or furries or any other fetish.) But there’s something about a well-balanced and well-distributed system that makes me the sort of happy where I just want to sigh in quiet contemplation and lay my head on the PHB and absorb the wonderfulness.
Shhh. I’m having a moment.
Anyway, 4E isn’t perfectly balanced or perfectly well-distributed, but it tries really hard and comes close, and the bones are good. For example, the Seeker class (a 4E-only experiment in making something like a nature spirits archer that focuses on controlling the enemy instead of killing them) isn’t as strong as the other controller classes, but fixing that just requires tweaking individual class features and powers, not changing any underlying mechanics. And maybe there are too many classes that are strength-based and not enough constitution-based, but that’s a relatively easy tweak. The bones are good.
Lots of content to work with
It’s easier to edit than create whole-cloth. If I’m going through the trouble of creating a homebrew (and I am… because I can’t help myself; this is at least the sixth homebrew I’ve done), I’m going to be lazy-ish about it and adapt as much as I can.
We tried out 4E when it was first released and have been playing it continuously ever since. I’ve toyed with various other systems in that time — Numenara, Iron Kingdoms, Pathfinder — and really enjoyed certain aspects of them. But I just keep wanting to come back to 4E. It’s broken in like an old shoe, and you may think it’s smelly and worn out, but it fits my foot perfectly.
What we changed
Okay, so this is a long list. And to be clear, I’m not the only one who had a hand in this; my husband Brian GMed 4E originally and started the home-ruling. I just took that inch and ran the mile with it.
- Recharge system for powers. One of the ongoing issues with D&D is the 5-minute work day. There’s a huge incentive to use up your big powers and then take a long nap to regain them. So one of the more fundamental overhauls we made was to switch everything to a recharge system where everyone rolls dice at the end of each round to see which encounter and daily powers recharge. I’m rethinking how things like end-of-turn effects worked and dealing with a lot of edge cases, but in general this has been working as intended. Also, it allows us to have really glorious end-of-campaign battles where the PCs are on the clock to save the world and they fight waves of monsters (formerly not possible because all resources would be expended).
- Math fixes on NPCs to make them lower HP, higher attack, use more varied tactics, and allowing elites and solos to act multiple times per round rather than doing multiple times the damage. RAW NPCs are boring.
- Players roll defense rather than monsters rolling attacks. This is part of a general approach to have the players be as active as possible. Also, this makes it clear to the players that the GM is not fudging the dice.
- Players automatically get a +1 to attack at 5th, 15th, and 25th level instead of an expertise feat (thus eliminating an un-fun feat tax).
- Revamped skills to provide a different, somewhat larger set of skills that we tried to make more balanced. Perhaps more significantly, we use dual-skill checks, a completely different approach to skill challenges, and have players roll skill checks against static NPC DCs rather than having NPC skills.
- Streamlined items, mostly in consolidating and balancing item types such as armor, weapons groups, etc. but also going through enchantments to remove the fairly lame ones and adding new ones where the options were limited.
- We use a hex-based battlegrid instead of squares. This makes a blasts and bursts different and requires a change to how flanking is determined.
- Removed XP. Players level up based on milestones/plot points and GM judgement.
- No alignments. Just no.
- No dim or low light.
- Created a category called Masteries that subsumed Rituals, Martial Practices, potion creation, and alchemy. Masteries use most of the rules of rituals and alchemical item creation but apply them more consistently. I also revised alchemical items to make them more useful.
- Eliminated Races as a core choice. In my homebrew campaign, all player characters in the world are human. Gasp. Non-human humanoids are mostly treated as folktales, and most people never meet one. It fits my setting, though.
- Added Themes as a core choice. I was inspired by the way Ryan Nock handled the Zeitgeist adventure path themes and reworked that idea to fit my setting.
- Systematized power sources so that they provide a third major choice (like themes) and made their options more consistent. (Previously, the Divine power source was like this — and Martial and Psionic to a certain extent — but the others were poor in power source-related content.)
- Tweaked the classes for balance, distribution, and flavor. More on this in future post(s):
- Changed to a A-shaped classes such as Cleric, Paladin, Ranger (classes that depend on two possible main stats) to V-shaped classes (relying instead on only one main stat).
- Distributed classes evenly among power sources, roles, primary stats, and secondary stats. Changed some features to accommodate these changes.
- Renamed some classes to be evocative (hopefully) and to be built on clear archetypes that are distinct from each other and to fit my setting.
- Eliminated class options to simplify character creation.
- Added some non-combat or minor features among classes to emphasize flavor.
- Created new Paragon Paths Epic Destinies (19 of each) to replace old ones. Paths and destinies now depend on theme or power source instead of being tied to individual classes or races. I mostly used old path and destiny features but revised names, flavors, and prerequisites. Converted some old path features into feats. (There were just too many before, most of which would definitely go unused since this homebrew has an expected audience of less than a dozen.)
- Added Rays as a an additional Area of Effect shape (along with burst, blast, and wall). Rays affect a line segment in one of the 6 (hex-based) cardinal directions. I don’t know why this was removed from 4E since other editions had it.
- Modified the set of damage types a bit, doing things like adding a divination type and combining enchantment and charm into one set (since most powers that have enchantment also have charm).
So, does it work?
Well, we’ve been playing with some of the changes for years, but others are new as of this latest campaign, currently just two sessions old. I’m really crossing my fingers here because this is the most ambitious jump from theorycrafting to hands-on play I’ve ever done, even including “Chickens and Chainswords” (a D&D 2.5-based homebrew that I was super proud of and dropped like a red hot poker once third edition came out).
I’ll let you know.