So, 4th Edition is coming to an end. Fifth Edition is coming up, but no one really knows (not even the designers) what it will actually look like; the design goals seem to be “make everyone happy” and “sell books to everyone,” not necessarily in that order.
Which opens the door for the 4th edition retroclones/heartbreakers.
While 4th edition was the gorilla in the room, there really wasn’t any point to making a crunchy, tactical gamist game. However, since 5th edition is not going to have focused design, that niche is going to be open. And we can take what we’ve learned from 4th edition (which I think is a lot.)
The Best Things About Fourth Edition
*Combat is genuinely fun, and an awesome tactical challenge. The rules fully support this form of play.
*Everyone is awesome. The Role system ensures that everyone has a clearly defined niche to pursue.
*It’s pretty easy on the GM. Encounter budgets are extremely helpful; with an expansive enough list of monster the GM can come up with level appropriate challenges on the fly. The fact that monsters and NPCs are not built with the same rules as players makes them easier for the GM to create. (As a GM who ran an NPC-antagonist intensive 3rd edition game, I can’t convey how important this is.)
Worst Things About Fourth Edition
*Too Many Choices in Character Creation. The bloat of powers and feats means that character creation is a time consuming task, even at 1st level, and especially at higher levels. Differentiation between characters is good, however too many choices can make those choices less meaningful (and as the number of powers for each class approaches infinity, the distinction between classes approaches zero). Feat bloat is probably the worst offender here, since some feats are absolutely killer, and others are only small bennies, and this increases the chance of “newbie traps.”
*Too Many Magic Items: Remember when WotC said they didn’t want 4th edition characters to be defined by their gear? High level optimization seems to be all about finding broken gear-feat-power combos. And even if you don’t want to play that way, when making a higher level character, damn do you have a lot of money to figure out how you’re going to spend.
*Too Much Optimization is a Bad Thing. This is the consequence of points one and two. Players who are willing to spend the time to seek out and find these broken combos create characters that are much more effective than those who don’t. And then we lose “Everyone is Awesome.” Optimization is fun, but it can enter brinksmanship levels with the GM, who has to create ever absurder threats to challenge the party (and since we’re in Gamist mode, challenge is absolutely essential.) The harder one optimizes, the harder it is for you to be challenged.
*Combats can drag. During the paragon tier, monster hit points tend to outpace character damage output (which catches up again during the epic tier). I’ve had sessions with combats that took all frigging night (some which were designed to, so those don’t count). Contrast to some low-level sessions where I regularly fit 3 to 4 combats in a single session.
*Some characters don’t have enough choices. Particularly at low level play, a character has two at-wills, an encounter, and a daily. This looked like a lot on paper (especially compared to those 3rd edition characters), but in practice once you use your encounter, you’re choosing between two at wills each turn. And if one of your at-wills is situational, you’re always going to be using the same at-will turn to turn. This is a problem.
*The Skill Challenge system needs work. It’s a solid core, and an innovative idea, but it needs some polish.
Building a Better Fourth:
So, how do we solve these problems?
*Replace Powers with Stunts.
Each character has access to a certain number of Stunts, or effects that can be applied to attacks. (A fighter might have “extra damage,” “mark,” and “push.” A wizard might have “area of effect,” “elemental keyword,” and “slow,” for example.) These Stunts have a point cost attached to them. Want to use a Stunt? Spend the points. How do you get these points? X points per encounter is one way, but if different classes got points in different ways, that’s another means of character differentiation.
*Character Class as Ability Menu
Your character class writeup becomes much tighter. It’s a menu of Stunts and other constant abilities, like playbooks in Apocalypse World. You pick a certain number of Stunts off your Class, and get more as you gain levels. Some classes get certain Stunts at cheaper levels than others, and some don’t get access to certain Stunts at all. Our first level fighter might have had a chance to pick from “slow” and “prone,” but have chosen the ones in the above example. The wizard might have been able to pick “ongoing damage (low),” “forced movement,” or “damaging zone.”
You can have a certain combination of stunts that you have locked in. These stunts have been predefined, given a fancy name, and have a reduced point cost to use. These are your signature moves. Yup, you can get a cost down to 0 with this, making it the equivalent of an at-will.
Characters should have at least 3 Rotes to start, giving them potentially 3 at-will options, and on the fly more expensive combinations.
*Feats as something special.
Feats, if present at all, should do something special. Get rid of all the minor feats. But at the same time, make them rarer.
*Players Choose the Level of Challenge
Taking a page out of Land of Wealth and Peril, Beast Hunters, and Sword of the Skull, players have opportunity to choose their level of challenge- and therefore the level of reward! This is an explicit numerical value, not a nebulous “gee, that area was really tough.”
*Fewer, but Cooler Magic Items
Players do not get as many magic items, and high level characters roll for their items, not purchase them. Your magic items give you a cool flourish, instead of you being defined by your kit.