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.


11 thoughts on “Fourthbreaker

  1. Solid, “makes sense” suggestions, all of them! The bewildering array of feats, in particular, is a challenge I keep coming up against. Sometimes the most awesome, or thematically appropriate choice leaps off the page at me, but most of the time, it is slogging through description after description until the head gets fuzzy and dinner burns. Similarly named, but different, feats, powers and items are also a problem. Don’t forget that fixing the math should also be a priority.

  2. sabrecat says:

    You and I are thinking so much alike on this, it’s startling. It’d be an honor to collaborate with you on such a 4e successor, if you’re willing and we can find a good platform (Rizzoma? Google Drive?).

    Thoughts so far:
    – Low-level characters have too few options, but high-level characters often have too many. At-the-table choice paralysis for all but the most savvy players is another 4e trouble spot that contributes to the long combats.

    – Skill Challenges are a solution in search of a problem, overall. I’ve tried several different versions of the system, both official and houseruley, and all of them have horrific trouble in matching mechanics to fiction and in pacing. The benefits they present over using simple and group skill checks (tidy XP awards, mainly) are so minuscule that they could easily be realized some other way.

    – Stunts and Rotes will need different names eventually, but these are the core ideas that resonate so much with the thoughts I’ve been kicking around.

  3. Abram says:

    If you’re looking at ‘getting points other ways than X points at start of encounter’, I’ll say the same thing I did to Sabe: look at Iron Heroes. They did this, and some classes’ point pools ended up pretty terrible because of it.

    This isn’t to say it couldn’t be done better, or some combination of starting and refreshing points, but it’s the design most like this I’ve seen.

  4. Willow says:

    I’d probably be most comfortable with a narrow google circle for discussions, and an editable google doc. Wave is too fiddly for me.

    • sabrecat says:

      Fantastic. I will make this happen!

      In response to the below: design goal brainstorming (followed by design goal winnowing, hah) is the place to start. The answer to what to keep vs. what to build depends on what we want the game to do.

    • sabrecat says:

      I put together a Page on G+. If that turns out to be too clunky, we could do a Facebook group like the Heroic Threats feedback forum instead.

  5. Willow says:

    The next question at this point, now that we’re hacking 4e up for parts, is what things are worth keeping instead of building from the ground up?

  6. Tim Jensen says:

    Relevant encounter thoughts from Rober Schwalb:

    Looking at it from the DM’s side of the screen, changing how the encounter budget works can cure Combat Drag while tying it directly to Players Choose the Levl of Challenge.

  7. oberonthefool says:

    Great post. I’d be down to lurk on such a thread, although I haven’t played enough 4E to contribute.

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