Guest Post by anarkeith- Homebrewing an Alternative to 4e Powers

Many of us know anarkeith, but don’t really know him (oooo that sounds so deep I hope some of you are clicking your finger in appreciation while I continue this beat man). While anarkeith doesn’t have his own blog he IS an active participant of RPGbloggers! Many of you will probably find, through past reflections, that anarkeith has visited your blog and commented, offering positive and constructive feedback or his own inspirations/aspirations pertaining to your post.

anarkeith and I have been chatting for quite some time now and I have talked with him on his homebrew systems and was more than happy to offer him the chance to do a post about it here.

So without any more preamble here it is!

I’ve been a DM running various editions of Dungeons & Dragons on and off since 1979. I soldiered through the transition between 3rd edition and 3.5 because the 3.5 books were so much better organized, I could more easily find the vast amount of rules information I needed access to. Eventually, I burned out on the overhead. The game had become too complicated to prep and run for my available time.

Just before 4th edition was released I ran a spontaneous game for a group of kids. We had a d6, a pencil, and a few sheets of paper. We all had a blast for about four hours. That experience rekindled my interest in D&D. But I was determined to play something rules-light. I worked up some d20-based rules that, while imbalanced (I’m a graphic designer by trade and training, not a mathematician), ran fine. My old 3rd edition group dove into it enthusiastically, and a new campaign was born.

Even with internet access, PDFs, and a myriad other resources, the task of converting monsters, traps, and other game elements soon began to chew up too much time. In addition, as the players leveled their PCs, it became apparent that the imbalances were getting worse. Most encounters were relatively non-threatening, and there was little tension in the game.

By this time 4th edition had been out for a while, I’d had some hands-on time with it, and my players were open to trying it out. The conversion went pretty smoothly, and we enjoyed continuing the campaign using the same characters, but with different game mechanics.

A number of factors influenced my encounter design for our early experiences with 4th edition. I had played some World of Warcraft, as well as several single- and multi-player console games. Early published materials used the combat-heavy “delve” format. The powers attributed to PCs in 4th edition had a distinct combat orientation. So, we ended up with a lot of combat encounters. In general, this was fine. Most of the group had fun. The watchers and the tacticians were content. The storyteller and the explorers, not so much.

Over time however, the group lost a bit of its fascination with the proceedings. I launched a second play group of more “focused” players to see if there was something I could do better. I emphasized the story and exploration, but spiced it with regular combat encounters. Still, I was running the game with the delve-mindset. Finally, one of the players arrived at the table with a freshly-leveled PC and announced that his new daily power was probably broken. When he easily wiped out an elite monster several levels above his, this seemed to have been confirmed. 4th edition had morphed into what troubled me about 3rd: Too complex. And, seemingly too complex for its own designers, who were (perhaps) losing the balance they’d originally set out to bring to the game.

As all this was going on, I resolved to have another try at home-brewing rules. This time however, I had the modular components of 4th edition to use as a framework. The Dragon Age RPG from Green Ronin, and ideas from the many great blogs that can be found on the RPG Bloggers Network also influenced me.

Looking at the powers in 4th edition, I identified a number of key conditions that they applied to enemies and/or allies in combat. I reduced the number of conditions in the published materials to a more limited list (grouping the existing conditions under these headings to aid in roleplaying.) For example, Blind, Deaf, etc., became “No Sense”. The player could supply the flavor behind “No Sense” as part of describing their action. Throwing a cloak over the orc’s head. Detonating a thunderclap beside the kobold’s ears to deafen it.

Next, I assigned numerical values to encounter, utility, and daily powers. Each PC in my home-brew system has a number of points, depending on their level, and in some cases modified by their ability scores. During combat encounters, they spend the points for dice of damage, or tactical options like applying conditions to enemies. The key is that they decide, based on the situation, what conditions to apply, or how many dice of damage (up to a level-based limit) they want to inflict. I felt like this overcame the artificial feel of once-per-encounter or once-per-day effects.

Here are the tactical options available for weapon-users. Each costs one point, and the maximum number of points a 1st through 8th level character could spend per attack is four. Note that I’ve divided them into specialties that are restricted by class/role:

1) Universal (available to all weapon users)
a. 1[W, where “W” is a die that varies by weapon] damage
b. Grab (range: melee 1; target restrained until it escapes or you end the grab)
c. Knock Prone (range: melee 1; no move)

2) Martialist (e.g., your typical D&D Fighter)
a. Cleave (strike an additional target; target must be adjacent to attacker)
b. Disarm (no attack)
c. Press (push target 1 square and shift into the space that the target occupied)
d. Intimidating Charge (when you charge, target suffers -2 on next attack)

3) Skirmisher (e.g., your typical D&D Thief/Rogue)
a. Blindside (gain combat advantage)
b. Switch Positions (exchange positions with adjacent target)
c. Tumble Past (shift 1 square)
d. Fusillade (no sense)

4) Hunter (e.g., your typical D&D Ranger)
a. Volley Fire (strike an additional target; target must be adjacent to, or the same as original target)
b. Vulnerable Prey (when target has no adjacent allies, target suffers -2 on next attack)
c. Hit and Run (shift a number of squares equal to 1 + Wisdom modifier)
d. Hunter’s Fury (strike an additional target with off-hand weapon, attack is Dex vs AC, target must be adjacent to attacker. Special: You can use this option only once per round.)

Note that durations of all effects are until the end of your next turn, unless otherwise defined.

So, a fighter on scoring a hit might choose three dice of damage (3 points), and the Disarm option (target unable to attack until the end of the fighter’s next turn.) Or, if the circumstances are favorable (e.g., a nearby yawning chasm), the fighter might choose to spend a point (or two) on the Press option, effectively harrying the creature into the chasm (or at least prone on the edge.)

Thus, tactical considerations are part of “building” the attack. And, there’s no artificial constraint on duplicating specific options, other than the “fatigue” modeled by running out of points.

The point-recovery system I developed basically says that during a short rest PCs automatically recover points equal to their unspent points in hand. You’re allowed one short rest after an encounter. In addition to the automatic recovery, players may elect to make a DC 12 Constitution or Wisdom check to regain 50% of your used combat or magic points (respectively), rounded down. I use a similar system for hit point recovery. My design goal was to give combats more serious, and potentially lasting consequences. I’m still playtesting these options, as they may be a bit generous towards the players. Ideally, PCs will deal out more damage, and should recover a bit more slowly than standard 4e. I’m using D&D Monster Vault and Monster Manual 3 monsters almost exclusively as enemies, as they tend to deal more damage and seem better designed from a play perspective.

In combat, weapon users roll to hit, and if successful, then they decide how they want to apply points. Spellcasters are required to expend their points in advance, and then roll to hit. I did this because I handled spells similarly to the tactical options I provided for the weapon users. The result is a pretty powerful approach to magic use, in which spellcasters can literally create spells on-the-fly. There is a menu of duration, area of effect, dice of damage, and other options that spellcasters use to construct their spells. I’ve provided each of my players with converted versions of their 4th edition spells, and in addition, I’ve converted some spells from previous editions as examples of how my home-brew rules can be used. Rituals are treated just like other spells. When their effects fall outside the menu of options I’ve created (which is, admittedly combat-oriented), I use the level of the ritual or previous-edition spell as a guideline to determine casting cost.

My two groups each have a couple of sessions under their belts, and as I gather more data, I may alter some of the numbers. My goals for it were to replace the Library-of-Alexandria list full of 4th edition powers with something more playable, to make combat faster, more dangerous, and more heroic, and to give my players a sort of “essential” form of their character to play with. Taking those goals into account, I’ve also resolved to continue to incorporate opportunities for exploration, storytelling, and role-playing into my game sessions. I will include opportunities for combat, but my encounter design is taking into account other options for resolution that the players might choose.

You can find the specifics of what I’ve done so far in the house rules section of the Obsidian Portal wiki for my campaign, in the empire of the Dominium.

I’d like to thank Mike Evans for providing input, and the space to talk about this project, and I hope to be able to provide more details as we proceed and evolve these house rules. I’d also like to thank my players, especially Randy who has his own fantastic, and completely home-brewed set of rules, which inspired the magic system. And to Dave and Adam who are quick to point out exploitable weaknesses and relish the opportunity to exploit them, while doing so with playful spirits. In the spirit of the internets, I’m open to comments and criticism. As the robots of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation like to say, “Share and Enjoy!”


About wrathofzombie

I am a History major attending a community college until I can get more financial aid and attend a four year school. I am living in NJ with my girlfriend who is currently wrapping up on obtaining her PhD in Toxicology. I love Star Wars, Role-playing, video games, working out, reading, writing, and hanging with my girlfriend, dog (Perfect), and two kittens (Birch and Brambles). My main focus on this site will be my discussion of Role-playing games and ideas and hopefully contribute something worth a damn. View all posts by wrathofzombie

7 responses to “Guest Post by anarkeith- Homebrewing an Alternative to 4e Powers

  • DeadGod

    I like this idea a lot, but I feel there are two issues that temper my opinion:

    First, I think one of the things that the 4ed power framework provides is for character individualization. For instance, two players could each create a fighter but pick completely different powers, and thus play differently during the game. Your effect lists allow for classes to feel different from each other, but not for individuals in that class to feel different.

    Second, a wonderful aspect of leveling up in 4ed is that you get to add new powers. After many levels, the same set of options can get stale. Adding and changing options not only keeps your choices interesting, but is something to look forward to. In your system, characters gain additional points to spend when they level, but it appears that they are always spending them on the same choices.

    I wonder if there isn’t a simple way to address these issues and still keep the system fast and fluid. One thing that occurs to me is to allow players to construct their own lists. Have each player start out with the universal options and then pick a couple additional choices from their class lists. Every level allow them to “retrain” by swapping one option out for a different option. Every few levels (maybe 5 or 10) add a couple new–and more powerful–options to the class lists, so that characters can use their “retrain” to gain them, if they wish.

    Another thing that strikes me as excellent about this system is the ease of multi-classing: pick a different class and retrain your options from that class list.

  • anarkeith

    @deadgod: Good points and suggestions. Thanks for commenting. I should add that the options I presented are basically for the heroic tier. Like Dragon Age, I’m working on expanding options for higher levels based on how these options play out.

    As far as styles within classes, I’ve adopted a number of the Essentials-style classes as baselines for use in my campaign. So, it would be possible to play different styles of “fighter”, albeit with “class” limits that aren’t as flexible as 4e. In my experience, the number of class permutations was unnecessarily complex for my players. Your mileage may vary.

    I’ll see if we can add a link to my Obsidian Portal page so you can see more of what we’re up to with this. Thanks again for commenting!

  • Anarkeith

    Love you, man. Thanks for hosting the post!

  • Marc

    Completely off-topic here, I apologize, but I read on another blog that Anarkeith had tracked down a copy of the Games magazine article from 1979 on D&D.

    1) Is this the same Anarkeith?
    2) Is there any way to get a copy of this article (I’ve been looking for it for literally years, as it was my intro to D&D as well)?

    Sorry for the thread-jack, but I have to try!

    – Marc

  • anarkeith


    1) It’s the same Anarkeith. (That’s also my “gee male”, fyi)
    2) My copy of the article is a xerox sent to my by one of the editors of the current iteration of the magazine. I’ll see if I can scan it, and save it as a PDF, but I won’t be able to get to it until after the 25th of December or so.

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