4e For Grognards?

The Core Mechanics offers up 10 House Rules to Make Grognards Like 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Unfortunately, most of the house rules are of the Racing Stripes on a Yugo variety. (Or, if you’re a 4e fan, putting Fuzzy Dice and lowrider hydraulics on a Formula 1.)  Except for Rule 7 (Don’t scale the Campaign Setting), they change the surface details like number of classes or races without getting at the essence of the play style.  For instance, Rule 4: Limit Races to 3.  White Box D&D from 1974 had the rule

There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as let us say, a “young” one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.

So it’s not the Dragonborn that are keeping the Grognards away, ok?  (Btw, just for comparison, that single rule is the same amount of space as devoted to Halflings, and only about a sentence or two shorter than the rules for Elves or Dwarves.)

So what would you really have to do to make 4e Grognard-friendly, assuming you wanted to?  There are really three major things, and they’re comparatively simple, but profound.

First, you have to reverse the direction of causality in the system: cause and effect have to flow from the game-world to the rules, not from the rules to the game-world as it currently stands.  What does that really mean for 4e?  It means that you have to visualize what’s really going on in the world, and reason out the consequences from there.  What 4e calls “the flavor text” is the power.  You can’t just invoke “Tide of Iron” and move the mini, it actually has to make game-world sense that the character be able to push the opponent in that direction given everything you know about the combatants such as their relative mass, whether one of them is made of some substance that makes pushing/being pushed wierd or would have some other consequence–think about using your shield to shove a Gelatinous Cube around and you’ll see what I mean. And if the effect is not supposed to be magical, if you can’t explain how it would actually happen (frankly, most of the pull and slide powers) then you can’t do it.  If the flavor text of the power causes small flames, that’s different from a power that creates icicles, even if the rules are otherwise identical.  And just because two powers have rules that interact (the whole “exception-based design”) means nothing if it’s not clear how the interaction would play out/make any sense in the game-world.  I expect that a lot of 4e players would balk at this, despite it being the same as Mike Mearls’ advice on running 4e without minis, but do you want to game with Grognards or don’t you?

The second thing you have to do is eliminate any vestiges of any rule or mechanic that can’t be understood in game world terms, and talked about in-character.  That doesn’t mean that the characters have to use the exact same terms, but they have to be able to think about the concept.  A Fighting Man might not actually say “Saving Throw”, but he could fully understand and discuss with the other characters that he’s much better at dodging a death ray or beam from a magic wand than he is at resisting a spell.  He can talk about how hard it is to hurt or kill something, even if he doesn’t literally say AC or HP, and how experienced he is even if he doesn’t divide it into points of XP.  For 4e that means dropping Skill Challenges.  Sorry, but there’s no in-game way I can conceive of to explain the spooky action at a distance implied by the accumulating successes and failures (particularly the failures).  You’re just going to have to do it the old-fashioned way, by reasoning about the logical consequences of each individual failure and success and whether there’s any causal reason one would influence the next.  You also have to eliminate Action Points, possibly Healing Surges, and probably a raft of other things (“minions” for instance–a creature of the same type as another you’re fighting that can only take 1/100th or less damage can really put a dent in the old verisimilitude).  You could try to “reify” them…make them actual things that the game-world inhabitants really do understand  and talk about (perhaps with magical or divine explanations), but you risk turning your game into The Order of the Stick.

The final thing that you have to do, and this is really the culmination of the other two, is that you have to stop looking at the character sheet and the rulebooks to tell you whether you’re permitted to do something.  If the player can describe the action in such a way that it makes a lick of sense in the game-world, the character can attempt it.  The GM can assign a probability to whether it works (even if it’s so low as to be in effect impossible), or just rule directly, but everybody can attempt anything they can imagine unless it’s specifically called out as forbidden to their class (e.g. fighters learning spells, magic users wearing armor).  Skills, feats, powers…they mean you’ve got a better shot, but the lack of one should never be cause for the GM to say no.

And that’s it. You don’t have to strip out the laughable names “Moon Prism Power Divine Strike!™”  “Bloody-Riptooth All Cool And Spiky Badass MoFo Crocodile™.”   You don’t have to put save-or-die effects in, enforce completely random chargen, have level-draining undead, or make magic Vancian.   All of those things were indeed common enough back in the day…but they weren’t the essence of game-play; plenty of undeniably old-school games didn’t have those features….even if they were using a system that did (3d6 in order was one of the first things that many groups discarded; by the time of Basic D&D there were official, if optional, rules for discarding characters with no score above 9, or swapping attributes).  You could add one or more of those, but the plain truth is that the Grognards who would insist on them aren’t likely to touch even a revamped 4e with the proverbial 10′ pole, and those are the things that 4e players are most likely to strongly object to.  On the other side, I think that many of the things that are show-stoppers for the Grognards literally fall beneath the 4e fans’ notice….in prior conversations trying to explain the differences I get the distinct impression that they don’t even realize (and some don’t believe) that these actually are differences between the way the editions work, or they discuss them solely in terms of design goals (this is faster, everything you need to know is written on this card) without even considering whether it has implications for how you think about the world.

So on the one hand, I do actually think a 4e for Grognards is possible…in some sense even easy: just ignore a bunch of these rules, and interpret these ones in a different light.  On the other, I’m not entirely sure whether the result would be still be 4e.

49 thoughts on “4e For Grognards?

  1. This gets to the heart of playstyle versus rule system. I believe that the playstyle you advocate here can be used (with group consensus) with any rule system. That said, skill challenges are still viable. The DM’s tracking of successes is akin to tracking monster HPs. It’s basically invisible to the players, who RP their actions (with rolls requested by the DM when appropriate.) Their choices will eventually lead to success or failure, revealed by the narration.

  2. “think about using your shield to shove a Gelatinous Cube around and you’ll see what I mean.” — Yes! Now we are getting somewhere. There’s a campfire up in the hills half-way between the 4’Teens and the Grognard camps. I’ll meet you there.

    “For 4e that means dropping Skill Challenges” — i humbly disagree. SC’s are for the DM, not the players. Its a framework to help new DMs work out how successfull or how bad the failure is for the partys actions for some self-contained feature of the story. SCs have been used for 30 years, but only now in 4E did they attempt to codify them into the RAW. Before 4E, a SC would be called “planning ahead” for the DM. What happens if they don’t convince the duke? what happens if they do? By having a SC in place behind the screen (players should never know they are in a SC while it is happening), the DM can measure the degree of succcess or failure without biasing himself.

    “You also have to eliminate Action Points, possibly Healing Surges, and probably a raft of other things ” possibly, or these things could just be TABOO in game speak/ “in-game” roleplaying. For instance, the player could just describe their actions and then add “AND he then again, through some shear force of will, turns and pummels the OTHER orc too” (action point spent). Limiting them to 1 per level (much like d20 modern). I dunno, too many “powers” (gasp) in 4E depend on healing surges and action points as a power source.

    “stop looking at the character sheet and the rulebooks to tell you whether you’re permitted to do something” — 100% .. no.. 200% agree. For instance, with our group, the DM is the only one who is allowed to crack open a book during the game session; unless there’s a dispute (which is rare). This alone really speeds things up. If someone forgets what the RAW says/rules are then we note it, adjudicate a on the spot ruling, and then review our decision later. A lot of house rules have actually come up this way “Hey, I think we did this better than WotC does”. etc etc

    “the Grognards who would insist on them aren’t likely to touch even a revamped 4e with the proverbial 10′ pole” –lmfao

    nice post, thanks for the linklove too!

  3. “but do you want to game with Grognards or don’t you?”

    I honestly don’t, and all the attempts to try to make 4e “old school for da veteran G’s” are frankly very amusing to me. I think this is the only one I have seen thus far that I take seriously. In spite of not really liking it.

    “you risk turning your game into The Order of the Stick.”

    It already sort of is. Except it didn’t taper off into mass suckage. Yet.


    It might even be even more of a video game than people think 4e already is. And that’s why I love it oh so much.

    “On the other, I’m not entirely sure whether the result would be still be 4e.”

    I straight up say it wouldn’t be.

    Excellent post Joshua.

    Wyatt’s last blog post..The Ancient Duel: Combating Spirits

  4. @Anarkeith- Thanks. Some systems (Truth & Justice, Dogs in the Vineyard) would just fall apart if you tried to play them this way; directly manipulating the narrative instead of the world is what they’re all about. And unfortunately, Skill Challenges are a direct-manipulation-of-the-narrative kind of thing. They would only be like HP if you could hit a monster for so many HP that some other monster in another room keels over.

  5. Reading this, I find it surprising that your game of choice is Savage Worlds.

    What it does with Powers and Trappings is very similar to the way 4th Ed deals with them.

    The Extras in Savage Worlds are much like Minions in 4th.

    Bennies serve a function similar to Action Points and Healing Surges.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with you preferring a particular system. It’s just that I see more in common (than opposed) in the headspace and theory of the two games. Savage Worlds gets there through slightly more abstract methods, but the end result strikes me as quite similar.

  6. @Jonathan – I won’t go into my objections to Skill Challenges again, but I will point out that if a Grognard catches you at it, he’ll probably quit. At least I would, and I don’t consider myself particularly hard-core. Heck, I’m not even running any game copyright before 2007.

    The problem with making Action points taboo to talk about is you then have characters making in-game decisions such as whether to rest or continue that are supposed to be influenced by factors that you’ve just forbidden them to consider. In other words, you’ve just made it impossible to role-play them from the Grognard’s point of view.

  7. @r_b_bergstrom – two points:

    a) Actually, what SW does with Power & Trappings is the opposite of 4e…the trappings of a Power are supposed to be important enough that, e.g. an Acid trapping might do an extra 2d6 on the first round after a hit and 1d6 the round thereafter, or a Fire trapping on an armor spell might do 2d6 to anybody that you hit with it and be doubled against fire-based powers while providing no protection versus cold-based powers. SW is very firmly in the game-world is primary, the rules are approximations that need to be filled in as you go camp.

    And Bennies and Extras are my least favorite parts of the rules.


    b) I’m not particularly hard-core old school. I talk about it a bunch, because I think I understand it (dating back to those prehistoric days myself) and I think people have misconceptions about it, but I’m not currently running any old school games.

  8. “First, you have to reverse the direction of causality in the system: cause and effect have to flow from the game-world to the rules, not from the rules to the game-world as it currently stands.”

    I’m going to have to disagree with this. Or rather I’m going to have to say that you’re describing a very limited selection of grognards.

  9. @gleichman – Maybe. All I can do is try to describe my section of the elephant fairly and accurately. Other grognards will have to speak for themselves (hint, hint).

  10. Joshua – I agree with almost all your points. I especially agree with the idea that cause and effect should almost always flow from the game world to the rules (except for a few places like hit points where the reverse actually makes the game work better without strongly breaking the verisimilitude of the game world).

    Disassociated rules drive me crazy. If a player in my games cannot describe what he is doing in sensible game world terms, chances are it is not going to work. You can’t trip a gelatinous cube no matter what the rules exceptions for your powers say. Verisimilitude is far more important to me. The less the world feels real, the less interest I have in the campaign. Rules that aren’t designed to provide a strong feeling of verisimilitude are usually a failure for me.

  11. @r_b_bergstrom – My understanding (can’t back it up with a rules cite right at the moment) is that in 4e you are actually forbidden (in btb play) to have the flavor text have any in-game effect.

  12. I think that I get this post more than most “old school” posts.

    So if I get what you are saying, it looks like what you are doing is eliminating a lot of table talk that is about the game, and then really empowering the DM vs. the rules or the players. The players only interact minimally with the rules, the players try to interact maximally with the DMs world. Since the world is what the DM says it is, then all of the in game logic flowing from the world and not the rules is just shifting the authority from the rules to the DM. The same thing happens when the combat grid is eliminated, and when the players are just given the flavor text. It just allows the DM to arbitrate all of the events in the way that makes sense to him, and limits to a serious degree any authority from the players and the rules.

    I have run 4e somewhat like this. I have laid down the law and pulled rank as DM when I felt that the rules didn’t handle the action particularly well. This works just fine when you have players that don’t mind this kind of thing. We had a ton of trouble with this when I was in high school. This was the early ’90s, and we weren’t mature enough to pull it off. It still takes a lot of maturity to get it right. Old school might actually take old players, or at least really mature players. No matter what, it requires trust from the players for the DM, and the right group.

    I am in the process of figuring out how I will use skill challenges in the game. I have run some by the book, I have run some using the Obsidian Challenge fan made rules, and I have also just run them the way I did before the skill challenge rules were a glimmer in the designers eyes. I am not sure what I like best. I can tell you for sure that I do not like the rules as published, but the obsidian challenge rules seem pretty good. I need more expereince with them to say if they are a perfect fit for “old school”. I do agree with Jonathan. The skill challenges are for DMs, so they should not impact old school at all if you don’t flaunt them in the players’ faces. They are all behind the screen, and if you like to fudge things, there is nothing to say you can’t. They are just a starting point anyway.

    I also ignore the stupid names from the books. They are often terrible. My players never use them at all in character. They are just there to be explicit when rolling dice. I have also allowed my players to reinterpret the flavor text to be more in line with the world whenever they use them. It still makes the causality flow from game to world, but it is much less jarring when the flavor text doesn’t disagree whith everything that we know about how the world works. I also reserve the right to say “That’s stupid. Try again. This time don’t be stupid.” It keeps my players honest, and asserts my authority over the rules. If a player comes up with something cool, I let them go with it, and that lets them assert their authority over the rules. We never feel constrained by the rules, the flavor text, or anything.

    I have been considering using Mearls’ suggestions about only giving the players the flavor text and a minor bit about the rules. All the extra stuff can be stripped out. The problem is that I play most of my games play-by-post. In a situation where all of the narrative authority is given o the DM, it makes a lot of work for the DM, and really slows the game when the DM has to adjudicate every aspect of every character’s action. I am experimenting with giving the players a huge amount of narrative control (basically the antithesis of old school) and it has made my play-by-post games much better. Different format, different needs.

    To stop this train before it gets out of hand, I think that 4e is robust enough to play in an old school style. It requires a little home brewing, but isn’t the essence of old school the idea that the rules are just suggestions, and the DM is left to decide what is good for his game? The rule set should not stop you from playing like it is 1981. 😉

  13. You really don’t have a very good grasp of many elements of 4e, especially skill challenges and minions. I don’t mean that as an insult, just that’s its kind of hard to deconstruct a system that you clearly don’t understand in the first place. Deconstruction requires intimate knowledge.

    Besides, the very definition of grognard suggests that no matter what you do in a new edition, grognards are not going to abandon their old versions. They made that call a long time ago.

    “If the player can describe the action in such a way that it makes a lick of sense in the game-world, the character can attempt it. ”

    This is exactly what 4e says, too. Quite clearly. And that system gives the DM guidelines to adjudicate it quickly. But that same statement (if it makes a lick of sense in the game-world) applies to using powers that ‘seem’ to do weird things in certain circumstances. A DM can easily say, “no, you can’t knock a gelatinous cube prone”. But the DM could instead say, “your meaty strike glops through the center of the cube, spraying huge chunks of gelatiny-goodness all about, it looks the thing will take some time to reform” after which you apply the mechanics of the prone effect. It’s not hard to justify most things in the game-world.

    The main thing I find older edition players really objecting to with 4e is not a shift in causality but a shift in narrative control. 4e powers put some elements of narrative control in combat on the players. The players get to choose to move monsters about a bit or apply effects (since the DM doesn’t save against effects, the player rolls to hit defenses). They really have the option to shape the battlefield in ways they can describe. Some just aren’t comfortable with that and that’s fine.

  14. @Precocious Apprentice – not exactly. Causality flowing from the game-world cuts both ways. It empowers the players to attempt things by denying the GM the right to say “No, you don’t have that skill/feat/power/whatever” or “sorry, no rules for that,” and it requires that the GM abide by the logical implications of the game-world reasons he’s established. If he says that it’s the encumbrance of the armor that keeps magic users from wearing it and casting spells, then in good conscience he’s forced to allow that yes, the player’s MU can wear it once he’s exhausted his spells for the day, even if he hadn’t thought of that and secretly wishes he’d come up with a different rationale. He could try to skirt around his end of the bargain, but he risks player rebellion.

    Now, the more exotic the setting, the more that real world knowledge, history and physics don’t actually apply, the more the players have to initially rely on nothing but the GM playing oracle to establish how things work in the setting…but that should eventually pass and the players should once again be able to reason correctly based on their knowledge of the setting and how it works, even to the point of correcting the GM when he forgets a setting detail or applies a rule that ought to be overridden by setting-specific knowledge.

  15. @Thasmodius – thanks for demonstrating my point. A standard 10′ x 10′ x 10′ Gelatinous Cube would, if it were only as dense as water, weigh approximately 31 tons, but the 4e player walks up to it, smacks it with his shield and says “My power card says it’s prone now. Find a way to justify that in game!”

  16. And I already did. It’s a mound of jello. I don’t care how big it is, if you smash a mound of jello with a big ass hammer, you’re going to make a mess. Make a big enough mess, and the living mound of jello is going to have to work a bit to get going again. Prone is just a name given to a mechanic. It doesn’t have to mean, literally, laying down. A cube can’t lay down, you can’t trip a 30′ centipede, but you can impede them to the point where the mechanical effects are – it grants combat advantage, its harder to hit by ranged attacks (because the jello is all over the place) and it gets a -2 to attack. That’s all ‘prone’ is. They had to have some terms for the various effects, they don’t all fit for every conceivable situation, but it comes close enough. The mechanics of the effects are what matters and all you nee to justify in-game is hindering that gelatinous cube. It’s not difficult at all.

    For a more vivid example, think of Terminator 2, when the Governator shoots the T1000 with the HE round and it explodes into a warped, twisted collection of metal. It takes him a round or two to reform and continue after them. Roughly the same with the cube and prone.

    4e, like other editions (except 3) encourages DM judgments as well, so if the DM really has a problem with the in-game circumstances, you simply say so.

  17. So this is an interesting response.

    You seem to imply that old school is not about the rules in the rule books, but it is about the ad hoc rules that the GM decides on the fly. The GM then is required to adhere to these ad hoc rules in future sessions. Sure, they are addressing the supposed physics of the world instead of some game that is external to the world, but they are rules none the less.

    The thing is that they are created by the DM. This is a definite case of DM has authority until the rule is laid down, then the rule has the authority. Players at no time have the authority. DM or the ad hoc rule always does. Players can still get creative with them, but they can never decide against a rule.

    It also never gives the player any authority in novel situations because it is still the DM that arbitrates them in the end. The DM takes past rulings into account when making a new ruling, but the fact that they are rulings shows that there is a ruler, and that is the DM. The written rules don’t have authority. The DM does. Until the situation is not novel. Then, to maintain trust from the players, the ad hoc rule has authority.

    I am still not sure that the paradigm of the causality always flowing from the world really addresses the issue people have of rule/world discordance. This might not be the point of the paradigm. I am still trying to work this out.

    I hope that you don’t feel like I am being too confrontational. I am really just trying to work this out. People arbitrarily throw out the term old school, and so far, your presentation of the subject has been the most cogent and civil. I appreciate it.

  18. @PrecociousApprentice – yes, I think that’s a pretty fair summary. There is a very clear demarcation between the stuff that the player gets to decide (what the character thinks and attempts) and what the GM gets to decide. By and large, the players do not have narrative control. Many players, myself included, don’t want narrative control…because we feel it interferes with playing the role. The character doesn’t have narrative control unless the world is some kind of lucid dream, so extra authority to decide things about the world is at best a distraction, forcing us to think of two things at once. At worst, it can completely wreck our mental model of what the character is thinking. Not every Grognard feels that way, of course, though many will have other reasons for rejecting direct narrative control (e.g. what’s the fun in seeing if your cunning plan will work if you can just declare that it does?)

    There are degrees and degrees, of course. Many GMs are open to the player defining the character’s back-story, even adding extensively to the world, as long as it’s not done in real-time as the game’s being played and people are trying to make decisions…having the information suddenly shift in the middle of things (Oh, wait, I play a fate card…these Orcs are actually our allies!) can screw up the verisimilitude big-time. It also used to be a lot more common than I think it currently is for there to be multiple co-GMs of a world, with each interested player in a group–or even different groups that have some overlapping members–taking a section of the world and GMing that section. But direct player control of the narrative or ability to alter rules and rulings on the fly (as opposed to requesting or debating a variance)…no.

  19. PrecociousApprentice said: “The written rules don’t have authority. The DM does.”

    Yes, that is one of the primary things that makes “Old School” Old School. The GM is in charge of the campaign. Not the published rules. Not the players. Some people like this. Some people don’t.

    Of course, old school games don’t have nearly as many rules as most modern games do. Look at the size difference between rules sets for older games and newer games:

    Metamorphosis Alpha rules 32 pages
    Holmes Basic is 48
    OD&D (3-LBB only) is 56 (112 half-sheets)
    Gamma World is 56
    Top Secret is 62
    Traveller (3 black books) is 66 (132 half-sheets)
    OD&D (3 LBB + 4 Supplements) is 183 (366 half-sheets)
    B/X D&D is 128 pages (2 64 page books)

    By comparison, 4E “D&D” (PH, DMG, MM) is 828 pages.

    Old school games don’t try to have a rule for everything. When something is needed that isn’t in the rules, the GM is there to handle it. No searching through hundreds of pages of rules to find some barely remembered sentence covering it.

  20. My thoughts:

    That list of changes over at Core Mechanics doesn’t do much for me, those are mostly cosmetic or arbitrary changes.

    Skill challenges gone. I accept that wholeheartedly.

    Justifiable powers: I sort of agree with that. On the one hand, it’s not quite acceptable to always assume you can push the target around with a shield, or trip them up if you’re a rogue…but on the other hand, I do agree with Thasmodious that it is in some ways the GM’s job to justify those things. Perhaps I plant my heels in the ground and put my entire body behind my shield to shove a giant back – not because it’s possible with physics, but because it’s dramatically appropriate.

    Eliminating Healing Surges: To clarify, you could still use your Second Wind once per encounter, yes? And you would keep the “healing value” of 1/4 your HP for abilities that would normally use a Healing Surge, right (because it’s easier)? Contingent upon those conditions, I accept, sir. Seems silly your body can only handle so much magical healing in a day.

    Eliminating Action Points: Now this, I am not in favor of. I accept action points as being there for dramatic value – “I don’t know where Ol’ Zebulon found the strength, but he dash up to that kobold priest and handed him the soundest wallopin’ I’ve ever seen a man deliver. Hit the ol’ fella twice, fastest I ever seen a man move a hammer that size, and down he go. Ain’t seen the like since, neither. Zeb just shrugged and said he musta been saving that one up for somethin’ extra special.” Action points are there for drama purposes; they represent (to me) reserves of strength and determination that make for better stories later on.

    Minions: Keep them. They represent the “norms” of the world; one of the key things I like about 4e is that it makes heroes an exception. Minions might land some lucky blows now and then, but they just don’t have the courage or experience to stand up against people who really know what they’re doing.

  21. @Theron – to clarify, the problematic part of Action Points isn’t spending them, it’s earning them for not resting when resting would be a damn good idea. The players can debate the merits of pushing on for the milestone vs. resting and regaining abilities; the characters think-?

    As for Healing Surges, to the extent that they represent something explicable in-game, such as a second wind or an adrenalin rush, they’re probably ok…it’s the weird interaction with magic that begs to either be explained in-setting or eliminated. Whether a Healing Surge-powered ability falls into the former or latter category probably depends on the ability.

    Overall, explaining something as being there because it’s dramatic or cinematic leaves the Grognard unmoved. If you beat a dozen goblins single-handed because you rolled like Lady Luck herself was blowing on your dice, or because you tricked them into looking at a mirror set up to point at the medusa’s room…that’s a story worth recounting. Beating a dozen goblins because if the shadow of your sword falls on one he clutches his chest and yells “Argh! A touch! I fear I breath my last!”….not so much. Real heroes don’t need paper tigers.

  22. Eh, with regards to Minions, I feel like it should be obvious from the get-go (and description) that these guys are barely worth the heroes time.

    “As you kick in the door to the gambling house, a burly man wearing studded leather armor and a black band on each arm gestures toward you and bellows orders at the sweaty, nervous-looking young men in the room. ‘Alright, new guys, you want to join the gang, you show some spirit!’ Haltingly, the half dozen novices advance. They grip their daggers too tightly, their stances are awkward, and most of their attempts at intimidation fall short. The only people in the room who look like they can handle themselves are you and the big guy, who’s currently drawing a very big sword.”

  23. @ Randal:”Old school games don’t try to have a rule for everything. When something is needed that isn’t in the rules, the GM is there to handle it.”

    That’s 4e’s philosophy, too. 3e was the edition trying to have a rule for everything. One of the criticisms often flung at 4e is that 4e moved away from having rules for everything by eliminating craft skills and things like that. One of the things many like about 4e is that it brings back the idea that the DM adjudicates, not the rules.

    “No searching through hundreds of pages of rules to find some barely remembered sentence covering it.”

    Heh, that was 1e. I well remember those days.

  24. Totally agree and this is the first time I’ve seen someone really get so precisely at the heart of the shift in tone between previous and “new” D&D.

    Though I am not sure this is all that old school/grognardy – the big change to “rules over the world” seems to me to be a sudden change with 4e, though I guess it had to be festering in 3.5e for a while to make it possible.

    I don’t think it has to do with narrative control – my old gaming group enjoyed the limited player narration we discovered via Feng Shui, but still strictly adhered to the paradigm of causality flowing from the world. Doing otherwise is for “the dirty people.”

    mxyzplk’s last blog post..RPG Superstar 2009 Final Round

  25. Joshua, I think you overlook the potential in world rational for milestones. I don’t use them exactly as writen, but the idea of not losing momentum is good. Think about the timeouts called in sports to stop momentum. I think of milestones sort of in the same way.

    The action points and the healing surges are both just energy reserves that can be called on. They are like adrenalin. If you need in world rational for why magical healing requires them, it’s just magic. That is all. Magic breaks logic. You just have to stick to the in game logic that you establish by ruling this way. No difference from saying that mages can’t wear armor because of hindrance to magical gestures. That is just the way it works. The only reason why this seems strange is that it is new. There is no reason why it can’t gel with the campaign world. It shouldn’t be hard to rule that way. Just different.

    I think that I can see the appeal of what you are calling old school. Like I said before, it would require the right group, with the right DM, but it seems to be more of a play style than anything inherent in the rules set. Matter of fact, I think that it is a play style in spite of the rules, not because of them. It is an unwritten social contract that transends the rules. I am fully confident that 4e could handle it.

    The only objections could be that it is not rules light. I place it in the rules medium category. Those 828 pages have a lot of art and white space (one criticism of 4e). The basic rules for 4e are much less than that, it just takes those 828 pages to fit in all the powers. Not many people have all the specifics of every spell in the game from even the rules light D&D editions memorized. 4e makes it pretty obvious that the number of rules that you actually need to know is quite small. You can run a good game probably only using about 1/4 or less of those pages. Entirely possible that you could get by on 1/16th. Still not rules light, but definitely manageable. If you transfer the game text of the powers to the DM, the game content required by players might end up being laughably small. Still more than BECMI, but definitely a breeze compared to AD&D.

    This has been the most enlightening old school post and thread for me so far. Thank you.

  26. As a grognard who also plays 4E, the approach I have taken with skill challenges is to turn them on their ear.

    The only thing skill challenges really add to the game is a way to codify the challenge level and awarding of experience for the actions. Other than that, they are merely a series of role-layed actions designed to accomplish a goal – something that has been possible since before there were even skills to challenge.

    As such – I no longer use the arbitrary acculumulation of successes and failures to determine whether or not the characters succeed. Rather – the in game success or failure is determined by what they do (and how well they do it). I.e. – overcoming the challenge depends on whether what they are doing makes sense – not meeting an arbitrary success ratio.

    The skill challenge mechanism is used, instead, to determine how much experience they gain when they eventually succeed (or fail).

    For example: Rather than deciding that [whatever] is a skill challenge of level 5 and complexity 4 and that they must then accrue 10 successes before reaching 3 failure and that the party will earn 800 XP for succeeding – I invert it.

    The challenge is what it is. And the party needs to use their skills, abilities, logic and creativity to voer come the specific obstacle. And, although I count how many successes they achieve before they reach 3 failures, that count has nothing to do with overcoming the obstacle. Rather – if they happen to get to 10 successes before 3 failures, they get the theoretical 800 XP. But if, on the other hand, they only manage seven successes before they reach their third failure – I compare that to the skill challenge table and find that this would be adequate for a complexity 2 challenge (six successes) but not a complexity 3 challenge (eight successes). And thus, once they finally succeed in the challenge – the experience they will receive will be that appropriate for a level 5, complexity 2 challenge (400 XP).

    But my knowing this as the DM in no way affects the characters – they still have to overcome whatever the specific challenge was. And, to reiterate, their actual success in the challenge (“do they overcome the obstacle”) is not based on the number of success and failures, but upon their actual actions/ roleplaying/ etc. The skill challenge mechanic is merely a behind-the-scenes tool used by the DM to determine how much experience the challenge was worth.


  27. @Precocious Apprentice – I’m not buying that explanation of milestones/AP. Timeouts work by giving the defense time to regroup and organize, not by robbing the offense of a super-power fueled by exhaustion.

    You could make the world work that way; Dragonball Z does. You can reify every oddball thing in the mechanics by saying “it’s magic.” The more of that you do, though, the more you change the game from being about adventuring in a vaguely realistic world with fantastic elements inspired by stories such as Conan and the Lord of the Rings to being about adventuring in this very particular and very very peculiar world that works like a game.

  28. @Syrsuro – that makes perfect sense. It seems a bit complicated for what appear to be fairly minor XP adjustments, but it completely eliminates all the objectionable aspects of Skill Challenges.

  29. @Theron – if the minions aren’t worth the hero’s time, have them run away at the first sign of combat.

  30. @Joshua: isn’t saying that minions are barely worth the hero’s time a meta-game statement? Is that something that either the minion or the hero knows?

    And is that really the case in the game? That is can the hero go on and win a battle while ignoring the minions or are they actually a problem that needs to be dealt with in order to defeat more serious foes?

  31. @Gleichman – It’s a meta-game statement that’s being codified in the rules. One hit kills a minion (though attacks which do damage even when they miss don’t); they otherwise have normal AC, attack bonus, etc. for a creature of their level, and do a fixed amount of damage to speed things up. They exist to inflate the body count the PCs rack up and restrict their tactical options without adding much to the difficulty of the encounter.

    Some Grognards might be ok with minions, regarding it as a fairly trivial speed-up of a high-level character facing a horde of 1 hit-die creatures; others, and I lean this way, find it hard to take a setting where you get attacked by what is in essence a balloon with spikey bits seriously. Unless it’s a Bubbleman from Arduin. Those things were dangerous!

  32. “I’m not buying that explanation of milestones/AP. Timeouts work by giving the defense time to regroup and organize, not by robbing the offense of a super-power fueled by exhaustion.” Joshua.

    I completely disagree with this. it is not about super powers. It is about momentum. Athletes and coaches know all about this. It is also not just about the defense or losers. It is about the ofense ans the winners too. Momentum has a huge effect on the flow of the game. This is a real phemomenon, even if you haven’t seen it. NO Dragon Ballz needed.

  33. @PrecociousApprentice – Look, if milestones/AP represent the kind of “momentum” that a time-out can disrupt, then what does that have to do with extended rests? You’re talking about something that in your view can be disrupted by a 30 or 60 second breather, 3 times in a half; it takes enough downtime to get a full night’s sleep to reset the milestone counter. Even if you have a sportscaster’s faith in the Big Mo, it doesn’t actually justify the rules.

    No, the sole justification for the rule is an attempt to counter-balance the “five minute workday” while keeping the concept of daily powers that pushes players towards it; and really, for people happy to accept the 4e default way of looking at the rules as defining the way the world works, you don’t need any more justification than that.

  34. To be perfectly clear, I don’t use the milestone system either. I let my milestone effects be determined by the world, not the game. I was just suggesting ways that you could use a milestone system without using the game determined milestone system. Let the world determine this stuff if that is how you like it. I just think that there is nothing about adrenalin surges, momentum or tides of battle, or magical healing requiring that the healed person have the reserves of energy to support it that cannot be justified through the world. If you don’t like having the game dictate these things to you, then let the world suggest when these things are appropriate. Verisimilitude should not inherently be at odds with any of these things.

    Many people mistake how things have been for how things aught to be, or what is more realistic. I am not suggesting that this is what you are doing, just that it is an easy trap for all of us to fall into. Mages can’t wear armor because of the hindrance to their arcane gestures is no better explanation than continuing on preserves momentum enough to provide the opportunity to get a second/third wind/adrenalin booste. They are both pretty lame excuses to align game and world and allow us to have sensible rules and sensible fantasy physics/worlds. We accept some because we have done it that way since we were 11. Some are jarring because we didn’t do it that way when we were 11. Both are just fantasy excuses.

    I understand you don’t like milestones. That is fine. I also don’t like them as written. I think that the idea has merit though, and I work with the idea, not the rule as written. I am also not trying to say that the rule as written maps perfectly to the idea of momentum in sports. But it can be thought of as analogous. It is a kind of an abstraction. Like HP, AC, Class, and any number of other things.

  35. @PrecociousApprentice – fair enough. The point is, though, that once you’ve come up with your explanation for whatever the rule is, for the causality to flow from the game world you as GM then have to regard yourself as bound by the logical consequences of that explanation. That’s what I was trying to illustrate with the example of mages and the encumbrance of armor. It’s not that I regard that as a particularly satisfying explanation, as opposed to, say, conductive metal disrupts magic, only that if you went that route it has implications that the other does not. If the GM, however, refuses to accept the implications and offers it as an excuse for the rule without binding himself to the consequences–for instance by coming up with additional reasons whenever the player try to do something like have a mage who doesn’t intend to cast spells at the moment wear armor, then it’s really the rule that’s primary and the “explanation” is just flavor text.

    So, whatever your explanation for how you run milestones in your game, the real question isn’t whether you’ve come up with a plausible explanation, but whether the players can reason from that explanation to things that you might not have considered but you and they would know that you have to allow because to do otherwise would be contradictory.

    Everything on my list of “you probably have to get rid of this” could be okay, with the right explanation and the right attitude towards what that explanation means in terms of binding the GM to the logical consequences. And plenty of things that players have accepted for years as standard parts of the game can be made into problems if you begin to treat them as mysterious and unknowable by the characters, but that they nevertheless are limited by without being able to comprehend why. GMs used to sometimes cause themselves problems this way by doing things like hiding levels; they didn’t go to the work of actually eliminating levels, but they decided that they wouldn’t let characters talk about them. (Because it “wasn’t realistic.”) So characters still had to deal with the fact that there were sudden quantum leaps in what spells they could cast, or whether some spells could affect certain characters and not others, but they had this mysterious GM-imposed aphasia about referring to it by name or planning around it.

  36. See Joshua, this is exactly why you will end up on my regular reading list. You are very well reasoned about your preferences.

    I really do think that there are basically two types of old schoolers. The first are old schoolers because that is the way they have always done it, and they are angry that others do it differently. I place no real value in tradition. The second, which you very much appear to be one of, are well reasoned about their values in gaming. Placing world as the primary authority, and making rules secondary, is a value that I can not only understand, but to some degree, I value this too.

    I think that the only thing about my preference about gaming that would keep me from being truly old school is that I feel that exceptions abound. I feel that not only do I not need to follow the rules that were set forth in the rulebooks, but I also feel like my ad hoc rules are not infallible either, and I will change them at any time I feel like it if it leads to more fun. I have no problem with magic and mystery in my fantasy, and I don’t feel like players or characters should feel like they “get it”. I work with my players suspension of disbelief. I try to smooth out the rough spots. I also often just make a ruling and move on. No need for me to worry about having perfect mental models of made up universes. I just make it up and move on, and if I need to revise later, I do.

    This is not better. Just the way I do it. I understand the appeal of the way you do things. I just don’t have enough faith in my ability to make perfect ad hoc rulings to say that they will always be generalizeable. People, places, things. These all stay consistent in my games. Physics changes to suit my need. My rulings are always just A way to do things. They are not THE way to do things, even in my own campaign. This probably keeps me from being old school more than anything else. I will have to think about this further. I could be wrong.

    Thanks for the pleasant banter. It really has lead to some insights on my end.

  37. @PrecociousApprentice – I wouldn’t want to make too much of the consistency of the GM’s rulings. “Rulings not rules” is sometimes the way it’s expressed. If the GM says that the roof is too low to swing a halberd one time, and then later on you encounter some orcs with halberds and he says “oh, but the ceilings in this part are 20′”, well, that’s the way it is (though if you come back with some halberds you better not find that the roof has mysteriously lowered itself). The feeling that exceptions abound and it’s up to the referee (as the GM was called in the earliest games) to adjudicate them is very old-school indeed. It wasn’t like the goal was to have a 50 page set of published rules supplemented with 200 pages of meticulously compiled and cross-indexed handwritten notes….though there was that guy back in High School who had his binder with all the laminated sheets…

  38. @Joshua: Given the nature of Hit Points, why should one object to Minions only taking one hit?

    After all, Hit Points are so abstract and cover things that not all creatures have (divine favor, paranormal luck, etc). It makes sense to me to finally define in-game those who lack those advantages.

    gleichman’s last blog post..Direction of Causality

  39. @gleichman – I can’t wrap my head around completely divorcing them from physical size and toughness. It’s not like old editions, where only trash like goblins and skeletons can have one HP. In 4e it could be an ogre or even a dragon, as long as it was designated “minion.” HP may represent some mixed bag of survival-related traits that are abstracted as a single number, but for me the image of a frail old wizard kicking a gigantic ogre in the shin and having it drop dead is inherently comedic.

  40. @gleichman – I very much agree with you there. Minions don’t bother me at all. They serve a very fun role in both the game and the story. Since it is easily possible for some people to die of a single stab wound in real life, and others to survive countless stab wounds, and having nothing to do with physical size or toughness, minions don’t stretch my suspension of disbelief any. It seems that many people have a serious problem with them though, even some ardent 4e supporters. Everyone has different tastes.

  41. @Joshua: And you have have no problem with a “to hit roll” indicating something that doesn’t hit? Or that same frail wizard killing a dragon with a single blow after its HP has been reduced by a Knight that never in truth laid a blade upon it?

    Interesting what the break points are for various people. My problems with the logic behind HP fails out of the gate, while others are ok with it until condition X.

    Heck, even a setting that could and would define a dragon as a Minion is beyond my ability to deal with.

    gleichman’s last blog post..Direction of Causality

  42. @gleichman – well, it’s a bit of a trick question, innit? I’ve never played (or if I did it’s lost in the dim mists of my youth) in a game where HP are an abstract fog that the Knight can reduce without “in truth” laying a blade upon it. Even in D&D we’ve always narrated it that we’re carving bloody furrows in the scaly beast if the blades aren’t bouncing off.

    I recognize that exactly what HP represent for the PCs in a high-level D&D game is problematic…but that’s not a new observation. Alternate HP systems are probably the single most common house rule in all of D&D (we used a variant of the Arduin rules from ’77 onward, at least until we stopped playing anything recognizable as D&D completely).

  43. @Joshua: I think to buy into Minions requires you to buy into the abstract nature of HP as a whole.

    Basically to stop thinking of the D&D rules as a simulation of process, only of final outcome.

    Anything else will cause a disconnect somewhere.

  44. @gleichman: The 4e Monster Manual has the 5 chromatic dragons in it, and all of them are solos. Solo monsters are basically the opposite of minion. There are no minion dragons.

  45. I’m late to the party, but bravo! I would play your version of 4e without complaint, and these are most of the reasons why I couldn’t continue my 4e campaign.

    I think the gelatinous cube is a good example. If hitting that cube hard enough that it pauses and gobs go flying, that’s not a great justification for the power. The fact is that a 200 lb Fighter has no chance to stop a 31 ton creature by sheer force—I’ve personally tried to stop *a half ton* of slowly-moving weight, and I ended up in hospital for my trouble. Even if smacking it hard enough splatter gobs would cause it to pause in doubt (does that even make sense for a mindless blob?), as a Verisimilitude is King kind of GM I’d be immediately asking who’s nearby and asking for saving throws versus the cube’s paralytic touch, due to the flying gobs of cube.

    Most off-hand explanations from 4e defenders about how 4e Powers are “really” exactly what grognards should want make this mistake. They always have logical consequences that aren’t covered by the “one power, one effect” design of 4e. Such explanations are always given as reasons why the rules have verisimilitude without alteration, but they just end up proving the opposite.

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