A Land of Wealth and Peril

Adulath Caracai II:

Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is a pretty good Gamist design. It’s got high-level strategy and moment-to-moment tactics, and does well with them. But its carefully balanced encounters and guaranteed rewards undermine the creative agenda in places. There’s not much risk-reward calculus, and there’s surely not much competition.

Time for that to change.

I’ve been kicking around ideas for a West Marches fourthcore game for a while now, and I think things are falling into place enough that I could make it happen later this year, perhaps after The Chronicles of Hallowdwell wraps up. In this post, I’ll outline the concepts behind the idea in its close-to-mature form.

An Unfolding World

The game is scheduled using the West Marches style: players take the initiative to form a party and schedule a time to play. This could include such flexibility as having both online and face-to-face play, and maybe even multiple DMs. At a group’s first session, they do a bit of creative jamming to envision a small settlement of people of a player-character race, flung far from home into hostile territory. They could be human explorers looking to settle a new land, Drow rebels cast out upon the harsh mercies of the surface world, Genasi survivors of a crashed earthmote… whatever origin story most appeals to the players. They choose one building (see “Expanding Options”, below) to start their settlement with, build starting characters, and sketch out a little of the area surrounding the settlement.

Other than that small sketch, the world map and the trajectory of the campaign are empty, undecided. Locations in the world, and the quests that make up the story of the game, are invented by the players as the game goes on–largely via a communal pool of quests called the Bounty Board.

The Bounty Board lives on a shared wiki (along with any other desired campaign information), and can be updated between or at sessions, whatever works for the players. Both the DM and the PC players can add to it. Each entry is an adventure idea that somebody would like to go after, including a desired difficulty level, a location, and perhaps some ideas for rewards. So an entry might look like…

Kobold Warrens
Level 3 (~5 encounters)
Proposed DM: Sabe
Vicious, cunning lizard-goblin-something-or-others have been murdering our scouts and raiding our supply carts. One of our trackers tailed a raiding party to a network of caves in what’s now being called the Dragonscale Hills. Go there and end the threat, whether by destroying the warrens, buying off the kobolds, signing a treaty… whatever it takes! Reward in gold from Mayor Nauf.

If other players don’t veto the idea via dissent or wiki revision, the plot elements, NPCs, and locations introduced there become setting canon, and corresponding landmarks should be added to the world map at the next convenience. Then, when players petition to schedule a session, they include in their request what Bounty Board mission they’d like to undertake. The DM then preps the desired adventure for the session! Lead time of a week or so is probably necessary.

As the campaign goes on, the world gets fleshed out in this way, and the elements there grow and change according to the characters’ actions and the DM’s eye for trouble. If the group clears a dungeon but doesn’t make use of the real estate, will some new monsters move in? If someone aborts an attempted delve, do the denizens of that place simply reset their traps, or reorganize their defenses entirely? That sort of thing!

One more wrinkle: each month of real-world time corresponds to the passing of a season in the setting. The wiki can house a calendar with notable events. Characters age, weather shifts, and new hardships come to the settlement, whether the players are active or not.

Risk, Reward, and Uncertainty

One thing that’s often missing in D&D4 games is a sense of real risk–it’s assumed that the characters will win. The “TPK” is a broken game state. Moreover, the players have no particular say in how difficult of challenges they face, encounter XP budgets being a tool entirely in the hands of the DM. And even if the DM takes player input into how tough of encounters to build, the rules for treasure distribution mean that there aren’t commensurate rewards for taking on harder encounters; you might level up faster, but everything else happens as if you tackled challenges of ordinary difficulty.

In this game, all of these things go out the window. There is no assurance that a party will overcome the encounters it faces. If the group is wiped out, that means a later party of adventurers will need to avenge them and reclaim their lost treasures–or forever avoid that dungeon as a cursed place! Players can see the advertised difficulties of quests on the Bounty Board, and get to suggest difficulties for new adventure ideas they propose there. Finally, the level of a treasure parcel is based not on party level, but the level of the encounter overcome: besting a level 3 combat earns one roll on the level 3 treasure parcel table.

Considerations of risk are enhanced by some uncertainty, though; it’s no fun for difficulties and rewards to all be known quantities. So the above figures get adjusted by the DM when designing an adventure, by a randomized fudge factor. Appropriately enough, this swing is determined by rolling Fudge dice. Roll 2dF; if the result is negative, add 1. This gives a range of values from -1 to +2, with a result of 0 happening just over half the time, -1 or +2 each having an 11% chance, and +1 coming up about one time in five. Your level 5 Bounty Board quest could actually be a level 4 cakewalk, or a startling level 7 delve! Similarly, for a given encounter, you normally get one treasure drop of its level, but you could get none, or as many as three.

Skill difficulties require a bit of tweaking to fit this paradigm: they don’t scale with party level either. Rather, DCs are solely a function of encounter level. Checks using appropriate skills with ordinary descriptive justification go vs. the normal DC for the level. Using a skill in an ingenious way or with great description earns you a check against the easy DC. Skills that are appropriate only by a stretch, or accompanied by flimsy or nonexistent description, must beat the Hard DC to succeed.

Expanding Options

At the outset, players have access only to a tiny fraction of the many classes, items, and options from the line of D&D rulebooks. Their settlement consists of only one race, with primitive equipment and modest training. Therefore, Day 1 characters can only belong to Martial classes from the Essentials books (Hunters, Knights, Scouts, Slayers, and Thieves), must be of the starting race, and can only start with Simple weapons and Light armor. They cannot take Backgrounds or Themes. These tight restrictions can be thrown off by building and questing.

Building: At the end of the season, if the settlement has sent out adventurers at least once (i.e., the group actually played a session that month), it builds a new structure. These buildings unlock new options for characters, and follow a set of branching prerequisites resembling a “technology tree” from strategy computer games. Some examples…

  • Blacksmith – Characters may purchase martial weapons and heavy armor.
  • Metallurgist – Requires Blacksmith. Characters may purchase superior weapons and armor.
  • Thieves’ Guild – Characters may start as Scoundrel Rogues. If the Shadow power source is unlocked, characters may start as Assassins or Executioners.
  • Mages’ Guild – Characters may start as Arcanists or Mages. If the settlement has encountered the Feywild, characters may start as Witches.
  • Alchemists’ Guild – Requires at least one unlocked Arcane class. Characters may purchase alchemical items.
  • (Race) Village – Characters may start as a different race, according to the village built.
  • Town Hall – Characters may take Backgrounds. Synergizes with Guild style buildings, unlocking related Themes (Thieves’ = Guttersnipe, Outlaw; Alchemists’ = Alchemist; etc.)

Questing: Some dramatic shifts in capability, such as acquiring exotic power sources like Shadow and Psionic, must be achieved via quests. Some buildings may have narrative prerequisites, such as “access to the Shadowfell.” These objectives can be proposed by the players in the context of a Bounty Board posting, though some negotiation with the DM may be required to determine the appropriate timing and difficulty of such quests! Also, extra buildings or unlock effects can come as the natural consequence of a particular adventure, even if it wasn’t specified as an upfront reward: making allies out of a community of elves via a Skill Challenge, for instance, might make elf PCs available to a halfling settlement.

Fourthcore Mentality

As you might guess from the risk/reward section, the campaign’s challenges do not pull punches. Dungeons are full of traps that can kill characters and puzzles that the players are not guaranteed to solve. Hostile monsters use the best tactics and deadliest attacks at their disposal. The world is, overall, a dangerous and unforgiving place. Players are encouraged to learn from failure, assaulting a given delve more than once until its secrets are mastered.

The persistent-world setup means that things will not be exactly the same on every trip to a given dungeon, but the same skills of dungeoneering logic apply and will serve players well.

Competitive Spirit

The campaign wiki is also a place to track stats and bragging rights. A group can crow about being the ones to finally reach the top of the Tower of Kalzethi, flaunt their moneybins of gold pieces, put their names on new discoveries. The DM can also propose interesting challenges above and beyond the Bounty Board quests, resembling Xbox LIVE style achievements in all their variety. “Play two sessions in one week.” “Score twenty lifetime critical hits.” “Be the only PC from the party to escape a dungeon alive.” “Grapple an owlbear.” Rewards would include XP, cosmetic things like character titles, and perhaps even prestige unlocks like a Theme usable only by the character to have pulled off the challenge.

Content and Other House Rules

  • Most content by Wizards is allowed, subject to unlocking restrictions. Third-party content is allowed on a case-by-case basis. Feats not specific to a class don’t normally require unlock, though setting-specific feats like Dragonmarks, tweaks to Arcane Defiling, etc. are disallowed. Multiclass feats require the base class to be unlocked.
  • Weapon categories not represented among the Simple weapons get new Simple weapons added to the list to round them out. They are all one-handed melee, +2 proficiency, 1d6 damage weapons. Axe = Hatchet, Heavy Blade = Machete, etc.
  • The Slowed condition also prevents the sufferer from taking the Charge or Run actions.
  • Characters may expend their Second Wind as a move action to spend a healing surge for HP without gaining the usual +2 defense bonus of Second Wind.
  • Inherent Bonuses are in effect.
  • Extended Rests may never be taken during an adventure. You may never take back-to-back Short Rests. In some dangerous situations, you may only have time for a Breather, recharging encounter powers but not getting the opportunity to spend healing surges.
  • With sufficient descriptive justification (no spamming!), skills can be used to erode combat threats, as in this series of posts by Rob Donoghue. Untrained skills do low damage based on the character’s level, trained skills do normal damage. The Skill Focus feat and similar investments each bump skill damage by one more +25% step.
  • Stunting: If a character misses an attack roll by 1, the player may convert the action to a hit by providing a colorful or dramatic description of the attack landing. If a character misses an attack roll by 2, they may do the same, but they must additionally grant some disadvantage to their character or advantage to the enemy arising from the stunt. A typical example would be to grant the opponent or one of its allies a free action counterattack.
  • The standard pantheon for this game is the Gods of the Shroud (with some tweaks needed to fix mechanics and remove some unnecessary misogyny, as I discovered on a reread…). The core pantheon may be venerated by some cultures in the setting, or might not.

Unanswered Questions

  • What’s a good pace of advancement? By-the-book XP with perhaps some opportunities for extra experience rewards (exploration XP?)? Level up once per successful delve? Double speed? Once per season/month?
  • The competitive and open-world aspects of the setup make it ideal for multiple groups. Should each group have its own settlement, so people are racing to build as well as to earn XP and gold? Or are they different adventuring crews within the same community, benefiting from each other’s achievements? Do different groups level up together, or each at their own pace?
  • How best to translate an adventure’s level into individual encounters? Possibilities: (1) adventure level provides the baseline encounter level, which is in turn modified by a fudge factor (maybe a 3dF version?) for each individual encounter; (2) adventure level x XP per encounter of that level x number of encounters in the adventure provides an overall XP budget for the adventure.
  • Should Skill Challenges be converted wholesale to Rob D’s Fighting the Situation system?
  • Is there a place for Purple Cards in this game, or are stunts and the Bounty Board sufficient for this play style?
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20 thoughts on “A Land of Wealth and Peril

  1. Abram says:

    I’d be interested in playing such a thing!

    I think XP based at least partially on monsters fought makes sense, given the risk/reward bit. Perhaps somewhat accelerated, though, or other sources of XP as mentioned.

    I don’t think purple cards particularly fit with the style of the rest of it.

    • Abram says:

      Also, stunting should totally be a thing on skill checks too.

      • sabrecat says:

        That’s rolled into the easy/normal/hard split, for skills. Is it problematic to have two different mechanics for that sort of thing?

      • Abram says:

        Oddly, I don’t seem to be able to reply to your posts on here, Sabe.

        Anyways, I just wanted the ‘you can choose to succeed(more) in return for bad stuff’ on skill checks, too, because that sounds really fun.

      • sabrecat says:

        Re comment replies: I think that’s a setting saying how deep the threading can go, since I’m similarly restricted. I’ll tinker with it as I go with this blog, see what level I want it set at.

        Re stunting on skill checks: Ooh, you mean more the devil’s-bargain part. Yeah, I could dig that–a general option to negotiate a “yes, but” on failed rolls. Gives more nuance to D&D’s usual binary pass/fail on rolls.

      • Fractal Advocate says:

        Or turn moderate success into hard success at a cost, etc.

  2. Joe Thomas says:

    I am 110% into this. This is totally what I would do if I had multiple overlapping gaming groups. Further commentary to come later.

    • Joe Thomas says:

      Further Commentary
      1) Bookkeeping is going to be a bear. Maybe if some few players volunteer to be Scribes or something, and consistently take notes, update the wiki, etc after each session that they play in? Keeps it from ending up devolving on 1-2 people entirely
      2) Maybe I missed this, but if there’s a stable of characters, is Hailynn the fighter (for example) only available to me? No other player?
      3) Would it be interesting to have the possibility of total failure? Like, every six months or something, a set-piece adventure that involves a threat to the settlement? If you haven’t gotten your PCs and settlement ready for it, the settlement can be completely wiped out and everyone has to start over. Or at some other milestone – when crowdsourced ideas start gelling around an orc invasion, the invasion eventually happens according to plot, rather than “in November.” This could also increase the number of times you can use some of the same ideas about overall advancement (or tweak them to work better on a second run-through), while the open-world crowd-source thing guarantees that you’re not running the same adventures over again (unless you want to!). I’ve got more thoughts on this idea; I’ll flesh them out if there’s interest.
      4) DM adventure design skill is going to be crucial. I find the idea of designing a fourthcore-style adventure pretty intimidating, personally.
      5) Experience. This is tricky. If XP only goes to PCs who complete a given adventure, you quickly get mismatched by amount anyone can play (especially when combined with proprietary-PCs, like Hailynn above). Just remember how frustrating that can be in certain Final Fantasy games. But on the other hand, part of the fourthcore mentality is no risk, no reward – why hand XP to a PC that never risked gruesome death at the hands of the strange creatures in the ruins of Jilxiat? Maybe a combination is appropriate – all PCs gain some set amount of XP every campaign season, but there are substantial bonuses to be had in every adventure.
      6) Multiple groups is a cool idea. I think the mutual-benefit is more logistically achievable, honestly. Otherwise, people aren’t as free to drop in and out and keep their own schedule as well.
      7) On dungeon design & house rules: you mention house rules around Rests, Short and Extended both. If you enjoyed the pace of the encounters beneath Flamekeep as the Eberron crew tried to reach High Cardinal Krozen’s chambers, I’d definitely recommend Rob Schwalb’s encounter area approach to dungeon design. I know those were both easier to design and felt more lively from my side of the screen (pun intended).

      • sabrecat says:

        2) Players should still own their characters. I like passing characters around in some games, but in this one having talk of a character’s exploits be indicative of the player’s skill is too important a feature. (And as in my reply to Willow below, I’m not sold on character stables to begin with.)

        3) Ooh, yeah, do tell more! This concept crossed my mind, as a great way to bring the world to life even more and emphasize the harsh plight of the settlement(s), but I hadn’t thought through it far enough to figure out how to implement it.

        4) Yeah, that’ll take some practice. I’m no great hand at devising puzzles, for instance. Mostly I think it should start with a Dungeon World-esque faithfulness to the reality of the fiction: those kobolds aren’t going to set piddly 1d6+8 arrow traps just because the party’s low level, they’re going to roll a fucking boulder down the corridor and pick through the red smear for shinies afterward. The tricky part is to do that in a way that doesn’t feel cheap–that when the players fail, they feel they were outsmarted or unlucky, not cheated; and when they succeed, they feel clever and ballsy, not patronized.

        5) Worthy thoughts. I think with a pretty large group of participants, having disparate levels/XP would be no bigger a deal than it is in an MMO; people go at their own pace, and that’s OK. But shy of that critical mass, it’s a harder thing. I’ll definitely keep soliciting input on this one.

        6) See my comment to Willow. It should work fine leaving that decision up to the players.

        7) Ah, yeah, I’d been meaning to check that out since you mentioned it in the Eberron game. Noted!

      • Joe Thomas says:

        EXISTENTIAL THREATS
        There’s a couple ways to do this.

        Winter is Coming
        The DM (or World Master or something, if we’re rotating DMs) determines that something catastrophic will happen at a set time, say June 2013 (which is Winter in the Year of the King 243). This is a set-piece adventure, the players cannot opt out, and the encounter level is set (no die roll on it, no fudging based on PC’s level). Fail, and the settlement is wiped out by ice zombies or whatever.

        They dug too greedily. . .and too deep.
        The DM/World Master waits until crowdsourced ideas start to gel around a recurring theme or plotline. Ze then sets a 3 month (or whatever) timeline before something catastrophic from that plotline occurs. Set-piece adventure as above.

        I’m out of nerd-culture references.
        Whether by fiat or crowdsourced ideas, the WM makes an adventure which the adventurers can choose when to assault. They must pick it eventually, either to advance some meta-plot or just based on the group consensus around narrative believability, but have leeway on when.

        Regardless of which way you go, there’s variations by degree of transparency, possibility of player preparation, and crowdsourcing. Do the players know zombies are stirring and have a chance to suggest a quest to retrieve a powerful holy weapon that will help them in the inevitable battle? Or is life in the settlement so fickle and dangerous that no one realizes that the mind flayers are among them until it’s almost too late (and the quest never even appeared on the wiki)?

      • Abram says:

        What if XP was gotten for the entire settlement, but a new character didn’t gain all their feats immediately, instead getting an additional one each adventure they survived? Feats+item selection is a huge part of the time it takes to make 4E characters, so having 1-2 feats/race/class/power selection would make things pretty easy. Plus, new characters would be almost as competent, but still not quite as cool.

      • sabrecat says:

        That’s interesting–reminds me a bit of E6 from the 3.5 days. It doesn’t offer a lot of advantages over DMG2 level-sync, though.

  3. sabrecat says:

    Couple of misc thoughts since posting:

    * “Skill damage” replaces the standard combat Intimidate mechanics. You want to force a foe’s surrender instead of killing/KOing it, beat it up then land a finishing blow with an Intimidate check. If the DM wants a monster to be resistant or impervious to certain tactics, ze can include things like “resist 15 social” or “immune Diplomacy” in the stat block.

    * I think additional groups should get to choose whether they join an existing settlement or found a new one. Joining an existing settlement has many perks, but if those players didn’t choose stuff you’re interested in, or you want the cred of going it alone, you’re welcome to start fresh. Similar for individual new players–join an existing adventuring party or start a new one. Heck, adventuring parties overall can be pretty fluid entities, more like video gaming clans or MMO guilds than traditional tabletop game groups: only there as aggregations of stats, not a restriction on who can play with whom. There’s even room for players to run nontraditional sessions like solo games, all in the same setting.

    * Still not sure on whether new players should start at level 1 (if I do go with this, I’d definitely use the level-sync rules from DMG2) or if everybody gets to make characters at an overall “campaign level”. At the very least, I want new characters made by a particular player to be created at that player’s achieved level–that makes character death a fun part of play instead of a showstopper, and gives more room to make use of the options unlocked during the campaign.

  4. Willow says:

    The random encounter level and treasure rolls are a great idea. Will there be character stables? If you can only have one character per player, you will get more attached to them and play more carefully. If you have more, you have more options, but characters become disposable.

    • sabrecat says:

      Re randomness: Thanks, that bit was one of the “eureka” moments that prompted me to go through and write this up! I would like to do something with actual randomization of the treasures themselves (thus Inherent Bonuses; some wishlisting can still happen via player-defined quest rewards on the Bounty Board), but need to come up with a solution for that that doesn’t involve a massive amount of DM work. How do you think the relationship between quest level and encounter level should work?

      Character stables: Good question! I think having one character per player would promote some interesting strategic thinking, and discourage a “pile of dead bards” approach to solving problems. But maybe there could be a liberal character retirement option, like once per season you can send your guy away to a peaceful life in the settlement and make a new adventurer.

      • Joe Thomas says:

        I like the idea of randomization, but it definitely set off bookkeeping-overload alarm bells. Loot in 4e in general is just, frankly, a pain in the ass. You could just roll a d10 on the treasure parcel table, of course, but then there’s also the bookkeeping of tracking how has how much gold and then SPENDING the damn stuff usefully. I dunno. I just am not a big fan of 4e’s loot/treasure stuff in general, I think.

      • Joe Thomas says:

        CLARIFICATION: Randomization for loot. Randomization for encounter level (assuming there’s a good way to do the math on the fly) is AWESOME.

      • sabrecat says:

        @Joe: I was indeed thinking a treasure drop would start from the random parcel tables in Essentials. Having them tied to encounter level actually cuts out a little of the 4e treasure accounting overhead–you no longer need to care how many magic items or gold pieces the party accrues over the course of a level. The tricky part lies in going from “level 7 uncommon” to a specific item. The Magic Item Reset had an experimental random treasure table; I’m thinking I might use that most of the time, with some sort of off chance of getting a WotC or Fourthcore item, selected at DM whim as with vanilla 4e treasure.

        Re encounter level randomization: That’d happen during adventure prep, so no particular need to do it on the fly. If you’re improvising a skill challenge or something, just using the quest level, with a quick fudge-factor roll if desired, would be sufficient to generate your DC tier.

  5. Abram says:

    With inherent bonuses, treasures aren’t needed as much.

    So what if treasures were kind of rare, but really awesome?

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