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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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?