9 Ways to Improve 4e D&D

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 8, 2013

For the past few months my regular gaming group took a break from D&D. Now we’re gearing up to return to 4e D&D. However, some of my players are again talking about why they wanted to take a beak in the first place. They were getting bored. They felt that 4e D&D was too much of the same week in and week out.

One of the objectives of this blog has always been to talk about ways to improve your gaming experience. We share a lot of ideas and insights about gaming in general with an obvious focus on 4e D&D. Personally I like 4e the way it is, but I do recognize that there are opportunities for improvement. In fact I encourage creativity if the players think a change will make any part of the game more fun, or more exciting.

With this in mind I opened the floor to new ideas. I asked my gaming group what we could do differently to win back the players who were bored. They came up with a lot of great suggestions. Some of these we’d tried before with varying levels of success, others were things they’d read on the Wizards’ forums that we thought sounded fun. In the end we came up with a list of 9 things that we felt would jump-start our 4e D&D games.

I don’t think we’re the first to come up with any of these ideas but for some it’s the first time we’ll be putting them into practice at out gaming table. As we determine the viability of these changes, and the potential benefit vs. problems, we’ll keep you posted. Until then we welcome your feedback. Let us know if you’ve tried any of these 4e tweaks and how it affected your game. If you’ve got another suggestion for the list, please share it in the comments below.

1. Racial bonuses

Remove all restrictions. Don’t force the +2 modifier to any specific stats; allow the player to assign them to any two they want. For example, Dwarves normally get +2 to Wisdom and +2 to either Constitution or Strength. If You’re playing a Dwarven Wizard you may instead want to take a +2 in Intelligence, or if you’re playing a Sorcerer you may want +2 in Charisma. This change will encourage race/class combos you wouldn’t normally see and players can assign that +2 bonus to the stats they need to excel in a certain class. (Obviously Humans will still just get +2 to any single ability score, so no change there.)

See Playing Against Type.

2. Multi-classing

Once you take a multi-class feat you can swap out one encounter, daily and utility power from your main class with your new class. You are not required to take the Novice Power, Adept Power and Acolyte Power feats. Bards who multi-class more than once can only power swap with one of their new classes.

3. Inherent bonuses

All character will use inherent bonuses. This allows the DM to award cool magic treasure and not merely hand out +1 stuff to keep the math in check.

4. Second Wind

Downgrade Second Wind from a standard action to a move action. This serves two purposes. 1) If characters can attack every round combat will go faster, something everyone wants. 2) When a PC falls unconscious they usually miss at least one round of attacks and force another PC to stop fighting and heal them. If Second Wind is a move action a wounded PC is more likely to use it before they’re down to their last hit point.

5. Action points

Allow players to use their action points to take immediate actions. If a player can justify why their PC should take certain action between turns, allow it and charge them with an action point. Examples include catching a falling ally, blocking or taking a hit for an adjacent ally, shooting at a fleeing enemy. Reward creativity.

See Putting More “Action” in Action Points.

6. Recharge powers

This is something we’ve tried with a lot of success in our home games. Once a PC has expended all of his Encounter powers he can roll a d6 to try and recharge one every round. On a 6 he regains the use of a single Encounter power (player’s choice). Utility Encounter powers and interrupt powers do not need to be expended before the PC can start to roll for recharge. However, they cannot recharge an unused power to “bank” a second use of it.

In some circumstances, especially for low-level adventures or situations where a PC is forced to fight superior numbers alone, we have allowed PCs to reroll to regain Daily powers. However, all of the PCs Encounter and Daily powers needed to be expended before they could roll to recharge a Daily. On a 6 they can still only recharge one power but in these cases they can choose a Daily or Encounter power.

7. Modify extra dice for strikers

Consider changing the way strikers that roll extra dice on a hit (Rogues, Rangers, Warlocks) do the extra damage. Instead of just adding on more damage dice, give them more attacks. For example, if a Rogue would normally add an extra +2d6 damage for sneak dice, instead allow the Rogue to make the same attack a second time. I realize that they’re giving up guaranteed damage for the chance at something greater, but if they were using an Encounter or Daily power they can potentially deal a lot more damage in the long run.

I’d also toy with the possibility of a mechanic that would let the second attack crit more easily. Perhaps for each extra damage die you sacrifice your crit range increase by one. So a Ranger that gives up +1d8 would crit on 19-20 and a Rogue that gives up +2d6 would crit on 18-20. I’ll admit that this mechanic will need some work, but it would let strikers do more striking.

8. Skills and abilities

There will be times when it seems to make more sense for a skill to be tied to a different ability. For example, Intimidate is a Charisma-based skill, but in the right circumstances it can certainly be tied to Strength. DMs should allow for a more fluid relationship between abilities and skills. Some knowledge skills could be tied to Wisdom depending on what kind of check is being rolled. Athletics and Acrobatics could easily be tied to Dexterity and Strength respectively instead of the other way around as is usually the case. If the player can explain why he thinks his skill check should be tied to a different ability, the DM should say yes and let him make the check using the modified score.

9. Turns on a timer

By now experienced 4e players should know how the game works. If you’ve been playing long enough to be experiencing burn out than you’re obviously familiar with 4e D&D. It’s time to stop coddling you. Combat can take a long time, especially at higher levels and especially if the party has six members. Everyone needs to know their character and know what that character is capable of doing.

For any group that has problems with players taking too long and combat taking too long, I suggest working under a timer. Two minutes is usually sufficient. When your time’s up you complete any action that’s in progress and then you move on to the next PC in the initiative. If you still had a move action left, too bad. It may seem harsh, but if you can’t figure out what to do on your turn you need to delay or make a simpler character. Obviously the DM can pause the timer if something completely unexpected happens or if someone else jumps in with an interrupt, but in the normal course of play their are no excuses for taking too long.

See Prove Your D&D Superiority – Play Under a Timer.

As I said at the beginning, I think 4e works fine as it is now, but if your group is looking for a change, perhaps because they’re bored with 4e or they’re experiencing burn-out, try implementing some or all of the suggestions I’ve provided above. These won’t be suitable for all gaming groups, but the chance to try something new could be the catalyst you need to reinvigorate your gaming group.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andy Jewell January 8, 2013 at 11:49 am

I love those ideas; however, my group uses the Character Builder to generate character sheets. Is there some way to either
a) implement 1 or 2 within the character builder
or
b) manage the complexities of 4E character generation without the Character Builder

2 Ameron (Derek Myers) January 8, 2013 at 12:48 pm

@Andy Jewell
I’m pretty sure you can fairly easily implement both 1 and 2 in character builder. Both will register are “illegal” choices, but it will work. For the powers you’ll have to use the House Rule button to allow for new powers. Just make sure you double check math if you think your players might try to take advantage of your flexibility.

3 Tet January 8, 2013 at 12:58 pm

Well, you can modify a certain version of the character builder to do that easily enough, but assuming you’re using the strictly legal Wizards version you can get those results by cheating a little. Just have the players make their character normally, assigning stats wherever, then artificially change them to reflect adding the stats different places. E.g. they finish their scores but want to swap their +2 wis for +2 str, drop wis by two and boost strength. It’ll let you go up to any number, you just get “n/a” for points used in point buy. Same with the feats: just houserule those novice power yada yada feats onto any character that multi classes.

4 Tom Coenen January 8, 2013 at 1:22 pm

I use inherent bonuses in my campaigns.
I recharge all encounter powers in a chained encounter or multiple faze boss.

Using a timer: my players don’t mind combat taking long: 4 players at level 19 take 1 to 2 hours for a standard encounter.
They analyze their moves and talk out-of-character like they are playing a card game. I discussed it with them and they won’t change their behavior, they like combat like that.
We agreed to disagree and now we’re back to a level 1 party.

5 Ocampo January 8, 2013 at 2:39 pm

What about making Second Wind a minor action instead? It’s speed things up a bit more without really throwing balance out the window. And whomever uses it still gets to move.
Ocampo´s last blog post ..En la frontera del año: un recuerdo del siglo pasado

6 Svafa January 8, 2013 at 4:44 pm

I like most of the suggestions, but I really dislike 1. I could go for races having one static +2 and one wild +2, but giving them two wild +2s gets rid of too much racial flavour for my taste. I’m not one to emphasize optimization as a DM or player though.

We use 3, and I use 2 but we don’t have anyone multiclassing at the moment. For implementing 2 in the WotC character builder, I prefer to houserule one of the power feats, rather than houseruling a new power- I think it works smoother.

4 might actually be something I try for our current game. There have been some complaints about second winds in the past, even from me, but none have been so bad we’ve done anything about it. @Ocampo: I wouldn’t reduce them to minor actions, as that encroaches on the Dwarf racial ability; unless you create a new encounter power for Dwarfs, you’d be getting rid of their racial.

7 Ocampo January 8, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Agreed, I had forgotten about that. Thanks for the correction.
Ocampo´s last blog post ..En la frontera del año: un recuerdo del siglo pasado

8 Wolfgrim January 8, 2013 at 6:38 pm

While I generally like most of the changes I would greatly appreciate some clarification on suggestion #3, what do you mean by inherent bonus. How would you make the bonus inherent? An example would be greatly appreciated!

I’ve actually found that player’s horde tons of equipment in 4e, especially Mr.Rogue. While it makes sense for characters to be able to carry equipment based on weight, often it’s slows down the game and often gets forgotten by players. Associating a weight with an item is unrealistic, what I have found works very well is an inventory slot system based on your 1) Whether you have a parcel/backpack 2)size of your character 3) size of the item. Small characters can carry 10 items, med 13 and large 16. Within those restrictions character’s can only carry 2 long item (pole/javelin/2 handed weapons) unless otherwise noted by the DM. Small object (orbs, vials, daggers, pendants, ect) take up 1 space in your pack whereas Medium sized objects (Medium/heavy armour – cloth is an exception considered a small item – 1 handed weapons and shields) take up 2 spaces and Large items (Any object the DM would consider large) take up 3 spaces. It’s important to note that this is meant for non-equipped items.

9 B.J. January 8, 2013 at 6:49 pm

Using a timer is mighty tempting, but I can see my players intensely disliking it. However, with seven players in the party, combat is a bear (even when we’re not fighting bears). There’s a lot of power dawdling. I think sometimes players have too many options! I try to prompt my players to already be thinking about what they are going to do when their turn comes up because of the number of players we have. I would say 75% of time players don’t do this. A timer might be the thing to get them going.

10 Andy Jewell January 8, 2013 at 6:50 pm

@Wolfgrim — “inherent bonuses” is a checkbox in the character builder under the “manage your character” tab. It gives +1 per tier as if you had the appropriate magic armor, weapon and/or focus. It’s also mentions in one of the DMG’s.

11 Edward W. January 8, 2013 at 6:52 pm

I particularly like 6, the recharge. The randomness of it adds a bit of spice, and getting extra uses of encounter powers will help move combat along a bit faster. I also like the fact that it is very easy to remember and implement.

12 Andrew January 9, 2013 at 2:55 am

I actually agree with a lot of these and have done some sort of variant in my home game. In addition, I’ll say that my D&D 4E game has taken a lot of cues from another RPG coming up in the next year (*cough* 13th Age *cough*). I thought I’d mention a few things that I felt were relevant.

Regarding item #1: I actually adopted the 13th Age variant where you get a stat bonus from your class (usually a “primary stat”) and one from your race but that they must be different. More often than not, this is essentially “put them where you want” but it does create the interesting effect that although any race can be any class, they have natural predispositions towards specific types of the class (tied to that races’ stat bonuses).

Regarding #8: I actually spend a great deal of time thinking about how skills could be improved. I like the broad, abstract skill list of 4E but 13th Age has really won me over with skills as backgrounds. I honestly get tired of having my player realize that his well conceived character story doesn’t fit with the skill selections allowed him at character creation. However, I think separating skill bonus from stat bonus is a great idea since I allow such broad interpretations. I have had three players do the same basic task using different skills (for example, Athletics, Acrobatics, Nature, and Dungeoneering to climb a cliff face) so using different stats makes perfect sense.

Regarding combat: I actually starting using 13th Age’s Escalation Die to speed up combat. It has its downsides because no powers or abilities are tied to Escalation like in 13th Age, but it definitely makes combat quicker because that ~65% hit rate gets to ~%80 within a few rounds. Interestingly, it changed some aspects of power usage because players were more likely to delay in using daily powers as they would be more successful as battle went on.

Anyway… I apologize if this sounds like promotional material for 13th Age. It’s not intended to. I just started to realize that there is a lot going on in that game that I have really began to mix up with my home 4E game and I like it.
Andrew´s last blog post ..Design Thoughts: Returning to Alignment

13 Philo Pharynx January 9, 2013 at 4:44 pm

If you do #1, then give the humans a second +2 bonus. Right now they trade off amount of bonuses for flexibility. If you give everybody flexibility, then give humans a boost too.

#7 and #9 could be at odds if you give them extra attacks. Some people beleive strikers already steal the spotlight with their high damage. And there are a couple questions – Do they have to target the same creature(s)? What if one of them dies on the first attack? What about the strikers that have fixed adders and not dice? What about avengers – they’re already the red-headed stepchildren of the striker world.

For #9, One minute per tier is good. Epic characters just have more moving parts to consider. If you are forgetting half of your abilities to get done quickly, it’s not much fun. But I’d also give a small bennie next turn if you finish in the previous tier’s time. Like a +1 to one d20 roll.

I like the options that expand flexibility, but I don’t think you need to expand the power of 4e characters. They are already pretty powerful, and if your group gets how 4e synergy works you can get overwhelmingly powerful based on the raw rules.

For example, our 27th level group just finished two doubled level 30 encounters back to back. The first was two Tarraques* – level 30 solos. The second was eight Lights of Amoth – level 30 brutes. We have four characters, a rogue, a cleric, a warlord and a psion. We spend three healing surges for the Tarrasque battle and four for the Lights of Amoth. Thats for the party as a whole, not each character. We did end up using most of our daily powers over the two fights (but not all). We had a more conventional encounter before and we are still good for more encounters after this.

14 Dinare January 10, 2013 at 11:21 am

As a courtesy to other players, I’ve been trying to keep my turns as short as possible(2 minutes at the most, it usually doesn’t take that long). It definitely helps keep you focused if your timing yourself on your turns.

15 Rose February 28, 2013 at 1:56 pm

I like suggestion 2. I really dislike how multi-classing works in 4e and would prefer to be able to take levels rather than spending a feat to swap powers. I think this would make or more interesting characters to play as well. Fr example, you have a dwarf raised to do typically dwarfy things but he finds he has a talent and love for magic during the campaign so he starts learning the ways of wizarding. My DM is very hesitant to allow this change though because he is worried it will break the game. I’m not sure if there is merit in this because he ever explained why he thought it would break the game.

I think 8 is good too, especially your intimidate example. I feel that there are some cases where athletics and acrobatics or history and religion could be used to achieve the same things but my DM is still afraid that allowing these swaps will break the game.

16 DeWitt March 17, 2013 at 7:26 pm

I have to comment on #1. Racial bonuses/penalties are racially based. A creacture of the dark sees better in the dark, a giant tends to be stronger then a gnome. If you want to give flexability to your players on their stats use a stat pool and let them add the points where they want up to the potential roll limit taking into account the racial bonuses and penalties. Yes, you have races with advantages in specific stats then, but isn’t that the point? Differnet creatures have different natual abilities, how many humans do you know that can smell as well as their dog? I still play version 3.5 I do not care for a lot of what was changed with 4. It is a different game and I can see playing it as a different game, but in my opinion they shoudl keep 3.5 active on the market if they really want people to convert, they have to keep them in the game first.

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