Greatest Hits 2013: 9 Ways to Improve 4e D&D

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 18, 2013

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2013. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

D&D is in a strange place right now. As we move towards the official release of D&D Next there is less and less support for 4e. This isn’t a surprise; in fact it was an inevitable reality. That’s just the way things work when the game transitions to a new edition. But until D&D Next officially becomes the edition some people are still playing 4e, including me and my home group.

I think that a lot of players want to get behind D&D Next but are waiting for the rules to go beyond the play testing stage. Until the official rules are released what’s a gamer to do? If you’re planning to stick with 4e then the tips we preset in this article might be just what you need.

About a year ago my home group decided to take a break from 4e. At first we tried D&D Next. Some liked it; some did not so we moved on. For the next few months we tried a few other RPGs before finally returning to 4e. It was nice to return to something familiar. However, if didn’t take long before we remembered why we’d stopped playing a year earlier. That’s when we decided to tweak things a little bit.

By making a few adjustments to the rules, we breathed new life and new excitement into our game. It was still 4e at heart, but we had a lot of fun trying new things. Our experience playing other RPGs actually helped a lot in this regard. Sometimes distance provides perspective and we found that to be the case this past year with our RPGs.

We didn’t end up using too many of the “improvements” for very long (except #2, #8, and #9), but just having the courage to try them in game said a lot about our desire to stick with 4e for a little bit longer. My advice to gamers stuck between 4e & D&D Next is to keep playing 4e and try tweaking the rules to keep your experiences fresh. And if you find something that really works be sure to share it.

From January 8, 2013, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: 9 Ways to Improve 4e D&D.

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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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe December 18, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Probably more of a style thing, and less of a rules change… but I’ve had great luck asking my players to roll attack & damage dice at the same time. It saves us an extra 5 seconds (or more) every time, but that adds up quickly.

Then I ask players to write what their crit damage would be on their power cards, so that we lose the 10 seconds of mental math maxing all the dice.

I also (esp in Encounters settings) run my initiative with an “on-deck” slot, so that the next person in the initiative order can start planning their action, and not waste time just starting to look at power options when I tell them it’s their turn.

2 Brian December 18, 2013 at 10:52 pm

My thoughts on these:

1. is unnecessary. The +2 racial bonuses don’t really make or break a class. You can always pick up an 18 in point buy and still have a solid score in your primary. I’ve played a Warforged Bard before and barely noticed the difference – essentially what lacking that +2 to Charisma meant that one time out of 20, you’ll miss when you otherwise would have hit, and a lot of your attacks do one less point of damage. That’s no big deal – one point of damage is nothing and can be made up with a single feat, and missing one time out of 20 is a small enough difference that it might not even come up every session (most of your rolls will either be missing by enough that that +2 doesn’t matter, or hitting both ways).

Of course, to pull this off you need to have some trust going both ways – that both the players and the DM are interested in having a good time, and that the players won’t find themselves harshly punished with boring failure (which is why players failure-mitigate). If your game is an arms race between CharOppers and the DM, the players may be less likely to pick something that isn’t blue or better on the CharOp forum.

2. This seems like a good idea, although I might be inclined to keep it split between the entry feats and a “power” feat all rolled into one. Multiclassing is tricky because it takes up so many feat slots to get much from your second class – if you want to seriously mix classes, it’s almost a “go hybrid or go home” situation.

3. Good idea – helps avoid the loot treadmill.

4. Not a bad idea. Having SW as a standard does cause the problem of characters not wanting to “waste” their standard on SW and then finding themselves bleeding out calling on the cleric for help.

5. Good idea – allow players to do something cool as an immediate interrupt at the cost of an AP

6. Seems unnecessarily complicated, especially for such low odds (one in six) of actually recharging. Does this regularly work out, and is it worth the extra bookkeeping and rolling?

7. I’d be reluctant to do that because that’s really playing with the game balance. The second suggestion seems like a needless complication.

8. I think rather than basing the skills off of different ability scores, players should be encouraged to use whatever skill they think is appropriate. I almost never ask my players to roll a specific skill, I generally present them with a situation and say “tell me what you want to do, and roll whatever skill you think is appropriate” – and I never second-guess my players’ reasoning. So, using the example of the tough guy fighter who dumped Cha trying to intimidate someone, maybe he’s not using Intimidate but rather Athletics to flex his muscles and show that he’s really good at beating people up.

9. No, just no. I encourage players to think about their actions before their turns, show my initiative tracker, and from time to time remind them who is on deck. But a timer is just going too far. If slow play is an issue, it’s better to help players play faster (suggest they plan their turns in advance, making sure their character sheets are intuitive and have all the math done, etc) than to try to punish players for playing too slow. If a DM pulled out a timer on my turn, I’d seriously consider walking away from the table because I’m clearly dealing with a DM who has control issues.

3 B.J. December 21, 2013 at 11:27 pm

First, cool article. I liked it when it was originally published and it was great to re-read here.

A tenth way to improve 4e? Switch to D&D next.

I’ll always love 4e for bringing me into the game. It was the first edition I ever played and I kept with it for almost three years. However, having played Next for the better part of the last eight months, I can honestly say that I love that style of game more than 4e. Next is more what I expect from a roleplaying game. I liked 4e for what it was. I was attracted to the game because it felt like Heroscape with a story. I just don’t see myself returning to 4e. It feels meandering and bloated by comparison.

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