Last week, I made the big announcement, which boiled down to this:
I want to do a new version of d20 Modern but updated with 4e-style rules. And I’m going to share the process of making it with all of you, and get your feedback as I go.
But that doesn’t really tell you anything about how I’m going to do it. This week I’m going to tell you what my goals for the game are and some broad strokes as far as the rules go. However, I’m going to cover two things up front, which may disappoint some of you:
- This will not just be 4e rules, classes, etc. reskinned for Modern times. Not that I have anything against this approach (check out the write-ups for Greywulf’s “Endday” campaign for an excellent way this is being done in his campaign) but it’s not the game I want to design… for one, the work is mostly done already and isn’t anything you couldn’t do at home.
- Furthermore, 4th Power will not have all the same design goals and assumptions that 4e has. This is a big one. What it means is that I’m not just going to take the same structure from 4e and make new classes/feats/skills/bad guys to fit that structure in Modern times. In that way, it’s going to be farther out than d20 Modern was to 3e. The big reason for this is that it’s not the game I want to play. Second on the list is that a 3rd party publisher is definitely going to be doing this, with a bigger budget and bigger staff, so on some level I would be competing with it. (Amethyst may be the first of these to come out.) By changing up some assumptions, I can assure that my game is going to conflict with someone else’s game, especially in case WotC ever decides to do it.
That’s all vague stuff, I know. I just wanted to get it out there. Now let’s hit some specifics:
Core Design Elements
- Create an experience inspired by and similar to D&D 4e, without being beholden to D&D concepts.
- Utilize the powers system in interesting ways that show the breadth of an exception-based design.
- Create a scalable experience to add another dimension to the Level system, such that Call of Cthulhu-style games and action movie games are all supported just by changing the level of play.
- Bring some of the simple elements of D&D 4e forward while dropping out some of the fiddly bits that don’t work as well for a separate non-D&D game.
Let’s drill down into each one.
Create an experience inspired by and similar to D&D 4e, without being beholden to D&D concepts
To put it simply, in modern games, exploring dungeons and fighting dragons isn’t a common occurrence, and the rules need to reflect that. At the same time, there are commonalities that worked for d20 Modern that will work for this. The 6 ability scores are there, as well as 4e defenses, skills, feats, and powers. Classes are there, though we don’t have Fighters and Wizards… we’ll use the same solution as d20 Modern by giving one class for each ability score.
It’s not just specific things on the character sheet either. Combat just is not the same focus. So we’re going to axe the battlemap entirely, and do combat a bit more abstractly. This solves some other problems too: there’s just not nearly as many modern minis or maps for gaming. This ripples out a bit by eliminating specific distances in play (so no more pull 3 squares, or range 30 ft +5 per level.)
Utilize the powers system in interesting ways that show the breadth of an exception-based design
Once we’ve eliminated the need for as much variety in combat powers as 4e has, we’re left with a wide open design space for what powers modern characters would have. Strong Heroes might still beat, break, and smash in a variety of ways, but a Smart Hero might be brimming with ideas, be able to dramatically jury-rig an invention out of parts lying around, and hack into the phone company with a joystick.
This means that the number of strictly attack powers can be adjusted, and eliminates the distinction between attack and utility, though the actual rate by which you gain more powers may need some adjusting.
And while we’re at it, “Encounter” is a combat-centric concept, and “Daily” is a D&D hold-over, so why don’t we just make the powers “At-Will”, “Per Scene”, and “Per Session.”
Create a scalable experience to add another dimension to the Level system, such that Call of Cthulhu-style games and action movie games are all supported just by changing the level of play
This is another big break from D&D and another reason I may be disappointing 4e/Modern fans with the rules, but here it is: I want the option to have characters that are easily killed. While I’m all in favor of making level 1 adventurers competent and not kill-able by critically hitting house cats in D&D, I want that option for modern. I want characters who can’t stand up to monsters and live without being lucky and/or clever. The idea started years ago when all the PCs were ordinary college freshman, and for this game to be a success with me it must support it.
Fortunately, I think there’s an obvious mechanic that can support this: the level mechanic (and the accompanying tiers.) 1-10, the Heroic Tier, can be for ordinary characters (with low HP.) Then at 11-20 when they can pick up a Paragon Path equivalent, you get more trained characters like secret agents, witty hackers, and influential celebrities. 21+? You can be the Goddammed Batman. That way, you can choose what level you want to start the game at depending on your preferred style of play, with a built in transition between styles if you want. This may not be a good solution for everyone, but it fits what I want to do with the game very well.
Dividing the tiers like this also means I can separate the design and work on pieces at a time. Thus, I can develop levels 1-10 independently and create a campaign setting to go with it, playtest it, and get that down before I start worrying about higher levels.
Bring some of the simple elements of D&D 4e forward while dropping out some of the fiddly bits that don’t work as well for a separate non-D&D game
The framework of 4e is quite robust, especially for the very basics. Ability checks, how skills are calculated, ability score vs. defense, saving throws, the glory that is page 42… all have their place. (Armor Class might go away, though.)
At the same time, as works with the non-combat focus, we don’t need some of the more fiddly bits anymore. Conditions and ongoing damage aren’t as necessary, though they’ll still be around as available design options, though possibly trim the condition list a bit. We also won’t, to start at least, have anything in the way of mystical abilities which eliminates some possibilities as far as powers go. At the same time, rituals are an easy add on that can be used or not depending on the style of your game.
There are still some areas that I haven’t decided on and would appreciate some input: healing surges being a big one.
The Modern Touch
That’s not a comprehensive list of what will guide me in the design, but the main ones that will guide me as I examine 4e. From the other direction, d20 Modern serves as an excellent template of what needs to be in a modern game (like pointing out that it’s better to track wealth in an abstract way instead of a concrete number of dollars.) With those two game books on either end, and these guiding principles, I have some constraints on what is going into the game.
Now, I said up front that I’m going to get your help, and I meant it. But these are the core principles of my game and so they’re not quite as negotiable as everything to come later. Feel free to weigh in anyway if there’s anything you disagree with or think I’ve missed, and if you’re still onboard, tune in next week when I’ll need a lot of help as we look at the 6 core classes and what they should be able to do.