Gears of Ruin: Creating PC-specific Clockwork Mechanics.

My new Gears of Ruin Clockwork D&D 4e campaign starts as soon as the holidays are over (with a pre-campaign session right before).

I’ve spoken a bit about what the setting would be.  I’m moving away from my traditional fantasy world and creating a new one based on Clockwork Fantasy tropes (Girl Genius, Iron Kingdoms, Shawn Gaston’s Clockworks, etc) and other sources I’m shamelessly stealing from (Dune, Eberron, Myazaki’s Castle in the Sky).

One of the challenge I found myself facing was finding a way to convey clockwork fantasy without falling in typical setting design pitfalls.  The first one is thinking that ‘fluff’ alone can convey your setting’s feeling to your players.  If I tell everyone “okay, now magic needs Clockworks so you’re stuff is all made of clockwork” and left it at that… the players would likely forget about it and the game would veer back to a vanilla 4e campaign.

On the other hand, if I sat down and started designing rules for clockwork items and wrote  pages after pages of items and powers… I’d be likely spending too much time on crunch and getting lost in the details.

And I know that many of you get easily lost in the details.

As I sat trying to figure out how to design just enough fluff  and crunch to get my campaign concept off the ground, I recalled the basic trick of campaign design: Start small and grow outwards as the story unfolds.  Then I recalled a 4e specific lesson: “You don’t need any mechanics for your monsters, just make up clockwork-like powers.”  So I only needed new mechanics for PCs… and I didn’t need many, one should suffice to nail the feeling and we’d grow from there if needed.

The setting’s elements (AKA Fluff )

I decided to focus on one aspect of technology in my new campaign and work from there.  It all started with my main ‘what-if’ questions:

What if gears could help magic like it does for moving weights in our world?

What if clockwork was used to enhance magic, bringing it up to par with the standard D&D world?

In Gears of Ruin, the ability to tap into the world’s magic has been severely limited due to the outcome of the divine/primordial war.  The default assumption then is that access to powers over those of level 1 requires PCs to use clockwork ‘helpers’.

Of course, some cool exceptions will crop up, like PC s powered directly by the Elemental Chaos, but I’m getting ahead of myself .

There would be 4 types of clockwork machinery that would see use in the campaign:

  • The Watch(™):  An armored armband that acts as a catalyst between the character and their Arcane, Primal or Divine power source (I plan to leave Martial and Psionic out of the clockwork equation).  Without it, the use of powers would be limited.
  • Implements and Magic Items: Will feature little cogs and gears that channel the required magical energy to grant abilities, bonuses and powers.
  • Technology and Transportation: airships, firearms (re-skinned ranged weapons) plus any gadgets I think would be cool (Flash lights, Grappling Hook guns, Para sails, etc).

The way I pictured clockwork helping magic was that each ‘machine’ would be powered by a bound elemental whose energy and link to the Elemental Chaos acts as a catalyst for the device (Thanks to David Pulver’s work on Technmomancer for the idea).  I decided not to explain it any further, I had the minimum required for what I needed for my stories and mechanics.

Grinding Crunch!

As I worked out the technology fluff,  I made a cardinal rule for this campaign.  I would not attack/destroy any piece of equipment that would rob the PCs of their class abilities.  That means that I would not destroy the watch and I won’t likely create powers that destroy clockwork magic items (unless it’s as a Rust Monster analogue).

However, as I made the rule, I had another ‘what if’…

What if the PCs could bust some of their clockwork equipment, freeing the trapped elemental in a burst of savage energy, as a last-ditch weapon?

My PC-specific  mechanic was born.

Break Time!

All magic items with the clockwork keyword have an extra power:

Power (Daily); Standard Action.  Make a Rule 42 attack (single/blast/ranged/area) (Normal/Limited damage) (optional: Forced Movement/Ongoing/Status effect) based on item level.  Item loses all non-Enhancement powers until repaired.

I know this makes little sense but it’s my personal template for all improvised attacks.  I usually start with an attack with a single target, dealing high Limited-Damage (See page 42 of the DMG) using the items’ level to determine damage.  I then adjudicate damage based on what the player wants to do. Increasing range, number of targets and adding effects to the attack lead to lower damage.

For example, if a  player wanted to cause a blast 3 of cold damage that slowed targets, I would probably use low or medium normal damage expression and I would also likely make the attack vs Reflex,  using the PCs’ attack bonus.

Rule 42 is my friend!

If this rule is too confusing, have a look at page page 7 of The Plane Below when it comes out. That’s another example of improvised elemental attack.

Oh and the party would have a mechanic that would repair broken items at each extended rest.  Depending on the type of campaign the player and I settle upon, I may put a price on repairs or I may assume that they always have the required resources to do it.

So, do you think this mechanic is going to fly?  Do you have other ideas for a cool 4e Clockwork game (I’m not calling it steampunk because there will be very little steam)


  1. Would it be too limiting to your players if you made power sources come from a specific gear element? For example, Arcane watches are powered by Fire, Primal by Earth, and Divine by Water and Psionic by Air?


  2. @Raevhen: Given that now elementals are almost always made up of more than one element, I planned to allow players to decide the damage type dealt upon busting open an item. Had I done this in 3e, I’d likely would have done as you proposed.

  3. When I think clockwork I think in tinkering, jury-rigging and mishaps. All clockwork items and clockwork power can be tinkered to do higher damage, extra area, different damage type, extra conditions, things like that. Every clockwork item/power has a mishap chance, that grows with each tinkering. When a mishap occurs, something bad/weird happens, and now each time the item/power is activated, he has a side effect(damage/condition to the user, random type, less damage) until fixed. You can jury-rig the item, but the next mishap will be greater.

  4. What popped into my head was “regular as clockwork”, ie monster attacks that turn up every x rounds. You could have a power that hits like a brick lorry, scaring the pants off the PCs and give them an easy perception to see that it will return in precisely two rounds. Fight or flee..?
    .-= Tim Noyce´s last blog ..What it is all about =-.

  5. Tim: Imagine a fight in the Machine room of an Aircraft-Carrier-Sized Airship Nacelle. I could totally see Pistons that crush PCs and Monsters mercilessly ever 2 rounds. Thus, after tasting it once or twice, the PCs could push monsters in the Piston’s area and get extra bonus damage.

    Great idea, thanks!

  6. When I think steampunk I always think of the Theme “The Price of Power.” It runs through several Steampunk like storys and settings: Full Metal Alchemist, The Time Machine, and Hell Boy to name a few. I would add some villains who start adding clock work to their body who can overload themselves for even more extreme effects, at the cost of something more dear.
    .-= doomdreamer´s last blog ..Outlines! =-.

  7. To tag onto what Tim suggested, instead of recharge rolls for monster powers just set a time interval, usually with some sort of perceivable indicator.

    If you were going for straight out fantasy instead of a real-world analog, instead of firearms have a variety of clockwork crossbows as your ranged weapons.

    Also, will you have clockwork familiars? Think of the owl from the old Clash of the Titans movie. Also you could have clockwork war-forged, either as a PC option or an NPC/monster race.
    .-= Oz´s last blog ..Deathly Hallows Teaser =-.

  8. For monsters, I will give myself full freedom without creating bulky mechanics.

    I like the ‘recharge at a regular interval’ idea. I could take full control of monster recharge powers and I could maybe allow PCs with Thievery a way to deactivate the power with a minor/move or standard check.

    I’ll also think about Balard’s suggestion… letting PCs tinker with their gear for temporary boosts, at the risk of busting the item could be interesting… I’ll see what my players think of that… in fact let me get Yan… :)

  9. I like where you’re going. It is really important to add house rules in games like this so you feel like you’re actually in a different setting, not just playing a rethemed Monopoly.

    While you may not attack/destroy player gears, you should think about if you’re going to stop your players from doing that. You could use called shots on clockwork to not do damage, but to slow down a creature’s regen power or cause other status effects. Perhaps on a critical, the extra damage comes from hitting a clockwork component and releasing some of the elemental. (like slashing a cybernetic arm and seeing sparks and a small explosion a few seconds later) This would work well for rethemed zombies- mindless clockwork creatures that attack everyone to devour their elemental energies or incorporate their clockwork items into themselves. On a critical, you shatter their central gear and the whole thing falls apart or explodes. Exploding gears are also great for response attacks. (ie. attack when first bloodied, deathstrike, etc.)

  10. I could easily see modification done to weapons (or the powers they fuel) with some drawback added.

    However allowing freeform tweeks to powers while maintain a minimum of balance is not as evident.

    Here are a few idea of costs that could added to gain some additional benefits from a power/item:

    -Spending another non-at-will power ‘slot’ of the same type.
    -Gaining a new status effect after using the effect. (i.e. -5 to all defense (save ends), immobilized (save ends))
    -Spending HP or Healing Surges (loss of 1 healing surge or 25% of HP)

    The hard part is adjudicating what a boost is worth and note them as you go. Obviously gaining a reduced defense is not as high a price for a range guy then for a melee one.

  11. See, I’d do it slightly differently. I would tend to give all players an extra clockwork-keyed encounter power that would allow them to tweak on of their clockwork-related powers.

    The Tweak would be stuff that works with trying to coax an elemental to ‘do more’. However, instead of describing a clear cost upfront, the use of the power would make the item more likely to fail in a spectacular way during the fight. If they roll a 1 with the ‘tweaked’ item during the fight, the DM is free to Mouse Guard it, including triggering the ‘Escaped Elemental’ effect.

    If the power the PCs wants to coax from the item is especially powerful and above the ‘power curve’ then I’d say ‘Sure, but now whenever you fail a check for the rest of the encounter, the item may play tricks on you or explode’

    That would be simpler mechanically speaking and let the burden of adjudicating it to the DM. As is usually the case, I would inform the Player of the likely outcome of failure before they use their item.

    But this is just another way to look at it… Yan’s approach or mine are, in my eyes, equivalent… they just reflect different play styles.

  12. Baldmeistr says:

    I second Arcade’s concern, as it was definitely the first thing I thought of: deciding never to attack a PC’s clockwork items (watch, etc.) seems very–dare I say it?–artificial. For instance, what happens when the PCs are captured? The very first thing any sensible enemy would do would be to remove their gear… all of it. Unless there’s a reason in the logic of the gameworld not to do a thing, someone is going to try it… and your failure to exploit an obvious loophole will detract from the verisimilitude of the gaming experience.

    That’s not to say you haven’t created something stupendously cool, because I’d be pumped to play in this setting. And you seem to be an excellent DM. But a little bit of setting-logic seems necessary to fix this.

    – The watch is bound to a character, either physically or spiritually. I.e., will explode violently if tampered with.
    – Characters who are conduits for magic are kind of like Cyclops of the X-Men: they can’t control it. The clockwork acts as the ruby visor, and lets them keep a lid on their powers. Removing the watch would be very, very dangerous. (Of course, this leads to potential PC exploitation… but it seems a very interesting Faustian bargain–especially if the watch cannot easily be put back on!) This also could lead to very interesting scenes where the PCs find a bunch of magic users all hooked up to some big clockwork MacGuffin, bound there by Evil McBadderson. There are no watches in sight… how do they rescue these people?
    – Watches all come with built-in defense mechanisms: whoever damages one without disabling it takes the Break Time attack that you list above. Like #1, but more specific (and less likely to get your PCs blown up). You run the risk here of villains sending some ignorant mook to remove a PC’s watch, though depending on their ubiquity it might be realistically hard to find someone willing to do that.

    Anyway, enough outta me. Hope these ideas help make your campaign richer. I look forward to hearing more about it!

  13. Don’t make somethin wrong happens in a 1, this way they always misses. Make it on a 5 or 9. This way sometimes they will hit and the things go BOOON!
    .-= balard´s last blog ..Itens mágicos em D&D =-.

  14. @Baldmeistr: See, I missed that arcade’s comment was a concern because it isin’t one for me.

    I hear what you are both saying… and I would agree, if I was going to publish the campaign. Holes in ‘logic’ are only important if the players care about it… which I’m fairly certain they don’t.

    The ‘don’t attack gear’ is, as you put it a purely artificial conceit that I put into place to increase the trust between my players and myself that I will not go and screw them over on something that is dreadfully easy to do.

    Now, that doesn’t mean I won’t play the implied setting. If the PCs are captured, they would likely get their watches confiscated… but I would also not play an escape scenario with conventional encounter rules, I’d likely make a skill challenge that would end with the players having their watches back and outside the prison.

    That being said… the idea that PCs are actually the complete opposite of the rest of the denizens of this world… that they actually are fonts of that Elemental Chaos energy that the world lacks is absolutely brilliant. As you say, it makes the ‘don’t touch that watch’ conceit more credible.

  15. Actually, I don’t have a problem with the monsters not attacking/stealing clockwork. I just didn’t know what you were going to do if a player tried to do attack an opponent’s clockwork. I mean, the golden rule is say “yes” right? Really, though, this isn’t any different than any other called shot and that’s not part of the game’s rules right now. In 4E, you don’t have the option of sundering weapons, striking the eyes, or slicing a hamstring. Or rather, those are simulated with feats, powers and criticals. Attacking clockwork items would be the same thing, so I don’t think there’s any issue there at all.

  16. @Arcade: One of my design goals is to invent monsters that are at the edge of Monster and Trap mechanics. I initially envisioned clockwork monsters that PCs trained in Theivery could deactivate during combat but I realize that it would create an unfair advantage to trained ‘thieves’

    But today’s discussion brings a great alternative, what if PCs could knock rechargable powers out? Or rather? What if clockwork monsters had more powerful at-will attacks that could be knocked out of sync by PC attacks (making them rechargable instead)?

    I’ll think about this.

  17. Doomdreamer says:

    I would play more with action points since I don’t think they do anything fantastic other then being boots of speed with 1 charge. You should let PCs blow and action point to do something fantastic with the clockwork devices. Honestly, action points are awesome but need more then “make another attack roll and fail.” Not much action there.

  18. Not to be a negative nancy here but…

    I’m reading the clockwork flavors/themes/crunch and I just don’t really understand them.

    Now, I do understand clockwork settings/steampunk. I’m pretty into that whole fashion/literary/rpg movement and I have run quite a few things as such myself.

    But the rationalization for this watch technology and these powers just strike me as strange. What does a watch have to do with dealing damage?

    Okay, sure, watches lead to bombs which leads to mad-bomber scenarios common to the setting, but this doesn’t really have any connection to that.

    The point of clockwork and steampunk/etc. is to bring an end to the notion of material scarcity. Gears/watchs/clocks/etc. are all throw away objects. If they blow up, you replace it with a new one made at the factory.

    Putting elementals into watches and having them deal damage and connecting them to souls…just seems rather arbitrary and belabored. The metaphors and imagery associated with clockwork and mechanics- complex machinery heralding the industrial age- simply don’t jive with the more spiritual tone you seem to be trying to impart upon them.

    Don’t feel obligated to do anything (It’s your game) but here’s what I’d do..
    Clockwork and other mechanical devices represents a HUMAN transition. It’s the triumph of intellect having dominion over physical strength. Suddenly people with knowledge are capable of doing things only what large groups of strong healthy expert laborers could do.
    This is when the scientist became MORE important to war than the soldier.

    This in some way conflicts with D&D because magic already does this to a large degree. Eberron substitutes magic for machine power in this manner, it works well. You need to explain why magic never replaced physical labor. Usually this is easy since, thematically magic deals more with soul and religion, and is unique, and not replaceable.

    It’s also an issue of DEHUMANIZATION when the job of men is replaced by steel, wood and grease. The soldier is merely a warm body for holding the gun.

    I think without some sort of overall, fundamental theme that resonates into social/moral bounds, your clockwork idea is a bit…lacking. It’s just fancy fluff that people wind up forgetting about.

    Flavor wise, I would give everyone clockwork oriented equipment. NPCs, monsters, whatever. It would be the talk of the town. You might have clockwork-lazysusans in bars, or a postal service based on clockwork horses. Who knows.

    Crunch wise, I would make clockwork equipment useful, but extremely prone to failure. A bomb may or may not go off if you make a bad skill check. Clock work weapons jam and fail dramatically on a roll of a one. Clockwork equipment would work like potions; extremely disposable, useful in certain situations, and carried and used universally by anything you’d stick a sword in.

    Forgive my criticisms, but I had a real difficultly understanding the themes and motivations presented in this post. If you feel your stuff as it is works fine, don’t let me dissuade you!
    .-= TarlSS´s last blog ..Star Wars:Restitution =-.

  19. I would be a petty person if I presented my thoughts to the world and then balked at the first sign of disagreement.

    My creative process in designing a setting start from the elements of the game, in this case 4e’s highly quirky mechanics (encounter power anyone?).

    Then I make a decision about how much upfront design work I want to put in that new setting to make it come alive. In my case: Low, I have other things to do with my free time.

    Then I launched into a series of What-if questions which I answered keeping in mind the concepts of the game I wanted to respect (don’t screw with player powers, add one key mechanic to rope players in, add more later in the campaing, etc).

    The alternative you propose is one way of seeing it which, while valid, doesn’t meet my design goals. And I know we’re both cool with that.

    If you strip all extraneous elements from the game, you go back to the one thing I find paramount in what I want to play that campaign.

    Clockwork technology is a crutch to allow living things (and mechanicals) to tap into the weakened magical energies of a Dying world.

    Clockwork is a lever to lift the unliftable. I build everything else up from that concept.

    It’s a widely different starting block than your proposed setting, both going in different direction. We would likely write 2 widely different Clockpunk novels because different elements are crucial to the genre for us.

    Peace out!

  20. I also just realized something. I’m not trying to emulate a genre… Not being versed in Clockwork Fantasy/Steampunk litterature, I decided to freely design a setting and borrowed the elements I want to explore from the genre .

    So this is not going to be a Technology vs Magic campaign. It’s not going to explore industrialism and pseudo-Victorian values in a world where magic exists. I really don’t care about what it ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to be. I care about what it will be.


  21. Oh man, ditch horses as the standard mounts. Replace them with clockwork motorcycles. I can’t advocate motorcycles enough. It does’t go “VROOM,” it goes “TICKTICKTICKTICKTICK” really loud. WHO WOULD NOT WANT THIS?

    Also, encourage PCs to reskin weapons to taste. I played a two-weapon fighter with clock hands standing in for a longsword-shortsword combination, and it was incredible. I’m sure that more can be done with this. I half expected at any time that a super-powerful Second Hand would turn up on some adventure as an alternate weapon for my character. Also a pendulum, or a giant pocketwatch on a chain would have felt pretty cool.

    A good enemy that just feels really right in a steampunk type of setting is a big mechanical nutcracker that can bite off heads. Nutcrackers have the right kind of feel for clockwork, and are terrifying. They are terrifying in appearance, and their jaws are fearsome.

    Also, definitely a great place to look for inspiration for stuff is Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketchbooks!

    I just did a really long Steampunk campaign and it was incredible, so sorry for getting all excited here. I am trying to hold myself back from telling you how to do absolutely everything.

    Fortunately, I am able to narrow it down to just these few suggestions, because mine was more steam-centric, and also had mutants, and most of the major NPCs were figures from Victorian literature.

  22. Also, I’m sorry, but if your male characters aren’t growing crazy whiskers like civil war mustaches or mutton chops, THEY AREN’T PLAYING THE GAME RIGHT. It is impossible for a world of clockwork to exist without completely awesome facial hair. It is not a thing that happens.

  23. I liked Oz’s idea of the clockwork familiars – and I agree with his idea for clockwork crossbows – but there could easily be elemental clockwork firearms as well, but should probably be considered Superior Weapons, and require a Feat to use – perhaps powered by a little baby elemental trapped in the gears?
    .-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..News in Review for Dec 7 to Dec 13 2009 =-.