The Road Not Taken: Alternative Directions For A Post 4e D&D

By now, the news is out that a new edition of D&D is on its way. While I’m looking forward to further playtesting on this new edition, I’m not quite ready to leave 4e behind completely. There’s still at least one more campaign I’d like to run using it.

Of course, as a game designer, I can’t help but still tinker with some of the pieces. I’ve done it before with the game, and have thought about further hacks. In the context of a new edition, there are any number of ways that an edition after 4th edition could go, while still building on the foundation of the game. While the publicly available info on the game seems to suggest that the new version will be different, hewing to ideas created in pre-4e editions, I have a few ideas for how a closer to 4e new edition could have gone. Here’s a few ideas for the D&D hackers out there.

4.G Edition

This version of D&D would use the new Gamma World as its model (minus the cards.) Attacks, damage, defenses, etc. scale at +1 per level. Damage can be swingy, but if you can get through a combat, you recover all your HP at the end. Races and classes form your two templated halves (which could be random, or not.) Your class and race each give you a primary stat, then roll 3d6 in order for the rest. You get skill bonuses from your class and race, plus a random one. Feats are also a thing of the past.

One thing that I really wish D&D would adopt that I could never see happening? Generic weapons stats: two-handed weapons do this, one-handed weapons do that, add a few attributes to customize (this one has this property, so it’s an axe!), and done.

Static Numbers, Better Powers

Another alternative would be to toss out the “plus half level” concept entirely. You get your baseline attack bonus, defenses, etc. at character creation. Feats, items, and other pieces may still tweak those bonuses. However, your powers continue to get better still, dealing more damage, inflicting harsher conditions, and generally being more powerful. HPs still increase though, so the attacks from lower level bad guys matter less and less, even if they can still hit you. Likewise, the bad guys are doing the same, so while a goblin remains equally easy to hit or miss, their relatively lower hit points means they could automatically become minions in a way after enough levels. This concept is what I was roughly going for with E11.

Powers Everywhere

One aspect of 4e that gives it the “combat-centric” reputation is how many powers are combat powers. However, there’s nothing about the powers system in and of itself that suggests this. Powers are merely templated ways to standardize how characters affect the game world, giving you range, what you roll to have it be successful, the effect, how often you can use it and so on. Thus, there’s no reason you couldn’t still use that format to open up the range of powers.

You still have your combat powers. You have utility powers as well, though the kind that aren’t usable in a fight like many of the utilities are. So more “gain a bonus to a skill” than “teleport 6 squares and get a bonus to attack.” Then you also have social powers, like a daily power that lets you find the word on the street, or a power that automatically lets you detect a lie. You could have investigative powers that point you in the right direction. All the utility style spells, something covered now by rituals, could make a comeback as powers, like your Rope Tricks and your Patternweaves and your Goodberries.

To take it further, I’d force every class to take a mix of combat and non-combat powers, the former like 4e to make sure that everyone can contribute meaningfully to a fight against monsters, the latter to round out the non-encounter portions and provide interesting flavor. The non-combat powers could even overlap interestingly with themes, the intersection of theme, race, and class giving you your powers. Currently, we have racial utilities, skill powers, theme powers and optional theme utilities. Mix those altogether and bring those to the forefront, and I think you’d have an interesting game.

Are there any major 4e hacks that you’ve experimented with?

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. Cam Banks says:

    I’d play a game like this in a heartbeat. GW rocked the templated model, and I think you’ve got your finger on the “fun to make characters” pulse.

  2. While there’s a part of me that would like to see non-combat powers on a separate track from combat powers, doesn’t that run counter to the two main “knocks” against 4e? First, that there are too many rules and, second, that players have to keep track of too many powers?

  3. Cam: Yeah, part of the fun was seeing what characters you could make in GW, and it would be really awesome if that could be applied to D&D easily.

    Michael Lee: It’s true, those are a danger. However, we already have powers (and rituals) that break the rules in a story-specific way. I’m talking about applying that methodology to powers. As for too many powers, there’d be a couple ways to deal with that. For one, not having as many powers, and then slicing those between the two kinds. For another, make sure they’re very separated, so you’re usually not looking at your non-combat powers in a fight, and vice versa.

  4. As much as I like Gamma World, I’m not sure I’d want to use the same system for a D&D game. For the feel I like in D&D, healing completely after every encounter and the complete randomness of character creation wouldn’t work well.

    The idea for static numbers and better powers would definitely interest me though.

  5. Hey!

    I love how you try to re-iterate on the powers. I also thought they were strong concept-wise; 4e just gave me the feeling that Utility powers were an euphemism for a combat-tactic that doesn’t directly do damage. That’s sad — given the huge potential of changes in 4e. Like druids having at-will transformation capabilities. That was pure bliss for roleplaying a furry character eg. But having Flight Form as Daily Utility seamed, well, underpowered.

    So I’d go full throttle with your proposals. Well… except randomness in character creation. I still don’t like it. It’s the first thing I ditch in every game that promotes it. Okay, there’s one other thing. I also liked Rituals; especially since they allowed characters to amass a huge amount of spells/knowledge, far beyond what Power would do. Also some tricks are not valuable enough to pick up as Power; but are perfectly okay to include in your Ritualist’s book 🙂

    That’s just me 🙂

    Let’s look forward to how things will be. I’m probably selling my 4e books — haven’t even used them more than once anyway.

  6. How exactly is completely healing after every encounter a foreign concept to 4E? There are very few times I can recall any PC I was playing or any of the PCs in games I ran in the system where a short rest didn’t result in those characters being virtually topped off after every encounter. In fact, most encounters as presented are only balanced if that is true. So, definitely not a huge stretch to have that be part of the system anyway.

  7. That’s actually kinda how I was thinking of doing my 4e BASIC hack before #dndnext was announced. Though the main problem is all those freaking powers…

    But I like the idea of getting rid of the +X per level bonus. I’d rather have those static and have power be based on hp and damage (at least as far as combat goes).

  8. I tried a simple hack I call “4 hit minions”, but never told the players they were minions. Basically, first created a squad of enemy soldiers at roughly 1/2 normal HP, to speed up combat and add a few baddies without people going “Oh, minions!” in metagame. Left the attacks and defenses where they should be, just trimmed HP and MM3 tweaked the damage up about 3 – 5 pts. 8th level threats originally for 10th level PCs, party of 6.

    Then, I had a copy of the same soldiers who had “4 potential hits”. Hit them once, player calls out damage, I pretend to scribble HP loss, when all I did was mark 1 tic. If they critted, I “bloodied” the baddie, too off 2 tics and he still had 2 tics left. A crit was worth 2 tics. This also kept controllers like Bladesingers from “popping” the minions and making them of no consequence.

    So in 2 battles, one with 1/2 HP soldiers and one with 4-tic minion soldiers, who had otherwise the same attacks and defenses, I will say, the minion fight went faster, the PCs did not notice much difference except that yes, “…those were 2 nice encounters we blazed through…we’re baaad!”. For me, this was a swift tool I will use again and again, to give them “more fights”, expend the same resources, and yet spend no more time in-game. It also made the players feel like they were achieving a growing success. Without those tweaks, I believe just 1 fight with a squad of soldiers would have taken over an hour. Those 2 fights took about 25 min and 15 min.

  9. John Novak says:

    The biggest hack I’ve done is re-calibrate for fewer combats. 4e seems geared for about four encounters between extended rests, and maybe 8-10 encounters per level. My storytelling pace (and my gaming group’s pace with mostly the same players under a different GM in a prior 3.5e game) just doesn’t support that. If we went strictly by the rules, the following things would happen:

    — Players would almost always have all healing surges available for each fight
    — Players would almost always have all daily powers available for each fight
    — To challenge them, I’d have to make combats much tougher
    — As a result, they’d level much faster

    To solve that, I decreed anything in the rules that recharged after an extended rest, instead recharged after one level. The one exception to this was actual Daily Powers, which they get to use twice per level. I’ve also tried to put a heavy emphasis on skill challenges.

    It’s not perfect, but it works for us much better than the official rules would. We typically get one fight per session– sometimes two, sometimes none, but often with hours or days of narrative time between them. With the emphasis I put on skill challenges, we get about five fights per level, and the balance seems about right.

  10. Great ideas Dave. I agree with the GW stuff as a quick and dirty char gen. Definitely would like to thin out and simplify the powers. I really hate that there is now a shorter shelf life of my books unless I stick w/ 4E, houserule what I want to keep and find some players tired of chasing the dragon.

    See what I did there?

  11. I’ve experimented some with the idea of ditching half level bonuses yes. It DOES work, though I certainly haven’t explored all the ramifications entirely. It certainly removes a number of oddities from the core game engine. I’d also get rid of stat boosts perhaps, but they may be OK, though they tend to drive PCs to specialize a lot.

    Another option would be getting rid of all combat feats. You’d have to fill in a few small holes that show up (how do you get proficiencies for example, but nothing too major).

    There’s certainly a huge amount of unexplored design space in the 4e engine, especially if you don’t mind making a few simple changes in the core.

  12. Interesting. Before I read the 4e books I had just assumed that the utility powers were more geared to non-combat stuff (like knock or a bard’s attitude adjustment), I was surprised to see that utility meant non-damaging. An expansion of these powers (like you suggest) is an excellent idea.

  13. Torqradio says:

    “To take it further, I’d force every class to take a mix of combat and non-combat powers, the former like 4e to make sure that everyone can contribute meaningfully to a fight against monsters, the latter to round out the non-encounter portions and provide interesting flavor. The non-combat powers could even overlap interestingly with themes, the intersection of theme, race, and class giving you your powers. Currently, we have racial utilities, skill powers, theme powers and optional theme utilities. Mix those altogether and bring those to the forefront, and I think you’d have an interesting game.”

    I couldn’t agree more. What about augmenting this idea and further blurring the disctinction between combat and non-combat powers, by adding two new Defensive numbers to AC, Fort, Dex and Will, namely INSIGHT and PERCEPTION (passive if you will). This open up a whole realm of non-combat powers and makes them interact with the characters in a way that is consistent with combat powers. Imagine the “Beguiling Charm” power, +12 vs Insight. I’d love to see that in action.

  14. James Hopper says:

    I really like your thoughts on this. While I can only play through the silliness of GW occasionally, I really like the simplified, templated rules set and would love to see a similar treatment for core D&D fantasy.

    Also, your idea about making Utility powers more non-combat oriented is one I’ve had myself. When a few of my players gripe about 4e, they often cite the lack of the non-combat-centric spells/abilities that were present in earlier versions. I miss those as well. Dump the Rituals and enhance Utility powers.

  15. The all-powers model is starting to sound like Dungeon World.

  16. I’m more than happy to tell people to go play Dungeon World 🙂

  17. Sounds awesome. I especially like the “dumping half-level plus” idea. I’ve been reading all sorts of great ideas across the blogosphere, and I can only hope WotC is able to make use of them.


  1. […] “The Game” Chalker at Critical Hits talks about the “road not taken”, another possibility for a post 4e D&D game.  In […]

  2. […] Dave “The Game” Chalker at Critical Hits (link 1, link 2) […]