Ten Things You Can Do In Fourth Edition

….. that you couldn’t do in Third Edition (easily).

1. Larger scale battles

I’ve lost count of the number of supposedly climactic battles I’ve run in 3e that consisted of the adventurers against five or fewer foes. That’s great if you’re going for the cinematic style of heroes against the villain, alone and at his dialoguing best. It’s less good however if you’re aiming more for a Conanesque climax with the body-count rising until the heroes heads are touching the ceiling.

3e doesn’t do battles with eight or more foes very well at all. It’s all too easy for battles to become a GM’s logistical nightmare, especially at higher levels when there’s multiple durations and conditions to track. Add in 3e’s piss-poor Challenge Rating and Encounter Level system and it’s a recipe for GM meltdown when planning, running and even calculating XP at the end. Every GM worth his salt has worked out a system to help or dropped in house rules along the line, and there’s no shortage of GM advice online to help handle larger-scale encounters. Using battlemats and minis helps, as does switching to a simpler rules-set such as D&D Minis, but they’re only stopgap solutions.

The fact remains – 4e does it better.

We’re talking larger scale battles here, not what I’d consider large-scale battles as such. 4e probably hits it’s limit with 40 combatants, as compared to 3e’s 10 or 15. The minion rules – stolen shamelessly and brilliantly from Mutants & Masterminds – make the GM’s life considerably easier.

As an aside – I wrote about using Minions rules and how to handle larger battles in Third Edition back in October 2007 in A thousand gleaming spears on Save or Die. Which will be back. Eventually. Promise!

2. Encounter Building right at the game table

Let’s say the adventurers turn left instead of right, heading off into the forest rather than following the path. That’s happened to you too, right?

In either edition, it’s time to crack open the Monster Manual.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you’ve decided to use Kobolds. They’re poster children for low-level D&D encounters, and I love forest-dwelling Kobolds :) The party is average 2nd level and there’s five players.

In Third Edition, they’re CR 1/4 Yeh. Fractions. Ugh! You’re at the game table and the players are looking at you. Quick – how many kobolds would make up a fair encounter? How could you customize them? How about adding other things into the mix? What if you want to add a Dire Weasel to teach the players a lesson? That’s CR 2. How much XP will you award? What if one of the Kobolds is the leader and should be Advanced? Feeling the meltdown yet?

In this particular set-up there is one very good solution – Myth Merchant Press’ Fantasy Fiends: Kobolds!. It’s just $2.50, worth every penny and brings 4e style and stats right to your Third Edition Kobold strewn doorstep. Expect a full review Real Soon!

Now it’s the turn of Fourth Edition.

Five 2nd level adventurers gives me (125 * 5) 625XP worth of monsters to play with. I’ll take 2 Kobold Skirmishers (200), 4 Kobold Minions (100), 1 Kobold Wyrmpriest (150) for 450XP. As there’s no Dire Weasel in the 4e MM, I’ll use the stats for a Hyena for another 125. That’s 575XP – near enough, let’s play!

Any questions?

Incidentally, shame on you Wizards’ for removing Animals from the Monster Manual. Give me Animals and a Dire template, and I’ll be a happy bunny. A Happy Dire Bunny, even. I know I’m not the only GM to have afflicted my players with a Dire Rhea :D

3. Advanced monsters

In a similar vein, advancing monsters in 3e is a pain in the ass. Even something as simple as advancing a Kobold in the example above is something do be done away from the gametable. With a calculator. Whilst inebriated.

I’m pretty sure there’s no shortage of tools out there in Netland to help with this task, but I’m TLTG (too lazy to google) right now. All things being equal, there’ll be no shortage of the same for 4e, Real Soon. Just wait 2 minutes and Asmor will have whipped one up over his lunch break or somethin’.

In the meantime though, here’s what the 4e DMG has to say about increasing a Monster’s level:

Increasing or Decreasing Level
Boosting a monster’s level is easy. Just increase its attack rolls, defenses, and AC by 1 for every level you add. For every two levels, increase the damage it deals with its attacks by 1. The monster also gains extra hit points at each level, based on its role (see the “Monster Statistics by role” table on page 184).
This process works best for adjusting a monster’s level up to five higher or lower. Beyond that, the monster changes so much that you’d do better to start with another creature of the desired role and level range.

That’s it. All of it. Simple. Brilliant.

In a similar vein, adding Classes to monsters is equally trivial. In Third Edition, giving a monster Class levels took about the same amount of time as generating a character – because that’s exaclty what you do. This is theoretically good, but pointless as this critter is going to be around for one or two adventures at most – and most likely only last a single combat.

Let’s say I decide to make that Kobold Wyrmpriest a Paladin of Bane. I crack open the DMG to page 183, jot down the changes to the stats and his new Powers, and he’s ready to play. As he’s now an Elite monster, he’s worth 300XP rather than 150, bumping the XP total for the encounter to 725. It’s gonna be a tough fight! That’ll teach ‘em. Heh.

4. Henchmen

Henchmen and Retainers were the staple of Classic D&D. This was back in the day when adventurers had single digit Hit Points and they needed all the help they could get. Henchmen provided additional firepower, and were also a handy source of replacement characters when the Magic-User bites the dust.

Fast forward to 3e, and the last thing a GM wants to mess about with are henchmen. The party is already a walking menagerie with it’s Animal Companions, Familiars, Druid-in-Bear-form and all the rest. Henchmen were just too much hassle, so went unused and unloved to role-playing heaven.

Not so in 4e. Here’s something I’ve learned and used to great effect: encourage the players to take henchmen in 4e. Then – and here’s the sneaky bit – make ’em Minions :D

I used the Retainers rules and pricing from page 132 of the D&D Cyclopedia (praise it’s holy name). A Retainer’s wages are only 1gp/month, but there’s a 100gp bond to be paid to the family if he or she dies while on duty.

This means it’s in the player’s financial interest to keep this guy alive – and he’s a Minion! Whilst they’ll love having additional allies on the table (especially those classes with Ally boosting Powers), these Henchmen have to be treating with respect. Waste ‘em, and they’re gone along with your hard fought cash. They’ll struggle to hire more Henchmen in future – word travels fast. The best tactic is to arm them with crossbows and keep them at the back guarding the horses. As with Classic D&D, if one of the characters does happen to bite dust, you’ve a ready supply of replacements as Hans Noname heriocally steps into the breach to guard his fallen comrade. Voila – one new PC, primed and ready.

5. Making Monsters

See point 3 about 3rd Edition, then double it. Monster Making in 3e is hard. Fun, but hard. 3e has an obsession with math and balance that’s bordering on the….. ummmm…. mathematically obsessive. You know you’re a Harcore GM when you’ve made your very own 3e Monster, and it’s worked how you expected in play.

Wayback in the mists of time I created a new critter, jokingly called a Flameton. It’s a skeleton of pure flame, it’s “bones” everburning intangible fire, the ribcage an arcing mesh of flame. Creating it in 3e took about an hour as I considered whether such a beastie was a Construct, Undead, Outsider, Elemental or even Ooze – in part, it was all of the above – then put together the stats, skills and abilities from the charts and table. As I said, fun, but hard.

If I made the same monster in 4e, I’d start with a Level 3 Soldier, give him Resist Fire and add Powers based around his flaming form. That’s the work of 10 minutes tops and nowhere near as scary a prospect. Even newbie GMs can start monster building now!

That’ll do for now. Coming up: Part Two, with number 6, and the numbers after 6.

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