*System Splicing is a series looking to break down tabletop RPGs into mechanics you can apply to other games. Splicing is about focusing on add-on mechanics rather than entire systems. These mechanics can set the tone, support the system, and improve your experience, but are not imperative to play. Through this series, you should be able to one day splice them all together into some sort of wonderfully horrific frankensystem.
Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, or 4e for short. Everyone knows about it, as even the newer tabletoppers with only a couple years under their belt have heard the infamous controversies behind it. Some would call it the rotten egg of the D&Ds, coming from the death throes of 3.5. Some would say it’s one of the main reasons Pathfinder became as popular as it is, as the shift in style and branding was so wildly different that tens of thousands of players refused to adapt and chose to stick with their ‘3.75,’ as many called Pathfinder.
4e honestly had a lot of solid ideas to it, such as the alpha version of mechanics such as dis/advantage, short/long rests, etc. You’d be surprised to hear this, but 5e adopted a lot of its ideas and mechanics from its predecessor but re-branded/re-flavored them to make it work for its iteration. 4e has some concerns with its branding—calling abilities ‘powers’ was wildly unpopular—and how it handled movement (squares vs feet), but I honestly feel that if it had shipped out with the app that was being developed for it it would have done a lot better. But, despite the deck being stacked against it, it did well and entertains its dedicated players for it to this day. I very much wish I had the opportunity to finish a full campaign with it.
Admittedly, in writing this, I’m fully prepared for at least some part of the internet to come at me with the force of a half-charged two-seater Prius. Or at least one motorized-bicycle.
But I mean how bad could it be, yeah?
Minions boil down to a simple concept: full stats, 1 hit point. They’re just as deadly as you’re used to, but the heroes are simply far more able to dispatch them than before. This allows players to feel like heroes, especially with enemies that the players initially had trouble with.
This mechanic allows players to feel overwhelmed by the numbers, but still capable of turning the tide of battle. It sells a heroic fantasy and awards players for their prestige and growth. It also helps to avoid the bad feeling of a 12th level fighter hitting and failing to kill a cr 1/2 goblin.
This helps to dramatically increase the scope of combat by pushing the heroes to participate in large (or mass) battles at higher levels. Turning enemies into minions (at least compared to the grossly overpowered players) allows dramatic tension and development.
As you might recall from my previous System Splicing article, while commonly attributed to 5e, short rests originate from D&D 4th edition. Back then, it was honestly more lax and forgiving compared to 5th edition. At the time of inception, it allowed you to expend ‘healing surges’ or a number of flat health boosts equivalent to your level/hit dice. When it was ported to 5e, healing surges were renamed, and short rests were actually increased from 5-minutes to 1-hour.
I personally prefer the 1-hour version as it allows for roleplaying interludes, giving the players an opportunity to roleplay among each other as the GM desperately comes up with explanations to handle the players’ most recent shenanigans. One of the most key elements in handling players is managing break times and limiting recovery. It allows you to make things gritty, as well as raise the stakes without having to raise the difficulty out of the norm of the level.
Rests, or interval recovery as I call it, could be added to any system that has a form of personal resource management (hit points, spell slots, exhaustion, mana, etc). Adding resting periods isn’t about making games easier, but harder. It’s easy to just allow the party to heal fully between encounters—be they combat, social, or exploration—but segmenting and stretching recovery allows the Gm to push the players into asymmetric encounters.
A pack of wolves attacking a high-level party looks a lot different when the party is exhausted and at least less than half hit points.
The Bloodied Condition
One of the biggest arguments others have against 4e is that it was heavily gamified. The bloodied condition was especially criticized for this. If you aren’t familiar with it, the bloodied condition is essentially the activation or change in abilities depending on the hp of the target as to whether they were above or below 50% of their hit points.
Personally, I find the bloodied condition is perfect for not only narratively describing when an enemy is heavily wounded but also mechanically delivering on that paradigm shift. Outside a few key exceptions, a creature just doesn’t act the same when it’s dying compared to when it isn’t. 4e had several key abilities that changed or at least shifted between being less or more effective, depending on if you or your enemy was bloodied or not.
Wolves could sense your blood and were, therefore, more effective when you were bloodied. Certain enemies did more damage when they were bloodied, mechanically simulating the adrenaline a creature wells when their backs are against the wall and they are pushed into the ‘fight’ of ‘fight or flight.’
I believe that this dynamic is incredibly narrative. It’s true to the stress of battle. In a manner, it is the one thing an adventurer will always have in common with the red dragon: they both fear death.
One element I particularly love about the bloodied condition is that it encourages Combat Phases. This is where the enemy, often a boss-like figure, changes status or tactics in a fight. These can be particularly dramatic if handled correctly. A bloodied dragon now understands they might die and therefore becomes sloppy—suddenly their immaculate AC or resistances drop as their armor was pierced, or their flame breath becomes stronger and desperate, increasing in strength but the desperation makes it easier to evade out of the way. Or perhaps a dark knight that was holding back laughs heartily, excited having finally found a worthy opponent, and so unseals their cursed sword and moves on to ONLY dueling the most worthy character to the death, and ensures their demise.
Where we’re at
Okay so. I think 4e is good.
There are certainly a handful of issues with it, as there are really good articles analyzing the reasons why those issues were problematic. I can’t move forward to defend it on a larger scale without proposing a practical thesis defense that ‘4e was actually amazing and you’re all wrong,’ or at the least ostracizing myself from the larger ttrpg community.
Personally, it’s just another game to me. Another game ready to be taken apart for its mechanics and added to whatever and wherever it’ll fit. I’d argue that 4e was remarkable in that it was Wizard of the Coast’s honest attempt to answer the Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards conundrum that’s been the bane of balance for any system with linear-class-based-progression. By turning every action into unique, class-specific abilities, 4e balanced out the wild variance between them. This allowed each individual class to shine entirely due to its flavor.
What I’m trying to say is that, despite its criticisms and notoriety, 4e had a lot of solid ideas and mechanics it played around with. It had a purpose and, for me, was the result of a development team honestly attempting to answer the issues with the previous editions. Many of the more quality Gamemasters I’m aware of, such as Matthew Colville himself, incorporate a healthy amount of 4e tactics and mechanics into their other games.
Part of the reason why I’m doing this System Splicing series is to take a more holistic approach to tabletops. At the end of the day we all want to run a good game—why do we care where we take inspiration and mechanics from? I want to take in and assimilate all manner of games and make each campaign I run into something unique. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a BAD tabletop, just an imperfect one. There’s always at least a nugget of goodness you’re able to find if you look hard enough.
Except for FATAL. There was nothing good about FATAL.
NO DON’T GOOGLE IT.
SERIOUSLY I’M WARNING YOU.
~Di, signing out
Cover art by: @NotveryAvery on Twitter