4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons Is Not The Death of Storytelling

Chris, from Dias Ex Machina Games, drops by once again with a few tips on improving storytelling under 4th Edition D&D.


In April 2008, Dias Ex Machina Games released Amethyst utilizing the 3.5 OGL, considered the standard for over a half-decade.  The book enjoyed positive buzz, glowing praise (except for that one accusing it of having a creationist agenda…irony), and initial promising returns.  Thirty days after, WOTC released 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.  To say that I despised 4th Edition at that point is putting it mildly.  By the release of the GSL on my birthday less than two months later, my group had come to the consensus to drop any further development of the 3.5 Amethyst and rush blindly into new ground with 4th Edition.  Knowing what we know now, would we have done anything different?  That’ll depend on our capacity to be psychic, of possessing some clairvoyance of events to come.  If we did possess such talents (and assuming we were stupid enough to not claim the million-dollar James Randi prize) we would have altered a few rules but the decision to keep with 4th Edition would have remained.  In our opinion, it was simply good business.  At the time, there was waning support for the older system and no evidence that anyone would pick up the slack and offer any kind of provision that would trounce the benefit of having the Dungeons and Dragons logo on our book.

Did we think it was a better system (noticing how I hadn’t commented)?  The answer is also yes.  If the system was horrible, we wouldn’t have adopted it.  I thought it was malleable and the open playing field was liberating compared to the congested system we had just left.  As for personal reasons, I can only speak as a DM.  My entire experience as a player is limited to a six-month Mekton Zeta campaign and dozens of short-term “one-offs” that never reached anything resembling a satisfactory conclusion.  As a DM, I ran three games that each lasted over a year.  I have four others that ran even further, in excess of two years.  Amethyst, if you add up each campaign, has been running nearly uninterrupted since 2002.  Strictly speaking as a DM, 4th Edition is far more beneficial.  I absolutely dreaded combat in my 3.5 game.  It placed so much on the shoulders of the DM.  Players got impatient waiting for me to figure out what to do next.  God help it if a dragon ever showed up.  In my current 4th Edition game, battles occur frequently and there is no anxiety with their inclusion.  As a DM, I love 4th Edition.  It addresses the concerns for the one member of a game group I thought had been ignored until that point, the guy running the game.

But the complaints started rolling in about how 4th Edition was killing the role-playing game–that what emerged was the antithesis of long-term character-based campaigns.  I am here to say that just ain’t true.  I have come to offer come solutions that may alleviate concerns over running a character-based long-term D&D campaign.  I am looking at you, DMs.  I’m talking to my kin.  I am here to help you storytellers out there.  (Note:  Some of these ideas have been tested but others have not.)

1)       Beef Up Your Milestones.  After two encounters pass, you gain an action point.  This is called a milestone.  Not much else happens (you can also reset one weapon power).  I say keep it going.  I suggest having a milestone allow a player to reset one daily power (increasing to two powers at paragon and three at epic).  Further, a milestone also allows a player to regenerate a quarter of his healing surges.  You can then add homebrew rules that removes extended rests completely from the game (or only offer it under special circumstances, like at a castle or at an inn).
2)      Tokens.  Here is an interesting alternate to the above rule, and something reminiscent to you Warmachine players.  Replace action points with tokens.  Perhaps have the value random (like 1d4) for each milestone, perhaps with +1 and +2 boosts for paragon and epic or base it off of your primary attack attribute  (thought that may result in a higher value).  Use a token to cook off one of the following actions:  A) Reset one daily power (but not activate it); B) Regenerate one healing surge; C) Gain one action; D) Gain an attack boost or a damage boost to your next attack/hit.
3)      Not Always About the Fighting.  You can allow certain characters to drop a daily attack power and replace it with another utility power (the utility can be a daily, encounter, or at-will).  Obviously, they character must be at the appropriate level to drop a daily and acquire another utility.
4)      Noncombat powers. If you want to create homebrew powers that attack but inflict no damage, it’s a fairly easy process.  You could simply drop the damage and keep any other effects the power inflicts.  Fluff will also need to be changed as well.  As a balance, I would definitely make such non-damaging attack powers move actions (once again, depending on the specifics of the power).  If the PC remains still, they can still cook off a damaging attack power if it still suits them.  Additionally, I would make all encounter powers reliable so that such a non-damaging power is not wasted.
5)      Swap out your Attributes: In the old game, a fighter could be Dexterity based as long as you employed the right combination of weapons and feats (even these weren’t entirely necessary).  If a player can offer a reason to swap out his primary attribute (like Strength for Dexterity), I’d say let him.  This is no more unbalanced than anything else that has emerged from WOTC.  If you wish to impost a limitation, you can add that such a player would need to use his Intelligence  for his AC instead of Dexterity.  You could extend this to make a Wisdom wizard or a Constitution fighter as well.  Such swapping could be regional, allowing players to create customized back stories to their characters to explain it.
6)      Make the Epic Epic:  On those rare occasions where you want to throw down a huge battle, like those climactic end-of-campaign confrontations where lives are lost and kings are made, increase the number of minions.  If minions add up to more than half the total value of the encounter, double the number of those minions, rendering them half XP for the building of the encounter.  In addition, stack multiple encounters back-to-back.  The time between battles would hardly be considered a short rest but for the sake of the epic conflict, let’s assume it is.  I did this a lot before implementing Rule 1.
7)      Missed Opportunities: Hate it when you miss with an encounter?  I would suggest adding a rule where you can re-use any previously activated encounter power in the same encounter by using an action point to do so.  This would work along with any other effects involving action points.

Will all these work for you?   Maybe not.  When you are running a long-term campaign, you may not want to stack all your battles in one day.  I tried that for a few months.  After a while, it just doesn’t hold water.  As for the non-damaging powers, you’re probably wondering about critical hits.  Waste of a roll, you might think.  Not necessarily.  If you score a critical hit with a non-damaging power, perhaps your next attack roll on the same target using a similar power gains a +4 power bonus.  There are always solutions.  Each game/campaign is unique.  It’s up to the highest authority, the DM, to make these calls.


Dias Ex Machina Games



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

7 thoughts on “4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons Is Not The Death of Storytelling

  • October 11, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    Good article, but it still leaves the question, Why do all this work to make The 4e DmD MMOffRPG more palatable? I already have most of this in other Editions.

    No… what TSEWoTCHasbro did is take a huge opportunity to take a classic RPG (*the* classic RPG) and clean it up for a new edition, taking the core of OD&D and integrating the best of th those great ideas from each of the following editions…. while getting rid of the misteps.

    Unfortunately whuile 3.X still bore some small resemblance to the original, what TSEWoTCHasbro instead choose to do with 4th ed is create and entirely new game, and then slap the old branding on it, desperately using known classic D&D trappings (red box?) to dress up what is intrinsically a new combat-based game that bears only a cosmetic resemblance to the RPG “wheel” they’re trying to “reinvent.”

    (note: And now they’ve done it with Gamma World as well. I suppose Top Secret is next on the list)

    Unfortunately, where 3rd nudged older players away from the brand, 4th shoved them out the door, myself included. I haven’t bought a TSR product since the whole “It’s so cool you’ll never think about the old stuff ever again” gorilla marketing campaign before 3rd. 4th could have been a chance to recover us, but instead lost most of us Old Guard completely.

    I’m looking forward to the day that a real new edition comes out, from someone other than WoTCHasbro. Until then, I still have my old stuff and am openly ready to teach anyone who’ll show about what D&D is.

  • October 11, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    While I agree with the premise that 4E is fine for storytelling, this post seems to be more about mechanical tips to make the game more like how you want it, and it’s not really clear how they tie into better storytelling. To me it’s more a matter of better understanding how to use the tools the game includes, putting skill challenges and encounters and such in the right places without

    Kenneth, although your bizarre nicknames are novel, the “4E isn’t real D&D” fallacy is a tired cliche. I genuinely hope that you keep enjoying the game that you love, but it really wasn’t some betrayal that Heinsoo and Mearls and company put together what they felt was the best new edition they could come up with, even if it’s not to your tastes.

  • October 11, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    I like some of the rules you suggested, actually a couple of them are not unlike house rules I’ve had in the past. However, they don’t really have much to do with story telling. Actually, there is a degree of irony about your post – 4E detractors frequently proclaim it kills storytelling by equating metagame concepts to storytelling ones and here you are doing the same thing from the other side.

  • October 11, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    A common complaint dealing with 4th Edition is that it doesn’t work well with long-term games. Dungeons are infrequent and days could pass between battles, thus allowing players full access to all their powers for every encounter. The article is meant to offer homebrew ideas for those games that don’t always find themselves in dungeons. Additionally, it also offers ways to create classes that are not always combat-based or classes that are more customizable. I don’t consider 4E as using metagame concepts to emulate storytelling…if so, then nearly every game can be considered guilty of this. The article was written from experience as one running an extremely long-term game and the issues I have discovered with 4th Edition while doing so. These have been the ideas I have offered, tested, and used.

    • October 12, 2010 at 9:28 pm

      I think you missed The Red DM’s point that your article has little to do with incorporating Storytelling elements into D&D 4th edition, even though the name of the article suggests that is what you’re here to talk about. If the system needs to be House-Ruled in order for storytelling to be prevalent, then I would say that essentially shows that the game is, as written, a poor theater for story-based gaming.

      Combat can be a part of storytelling, that’s true, and a good place to start an article about storytelling elements in 4th edition would be to highlight ways in which storytelling can enhance the rules of the game. You could also show ways in which the opposite is true, how the rules can enhance storytelling–I think that was your intention, but the rules changes you listed don’t so much facilitate storytelling so much as reduce the story down to more rules, which is not what D&D 4th edition needs if you want to run the game as a story rather than a battle simulation. Use the existing rules and show ways in which storytelling can be weaved into them, around them, and possibly through them (which is where the house rules come in).

  • October 19, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    I like the article and think that House Rules are the cornerstone that a good DM can use to tailor his campaign to his players. Really there is no wrong way to play D&D, as long as your player are enjoying the game, you are doing it right.

    I really think that a poor DM will only see 4E D&D as more a tactics based miniatures game, but a good DM will take that, and expand on it, adding flavor and fleshing out the rules so that it is a fantastic skeleton to a great role playing game. For the record I agree with Kenneth G, 3rd Edition did more harm than good for the old guard style players. I actually skipped the entire edition, but 4th has rejuvenated me on the game and I have groups of young players loving the game, and my old school style of playing it. We have slow advancement (I toss out the xp and do it myself, 1 year of playing and groups that have played 12 to 15 sessions have just scratched 2nd level for thier characters) Slow advancement helps players pour character and personality into thier characters, they place more value on good items they find, and learn to value thier achievements.

    I love the 4E game and what it is doing for D&D in my area. One thing that would really satisfy me as an old school DM would be if they could help bring back more Greyhawk content. All of my games still take place in Greyhawk but it would be great if they provided some 4E support for what I think is the greatest of the D&D settings.

    Anyhow, good article.


  • November 13, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Nice article Chris, with some interesting houserules, but I agree with Red DM. Even though I never believed that 4E prevented RPing in any way, I do believe that WotC’s overriding focus on “combat balance” has made changing mechanics one of the most common proposals for improving the perceived problem of RP in 4E.

    Rob, I love Greyhawk as well, but would much rather see an actually new, interesting and creative setting designed with 4E in mind from the ground up, rather than yet another ret-con of an older setting. Just my thoughts.

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