4th Edition and the Giant Robot–The Modern Dilemma

Around the same time the GSL was being promised in 2008, the wizards of western shores had in fact promised two game system licenses.  One was to be the D&D system license and the second, dubbed the 4E GSL, due for release in early 2009 (this has also been described as anecdotal).  No one had any idea what this second GSL entailed was but a lot of us had made assumptions.

4Th Edition Modern.

My fanatical push to complete Amethyst that year was directly connected with the possibility that 4th Edition would emerge as our primary competition.  Then the economy started to sag, dogs and cats started living together, and Amethyst was delayed until 2009.  The facts around 4th Edition Modern turned into rumors, than into conjecture.  As Amethyst was pushed further back to 2010, I realized I was competing with a non-existent product.  At some point in the intervening two years, someone at Wizards had closed the book on 4th Edition Modern, if it ever existed at all.

(Deadpan) Oh, lucky me.

Some suspected that the lack of significant returns from the original D20 Modern was the reason for this.  Other people accused the 4E system itself as being incompatible with modern or science fiction games.  Amethyst was the first, a bridge setting merging science fiction into fantasy while separating the two elements on mechanical as well as philosophical grounds.  This allowed DEM to develop technology based rules without riding the crutch of fantasy.  We had to overcome the challenges of circumventing high firearm damage outputs as well as squeezing in enhancement.  So how do you do it?

The first issue dealt with damage output.  An arrow carries significant energy due to its speed and mass.  A bullet travels much faster and carries more energy despite being smaller.  A bullet can do more damage to a target due to its velocity along with side effects like hydrostatic shock.  An arrow can inflict more damage in certain situations because of different forces at work, namely the deceleration rates between a bullet and an arrow, flexional energy, torsional vibration, etc (long story).  Still, a bullet’s speed overcomes its deficiency in mass, allowing it to do more harm than an arrow.  But how much more?

Historical fact—bullets didn’t replace arrows because they were faster, deadlier, and/or more accurate and it was several centuries after their introduction before they could overcome the arrow on these matters.  Simply put, it’s easier for one trained man to build fifty pistols than it is to train fifty men to use a bow.  With that out of the way, let’s address damage.  Since “modern” bullets have the potential for more damage, I have seen huge damage outputs by homebrew firearms (a pistol doing 2d8, for example, a rifle doing 3d8) to explain this.  These homebrew mechanics are referencing one point.  An arrow inflicts 1d8 damage.  Thus a rifle bullet doing arbitrarily three times more damage should do 3d8 (not fabricated, I saw homebrew damage listings this high).  This fails to take into account the range of weapon damage in D&D.  The next damage scale from 1d8 is 1d10 (or 2d4 is you want to get technical).  What does 1d10?  A greatsword.  So this argument contends that a trained human fighter with the strength of a pubescent gorilla, wielding a twenty pound chunk of sharpened steel will only do a third the damage of a rifle bullet.  It’s a matter of scale.  If a greatsword does 1d10 and an arrow does 1d8, it doesn’t matter how much more a rifle bullet inflicts.  If it does not do the damage of the greatsword, it remains at 1d8 (let’s keep autofire out of the discussion for now).  When dealing with a high caliber weapon that can take off limbs, then yes, those can do 1d10 or 1d12.

I have seen homebrew rules that constructed workarounds to make their high damage firearms function, all of which contained mechanical flaws.   If William Wallace’s flail, which crushed the skull of Mornay in Braveheart (I looked it up), does 2d6, then no two-handed firearm should do more.  All’s fair.  Of course, you can forget all the science and decide that firearms have to inflict damage in scale with melee weapons in 4E for no other sake than game balance.

Onto opportunity attacks.  D&D made the uniform rule that all ranged attacks prompt opportunity attacks.  I can agree with this on several levels, with one exception.  I would remove such a condition with pistols.  So if you create a Ranger from the PHB and give him two pistols a’la Woo, then those ranged attacks would not prompt an opportunity attack.  Heck, in adjacent squares, I would even allow them to be used a melee weapons.

Probably the one rule I was most concerned over and the one no one ever complained about was movement.  Only when running at full speed can your accuracy with ranged weapons be hampered.  When it comes to pistols (one-handed small arms), then this rule still applies.  But if you look at modern military training, this is not encouraged.  Further reinforced with first person shooters (one of our primary influences regarding our modern rules), if you stop, your reticle narrows and your accuracy improves.  Not ignoring this basic fact, we implemented such movement penalties into Amethyst when dealing with two-handed small arms and heavy weapons.  If you move more than one square, you suffer a penalty to attack until the beginning of your next turn, meaning you can shoot first and then move to avoid the penalty.  Heavy weapons are stricter and offer a greater penalty while super heavy weapons (a new addition coming in the next book) must be planted in the ground before they can be fired.

It would be an obvious comparison that if you wanted to include firearms into a fantasy that the ranger would be the preferred choice.  However this does limit you in your role.  Firstly, a ranger shoehorns you into the Hard Boiled attitude (most people won’t complain).  Perhaps you may want to try something else.  A rogue can turn into a Ghost Recon-styled character with no fuss…but that’s still a striker.  Yes, the Amethyst stalker is a glorified ranger with a secondary build allowing long range sniper powers, but we needed to expand on that.  The grounder was the answer.  The grounder is not striker.  He is a defender/controller (yes, two roles, let’s move on).  As defender, even though he doesn’t mark (something I still insist is not mandatory), he can impede enemies from approaching allies.  As for being a controller, the grounder is equipped with dozens of area affect powers that inflict controller-like powers.  Overwatch, Stacking Burst, Standing Barrage—all these powers use firearms to mimic wizard-like powers.

Here are some final ideas to consider.   You can create powered armor by simply combining the effects of multiple magic items into armor and adding their costs.  Enhancement can come from acquiring more advanced weapons (bullets to railguns to lasers to plasma).  You can create massive weapons that inflict incredible amounts of damage by limiting their use to ranged basic attacks.

These were the biggest anchors which Amethyst sat upon, the same anchors I’m utilizing for our upcoming Ultramodern4.  By ensuring a solid foundation (see what I did there), we can reach beyond into more fringe rules WOTC may never have thought of.  Since Amethyst proved solid mechanically (the powers had a few bugs but we’re working them out), Ultramodern4 can tackle other ideas, like cybernetics, computer hacking, giant robots and aircraft, the latter two of which are being folded back into Amethyst for its second book.

Yeah, you heard right.  Giant robots.  Check the image.  That’s the Angel Amarok, detailed in the Amethyst: Factions.

Addendum:  I know I mentioned that first person shooters were an inspiration when designing our firearms.  Since people accused D&D of mimicking an MMO, I figured the game comparisons were still valid.


Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

2 thoughts on “4th Edition and the Giant Robot–The Modern Dilemma

  • October 27, 2010 at 3:30 pm


    If you would, please expand on what you meant by

    “Other people accused the 4E system itself as being incompatible with modern or science fiction games. Amethyst was the first, a bridge setting merging science fiction into fantasy ”

    Methinks Gamma World might choose to object, or Shadowrun, or many other RPGs merging fantasy & scientific elements – heck, even Steve Jackson’s “Melee/Wizard” had an adventure in a scientific outpost called “Security Station” 🙂

    I know it’s difficult to think of one’s ‘baby’ objectively – ask me about _Leviathans_ sometime – but one must be cautious when making sweeping statements. It’s entirely likely Amethyst is the first to bring the science/fantasy mix to D&D 4th Edition, or brings a new and innovative approach, or likewise, but …

    (Side note: Trask, your Captcha has a talent for generating PC names. My next RPG character will definitely be called “Ibid Altzber”, for sure!)


  • October 27, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    Good question. I don’t need to cite one reference. I very often do searchs via the Googleverse of mentions of Amethyst. On more than one occasion (meaning more than two), I have found threads started by people wondering how someone could create modern rules using 4E. I find these threads because someone had mentioned Amethyst at one point. BUT before that post appears, someone above remarks that it cannot be done (or would be very difficult).

    What’s funny was that such a post was made yesterday.


    As for the specific comment…sigh…that is actually a grammar mistake. I admit it (of at least two I have caught). That wasn’t worded properly. I intended to say that Amethyst was the first D&D Fourth Edition attempt. I had actually been trying to edit that post to reword it but, alas, without deleting the post entirely, I haven’t figured out how to fix that. Trask? 🙂

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