You’re Saying That Wrong

If you think conforming to the GSL is hard. Try conforming to 4th Edition D&D’s vocabulary.

On numerous occasions I’ve been asked about what is the most difficult aspect of writing 4th Edition. I offered a few general answers from ensuring that all the powers balance with each other to adapting Amethyst to the evolving nature of the 4th Edition rules (a common gripe I’ve cited). However, I believe the answer must be the specific wording required for the new edition of D&D. With 3.5, you were given considerable leeway on how you worded abilities. This was because in comparison, 4th Edition is much more precise and defined—a needed requisite for a number-crunching dungeon crawl.

Moving from one edition to another (Amethyst D20 to Amethyst Foundations), I have to admit now being somewhat unprepared for these new demands. It was two months before Amethyst reached print when I realized that no one associated with the product (from layout, to editor, to writer) had noticed that whenever we wrote “next turn” we had written “next round”. A quick find and replace fixed that (though a few managed to still slip through).

Most powers list their effects to lasting until the end of player’s next turn, though some list the beginning. You can’t say “beginning” though; you have to say “start”. This seems like a minor quibble. What about punctuation? Races and classes are not capitalized, but feats and skills are. But this is rooted in the somewhat confusing nature of the English language. You capitalize specifics, but not general terms. As an example, you would not capitalize dog unless it was part of Swiss Mountain Dog. So even though athletics is not capitalized, the skill is. When listing a power’s range or effect, the first word is in bold, but the rest are not. Do you use an action or do you spend an action? These are important distinctions to remember. It matters. By keeping your wording consistent, you can ease the transition from a first party product to a third party product. This can be difficult, especially if you’re moving into unpaved ground like Amethyst did last year.

You don’t push back a target, a target is pushed. You don’t add 15 ongoing damage, it’s ongoing 15 damage. Do you say “make a saving throw” or just “make a save?” That last one can throw off us old players. When you have a power that targets multiple creatures, you don’t say “all targets in burst”; you must say “each target in burst.” And what about those creatures? You can list allies or enemies if the power enables you to distinguish, but you can’t replace creatures with say, opponents, monsters or people. And when you list it as a burst or a blast, you have to list that, even though it would appear obvious that was the case.

As a holdover from the old days, you have to be careful about those stacking bonuses. Remember a bonus without a type can stack with any other bonus without a type unless the two bonuses originate from the same source. Identical specified bonuses do not stack (like feat bonuses or armor bonuses). Using that logic, you could make someone’s brain explode by saying that a +2 cumulative bonus would stack with anything but itself, even though the word cumulative means it would stack with itself. Can a stackable bonus be stackable with another stackable bonus? The game introduces terms like “power bonus” and “feat bonus”, but can you invent your own? None of the rules say no, but you should have a good reason.

Never forget that characters gain or grant benefits from powers, features, and feats. They are never given, offered, gotten, obtained, received, or collected. You don’t save from an effect; you save from a condition. An effect does not last for the rest of the encounter, only until the end of one. A power may not be reset, but sometimes it is not expended. Powers do not last for another turn, they persist. You don’t make a skill roll; you make a skill check, though when I ask my players, I always say, “Roll Athletics.” I could go on forever…

Targets are not in adjacent squares; they are adjacent targets. You don’t reroll attacks so much as you repeat them. I should stop.

It may seem I am ranting about the annoyances of these specific expressions, but truthfully this is important stuff and it took me some time to catch all the little tricks. Even now, my editor and I are discussing issues regarding moving and marking. If you lost ability if you move, do you lose it if you are pushed? How would you word that? Would you say, “If you are moved/are moved…” or would you word it as, “if you leave your current square…?” You can’t say “move from your current square.” It has to be “leave”, as move implies you must be the one to move your character. Remember that you provoke an opportunity for leaving a square, never when entering it, and certainly not when you pass through it.

Marking has been a big one of late. Sure, you can say “you mark a target,” and that’s easy. The marshal, on the other hand, can shift the focus of the mark to another ally—a similar ability seen with the 4E bard. Now the bard uses an ability called Misdirected Mark which is worded, “the target is marked by an ally within 5 squares of you until the end of your next turn.” By saying “marked by an ally” you avoid the issue of the fighter’s combat challenge ability, which specifies that he be the one that mark the target. Even though the bard is using the power, the effect is worded so that from a rules perspective the fighter is still counted having done it. Amethyst Foundations was written before PHB2, so when the marshal’s similar power came out, it said the same thing…but it didn’t. We used words like “the source of the mark”, which says the same thing…but not exactly as the bard says it. As we moved into Evolution, we included many abilities involving marked opponents. I wanted to ensure our abilities that utilize marked targets didn’t insist that the marking be done by the character. You can’t just say “marked targets” because that could mean all targets marked by all players. We tried “marked target (where you are the attention of the mark)” to “marked target (where you are the target’s focus)” and later settled on “your marked targets,” but even this does not match the exact wording of similar powers in D&D. Do you keep them, knowing full well they say the same thing and can be clearly understood…or do you change it?

In the end, you change it fit D&D staple lingo and hope players understand what you are implying.

And don’t forget…you make a ranged basic attack, not a basic ranged attack.

I still make that mistake.


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.

4 thoughts on “You’re Saying That Wrong

  • January 26, 2011 at 9:07 am

    This is one of the reasons I grew weary of writing D&D 4e homebrew. I couldn’t get the hang of this after 5 years of absolute not giving a fuck about what I was saying in 3.5ese. I tried my best to conform to most of the tricks that I could find, but then one more byzantine and strange (the pieces of language that have to be in passive voice, particularly) would knock me off and I’d put everything down and not pick it up.

    Mind you, I still kept writing, even if badly, just because I found it really fun to come up with new ways to play with the rules in 4e. Your conversations with your editor were much like my conferences with my friends. But once it became more about “how do we word this” and less about “cool new rules we want to share with others” it just grew very wearisome.

  • January 26, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    As someone who has a tendency to get caught up in semantics even when I’m not trying to rules lawyer, I appreciate the clarity.

    That said, I’m sure you could find a few lapses in my own products (not that anyone’s complained yet).

  • February 2, 2011 at 11:36 am

    I appreciate the work you put in to keep your wording consistent. Since playing 4e, we’ve found that we don’t spend nearly as much time arguing about how a rule works. In most cases, reading the actual text makes it clear. Most of the arguments we’ve had have been based on poorly-written 3rd party material. I realize that it’s a pain in the ass, but it’s a blessing to your players.

    As for introducing new bonus types – I’d only do it when it’s something that is going to a major campaign factor and you are going to do the work to use it consistently throughout. If not, it’s as good as an untyped bonus. You also need to be concerned with the balance of play. If a new bonus type is common, then you have to figure it into the expected values of a camapaign and possibly adjust the monsters/traps/challenges to account for that.

  • February 7, 2011 at 1:16 am

    Thanks guys…

    …and remember…

    You USE a power, skill, and actions, but you SPEND action points and healing surges.

    You are never your own ally.

    Spending a healing surge can offer other effects, but it will always recover hit points unless you say otherwise.

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