Karl (one of the people I had the pleasure of playing old-school D&D with last week in Albany) made an insightful comment on the blog that got me thinking. He pointed out that some people don’t like all of the emphasis on tactical movement in D&D Fourth Edition, and also that there has been a collapse of many different skills into a smaller number (with the “taking ranks in a skill” concept radically changed to just a zero-one binary of being trained in a skill or not being trained in it). It got me thinking: What should a person who doesn’t like some of these elements of 4e do?
The simplest option (and the cheapest), of course, is to play an earlier edition. OSRIC lets you play something like First Edition for free, and as I understand it the System Resource Document lets you play something like Third Edition or 3.5 for free. So, if you prefer an older edition, you can play one. That’s what Shawn’s group does, and it seems to work for them.
But are there things you could take from 4e and combine with earlier editions to make something more to your liking? I think there are. When I think about it, 4e feels like it could be quite modular if you wanted it to be.
First, flavor. If you just love the flavor of Fourth Edition and want to use it with an earlier rule set, that’s obviously very easy. Sure, you’ll have to change around numbers on monsters and so on, but their descriptions can be identical and their powers can be adapted to a different set of rules. If you like the 4e gods, use them. Setting information, dungeon maps, whatever you like can be easily transferred to another edition’s rules. I’ll admit that I don’t personally have strong feelings about the flavor of 4e, but if you do, have at it!
Next, powers. This is one that I think you either love or hate about 4e. In Fourth Edition, characters start with (in general) two at-will powers that they can use as much as they want, one encounter power that they can only use once every battle, and one daily power that they can only use once per day (and they get more as they go up in level). In earlier editions, the only equivalents you had to at-will powers were melee or ranged basic attacks (I swing my sword, I shoot my crossbow, etc.). You could also do something that’s pure role playing (I talk to the bad buy or my allies, I try to hide, I jump onto a table, etc.), and that’s still there in 4e, too. Magic users in earlier editions had a certain number of spells they could cast per day (very few at low levels), which gives them a little bit of a daily power feel, but other classes don’t seem to have any equivalents. I like the whole power system in 4e, partly because everyone has at-wills that are useful in combat and partly because I like the tension of when to use dailies and encounter powers versus saving them for later.
Could you use this power system in an earlier edition? I don’t see why not. Some powers have certain ranges on them or a number of squares that they affect, but I think a good 1e DM could handle that stuff without breaking out a battle map. Weren’t there the equivalent of bursts and blasts in earlier editions, such as with a fireball? I assume the DM would say, “Okay, these three bad guys are clustered together, so your fireball hits all of them, but the other two are far enough away that they’re safe.” Same idea here. Powers that generate something like difficult terrain would be tougher without a battle map, and you probably wouldn’t want to use those unless the DM really liked mentally keeping track of this stuff. Even there, you could rule that a power that created difficult terrain around a bad guy would make it hard for them to charge you on the next turn, and it’s up to the DM to say whether they can get to you or not. This is basically playing 4e without a map or minis, and while I like the map and minis, I think a group could absolutely play a great 4e game without them, as long as they weren’t nitpickers for EXACTLY how close imaginary point A is to imaginary point B.
How about the collapse of skills? Here’s an area where it’s almost totally unrelated to combat, so you can separate the two. If you love the powers and maybe even the map-and-minis combat of 4e but you prefer the larger number of skills where you spend ranks in them, as you had in 3e and 3.5, then just go with the older skill system. I think the new skill system was probably designed to be easier for new players to grasp, and I agree that it’s likely a sign of Wizards of the Coast de-emphasizing role playing to emphasize tactical combat. If you are cool with more complexity in your skills, though, use the older skill system and enjoy!
Now let’s talk about numbers. I must say that the transition to “higher AC is harder to hit” in Third Edition was a good change, period. Maybe someone can convince me that the old system, where you want to lower your AC and you have to figure out your THAC0 and all of that, makes good sense. But I personally don’t see it. This is something I would adopt wholesale, even if I wanted to play an older edition. I also think that having to use a table to look up whether an attack hits a monster, depending upon the class of the PC who hit, seems overly complex and doesn’t add anything to the game, at least as far as my limited understanding goes. But hey, if you love the tables, stick with them.
I don’t know enough about the other numbers in older editions to say how they would differ from 4e, but I get the impression that HP totals are lower (for both characters and monsters) in 1e, and that it’s probably true that battles are swingier (you get lucky and kill a bad guy right at the start, or you get unlucky and he kills you with one hit). That’s fine if you like it, but I imagine that if you didn’t like it, you could probably use 4e as a guide for hit points and damage output. Of course, some people complain about “grind” in 4e, with battles taking too long due to the high hit points all around, so maybe there’s a good middle ground. I know that I personally wouldn’t want to be a wizard running around with 4 HP and scared of my own shadow, but hey, maybe that’s just a great opportunity for role playing!
There are lots of other little details that could probably be taken from 4e by themselves if you wanted, and I think doing so would be easy enough if you’re cool with house rules. Character creation using a point buy system is something that’s not unique to 4e, and I would personally use it over rolling dice (now that I’ve had a chance to try it both ways). Using Fortitude, Reflex and Will as defenses other than AC that an attack might go after is something I could take or leave, and if you preferred using them as saving throws as in older editions, you certainly could do so. Conditions that “save ends” seem fun to me, and you could easily introduce those to a First Edition game, and so on.
Ultimately, you’ve got to go where the fun is for you and your group. If you’re happy with the rules of one edition (or one non-D&D game) as written, then life is easy for you. If there are things that annoy you about the rules of your current edition, you might be able to pilfer different rules from other editions. Me, I like 4e just fine as written, but if I got to the point that something about it just grated on my nerves, I wouldn’t hesitate to use house rules to change it.