Becoming a Hack: Introduction

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People are always asking me s$&%. It’s not enough that, week after week, I post literally thousands of words of solid gold gaming advice here on this site. I also have to put up with constant inquiries and requests. Now, I would LOVE to have the time to answer everyone’s requests – no, wait, that’s a lie. Even if I had the time to answer everyone’s requests, I have so much better s$&% to do in my life that I wouldn’t. And I really don’t like people. So, not having enough time is a good excuse and I’m grateful to have it.

See, here’s the thing: every GM eventually wants to be a game designer. Well, not every GM. But lots. Really, when you get down to it, there’s two types of GMs in the world. There’s the ones that are casual about it and just want to run fun games using published modules and then go home and not worry about gaming for a week. WHICH IS FINE. There is nothing wrong with that. But then, there’s the ones who want to create their own stuff. It starts simple enough with modifying an adventure or making their own dungeon. But then it grows into other s$&%. Custom monsters. New magic items. A campaign. A setting. A new class. New race. New rules.

The thing is, GMing really comes down to two things: performance art and creative endeavor. Some GMs love putting on a show for their friends. Some GMs love creating s$&%. Many love both. And the thing is, there are elements of both even if you prefer one or the other. When you’re running a game, even a published game, you have to make creative choices. The players will do something unexpected and idiotic and you have to figure out how, say, Strahd von Zarovich responds to being wedgied. And that’s after you figure out how to resolve a goddamned wedgie to begin with.

Once the creativity bug bites you, whether it was there from the start or whether it cropped up after you got tired of running the latest $50 nostalgia-grabby-bland-fest from WotC, once that bug bites you, there is one inevitable endpoint. You message ME on Facebook or send ME an e-mail and say “hey, I invented or want to invent this new thing, will you look at it and tell me what you think and/or help me invent it?”

Seriously. You cannot BELIEVE how often this happens. And I just can’t do it. I don’t have the time to look at every homebrew creation everyone sends me and offer a critique. It’s too much.

Also, please stop messaging on Facebook. I don’t respond. I don’t use Facebook to communicate. End of f$&%ing story. E-mail me. I have a public-facing e-mail address: theangrygamemaster@gmail.com. And don’t expect an answer in less than a week. Stop messaging me via other channels.

I’m really sorry.

Now, look, I can’t critique your s$&%. Sorry. But I can help you invent your s$&%. Sort of. DON’T E-MAIL ME A REQUEST TO INVENT S&$% FOR YOU! See, I also get lots of requests for help along the lines of “I have a new idea for a race or class or spell or new rules or whatever; how do I make the thing good?”

So, here’s what I’m going to do. As you know – or maybe you don’t – I try to alternate my content between two basic types of article. Articles for new and inexperienced gamers, like how to run games and write adventures, and more advanced s$&% like how to hack rules and change the game and understand the theoretical underpinnings of RPGs. Now, that second thing has been flapping around at kind of loose end for a while. I just keep posting little bulls$&% articles. But this article marks the start of a new ongoing series of topics. I’m going to start talking about how to hack your game. And I’m going to try and be exemplary about it. That is to say, in talking about how to hack your game, I’m going to use examples. I’m going to think through some hacking activities WHILE I explain how to think through some hacking activities. So, welcome to my new series on Becoming a F$&%ing Hack.

Now, in this series, I’m going to focus on D&D 5E. That’s not because I think it’s the best or anything. But I have to pick ONE system. And the reason D&D 5E is a good choice is because the basic rules are available for free (so you can get check them out and follow wrong) and because there isn’t much TO the rules. Pathfinder is also a good choice for hacking, but there’s so much content out there that it’s hard to be familiar with the system. Not to mention the fact that Pathfinder was based on D&D 3.5 and that was developed in a little more haphazard fashion than you might think. So 5E is approachable, available, and reasonably transparent. But that’s just for examples. Honestly, the CONCEPTS I discuss here are easily portable to any system. It’s just the examples that will draw on 5E, okay?

Now, don’t worry, this article is not just me promising some new articles in 5,000 words. Nope. In a second, we’re going to get to a few basic concepts and general advice about hacking your game. In fact, f$&% it, I’ve said enough. New series about hacking your game, using examples, got it? Good. Let’s dive in.

The Art of Hacking

Now, hacking is another one of those words that has been badly abused over the years. It’s just like that other type of hacking. If you watch movies, there’s one definition of hacking. If you read blogs and news stories on the internet, there’s another. And if you talk to the people who actually do it, there’s like six different other definitions and lots of jargon. So, I’m going to start by defining hacking. This is MY definition. If you don’t like it, I don’t give a f$&%. MY definition is USEFUL for MY series of articles. YOUR definition sucks. So let’s not have that fight okay.

Hacking is modifying an existing RPG game system to enhance the game experience or to create a new experience. Neat, huh? Doesn’t that sound so official? Yeah. But now let’s dig into it because the definition is still complicated and messy. But at least it’s useful.

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between a SYSTEM and a GAME. Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Numanuma, FATE, Dungeon Crawl Classics? Those AREN’T games. That’s super important to understand. The game is the actual adventure or scenario or module or whatever. And no, the campaign is not the game either. That’s more like franchise. To put it in very specific terms: Curse of Strahd is a game. Dungeons & Dragons is a system. Burnt Offerings is a game. Rise of the Runelords is a campaign. Pathfinder is a system.

So, what is a system? A system is a collection of RULES and GAME ELEMENTS that can be used to run or play a specific game. Dungeons & Dragons has a bunch of rules for ability checks and initiative and how magic works and what defines a character and all that crap. Those are RULES. Dungeons & Dragons also has a bunch of classes, monsters, spells, magic items, feats, deities, and even settings. Those are GAME ELEMENTS. The system is the sum total of all of the RULES and all of the GAME ELEMENTS.

But that’s not all a system is. And this is the part that drives some people absolutely f$&%ing bonkers. A system also has certain feel to it. A system has an AESTHETIC. That is, the way the game feels. Dungeons and Dragons FEELS very different from Numanuma and FATE. And the AESTHETIC comes from the RULES and GAME ELEMENTS. Specifically, they come from the interactions between the players and the RULES and GAME ELEMENTS. The combat rules of D&D, for example, create a highly strategic and tactical skirmish experience. They are much different from the encounter rules in FATE, which exists to create a character-driven and story-driven experience.

Now, you CAN break away from the design AESTHETIC of D&D or FATE or whatever. You can willingly depart from that, to any sort of greater or lesser extent you want, and the game will still work. But, the father you get from the design AESTHETIC, the more work you’ll have to do to get it to feel right and the more likely it is for the game to break down in some way.

Here’s another good, specific example: D&D doesn’t handle horror well. Horror is a particular aesthetic. It’s a FEEL. And horror relies on feelings of isolation, disempowerment, and hopelessness. Characters in D&D are very powerful, they have lots of tools at their disposal, those tools are designed specifically to be broadly useful, and they are designed to synergize well with other tools. And the system is designed to favor the players over the obstacles. Players are more likely to succeed than fail. To run an effective horror game, you have to find ways to deal with most or all of those aspects of the system. Contrast this with Call of Cthulhu. Investigators in CoC have a much smaller repertoire of tools and most of those tools are either highly specialized or mostly ineffective in the situations they find themselves in. And the obstacles are much more powerful than the investigators in general.

If you’re not willing to accept this s$&% because “D&D can be anything to anyone,” you can’t be a part of this series of articles. Because this series of articles is about being a f$&%ing adult. Being a mature designer and making good design decisions. And, ironically, if you can’t handle this series, you’ll miss out on exactly HOW to make D&D whatever YOU want. And that brings us around to hacking.

Ultimately, there’s only two types of hacking. First, there’s adding new GAME ELEMENTS. Second, there’s modifying or adding new RULES. Where do AESTHETICS come in? Well, because AESTHETICS are a holistic and emergent property of the game – that is, the FEEL of the game arises from the interaction between the players and the RULES and GAME ELEMENTS – that means whenever you hack the GAME ELEMENTS or hack the RULES, you can either MAINTAIN the game’s AESTHETICS or you can MODIFY the game’s AESTHETICS.

Put another way, you can hack the game elements without changing the core game experience. You can hack the rules without changing the core experience. Or you can change the core came experience by hacking both the rules of the game elements.

And those are the types of hacking we’re going to be exploring. Want to create a new spell? Cool. Want to add rules for mass combat? Cool. Want to make D&D into a angst-filled horror fest? Cool.

And, by the way, changing the AESTHETIC of a game can encompass anything from making the setting feel a little different to completely changing the setting.

Becoming a Hack 101

Now, let’s wrap up this introduction with a little bit of basic advice. I’m just going to throw a quick hodgepodge of really basic tips, tricks, and goals for successful game hacking. We’ll keep these in mind every time we do anything in this series.

Fail Fast, Then Iterate

First and foremost, understand this: the first draft of everything is s&%$. Every f$&% time. That’s why I don’t post my first drafts. Yeah, believe it or not, despite all the typos, I do edit this s$&%. It’s just almost impossible to catch your own mistakes. But I digress.

You’re going to invent something: a new spell, a new monster, a new rule, whatever. And it’s probably going to be garbage. There’s no way around that. And no matter how much you think and tinker and tweak, it’s still going to be garbage. See, no matter how smart you think you are and how much you know about the game, the fact is that the only way to test any rule or game element or game system or anything is to PLAY. That’s why we have the term PLAYTEST. And that’s also why I tend to discount all the “brilliant geniuses” in my comment section who respond to my rules hacks by telling me why they are bad and how they won’t work. Because those idiots can’t know. There’s only one way to know: play it.

Mark Rosewater, who is some guy who makes Yu-Gi-Oh! cards or something, once said in this podcast he does that the most important thing a designer can do is “fail fast, then iterate.” Whatever your idea is, get it into a playable form and play it. If it’s a Yu-Gi-Oh! card, put it on an index card and use it in a game. If it’s a monster, run it in a combat. If it’s a new role-playing game system, make some dummy characters and test that f$&%er.

A lot of e-mails I get are from people saying things like “I’ve been thinking about doing this thing and I have this idea, but I’m worried it might not work right and I’m not sure how this part will interact with that other thing and I’ve been tweaking the design and…” holy mother of f$&%, STOP DESIGNING. STOP F$&%ING DESIGNING! Take whatever crappy thing you have, slap it together into something you can try at the table, and TRY IT! THAT’S THE ONLY WAY.

Game design IS NOT a thoughtful activity. It isn’t a scientific activity. It isn’t something you do at a desk or on a computer. It’s something you do by testing and iterating. Slap something together, try it, then fix how it’s broken.

You Can’t Treat Your Game Like Porcelain

Now, if you’re a big ole professional developer making products for publication… well, what the f$&% are you doing taking advice from me? I’m no one. I’m just random schmuck on the internet who thinks he’s a goddamned genius. Go away.

Sorry…

Now, if you’re creating something for publication, that first bit of advice is good. Create, test, iterate, test, iterate, test, and so on. But most likely, if you’re reading this, you are probably just looking to modify your home game. You’re trying to create a new spell or monster or change a rule so that your game is more fun. And that means rounds and rounds of playtesting aren’t going to happen. Or rather, it means your game is going to be the playtest.

That’s okay for some stuff. If you’re testing a new rule or spell or whatever, something that will come up a lot during the game, you DO get to iterate it. Create the spell, give it to the wizard, and ask him to use it a lot. Then, watch what happens. Use the new rule and see how it works. Your ongoing game becomes the iteration and playtest.

Does that mean you might f$&% up your game? Yes. Yes, it does. It’s kind of like doing medical experiments on your own baby instead of ordering some foreign babies from a baby supply depot. But here’s the thing you can do with games that you can’t do with babies: you can roll things back. If things go horribly, horribly wrong, you can stop the game and say “whoa, whoa, I f$&%ed up inventing the nuclear suplex ability for your monk. We have to take it out right now. Sorry.” Done and done. You can’t do that if you’ve injected a baby with a badly designed genetic modification inside a retrovirus. But fortunately, as long as you have a willing partner, it’s pretty easy to make a new baby.

The point is, if you want to start hacking your game, you ARE endangering your game, but not as much as you think. As long as you’re willing to admit it when you f$&%ed up really bad, stop the game, and roll back the thing, you’re okay. And your players SHOULD be fine with it as long as you tell them up front that you’re testing a new spell, ability, rule, or whatever.

Don’t be afraid to break your game, but do stop before your game gets too broken. And then roll back whatever you have to roll back.

Now, that said, sometimes you’re going to invent something that will only ever come up in your game once. The most common thing GMs invent is new monsters. And most new monsters get one chance in the game. So, generally, iteration isn’t possible. But if it’s only for home use anyway, no big deal. Run the fight and hope it works, but be willing to step in if it doesn’t work. Sure, it’s better to use the monster a few times if you can, but a boss monster doesn’t always work that way.

Stick it Out

Now, here’s the corollary to the above rule: don’t be too quick to pull the plug. It’s really easy to panic when a fight starts to go bad and say “whoa, whoa, I f$&%ed up… let’s just say you win, okay, because that monster is going to wreck your s$&% if I don’t stop it.” Honestly, as crazy as this sounds, it’s better to let the monster wreck the players s$&% and then say “okay, so, I totally f$&%ed up… so I declare that you survived and it wasn’t a TPK and you dragged yourself away to this sheltered place to recover.” In other words, let the whole thing play out and then undo the results in a way that doesn’t warp reality TOO much.

Why? First of all, because GM’s tend to be too f$&%ing nervous and THINK they broke something when they really haven’t. Second of all, failure is remarkably instructive. Seeing that something is going wrong is less useful than watching exactly how it goes wrong and how badly wrong it goes. And that is extremely valuable. Even if all you’ve created is a monster that will be used once and discarded, it’s still better to watch the failure in all of its glory. Because whatever lessons you learn, you can apply them to your next creation.

Here’s the thing: anything less than a character death is not a big deal. Seriously. If the PCs spend extra resources and have to take an extra rest? No big deal. If the PCs lose a magical item they liked? No. Big. Deal. Seriously. The game is made up of gains and losses and the PCs have to deal with the world that is presented to them. And half the time, that world runs on random chance anyway. So, unless a PC is dead, it’s not a disaster worth rolling back, let alone stopping in the middle. And if a PC is dead, you can always rule they were only mostly dead after the disaster and let them sleep it off for an hour.

Apart from saving your game from disasters, the other impulse is to start iterating immediately. This tends to happen most often with new rules. You throw a new rule into the game and, before the first session is over, it just doesn’t seem to be doing what it should. So, you want to get it out of there, tweak it, and put a new version in place as quick as possible. Don’t do this either. Why? Because, it takes time for players to settle into a new rule or mechanic. And it takes time for YOU to settle into a new rule or mechanic. What looks like a problem might actually just be a period of adjustment or growing pains or people just not grokking how things work. But, beyond that, if you pull the rule out too soon, you might miss other problems and weird interactions that also need to be tweaked. Hell, your tweak might exacerbate a problem you didn’t even see because you pulled the rule too early.

So, when it comes to stuff that has a longer lifespan in the game, like new or modified rules, I always leave them in place for at least three sessions before I pull them out for tweaking or tossing. The first session is for people to get used to it. The second session is to see it in action. And the third session is when people exploit or break it.

Obviously, if something is actively causing an ongoing disaster, I pull it out sooner. But I try not to.

The Smallest Thing You Need

Look, RPGs are big, complicated systems. There’s lots of weird little moving parts and it’s not always obvious which parts are there for what reasons and how different parts interact with each other. And the bigger the change you make, the more other moving parts you’re going to rub your s$&% all over. And that means potential for s$&% to go wrong.

So, when it comes to designing anything, be it a new rule or a new spell or a new class, you always want to build the smallest possible thing. More directly, you ALWAYS want to make the smallest change possible. Big changes are more work and they are more likely to go wrong.

For example, suppose you want to give players the option to play a character specialized in using a specific weapon. Let’s say, hypothetically, you want to focus on guns. You could invent a new class, like, oh, say, the gunslinger. And you’d have to make a complete class and write all the class features and a level progression and all of that s$&%. But if you aim for the smallest design possible, maybe you might realize that everything you want to accomplish with that class could easily be accomplished by giving some new options to an existing class. For example, in Pathfinder or D&D 3.5, you could make a gunplay feat progression and make it available as a series of bonus fighter feats. Or as ranger feats in place of archery. In D&D 5E, it could be a subclass of ranger. Or it could be a single feat.

And that means, before you start designing anything, you have to challenge your own assumptions. Whenever you decide the game needs a new race, class, spell, system of magic, or monster, the first thing you need to do is ask if there’s another space you could fit your thing into instead? Instead of race, maybe subrace? Instead of class, maybe class option or feat? Instead of spell, maybe class ability? Instead of monster, maybe… well, it’s probably going to be a monster no matter what.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

The goal is always to do the least amount of work and build the least complex thing you can build, right? That saves you time and prevents unexpected disasters. Well, one of the best ways to avoid unexpected design work is to not design something. Not designing things is way easier than designing them. WAY EASIER. The thing is, there’s already a lot of crap in every RPG system. Especially games like D&D and Pathfinder. And sometimes, the thing you’re trying to do is something that already exists in the system in another form. You might have a neat idea for a magic item, but it might be kind of similar to a spell that already exists. Or a class feature. Or a monster ability. A rule you’re trying to design might be kind of similar to an optional rule in another book. In those cases, it’s almost always better to tweak those things and repurpose than it is to design from scratch. Partly because it saves work, but also because it might clue you in to potential problems.

For example, suppose you’re trying to build a monster that gives his allies some kind of bonus in battle through a battle cry because you want a leader creature that makes underlings better. In 5E, you COULD invent something from scratch. Or you COULD just remember that there are a few fighter Maneuvers that work as combat leadership abilities and look into ripping those off.

That means you need to be familiar with your system. Very familiar. So familiar that my last tip for basic hacking is this:

Know Thy System

Before you can start f$&%ing around with a game system, you really have to know that game system. You have to know the basic mechanics, you have to know the options that exist, you have to know the optional s$&%, you have to KNOW THE SYSTEM. And that doesn’t just mean you have to know the rulebooks. You also have to have a critical familiarity with the system. You have to understand the s$&% that sits underneath the system.

See, every system has patterns. Things work a certain way in the system. They aren’t always obvious, but they are always there. And that’s because, even when the designers of the game system don’t tell you, they had a specific idea in mind for how things should work. Well, in theory. In practice, sometimes designers are dumba$&es too. But it’s always best to assume the designers did something for a reason and try to work out what the reason is.

For example, you’ll notice in 5E that there aren’t a LOT of ways to really push your attack bonus up. But you’ll also notice that most PCs see their damage output increase substantially every four levels or so. That’s because, in D&D, they decided to keep the numbers needed to succeed on a task (attack, saving throw, or ability check) pretty tightly constrained. And because of that, they also kept armor classes and save DCs pretty tightly constrained. On the other hand, they decided that damage output should rise substantially as levels increase. The end result is that a high-level fighter isn’t much more likely to hit than a low level fighter, but they do a LOT more damage when they do.

So, now imagine you’re designing a new cantrip. And you want your cantrip to be this super accurate laser attack. You’ve noticed that cantrips scale with level. So you decide this cantrip will be different because the attack modifier scales with level while the damage remains pretty much the same. Now, in D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder, that’d work great because attack bonuses do rise with level whereas damage doesn’t rise so much. But in 5E, that spell would be useless at high levels because the amount of damage it would do wouldn’t be nearly enough, even if it never, ever misses.

The only way to learn these patterns is to ask a lot of questions of your system and then see if you can figure out the answers. Start by looking at some of the bigger game constructs and asking yourself what things are and are not a part of them. What do all races have in common? Is there any conspicuous thing that no race seems to do? What things make up a class? How many features can a feat have? Once you’ve gotten good at asking those questions and then figuring out the answers, you’ll start to see some patterns. And when you do identify a pattern, try to prove or disprove it. For example, does every class in D&D 5E have a resource management mechanic? At the same time, you can start challenging yourself by asking questions like “how much damage does a third level spell do” or “what’s the value of knocking someone prone in terms of damage?” Why would you ask those questions? What if you wanted to create a 3rd-level explosion spell that knocks everyone prone?

Compare and contrast the spells in the system. This cantrip just does damage, that one does less damage but slows opponents, and that one does damage over time. What does that tell you about the relative values of damage, damage over time, and slowing.

Unfortunately, part of being a good hacker is being willing to spend some time curled up on the couch with a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and actually reading every f$&%ing rule and magical item description. And spending enough time with your books that you can remember which magic items do what and flip to them at a moment’s notice.

Pop quiz: in D&D 5E, which monster would you flip to if you wanted to see the Leadership ability? What about Reckless? What if you need an example of Innate Spellcasting? How many different kinds of monsters have poison abilities of some kind? What can poison do?

If you can’t answer those questions, maybe you need to spend some time tonight curled up with your Monster Manual.

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34 thoughts on “Becoming a Hack: Introduction

  1. True word about letting things ride – even with normal rules the perception of danger can be completely different on opposite sides of the screen. I have recently run a fight where I thought we were headed towards a TPK but they players never thought they were losing and another where they thought a TPK was coming but I knew they were never in danger: in both cases things ended in the normal way – monsters dead and PCs triumphant.

    Also, I love that your paragraph on editing has a grammatical error “I do edit and this s$&%” – I’m going to assume this was deliberate.

  2. Five questions on the pop-quiz, and I can answer all of them confidently without opening the book.

    As always, thanks for the article. Having designed and play-tested my own RPG system as well as several board games, these are all things I consider. It’s fascinating to take a board game or two to a Protospiel event and see what others think of your games and their suggested tweaks. Sometimes you get great advice, and sometimes their advice sucks. But the main thing I get from these events is that if a game hasn’t been play-tested at least a hundred times, including several rounds of “blind testing,” it’s not ready to even consider publication.

    In my two 5e groups, we use several house rules. All of them were discussed before implementation, and were added to address specific problems. Presently in testing is a mechanic that enhances the role-playing aspect of combat. The issue: combat, though fun, lacks role-playing. It seems more like playing a board game than playing a role-playing game. How can we encourage RP?

    The mechanic: At the beginning of combat, every player, including the GM, gets five tokens. An empty cup is placed on the table near the map. On a player’s turn, that player has the opportunity to describe their action in detail. “I point my finger at the orc and yell, ‘by the power of Zeus, I strike at thee!’… I cast Magic Missile and do 15 points of damage.” I, as the GM, respond, “The magical energy hits the orc square in the face and you see its head explode like a watermelon dropped from a high tower.” For this effort of role-playing description, any player may place a token in the cup. The limit is only one token can be added per player turn.

    At the end of the combat, we count the tokens in the cup. If more than half the tokens available are in the cup, the entire party gets a 10% experience bonus from the combat.

    There are drawbacks, however, which may lead to some tweaks to the rule.
    1. This does slow down combat overall. We believe this drawback is allowable because the overall experience is more fun. It’s worth it if we spend five minutes rolling on the floor laughing our a$$e$ off.
    2. It’s hard to keep track if a player has contributed to the cup or not, so often times, the error is too many tokens are added. I think the fix to this is the cup is passed around to the active player. Once a token is added, the cup is covered until it is passed to the next player.
    3. Players familiar with the benny system in Savage Worlds (or others like it) want to contribute a token based solely on a good roll. I think the answer to this is the player makes the description of what he is doing and the contribution is made before rolling the dice.The GM can narrate the outcome as he chooses, but this doesn’t trigger a contribution. Also, even though the GM has tokens, and can make descriptions for his actors, no contributions can be made on a GM-character’s turn.

    The next rule tweak on the radar is a modification to a specific spell. It’s a first level warlock spell that doesn’t scale well at higher levels. The consideration here is if we change this spell, should we apply the change to other, similar spells? This requires research.

    • I like that! I may implement something similar for my games, but on a player-by-player basis. Each player has a cup, and everyone can put tokens in other players cups for good RP. At the end of the game, encounter, whatever, the players can exchange their tokens for XP.

    • Although I have yet to implement it, I’ve been meaning to introduce one of Angry’s alternate rules for Inspiration to my group.
      (currently I’m just giving inspiration for playing to personality traits)

      The rule I want to try out is this:
      Each player begins each session with inspiration.
      You can spend inspiration to gain advantage on any roll related to your personality traits.
      You can regain inspiration by taking disadvantage on any meaningful roll related to your personality traits.

      It’s simple, it’s elegant, it does exactly what it means to do, I love it!

      • I actually used that one for a while in one of my games. It worked really well, though ultimately I decided I didn’t need even it. Just let people play their characters.

  3. Recently i started a new campaign in 4ed, and after the experience i got in the past 3 years with 5th and other systems, i was confident in reducing hp of monsters by 25% and removing 2 healing surge from each PC.

    The decision was made after i read that one of the design mantra of 4th edition it’s that one hero, IN GENERAL, need 4 hits to defeat a monster of the same level. From my point of view that was too much, so i reduced hp monster by 25% so hero needs 3 hits instead of 4. To balace this with resource management i decide to reduce of the same amount the number of healing surge, then for semplification i just said “minus flat 2” for each PC. Initially i thought of amplify damage of monster by 25% but it seems to lethal and swingy for high fantasy feels.

    The emergent result was wonderful, faster combat and faster resource attrition works very well together. For the first time i did 3 combat in a single play session, the fourth combat of the adventure day was a boss fight and the tank had only one surge left cause he play loosly.

    Also, a lot of design tricks i learned from this site, like repetition (make encounters with the same type of monsters in different numbers and situation) and isolation (put the monster in safe environment to let players learn) helps a lot in speed up combat and make the game experience more engaging. In the third encounters, the players know exactly what the creatures do in combat, and help me remembering triggers while evaluating the best tactics.

    I never had so much fun with 4ed, and was not totally merit of the system.

    The morale is “what you think is a shit today, could be a cake tomorrow, after your tastes growth and you learn how to cook (aka hacking)”

    • You may come to regret that as your players become more experienced, if they figure out how to drop a solo in one surprise round and one nova round, before the monster gets off a shot. I did that a couple of weeks ago in a game I played with an unoptimized party.

      Unless you are dealing with high-op PCs, 4e combats can play out very differently depending on the tactical skill of players and GMs – it really is a “player skill not character skill” game in that sense. Teamwork makes a huge difference, and when a PC is hitting several time in a round (for example, twice from Twin Strike plus one minor action attack, an interrupt and maybe an opportunity attack, plus hunters quarry damage) that “4 hits per monster” rule may not have the effect on the game you think it has.

      If you find combats are a slog, I would suggest turning down the difficulty on the encounters before you mess with the system. Use lower level monsters, or less of them.

      And while it may be different for you, for me, “faster resource attrition” is not a goal I am trying to achieve. I think most GMs actually prefer to reduce the number of extended rests, rather than increase them. But to each his own.

      • i dont think i will never regret anything if my players win the scenario using good tactics. For faster resource attrition i mean that i need only 3-4 fight a day to challenge my players instead of 6 like the system would suggest. Maybe daily spam could be a problem, or maybe not.

        • Hmm, the system is built around an average 4 combats per day. If your players are getting more, there is a good chance you are using monsters that were built before monster damage was increased (around the fall of 2010, IIRC). That includes the MM1, MM2, most of the splatbooks, nearly all of the published adventures, and the issues of dungeon before, say, #186(ish).

          If that is the case, try this as a quick fix: add a half-level of damage to each attack, rounding up; reduce the defences of elites and solos by 1-2 points (usually 2); increase brutes’ attack bonuses by 2 points; reduce soldiers’ attack bonuses by 2 points; reduce controllers’ attack bonuses against non-AC defences by 1 point. Also check the hit points of any solo higher than 10th level, they should have 4x standard HPs, not 5x standard HPs.

          Or just select monsters from the MM3, Monster Vault, Dark Sun CC, the Demonomicon, Madness at Garmore Abbey, and the issues of Dungeon after 186. Everything hits harder, the brutes hit way more often, and the elites and solos are easier to hit.

          On the other hand, if you are using monsters built with the updated math and none of this applies to you, then sure, go with your fix.

          • yes i knew about the update, i remember damage buff to solo and elites by improving numbers of attacks/turn and the standard formula for damage lvl + 8 average. Your list of changes seems more accurate btw, thanks for let me know ^

  4. ” I don’t have the time to look at every homebrew creation everyone sends me and offer a critique. It’s too much.”

    But would you do it if I gave you money?

    • Lol, new Patreon option: “AngryGM Wrecks Your S$&%”, like those websites where you send in your writing to get edited for a fee, except its gaming homebrew advice and ruthless…

    • I can see Angry creating a template response:

      “Your $&*# sucks.”

      Sending it out for every submission, and charging the submitter $1.00 each time. Just think about how much money he’d make! You know what they say about fools…

        • .. and their money are soon parted.

          In one of my groups, the barbarian got drunk. While in this state, the rogue snatched the barbarian’s money bag. He then used the barbarian’s money to pay the barbarian’s bar tab (and his own), and told the barbarian that since he (the rogue) paid their tab, the barbarian owed him the balance.

          And when they divided the gold after their next adventure, the rogue was quick to remind the barbarian about his debt.

  5. Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do?

  6. For monsters that end up not working has intended I do modifications on the fly: suddenly that dragon boss that looks like it’s not going to last until the end of the first round has got four time as much hp as I planned so that he can at least breath fire once, or that giant metamorphic capacity copier which is still indemn after the third round and is about to wipe the floor with the players suddenly develops a weakness to something I know the players have but haven’t tested yet… they don’t need to know I screwed up and as long as the battle feels epic enough everyone’s happy.

      • I was surprised at this but it makes a lot of sense. A scientist can’t change all the parameters of his experiment halfway through the experiment. If things are going too well for your players, let them have the victory and make changes; going unwell, let them near-wipe and play it out as though intended. Regardless, learn from the total sum experience and not just a couple of rounds. Your players can always surprise you and turn the tide of battle–or screw up worse.

      • Although the example does suggest that, if you are going to take design risks, it is even more important to think about what you want to do in the event of the party’s failure. Are you prepared to kill the party because you messed up your experiment? No? Then you may want to have a reason why team monster would want to keep them alive, and what scenario the PCs will be facing if that happens.

        • Ok, I’ll admit that my suggestion goes right in contradiction with the article:p

          But I’ll argue my point a little more if you’ll allow it:
          – people who play rarely (I play 10 times a year in average) or who only play one-shots will still want to design stuff(because we’ve been bitten by the creativity bug already). But we are not really allowed to fail, I mean I can’t just bring my players over for a whole day on one of these rare occasions when we are all available, have them track, search, psychotherapeutise a fatalist minotaur, make a plan to land and fight a giant dragon just to have it killed in one round because oups I didn’t think that you’d manage to hurt it so much with average rolls…

          Now I’ll have to agree with Beoric’s point which is reminded very often in Angry’s articles: preparing plans for failure of the players is the way to go.

          The conclusion of these two points is that when you design new monsters for one-shots, it’s better to make them too strong and prepare what happens in case of failure of the players than to make them too weak!

  7. I am endlessly amused by so-called rules lawyers who forget that the Monster Manual is also Core Rules.

    Rules-Lawyer: I know the Player’s Handbook and the DMG inside and out.

    Me (as GM): What about the Monster Manual?

    Rules-Lawyer: The what, now?

  8. I hope you explore the role of Charisma, Social and Knowledge Skills in the game, I never really figured out if they help the game or if they end up hurting it. I could almost swear the whole Meta-game discussion wasn’t nearly that much of a huge deal until the latter two were introduced. I know you tackled how to fix them in several articles, but I would like a more in-depth analysis about what they add to the game, how much Depth you get for the Complexity, or if you get Depth at all.
    The fundamental problem about those is the fact that they can be replaced by Player skill, as opposed to physical task that are Character based only. A charismatic player can roll a 13 Charisma and save the 18 for another stat, be as cunning as s/he wants in a social encounter and if they know about the setting/monster/etc they can use that Knowledge instead. When they have like an 8 in Charisma, then the GM can work it out but what about a score of 14?
    They also sort of introduced the whole “I Bluff the guard” “I roll Sense Motive”.

    So… all in all. What do they add, take from the game? Did they helped the players tackle socialize more or did they end up hurting the “role play” part of the game? And how to Hack them to work better? O is it just a GM problem on how s/he runs the game?

    • If a player says what his character says, can’t you just have them roll anyways? And if they fail, you can always tell them what part of their sentence they managed to fuck up. Did they perhaps stutter some words by accident? Did you accidentally tell the guard that you murdered the man?

      Same for really charismatic characters played by someone who isn’t charismatic. Is the thing they’re saying stupid? You can just roll with it anyways. Or you can tell them how they managed to improvise and get a more sound sentence out of their mouth hole.

      • That’s basically how I play it.

        The player’s exact wording is what the character meant to say, not necessarily what they actually said.
        If they fail a roll they might stutter or misspeak.
        If they pass a roll they might think of something better to say.

        In other words, the player expresses their character’s intent, and the GM tells them what to roll to determine success.
        Exactly how skill checks are supposed to work. Funny that.

        Additionally, the roll determines not just whether they said what they meant, but also how convinced the NPC is.
        Sometimes, when the player’s argument wasn’t especially convincing, but the roll succeeded, I just have the NPC shrug their shoulders and say “Sure, whatever”, like they’ve got something else on their mind right now and don’t really care enough to question their story.

  9. I think to run something Horror-like in D&D it helps to take inspiration from the movie Aliens, which features a bunch of heavily armed & armored murder-hobo’s going gun-ho into danger, before brutally getting their asses kicked and realizing they’re in way over their heads. It’s a good blend of action and horror.

    • Funnily enough, I already have plans to watch the movie Aliens this weekend.
      I’ll keep this in mind, thanks. 🙂

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