You Are Great (with that magic sword in your hand)!

When 4e was originally released, we were promised a more cinematic game. A game where the heroes could be larger than life and iconic. We were also told that heroes would no longer be walking Christmas trees, limbs draped with sparkly magic items. Lets be real, no hero wants to live an acetic life (even the paladins and monks). That said, heroes should be heroes no matter what bling they have hanging from their necks or gem encrusted blades they wield in their hands. However as with most games, the mechanics must facilitate the intentions of the design; if not there is a disconnect.

There is a problem with the math in 4e that has facilitated some unsavory “fixes” in my opinion. Certainly we are far away from the days of base attack bonuses, a heinous system that some how determined that some classes should just hit more often than others. In the 4e world, it is essential that all the characters hit as frequently as possible. Everyone has something to contribute to the battle and most often it revolves around hitting a target. But it does not end with attack, each character should have a base set of defenses that are comparable to her co-adventurers. Yes each class will choose different equipment, but the most basic of attacks and defenses should be linear and equal. Certainly I am treading on some complex ground.

Why is it complex? The money system in 4e is tied directly to your development as a character, in that without a certain amount of treasure your character will simply fall behind the rest of the characters in the group. You MUST constantly upgrade your keystone items in order to maintain the most basic functions of attack and defense. Keystone items are your weapon/implement slot, armor slot and neck slot. In fact, if you do not take an “expertise” feat or Improved Defenses feat it is even more essential that your keystone items be the best enhancement bonus possible. To add insult to injury some character have to juggle between weapons and implements. In addition, heroes can fall behind the curve when they are not afforded the same treasure parcels or opportunities to create items as their co-adventurers. This is all because a character’s “to hit” bonus and defenses do not scale proportionally to monster defenses and attack bonuses. You know this, I know this, WotC knows this. However instead of streamlining their rule books and overhauling their magic item system, WotC chose to enact a feat tax that will be a -2 to your total number of feats for the rest of your career.

This is sad. It is sad that they did not properly evaluate or play test the math in their own design. It is also unfortunate that characters cannot be heroes without their magic sword or wand. That is all I will say about that because I am here to come up with some answers, not complain about problems. Here are my goals:

  1. Eliminate the Feat Tax
  2. Re-evaluate Enhancement Bonuses
  3. Standardize Character Attack Bonuses and Defenses

You Are Great!

That is what a hero wants to hear. I am stealing this example from Shimmertook. He always gushes about Madmartigan from the movie Willow, rightfully so because Madmartigan is a great antihero. Madmartigan is also a boastful, sarcastic letch, but still with a heart of gold. If you recall Madmartigan is encountered in a cage without weapon or armor. He frequently boasts of his skill and constantly complains that he could do so much more if he just had a sword. Of course it is proven later that he is quite accomplished with a blade in his hand.

There is something to be said about Madmartigan. He apparently has nothing to his name. He eventually acquires a sword, but it is by no means a legendary artifact. I think about a lot of great heroes in ancient mythology and modern storytelling. Yes many conquest for powerful weapons that will help them slay the ultimate evil, but at the end of the day the hero’s strength or intelligence or charisma is her greatest weapon. I think this concept should be reflected in 4e. The character’s power should be complimented by her equipment not fueled by it.

The first step in undoing this magic item dependency is building an inherent attack mechanic. What will often happen in 4e is that characters are scrambling to keep their keystone items constantly upgraded. Unfortunately for players, it is financially impossible to keep all their enhancement bonuses of level. When I say “of level” I mean the five level window where all enhancement bonuses fall (1st-5th is a +1, 6th-10th is a +2, 11th-15th is a +3, etc.). What would be more appropriate is for a hero’s attack bonus to simply scale as they gain levels.

The current system can stay intact. It is not a particularly difficult problem to solve. Simply supply each character an additional bonus to hit and damage (for attacks that deal damage) based on their level divided by 5 (round up in this rare situation). You may choose to round down if you wish, I would recommend that approach if you want to create a more challenging game over all. In general this system works great for low magic worlds as you do not have to stress about giving or getting enough items to make the math work with your vision. The same approach can be done for armor class and non-armor class defenses, supply a bonus to the score based on level divided by 5 (round up or down to your preference).

By creating a static bonus you are eliminating the tension between players for precious keystone item parcels as well as every player character is now always on the same playing field. Plus your heroes can be versatile and special. You could use three different implements if you really wanted or be the ultimate weapon master who can kill a man with a rusty nail if she so chooses.

Wait It Still Does Not Add Up

Indeed that little trick only takes care of enhancement bonuses. But things get more complicated now. What is a magic sword to a hero? Should it be just a daily power or property (many a striker would argue yes for Jagged Weapons). We still have yet to take care of feat taxes and there is a question of where do keystone items fall now.

It would be impossible to eliminate the need for spending treasure on magic weapons/implements, armor slots and neck slots. In addition, I do not believe that players or dms want that. A certain part of the game, arguably a large part, will always be about treasure. It is one of the most common and traditional reasons that people take risks and explore and adventure. I believe there is a way to make these keystone items relevant but not essential to character development. For me the major goal is to meld the feat tax into something that you already want and will have in the game.

These items can be that point of entry. I know, it sounds like I am renegotiating my own goals. However, there is an argument that you can still succeed in spite of the math without taking these feat taxes. My main gripe is how WotC attempted to correct the math by making players take feats, forcing them into a “choice” and taking away their options.

So looking at the structure of the keystone items, you can see that there are at least two versions at every tier. What I propose is that we strip out the enhancement bonuses to a base of +1 at heroic, +2 at paragon and +3 at epic. So no matter what the level of the item, its enhancement bonus will be dictated by what tier it falls in. This is certainly a much easier window to attain a magic keystone item. And it insures that once purchased, a keystone item will be much easier and quickly upgraded as you could raise the enhancement bonus very early in the tier that you are entering. For example, take the Githyanki Silver Sword. It is first available at 9th, supplying you with a +1 enhancement bonus. The next available upgrade would be 14th for a +2 enhancement bonus. The money values would not change as allegedly the availability of the item is weighted against its level. In addition you would not be cheating the system as you would ultimately spend the same amount of money to gain that same bonus until epic.

That is an issue, it may not be an issue for all groups but conceivably a high level epic character would not need to continue to upgrade her weapon past the first window of epic (21st-25th). This does bring up a question about how the money system works in 4e, but that is another long post for another time.

Despite the late level issue, this solves the issue of feat tax. In addition, it works the math into the game in a much more seamless manner through a mechanic that the players and dms need and want already.

Loose Ends

My plan is hardly perfect nor revolutionary. You will encounter loose ends with this approach. But there are some highlights as well. Consider magic items with attack rolls, those will now scale much more appropriately (to be even more accurate give it a +1, +2 or +3 to hit based on its tier). Racial ability attack rolls will stay normal over the course of a character’s career (it is my opinion that a racial power should also receive a standard +1, +2 or +3 for the requisite tier). On the flip side you will have items like the Amulet of Health that has a property directly tied to its enhancement bonus. I recommend that you look at these on a per case basis. It is not hard to simply tie such things to the item’s level. It will take some extra book keeping but these items are hardly the norm.

My homebrew plan is as much a work in progress as anyone’s. So if you have any suggestions or your own approach, I would love to hear about it.

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