Sunday, January 31, 2021

Forth Into the Fray: On Flavors of D&D and a Strange Hybrid 4e D&D / Into the Odd Hack

Is anything in life more fickle than a GM's heart? My last post brought up the Free Kriegsspiel Revolution and my growing appreciation for truly freeform gaming. Well, this post may seem a bit contrarian to that one, I suppose; but they're not meant in opposition, but as different sides of a diverse set of interests. Here's the lowdown: I'm tinkering with a hack for Into the Odd that adds a very, very light template of character specializations borrowed from 4e D&D (!). Yeah, I'm guessing you didn't expect to see that combo anytime soon. Please allow me to explain. 


I recently became aware of and read a now years-old discussion (from 2012) by "Armchair Gamer" of the historical flavors of D&D. It's quite an interesting and thought-provoking read, and it sparked some follow-up discussions in various places; if you've never seen this, I'd really recommend reading and chewing on it for a few minutes. The point I want to highlight here is how it helped me with a sudden "Aha!" moment. The current OSR world, to the extent that I see its contours accurately, mostly advocates and focuses on two flavors of play-and-setting: what that linked essay would call "Knaves-and-Kobolds" (gritty escapades of desperate, cynical lowlifes delving for their desperately, cynically needed coppers) and also "Galactic Dragons and Godwars" (which, by my read, sums up what OSR aficionados often mean when they advertise a 'gonzo' setting or adventure). After these two, there's also a fair bit of what that post called "Dungeoncrawling & Demons," labelling this as "the default flavor" of 2e D&D. 

Personally, I've never really appreciated the gonzo thing all that much. I can get behind the Knaves and Kobolds thing now and then, to be sure - but if I'm honest ... my heart's not really in it, at least not long-term. This essay helped me realize that what I'd usually rather be doing covers some other ground that isn't always as popular, but has been, and can be seen as just a different orientation for play. 

I'm thinking specifically about two styles/flavors mentioned: "Paladins & Princesses," to some extent, and then a flavor that Armchair Gamer first called "Warlords & Warlocks" but later revised, re-naming it "Misfits and Mayhem," with the comment that "P&P tends to have somewhat more 'respectable' heroes and a more defensive * conservative streak. M&M characters tend to be a little more chaotic and not as integrated into society." Elsewhere, the consensus emerged that "M&M" was sort of the not-so-shiny, slightly more ambiguous, distant cousin of "P&P." 

Every so often on an OSR forum, somebody will lament the lack of "some good vanilla fantasy products" in OSR-land. I increasingly suspect that what this often represents is "we'd like to see some flavors other than "Knaves and Kobolds" or "gonzo". At any rate, mulling over this 9-year-old conversation has helped me think about what I'm really trying to aim at in my own games - which has encouraged me to really push hard at what I want and not necessarily go with the flow. 



I've spilled much digital ink on this blog about the wonders of Into the Odd. Mmm-mmm, good! It really is such a great little system, in so many ways. That being said, when I've run it for campaign-length play before, I've realized that there are some bits of it I'd like to tweak. No problem. But it's also a game that really is framed to support both gonzo and rough-and tumble "Knaves and Kobolds"-style play. It's not a great framework as written for heroic fantasy. So here I find myself mulling over how I'd like to see a bit more heroic fantasy, and the the idea hits me...

Could you take some ideas from 4th edition D&D - the big, combat-showcasing edition - and use them to spice up Into the Odd as a more heroic fantasy game? 

Well, um, except I'd never actually played 4e, so, um...

Headed for a trainwreck, no doubt. But I started digging and scratching and researching and have learned a lot in the last week about 4e! And now have a much clearer understanding of why some people hate it so much, and why some people really, really love it. To be honest, I'm not 100% sure yet what I think of it all; it does sound like a very interesting skirmish wargame system coupled with an almost freeform out-of-combat rpg system. 

Meanwhile, the basic idea I've been noodling with hasn't died. In fact, it's already led to a short and positive playtest with two players online. The stuff below is just an appetizer, of course, but I do think I'm likely to finish this hack. My group is almost ready to resume our Iron Age Alternate-Mystara Isle of Dread campaign, and we might be using some version of these rules when we do so. Hmmm. 

Some design goal notes to myself:

emphasize heroic play/heroic, capable characters - rules well-suited for Paladins & Princesses or Misfits & Mayhem-style campaigns. 

emphasize teamwork and synergy in combat 

infuse simple, clear tactical dynamics into ItO’s chassis. Add elements of resource management and key power roles in combat. 

Give each character a specific niche, but don’t limit other characters - any character can attempt any humanly possible action. Anyone can sneak and backstab; anyone can use any martial weapons or wear any armor. Characters’ ‘niches’ are defined by things they’re extra good at, not because they are the only person who can try something. 

A better way to put this is that if a character could already try something in regular Into the Odd, then they can still try it in Forth, Into the Fray! But now they each have extra empowerment as well.

Limit power and options bloat so as to keep gameplay flowing, and to prevent ‘character sheet syndrome.’ Players still should be encouraged to think creatively about manipulating the battlefield - or even running away or avoiding combat altogether. 

Regularly throw bigger and scarier fights toward the player characters! Have less focus on small wandering-monster encounters; adventures are likelier to incorporate well-organized bands of enemies working together, and fewer but more powerful concentrations of enemies. Opponents should include monsters with very high hit points, and more frequent use of many minions or Detachments of enemies. 

Combine these rules with my Into the Odd mass combat/detachment hack. 

Earlier tonight, I posted some tidbits about my design on the Into the Odd/Bastionland Discord forum. Pasting here too. 

As I mentioned last night, I'm tinkering with what will probably be a silly experiment, but it's showing some interesting results. I'm looking at some very simple ways to port basic ideas from 4th Ed. D&D into a hack of Into the Odd. The reasons: to retain the elegance, flexibility, and overall simplicity of ItO as a base, while supporting play with more of a 'heroic action heroes' flavor than base ItO really promotes; to promote player specialization in a way that promotes teamwork and synergy but does NOT limit PCs (in other words, any PC can still do anything they could have done in vanilla ItO; nobody is losing capabilities, just gaining some simple specializations). There is a fair bit of my normal ItO hack that goes along with this, but I thought I would share a quick peek behind the curtain and under the hood, below:

I had a playtest last night that went quite well, I think. I have tweaked things further, a bit. The basic idea is that you generate an ItO character as usual. You then also choose a CLASS (not too dissimilar from Into the Dungeon, Revived's approach) and also choose a COMBAT ROLE - so your PC's final 'identity/niche' is a hybrid of those two elements (you might be, for example, a Fighter/Defender, or an Archer/Striker).

Into the Odd already has built in quite subtly an action-allowance time economy - we have Short Rests that restore HP and Long Rests of about a week that restore Stat loss. 4e D&D had an At Will/Per Encounter/Per Day economy that sort of maps onto this. My version incorporates this, a bit, but is a much stingier action economy than the 4e version.

Finally, below are just a couple of snapshot glimpses of some sample classes and roles and how they might go together.

3 sample classes:

Fighter: if your melee attack base damage die rolls equal to or under your current level, re-set the damage rolled to the die’s max value (for example: a Level 2 Fighter inflicts 6 damage if they roll a 1 or 2 on a d6). This applies to your base attack die, but not to other dice rolled with it (for example, due to Enhanced damage). 

Archer: if your missile attack base damage die rolls equal to or under your current level, re-set the damage rolled to the die’s max value (for example: a Level 2 Archer inflicts 6 damage if they roll a 1 or 2 on a d6). This applies to your base missile attack die, but not to other dice rolled with it (for example, due to Enhanced damage). 

Burglar: when you make a DEX or WIL Save/Challenge directly related to the particular skillset of a Burglar (for example: climbing, picking locks or pockets, disarming traps, etc.) then treat your relevant Stat as 18 while making that roll.

And two sample roles:


Ready Inventory Slots: 5 

At will: 

1. you can Mark one adjacent foe (at a time), at will, as an action combined with a melee attack against them (you do not have to Mark a target in order to attack it). If your Marked target attempts to move away from you or to make an attack that does not target/affect you, you may first interrupt to make a free melee attack against them. If a Marked target successfully moves away from you, if you lose consciousness or otherwise stop engaging a Marked target, or if you mark a different adjacent target, the earlier target is un-Marked. 

2. Also: regardless of actual damage suffered, treat your STR as if it were 18 whenever you make a STR save to stay conscious after receiving critical damage (you still die if you reach 0 STR, of course, but you can take a massive amount of damage before collapsing!). Note that this ability does not apply for critical damage that provokes DEX or WIL Saves. 

Per Encounter/Short Rest: Regain 2d6 HP and 1d6 STR.

Per Long Rest: as you perform an Interrupt melee attack against a Marked target, don’t roll for damage; instead, inflict Critical Damage equal to your current STR.


Ready Inventory Slots: 4 

At will: when your damage is Enhanced, deal +2d6 damage, not +1d6. 

Per Encounter/Short Rest: you may take one extra action this round (for example, you might move three times, move twice and attack or move-attack-move, move once and attack twice, etc.). 

Per Long Rest: add your current DEX or STR to damage you inflict on one attack this round.

Thanks for reading. I have no doubt that some reading this will simply conclude that I clearly don't understand the point of Into the Odd, or of 4e, but I'm having fun with this little experiment for the time being. Happy gaming!


  1. This is indeed an interesting experiment. I have lots of thoughts but I'll try to just be helpful.

    One of the notorious failings of 4E was that they ended up just recreating WoW in a lot of ways. They explicitly said that they were aiming to avoid the "Tank, Healer, DPS" party dynamic but they ended up making EXACTLY that anyway, except as "Defender, Leader, Striker." However, you'll notice that the fourth role, "Controller," doesn't fit that scheme.

    Controllers were by far the most interesting part of 4E's combat, and were the ones that really elevated it into something that could never fail to be exciting. Unfortunately, the only controller class they offered at launch was the Wizard, which basically meant that "every party has to have a wizard." The others they ended up coming up with were the invoker, druid, seeker, and psion, all of which are magical in nature (it's a shame they never thought of some kind of non-magical controller).

    In any case, abilities and actions that change the circumstances of the battle itself are really cool. Teleporting enemies, erecting magic barriers to split up the battlefield, mind-controlling a bunch of opponents, magical darkness, fear effects, etc. When boring, a controller is just a huge blaster. When interesting, they're designed for manipulating the battlefield to force enemies to make hard decisions that benefit the party. That's the design space I would focus on if I wanted to bring out the most interesting part of "tactical decision making."

    You should also take a serious gander at the monster roles from 4E. I believe they were described in the DMG rather than the Monster Manual, but they were a really helpful framework in designing monsters and arranging tactically-interesting encounters. Plus, you could also steal some of those roles and think about how a player might be built for one of them (instead of being constrained to the 4 player roles they're offered in the PHB).

    1. Thank you very much for this detailed input!

      If my impression from quick reading is correct, I think one of the later 4e resources added a Ranger-Archer with a controller role, which is something I'm trying to emulate with one of my options: the bow-shooter who basically 'suppresses' targets (in Into the Odd terms, shoots at them and makes them deal Impaired damage) and inflicts some group damage, too (maybe, for ItO, this character can do Blast damage that affects Detachments).

      I have taken a look at monster roles, briefly, and I definitely see the utility. There is a hack of MicroLite d20 in the big Microlite bundle called, imaginatively enough, "Microlite 4e" that offers a bunch of character classes that appear to merge the PC and monster roles.

      Again, your detailed thoughts are much appreciated.


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