FrankenForth: Looking Back

So over on Google Plus, Kyrinn (S. Eis) asks:

"Looking back at 3rd, how do you like how F4th is holding up, or exceeding?"

The very short answer is that it's exceeding in every aspect, but then this is a D&Dish game that I specifically designed to do everything I wish D&D would have done in the first place.

So, yeah, you could say there's some bias, but I'm very pleased that all the things I wanted to do ended up working out in actual play.

The longer answer:

We've been playtesting FrankenFourth for quite some time, with a bunch of different people, in a bunch of adventures and campaigns (some we came up with, others converted from 3rd- and 4th Edition just to see how easy it would be, which it is), and a bunch of different characters.

While it started as a 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons hack that I originally ran with Melissa and the kids by the book (I wanted to make sure I hated the staggering amount of hp as I remembered), we gradually stripped virtually all of the 4E specifics away: the last thing to go was I think Defenses, which got flipped back to 3rd Edition saves after a poll. So, to everyone that utterly despises 4th Edition, give it a look anyway because it's not what you think.

We also kept changing and adding new stuff to the mix. This eventually resulted in, among other things, characters no longer requiring magical healing in order to get by, the cleric's per-day Favor mechanic, the wizard's unpredictable and dangerous magic, multiclassing that results in more organic character progression, more control over how complex your character is (fighters aren't the training wheels class), and monsters being able to challenge characters within a much wider level range.

All of this addresses nearly every problem I've had with every edition of Dungeons & Dragons (might actually address them all, but maybe I'm forgetting something).

I'm no longer going "Why is gold the default currency for PCs? It'd be nice for them to have something to aim for", or "Man, magic doesn't make any sense but that's the way it is, I guess I'll just deal", or "Kobolds sure can take a bunch of whacks (and why are they little dragon people?), guess I'll halve hp like basically everyone else does", or "Why do I choose a class feature at 2nd- or 3rd-level that locks in a bunch of other choices down the line? Why can't I just make some choices?"

The even longer answer (broken up into sections for your convenience):

Simple-Yet-Flexible Characters
One thing I didn't like about both 3rd and 5th Edition, is that too often you're stuck with whatever the game designers give you, when they give it to you. 5th Edition adds a bit of flexibility with subclasses, but these basically lock in a number of class features down the line: you can't change them later, even if it makes sense.

4th Edition gives you a considerable amount of flexibility, but characters are really complex right out of the gate: everyone gets two things they can do all the time (in addition to other things they can do all the time, like basic attacks), a couple things you can do once in an encounter, another thing you can do once a day, and that's before you factor in class features, racial features, and feats.

I'm good at memorizing all that stuff (and I still have a lot of it memorized), but most of my group? Nooope. Plus, making a character usually took 30+ minutes (even with the Character Builder) depending on how many books you wanted to look through due to the staggering number of races, classes, powers, and feats available, plus skill powers and hybrid classes.

With FrankenFourth I wanted to give the players more control over character complexity, but keep the baseline low anyway. I'd say that character generation is generally faster than in 3rd Edition and 5th Edition (depends on what you're playing and familiarity), and waaay faster than in 4th Edition.

You generate your stats (you can roll them, but there's also an array if you want to speed things up/keep things "fair"/don't trust your players rolling without you present), pick a race, pick a class, and can either choose gear from a list or randomly roll your cash and do it that way if you want.

Classes grant class features (ie, things you get no matter what), and most let you choose one or more talents (ie, things you choose that let you do stuff that the class normally can't do, or make you better at doing stuff that the class can already do).

Fighters are (currently) the odd class out in that you basically start out getting +1 to hit and damage with every weapon. They used to only get one talent over a 5-level spread, but due to player feedback and some playtesting I decided to allow them to exchange their +1 damage passives for a talent of your choice.

So, if you want to play a simple fighter, you can: just stick with the defaults and take talents that give you passive bonuses like Slayer (+1 damage with a two-handed weapon). If you want to get more elaborate, you can pick up exploit talents (and even swap out your damage bumps for more).

Even the magic classes are in a similar boat, as there isn't a huge-ass list of spells and you can always opt for the simpler stuff. Wizards start with Detect Magic and Magic Missile, and get to choose three more: if you want to keep things simple and blow shit up, stick to the Evoker tree, and if you want to get more complicated, Enchanter and Illusionist have got you covered.

What's more, if you think your character is getting too complicated you can always go with the simpler stuff later, and vice versa if you get to a point where you think you can handle more complex options.

Functional, Organic Multiclassing
In 4th Edition multiclassing is very shallow: you spend a feat to basically gain a skill and a once per encounter or maybe day ability key to another class: rogue gives you Sneak Attack, and cleric gives you their Healing Word prayer. If you want, and you pretty much won't, you can spend more feats to swap out powers from your class with ones from another class.

You're essentially burning feats merely to exchange powers, which is why my group houseruled it so that you just need to take the gateway feat and then can power swap however much you want later (it's not like you're getting more powers than everyone else). But, unless you wanted to miss a lot you still had to be careful what you picked due to the game's very tight math.

3rd Edition made multiclassing very easy and flexible: when you leveled up, you could choose just choose another class. Unfortunately, outside of some very specific builds it completely failed in its execution.

For example, let's say you make a 1st-level wizard. You don't know how to wear any armor, can use a smattering of shit weapons, only get 2 skill points, and have a spellbook brimming with cantrips and some 1st-level spells. Oh, you can also get a familiar: at the start of the game it basically gives you the Toughness or Skill Focus feat, except it can be killed.

1,000 XP later and you've leveled up. You decide to take a level in fighter. Whelp, all of a sudden you know how to use every simple and martial weapon (whether or not you actually trained with any of them), get +1 to all of your attacks, and can wear every type of armor and use any type of shield. You still only get the 2 skill points, but hey you get the fighter bonus feat (which wasn't nearly as good as auto-scaling spells).

The downside is you didn't learn any new spells and couldn't cast any more spells than you could before, and your Base Attack Bonus started to lag, both pretty big problems due to how all the numbers in 3rd Edition scaled.

FrankenFourth doesn't use leveled spells, and while monsters have levels aside from Wounds and Vitality it only barely affects some of their numbers. For example, a typical bandit's AC is like 11 or 12, while a dragon's AC is I think 14 or 15 (depends on age). Where they differ is that a dragon is insanely tougher and stronger: a 1st-level fighter would get maybe a good whack or two in before getting torn apart.

This has led to some very organic character progression that I don't think would work in 3rd Edition, and you can't even do in 4th by the book. For example, in our Age of Worms campaign Melissa's character Sumia started as a rogue, but during The Whispering Cairn found an owlbear cub. She wanted to befriend it and keep it around, and when I told her that the ranger class would let her choose the Animal Companion talent she jumped on that.

Fast-forward several more levels (mostly in ranger) and, frustrated by needing a light source to see in the dark that would also prevent her from sneaking around, she decided to multiclass into wizard for a Divination-based talent that gives her the ability to see in the dark. Yeah, the sustain cost eats up all of her mana, but it's the only thing she wanted anyway.

Magical Healing Isn't Mandatory
A big thing I hate about Dungeons & Dragons is that outside of 4th Edition magical healing is pretty much mandatory: you need someone to keep cranking out cures, and a case of healing potions and/or a healing wand (in 3E, anyway) is great as a backup.

We fixed that in FrankenFourth by giving characters a Vitality stat, which is basically a small portion of hp (about a quarter to one-third depending on class and Constitution) that recovers much more quickly than the rest (though it's very easy to flip everything over to pure hit points if you want, and you can control how long/how much Vitality is replenished).

Characters also have Wounds, which replenishes much more slowly: you regain a bit based on your level and Constitution after resting for the night. Your Wound Recovery is modified by your environment, too: you'll recover much more quickly by staying at a comfortable inn (though the ranger, druid, and barbarian will get class features or talents that negate penalties from resting in the wilderness).

Alchemical potions are readily available, but these don't work right away: currently mending potions restore lost Wounds at a rate of 1/round, but they also penalize your Constitution for awhile (which reduces your maximum Wounds), so if you drink too many too soon you'll die. Actually magical healing potions are far more rare, work much faster, and cure everything that ails you (including poisons, disease, broken bones, etc).

Dangerous, Unpredictable Magic (Sometimes)
Wizard magic in FrankenFourth is both unpredictable and dangerous: most wizard talents require the expenditure or investment of mana, often a random amount. I didn't make stuff like Mage Armor random, because then the wizard could cast it, roll, and if they rolled badly rest up and try again.

Anyway, when you use a talent that requires mana, you subtract that amount from your mana first. Not enough? Okay, the rest gets paid with your Vitality, and if that's not enough (or you're out of Vitality) it starts dipping into your Wounds. This cost is paid before anything else happens, so you can't sacrifice yourself to unleash a devastating spell: you just fall unconscious and maybe die before anything happens.

Sorcerer magic uses a similar system, but they get more mana, Wounds, and Vitality, and transform the more they use their magic (think Howl from Howl's Moving Castle). We're also kicking around the idea of reducing sorcerer costs and even making some abilities free when you certain conditions are met. Only downside is that their magical abilities are far more focused than a wizard.

Cleric and druidic magic is completely safe, but requires you to be in good standing with your god, and you can only regain Favor once per day for free: if you really need more, you'll need to offer up sacrifices to your god. What you can do is also restricted by your god's portfolio(s) and the Domain(s) you have access to.

No Pseudo-Vancian Magic
None of the spellcasting classes use what would be more accurately termed as pseudo-Vancian magic (which again doesn't make any sense). Some share mechanics (wizard and sorcerer, and cleric and druid), but that's only when it makes sense to do so. Still gotta hash out warlock and psychic characters.

I will be adding in a Vancomancer at some point, which will use actual Vancian magic because contrary to what you might have heard it does in fact make sense.

Mythological Monsters
For the most part we're sticking with the mythology whenever we can find actual concrete information about it.

Like, we're not calling gorgons medusas and metal bulls gorgons, kobolds are halfling-sized and -shaped spirits (not little dragon people), angels aren't just a bunch of dudes with random skin colors and wings, ghouls can steal your face, change their shape, and can't paralyze you, vampires won't by default be harmed by sunlight, and chimeras are a lion with a goat head sticking out of its back and a snake-tail.

Ogres look a bit different. Ditto for rakshasas, which will also have a much different array of abilities. Really you can go through our Dungeon World monster classes to see where we're going with some things. Some things will be harder to deal with than others, like djinn, but we're doing what we can because more often than not the actual mythological source is much more interesting that what you get in D&D.

Related, many monsters are also going to have things you can harvest from them. So while a hellhound doesn't have a need for treasure, its hide can be made into fire-resistant armor (or just sold if you don't need/want it).

If you're curious about FrankenFourth and/or Dungeons & Delvers, you can find public alpha documents here and here respectively.

Dungeons & Delvers is also on Kickstarter now: check it out, and if it looks like something you'd enjoy give it some support!

The Rogue is our latest alternate-addition to the Dungeon World core class roster. If you want something different and/or more flexible than the thief, be sure to check it out!

Just released our second adventure for A Sundered World, The Golden Spiral. If a snail-themed dungeon crawl is your oddly-specific thing, check it out!

By fan demand, we've mashed all of our 10+ Treasure volumes into one big magic item book, making it cheaper and more convenient to buy in print (which you can now do).

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