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In DnD 4e, the consequences for being hit by basic attacks are a simple loss of HP, and narration is what gives the basic attacks their 'spice'. The use of encounter and daily powers is the main source of interesting consequences. But every once in a while when I DM, a player will ask me if he can do something like stabbing an enemy in the eye to blind him, or attempt to hit him in the knee to make him fall prone. Things that make sense, and seem within the realm of the possible when looking at the player's abilities. And I as well, as a DM, often find myself tempted to improvise such effects into game. For instance, I will sometimes be tempted to declare that the monster's arm has been chopped off by the fighter's axe, so he is now panicking, and wildly bashing the PCs with his shield. But I find these situations conflicting to implement, and have until now refrained myself from actually getting them to much in the play. Eventually I came up with a list of pros and cons for such events in combat.

Cons:

  1. Basic attacks are based on simple hp loss, with no more specifications.
  2. The powers that do specify a hit on certain parts of the body will loose value if point number 1 is broken.
  3. Implementing such things in combat would make the game either more rule heavy, or less consistent with itself if the effects are purely improvised.
  4. If not well handled, improvised effects can become overpowering (ex: the fighter decapitates every enemy on his path).
  5. Confusion

Pros:

  1. Increases roleplaying possibilities by giving the players the chance toi act as they would, and not as powers dictate.
  2. Increased realism in combat.
  3. Stimulates the PC's creativity in combat.
  4. Makes combat more varied once all encounter and daily powers are used up.
  5. Can make the combat more tense if the monsters benefit from those improvised effects as much as the PCs.
  6. Saying 'no' to good, logical, imagimative ideas is just not fun.
  7. Things described in the narration have an effect on combat.

After thinking about it, I thought it might be good idea to let my players improvise a bit, as long as their actions are plausible for their character race and class, and that the most powerful of these improvised attacks would take actual DCs, and involve a big share of risks. example: the fighter can try to decapitate the enemy soldier, but he must score a DC 20, grants opportunity attacks to the ennemy if he misses, and takes penalties to defenses until the next turn.

Is this recommended? Are there consequences to bending the rules like that that I haven't thought of? Is it often done, and how well? Ultimately, how can I effectively integrate improvised consequences into DnD 4e combat?

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TBH, this probably isn't a good idea. 4e is pretty tightly balanced already and introducing unpredictable simulation elements will likely break it badly –  wax eagle Mar 31 at 20:44
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That's something of a council of despair, but to put it another way: if you want improvised elements in combat that affect the mechanics, then don't play a game that's only fun because the mechanics are tightly balanced. –  Steve Jessop Apr 1 at 8:26
    
I have the feeling you are playing the wrong game... –  Lohoris Apr 1 at 11:13

3 Answers 3

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Abstractions

Before you tweak the combat system, make sure you understand how its abstraction works. A single attack roll is not necessarily a single swipe of a character's sword. Rather, it represents your character trying hard to kill his opponent for the round. It could be a single slash, or it could be a lengthy clash of steel-on-steel coupled with dazzling acrobatics.

Hitpoints are also fairly abstract. Getting hit can mean actually being stabbed with a sword, but it can just as easily represent a character getting progressively more worn out as their guard is whittled down.

This brings us to rule #1...

Rule 1: Don't cheat the abstraction

Your beheading example falls neatly under the heading of "things not to do." Why do you want to behead someone? Probably because you want them dead, and can't think of any way for someone to survive once they've been "beheaded."

The thing of it is, the character is already trying hard to kill his opponent. If he had an opening to behead them, he would take it. The problem is, his opponent is trying very hard not to be beheaded at the same time (hit points, defenses). Letting the player bypass this robs the NPC of its chance to defend itself.

For "uber damage" descriptions like this, it's best to just add a narrative layer on top of the existing mechanics:

  • The player declares that they're trying to behead their opponent.

  • They make their attack, and deal damage as normal.

  • If they kill their opponent, you describe the opponent's head flying off.

  • If they fail to kill the opponent, you describe the opponent dodging out of the way, parrying, or otherwise fending off the execution.

Rule 2: Modifiers are your friend

4E provides the DM with a useful tool to help integrate player narrative: situational modifiers. Favorable circumstances can give a player +2 to a roll, and generally won't break anything if used judiciously.

For example: If you use a move action to throw dust in the orc's eyes, I'll give you +2 to the next attack against it.

Rule 3: Beware of SPAM

Throwing in the occasional narrative flourish can be a lot of fun. But watch out for players who find something that works and repeat it on every turn (I throw dust in his eyes, I attack. I throw dust in his eyes, I attack, I...). Either be prepared to tell them to knock it off, or have a fallback ready to avoid abuse (perhaps after the first use their opponent just gets out of the way of the tossed dust).

Rule 4: Environmental effects are fun

One safe way to deal with creative maneuvers is to integrate them into the environment of specific combats. Stat them up as a special maneuver available to all combatants, and present it at the beginning of combat (the sand in this room is particularly good for throwing in people's eyes).

Rule 5: No free lunches

Try to compare the effects the players are attempting to implement with existing feats and powers. Players generally shouldn't be able to access feats or powers they don't have, unless it would be really cool and happens very infrequently.

Final Thoughts

You absolutely can do improvised maneuvers in 4E. Just make sure that they:

  • Aren't just a way to bypass hitpoints.

  • Are tightly tied to the situation at hand (if you would do it every fight, then you should be looking for a power or feat).

  • Represent imagination, creative thinking, and use of the environment rather than trying to find descriptions that sound like they auto-cripple or auto-kill an opponent.

  • Shouldn't immediately end a fight, unless the fight was intended to be ended that way.

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One way I avoid spamming improv attacks is to always make it a check (eg. DEX vs REF), and give a penalty after the first one (because, hey, they'll see it coming). Also make it count for an action - even a minor action means a player might have to choose between that and eg. switching weapons or sustaining an effect. –  detly Apr 1 at 4:42

The possibility of unpredictable, improvised consequences is actually something D&D 4e was designed to eliminate, so it's hard to implement on purpose. And not just hard—it's potentially game-breaking as well, because 4e can only afford to be so tightly balanced because it assumes that the rules work a very certain way. Adding "well, you could reasonably do that I guess" to the process of deciding what happens next in combat could break the game in ways varying from minor annoyance to serious game-ending problems.

If that's something you really want out of your RPG, you might actually want to look at games that aren't D&D 4e. 4th edition D&D is rather unusual in this regard, as traditionally "what makes sense" is actually what RPG rules were designed to help you make happen. D&D 4e was designed to eliminate the uncertainty and variability between DMs that the traditional approach allows for. As a result, pretty much every game you might find outside D&D 4e—including earlier editions of D&D—works the way you're thinking of, and 4e is the "weird" one out.

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I see. Although I would rather stay with 4e, I'll definitely start looking at other systems. Thanks! –  derp Mar 31 at 22:27
    
I did a lot of this stuff with AD&D 2e. It worked well there, but even then you had to gaurd against abuse. In 4e (or even 3.4) it seems much harder to pull off without breaking things. –  TimothyAWiseman Mar 31 at 23:02
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@TimothyAWiseman Yep, me too. Even when designed to handle it in theory, not every game is made equal. :) –  SevenSidedDie Mar 31 at 23:59
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Not trying to start a religious war here, but I dare say this is a big part of why some people were frustrated with 4E. It may be a great tactical wargame, but it's not well-suited to the OP's ideas of creative combat. –  Jon of All Trades Apr 1 at 0:28

Firstly, don't your characters have at will attacks which do something besides damage? Is your entire partly comprised of Slayers and Rangers? Leaders, Controllers and many defenders get add ons to their at-wills. Even many strikers who mostly do hp damage require specific setups for that damage, which makes their attacks more complicated than "I hit for damage", Rogues being the most obvious example. In my experience 4e combat is often quite involved and dynamic without adding improvised attacks, but I admit that it's not always like that at very low levels.

In fact the reason you want to be careful with improvised attacks is that you don't want to make character's at-wills with nice add-ons irrelevant.

But to actually answer your question, the rules for improvised attacks are on page 42 of the DMG1. They're (somewhat poorly) summarized here http://1d4chan.org/wiki/Page_42. The damage table is the most relevant part, in that that's the damage an improvised attack does, on top of some small effect (such as prone, push, grants CA, etc). This should do less damage than most PC character at wills (assuming vaguely effective system mastery) allowing them to be useful without overshadowing character's actual abilities.

Another way to implement it is that what happens when an enemies hp reaches zero is kind of vague in 4e, whether they die, or fall unconscious, or run away screaming without their arm or "give up their wicked ways" can easily be dependent on whoever dealt the last blow to bring them to 0 hp. This allows for players to have some narrative control, without effecting the flow and balance of combat.

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+1 for mentioning page 42. D&D 4e already has rules for improvising. –  Zachiel Apr 1 at 10:05

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