How far can the mechanics of D&D 4th Edition be stretched? In this edition of Crash Test Magic, I propose a superhero role-playing game based on the 4E system of powers and feats. To the Vikingmobile!
In last week’s mention of the old0-but-new Dark Sun setting coming out for 4E, I casually mentioned that a superhero RPG based on the 4E rules would be cool. That lead to a discussion in the comment thread, which lead to this more extended exploration of the idea. A lot of this is just brainstorming, and obviously there’s been no playtesting or checking the numbers for balance, so take any stats (like damage numbers) with a grain of salt.
The first concept is that, instead of classes, there are powersets. In printed form they’d look a lot like 4E’s classes – some basic abilities, then a list of powers that increase in aptitude and effect the further you go. There are two huge differences, though. For one thing, powers are not level-restricted. You can take any power at any level. I’ll explain how in a minute. The other key difference is that you aren’t restricted to one powerset. You can freely grab powers from all kinds of powersets.
This is balanced by the point cost of each power. At character creation, you get 50 power points to spend. Each time you level up, you get 20 more, and you can spend them to take any powers you want (you could grab a bunch at once if you get several low-cost ones). If your initial powers are all in the Fire Control powerset, at level 8 (or whenever) you can go ahead and get a power from the Mind Control powerset. Maybe it has great synergy with your fire powers, and you’re a min-maxer. Maybe it fits your character concept. Maybe you just want to try something different.
So what keeps this balanced and prevents every character from having a shopping list of the best powers in the game? Point discounts. Each powerset is a tree of powers. The weakest, and least expensive powers in a set are the “roots.” The super mega cosmic world-beater powers are the uppermost branches. So let’s say at character creation, you want the best Fire Control power, perhaps some kind of massive nova blast that does a ridiculous amount of burst damage. You have 50 points to spend, and it turns out that power costs 50 points. You can take it – you can have the ultimate Fire Control power at level 1. Good luck dealing with situations that require something a bit more subtle, though…
Now let’s say you build a Fire Control hero slowly. At early levels, you take a power that lets you give allies fire resistance, and one that lets you shoot a single target ranged fire attack. Those probably cost 10 points each. From there, you decide to take a blast attack that creates a persistent zone of fire terrain. That costs 30 points, and it’s higher up on the tree than the other powers you took. However, the Fire Zone power costs only half as many points as long as you already have at least two other Fire Control Powers. You do, so you can grab that one for just 15 points. Your buddy with all the Super Speed powers could take Fire Zone too, but it would cost him the full 30 points.
Although characters can jump around the powersets, each PC still has a primary powerset to provide some kind of foundation for the character. Your At-Wills and a few other inherent abilities (a Will defense bonus for mental characters, for instance) come from your primary powerset. There are also secondary powersets offering more generic superhuman utility powers, such as the ability to fly or resist damage. There’s no discount for specializing in these powers – characters can cherry pick from them freely.
This system also makes greater use of the “party roles” of 4E. The roles (controller, leader, defender, etc.) aren’t tied to any one powerset. You pick your role at character creation. Certain powers lend themselves to one role over another, so those powers offer an additional point discount to appropriate characters. For example, the Energy Projection powerset has a power that allows the character to emit a massive energy blast at a single target. Clearly, that’s a striker power, so strikers get two points knocked off the cost when they purchase that power. If that same striker wants to purchase an Ice Control power that immobilizes all enemies within a burst 2, she has to pay full price, since that power only offers the discount to controllers.
I mentioned in the original comment thread that I wanted to incorporate some type of mechanic that indicates an overall increase in skill when it comes to using powers as characters go up in level. Since you can take powers that deal massive damage right off the bat, there needs to be some other advantage to leveling up (aside from getting more powers). Plus, so many of our favorite superhero stories are not about raw power, but rather about expertise and mastery. The rooftop scene of Peter Parker practicing his new spider powers in the first Spider-Man movie is a perfect example. He didn’t get stronger or gain better webs later on, he just got better at using them.
Unfortunately, I haven’t yet figured this part out. On the other hand, I’ve got a great design team that loves to offer suggestions (that would be you, loyal Vikings). Perhaps this would involve feats? Or some brand new mechanic that allows a character to fine-tune the results of a successful roll? What do you think?