Before the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was released, I was eager to make the change to the new system. I had heard much about how this set of rules was going to simplify things and make it easier and faster to play. For a while after it was released, I tried to love it. But ultimately I abandoned it and sold all my 4e books on eBay.
Nevertheless, I am impressed with the 4e combat system. It rigidly defines the sequence of the combat turn and all the various maneuvers one can make. It is the sum result of decades of house rules and subsequent official implementation of these house rules combined with a new system called "powers."
For my own future D&D campaigns, I am currently assembling a new set of house rules. These rules are a combination of various editions of D&D into a game that focuses on old school sandbox campaign play. Since all of the D&D rules ultimately center around combat, I am choosing to use most of the combat rules presented in 4e.
No doubt grognards will think I'm crazy. How can I have an old school D&D game without THAC0? And what about all those silly powers that homogenizes all of the character classes? Well, I think I can use THAC0 (or something essentially the same as THAC0) within a general 4e combat framework and still call it "old school." But that's a subject of another article.
The use of powers in 4e was a good innovation. It consolidates everything that a character can do in combat under one definition. A basic mêlée attack is a power. Clerics healing the wounded is a power. A fireball spell is a power. The finely polished game mechanic of powers in D&D is a tremendously effective tool when it comes to standardizing and simplifying the complex rule exceptions that built up over the decades since 1974. It's a wonderful hammer for building a better set of rules.
If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.
— Abraham Maslow
The developers of 4e took the new concept of powers and got carried away with it. They applied it to everything. The result was fighters having a vast array of powers that are comical. All of the classes were reduced to a single, simplified mechanism that created well-defined niches which the developers felt that they had to fill in order to complete the game. The elimination of Vancian magic was a direct result of the overuse of powers in the game's structure. Playing a fighter at the table now seems indistinguishable from spell casters what with all the crazy-named powers such as "Indomitable Battle Strike" and "Strike of the Watchful Guard." Munchkinism has been institutionalized in 4e. The system-wide implementations of powers helped to seal the fate of 4e being essentially World of Warcraft for the tabletop.
The way that powers completely dominate the rules in 4e is not to my liking. Yet, at its core, 4e powers are good system. As I said, it consolidates spells, monster abilities, and combat maneuvers into one polished system. I think that powers make 4e an excellent game system. I just have trouble calling it Dungeons & Dragons.
So in my house rules, I'm using the basic framework of 4e combat and a fraction of the powers system from that edition. Vancian magic will remain but I will redefine all the spells in terms of powers. (And perhaps I'll use the 4e rules for "rituals" but I'm not sure at this point. Probably not.) Some of the 4e racial powers are interesting. Fighters and other martial classes will have few, if any powers at all.
Instead of using the mammoth damage rolls of 4e that contributed to the massive hit point inflation in that edition, I'll use the old damage rolls of 1e. Likewise, hit dice for all the classes and monsters.
OSRIC has a nice way of equating HD to class level so I'll use that for plugging monsters into the 4e-style combat system. Or will I use THAC0? The 4e system of calculating attack rolls is so simple that I might use that instead. More on that subject later.
Will my mutant bastard set of D&D rules be balanced? Of course not. D&D was never completely balanced. That's the nature of the various character classes. The trouble with 4e is that those rules are too balanced. Balanced to the point of making all the classes, in strictly mechanical game rule terms, exactly alike.