2d4 Tips for GMing a Better 4E-style game

Regular readers know that our group is in the midst of a Swords and Wizardry game. We took a break from that this Saturday to brew, hold babies, and (yes) play games.

Judge Master

Tip #0: Appropriate business attire lets your players know you're ready for business.


  1. that brewing and/or babies would cause many interruptions
  2. we had an RPG virgin (but still a board game geek) joining us
  3. we had a gamer who relished the tactical/combat aspect of RPGs

we agreed that a combat-driven game with minis and fast character generation and an easy set of rules would fit the day. Gamma World 4E fit the bill perfectly.

With an odd variety of distractions, a diversity in player style and experience, and the OSR experience of Swords and Wizardry fresh on my mind, I changed my GMing styles in several ways. While I don’t know if the players enjoyed the game, I know I enjoyed running it, and 16.666% satisfaction is good enough for me. Here are some tips for running a 4E-style game based on the changes I made.

2d4 Tips for GMing a Better 4E-style Game

1. Don’t look at the rules: Rules-lawyering kills games. The players possessed enough experience to remember most 4E rules… but status effects? Forget that noise–it’s tedious to wait for a rules reference every time someone is dazed, slowed, stunned, or gassy. So instead, I just applied my best memory/guess as to what a status effect should do, and I ran with it.

Intellectually, I know how that should create balance issues. But you know what? It didn’t. It just worked. No one complained, the game went faster, and I didn’t look at the rule book once. The same was true for other rule scenarios–I simply adjudicated on the fly. (No one complained).

Speaking of balance…

2. Forget balance: 4E is too balanced–every race and class could almost be replaced with “Gray Skinned Genderless Specialist” who gets +X to attack, does Y damage, and has Z (for zero) personality. Bringing in some of the inherent character imbalance from OSR games makes play more interesting.

Although character creation was roughly balanced, I didn’t worry about balancing actions in the game. So, when “George the Bush,” our radioactive algae-man in a space suit, wanted to lumber through a barricaded hallway, I asked for a strength check to smash the barricade and called it a standard action. Why? It fit his character: physically strong, too single-minded for fear, and ever moving forward without interest or emotion. Would I have allowed another character to do the same thing? No–not in the same way. Is that fair? Who cares, as long as people are having fun.

3. Emphasize combat: In the spirit of doing what a system does well, rather than trying to make it do things it wasn’t intended to do, I ran this game like a dungeon delve–moving from one encounter to the next with some simple filler description in between. Role playing was something that happened while people fought. (Role-vs-roll haters, don’t hate–there is plenty of room for roles to shine through in the midst of a fight!)

4. Make non-combat actions effective: When someone asks to do something reasonable that the rules don’t cover, make sure that saying “yes” doesn’t penalize them. For instance, Dr. Sunshine, the radioactive cockroach with a 3 intelligence, wanted to use a skill to force a door open. Sure–why not? The rules didn’t cover it, so I made sure he got a benefit from it (besides “the door opens”).

The benefit was supposed to be a tactical advantage–but because “things fall apart,” it turned into a free attack of opportunity. In either case–the hero got to be a hero, instead of a guy who opens a door.

5. Make stuff up on the way: Any 4E Gamma World players out there notice that there are a lot of tunnels on the included maps that don’t go anywhere, as far as the area descriptions are concerned? Or that there is a big mechanical door shown clearly on one of the fold-out maps, but not described in the rules?

My first reaction to these was to say “Ignore it.” Then I realized it would be more fun if some of the random tunnels interconnected, so I made up on the spot that the tunnels were connected by “badder” warrens, and that 4 squares of movement could be used to squeeze through them. Similarly, as seen in point 4, I figured out a way to let players open the door that originally served only an aesthetic purpose.

6. Re-skin on the fly: The “badders” in the included module have crossbows and maces. WTF? This is supposed to be a laser-pistol wielding, radition-grenade throwing sci fi setting, it’s not D&D! So, the crossbows got replaced with pistols, and the maces became pistol whips. Which got chuckles out of the players–so bonus points there!

After combat, when one of the players said she wanted to search for ammo… well, I said guns, didn’t I? I’d rather give players a little extra ammo and preserve the feel of the game.

7. Throw out what doesn’t work: Most of Gamma World does better what D&D 4E does well. Skills aren’t one of those things. Skills are already a proud nail of D&D 4E (that sounds like a future post!), and what with the wild ability score distribution of Gamma World, they just don’t make sense. So, I simply let characters take a bonus on their “class skills,” and replaced other skill rolls with D&D 1E-style ability checks, adjusting the DC on the fly to numbers that “felt” right.

Got other tips for making 4E-based games more fun? Have you tried any of these tips in your games and want to share your experiences? Do you think I’m wrong about something, and need me to tell you why I’m right? Tell us about it in the comments!

Throw out what doesn’t work

5 Responses to 2d4 Tips for GMing a Better 4E-style game

  1. Along the lines of not referring to the rules, “Most Details Aren’t That Important.” That goes for the DM and the players, though I find it usually takes a little more repetition and experience for players to realize that they don’t need to get things exactly right. “What’s my speed?” Doesn’t matter, you can probably reach where you want to be. “Do I have cover here?” There’s cover available, so let’s just assume you found some if you want it. Etc.

    Don’t Go Backward. If someone forgets a save, or suddenly remembers on someone elses turn that what they just did wasn’t technically legal, oh well. Keep moving forward. More than likely, something not in their favor will be forgotten later on. This is a tad dangerous if anyone at your table is easily tempted to “forget” things, but around most tables this should be a big deal.

    Tell Them The Numbers. Add description, of course, but be freely transparent about the target numbers of creatures and tasks. Consider listing the enemy defenses, or at least giving a range like “25 will hit anything these guys have, and a 16 will always miss.” Or “The wall is mostly flat, but you can see little hand-holds. DC 15 to climb it.” You don’t have to do a complete download, as this will just swamp them anyway, but don’t be afraid to tell them the important numbers, most of which would be “visible” to the characters anway.

    Other than that, let me just say that “Who cares, as long as people are having fun,” should be bandied about with a bit of caution. When I was playing in Little League I was being advised on how to catch a ball. The adults kept telling me to get underneath the ball, but I would stand back and reach out to it. I was afraid to get under it because if I missed the catch (which I often did) I’d get beaned. About my catching style I would say, “Who cares, as long as I catch it” not realizing until years later that they cared because I was /less likely to catch it/ using my style. So, when you say, “Forget balance,” because who cares as long as people are having fun, it’s easy for me to believe that people are /less likely to have fun/ if the game isn’t balanced. Balancing the game wasn’t some arbitrary decision the designers arrived at, but one based on years of experience, just like that of my Little League coaches. You have an odd idea of what “balanced” means, anyway. Despite what you think, balance doesn’t have to mean that everyone is alike. Nothing about 4E D&D or Gamma World has ever made me thing that every character was alike, even if they were balanced.

    • I actually think you both have a point on the balance issue. An unbalanced game can be frustrating if either the GM or the players don’t handle it well. You can end up with powerful characters lording it over the weak ones, or with the weaker ones barely surviving a game aimed at their buffed up companions.

      I think that 4E has increased the mechanical balance to avoid exactly these issues. In doing so, however, WotC has sort of painted themselves into a corner. There’s a smaller range of valid mechanics that won’t tip the scales. In order to put out a wide variety of material, they seem to riff off that reduced ruleset to create features that look different, but are in fact slightly different copies of the same stuff. How many powers are exactly the same mechanically, differing only in name, flavor text, damage type, etc?

      Older games didn’t worry about this whatsoever. In a Rifts game you could have a mundane scientist, mecha pilot, and a dragon all working together. In older editions of D&D, a fighter and wizard didn’t have even close to the same power at first level. Would it be fun? Depends on the gaming group. Fourth Edition reduced the power discrepancy to try to eliminate that uncertainty, but, in doing so, sort of narrowed the scope of the game.

      • Ok, how many of them ARE the same except for the variance you mention? I can’t think of any offhand, but maybe my standard for “different” is lower than yours.

        Even if they are virtually identical, they probably have other game features that modify them. A cleric’s 1d8 ranged attack will eventually benefit from feats & items that are different from a wizard’s 1d8 ranged attack.

  2. You’re right–my “having fun” comment isn’t very helpful. I should have said something along the lines as “Don’t worry about ‘fair’ unless your players tell you they’re feeling cheated.”

    Thanks for reading, and for the thoughtful comment!

  3. Pingback: Weekly Roundup – Gamma World Thoughts Edition | Roving Band of Misfits

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