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Making Old Mechanics New Again

Written by Nicholas - Published on December 4, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

A little while back in my Fourth Edition Time Machine article I offhandedly commented about using the disease framework to handle cursed items. Folks seemed to like the idea of using that familiar, if under utilized, mechanic in a new way. That’s just the beginning. There are plenty of systems in 4e that can be given a whole new purpose if you just turn them on their side.


Usually as long as you live through a fight in 4e you are going to be just fine after at most a good night’s sleep. One of the few exceptions to that rule is if you become infected by a disease. You can use the same mechanic to add a variety of post battle consequences. For instance, a big ogre can have a monstrous strike that actually cracks bones. A snapped arm could start off on the highest end of the disease track and need to work it’s way back down. A witch could lay down a hex that persists long after her death. Unless her target can resist, he will be transformed in stages until he fully becomes a pig!

Expanding the use of diseases can also give a much need boost to the value of the endurance skill.

Traps and Hazards

Open Grave features a new spin on old traps, using the rules for a haunting mechanic. Bloody handprints and screams that damage the mind. Hands that spring from crypts and grab those who come close. It’s a morbid twist on the idea of physical traps.

A nexus of arcane energies that blasts out random energy sources can be a “trap” which must be safely defused with arcana. A camouflaged animal waiting to inject its venom can serve as a trap. The creature is easy to dispatch, to those with the right nature skills. Traps open a wide array of possibilities once you get past the idea of spitting darts and sweeping blades.

Skill Challenges

Skill challenges are described as non-combat encounters, but they don’t have to be. You can use skill challenges in place of traditional combat rules. For example, imagine the party does battle with giant stone golem. Their weapons prove nearly useless against it, but perhaps they can battle it using their knowledge of the arcana that fuels it, rig up traps, tumble out of the way of its attacks or even use dungeoneering knowledge to find weak points in the stone. Similarly you could treat mass combats as skill challenges. The PCs easily how the skills to beat common soldiers, but do they have the wits and endurance to defeat an entire army. You’re bringing the tension of combat to a skill challenge situation.

Skill challenges can also be incorporated into a normal combat. Players can enter a skill challenge to turn off a trap or terrain feature or even manipulate it for their own ends. Skill challenges might also directly affect the enemy. A big solo boss might have potential skill challenges. The party might invest rounds in a skill challenge to lower his defenses by exposing a weak point, disable one of his abilities or a skill challenge that deals direct damage to the boss more than their combined attacks.

Have you used old mechanics in new ways? Tell us your tricks in the comments!

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.



3 Responses to “Making Old Mechanics New Again”
  1. greywulf says:

    Excellent post. You’ve certainly got my mind going at the potential for other uses for the Disease Track. 4e isn’t great when it comes to handlng long-term injury, and I think you’ve nailed the solution. Good work!

    I’m a huge fan of Skill Challenges, both in combat and out. We have used them inside a combat to jury-rig a rockfall while the Fighters hold back a horde of gnolls. We’ve also made the outcome of a battle count as one success in a larger Skill Challenge – beat the Door Guardians and it counts as a success toward getting into the Wizard’s Tower.

    Oh, and don’t forget using Skill Challenges to frame the whole adventure too.

  2. Ray Wenderlich says:

    Man oh man so many great ideas out here to try. I agree the disease ideas are especially juicy.

    I often like to have skill challenges as part of an encounter as well – it spices things up. One time the group was against a magical tome that had gained sentience and was using the spells written in itself to raise undead from a tomb. The group had to switch between battling the undead and completing a skill challenge to destroy the book!


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