I came across the Fourthcore Bestiary about a week back, and I thought it was pretty great. The creatures were interesting (in particular, the paired Catastrophe Dragons; great concept for a set of villains), but it was more the concept of “Fourthcore,” that drew me in. As the DM of a campaign that set out to be the most brutally “Metal” game in Fourth Edition (and having failed at that goal rather miserably), there was something in the concept of “Fourthcore” that resonated with me. D&D Fourth Edition, at it’s core, is about being a fucking badass and kicking in the teeth of whatever otherworldly horrors stand in the way of continued badassery.
Tonight, I read the what the folks at Save Versus Death consider to be Fourthcore, and while I agree with much of it (over-the-top monsters; oppressive, bleak campaign settings), there are other bits that don’t mesh well with the way I play the game (backgrounding the plot; the whole concept of deathtrap dungeons). So while I would very much like to consider myself part of the Hardcore D&D Tradition, my love of plot and my distaste for dungeon crawls put me at odds with some of the central philosophy of the movement.
Instead, this is what I think the “hardcore” aspects of D&D Fourth Edition should look like.
1. Over the fucking top. D&D Fourth is about kicking dragons in the teeth and using the broken shards of their fangs to stab them to death. If you’re not doing something that is entirely kick-ass every hour or so, you’re doing it wrong.
2. Everything in the world always hates you. I take the Points of Light thing very seriously. The world is blanketed with danger and douchebaggery, with tiny little glimmers of hope shining against the darkness. When you step outside the walls of your perfectly protected city, something out there is going to try and eat you, and its chances of succeeding in this endeavor are maybe one in four.
3. Montage over the boring shit. When you need to get something done, and it doesn’t involve punching dinosaurs so hard they bleed from the ears, you get to skip over most of it with a montage. Wizards of the Coast calls them Skill Challenges.
4. Innovative crunch. Dragons that work better as a team is a good example. Fighting the colossi from Shadow of the Colossus is one of my favorites. Minions that explode (or blind, or don’t die, or are invincible, or give a dude action points, or recharge a leader’s powers when they die, or get back up two turns after they die, or look like cute widdle baby beholders right up until they eat a wizard’s face) have made for some great encounters. Encounters on the sides of cliffs, encounters on small ledges with infinite drops towards DOOM, encounters against turned-evil player characters, encounters against well-mannered animals in fezzes, all are great. If people talk about it later and go “Aw shit, that was awesome,” it was probably hardcore.
5. Innovative fluff. Look, I get where people think that “hardcore” D&D should be all about the game, all about the fighting, and fuck all the shit that happens between the fights, but that’s not the stuff that makes my games great. The stuff that makes my games great are things like people with spiders for heads. Or campaigning across a dude’s skeleton looking to stop the end of the “world.” Or the Extreme Library. Or a mode of transportation that is a hut with chicken feet that talks to you by writing on its own walls. Or a fleet of airships dragging a city that’s been forcibly torn from its world to save it’s people from annihilation. Or a drunken rage-orgy used as a ritual to summon a god, and then trying to punch that god in the face. When you build your world to be as extreme as possible, the crunchy bits follow, and make the game a lot more entertaining for the narrative-minded of us.
This, to me, is Fourthcore. Innovative, over-the-top worlds where people do innovative, over-the-top shit to innovative, over-the-top monsters because every single creature in the entire known universe wants to eat your liver and you need to find clever ways to make them think that’s a bad idea, with flashy montages over all of the boring bits. Then again, I didn’t invent the term, so if you can think of a better term for the way I game, feel free to mention it in the comments.