Recently, I have been sampling the d20 book Iron Heroes. This is a “variant player’s handbook” that presents new classes and rules for 3E D&D. I am indebted to noisms for originally bringing Iron Heroes to my attention. My understanding is that the original motivation behind IH was to create classes that would be competitive (in terms of power levels) with the core classes without relying on assumptions about magic items and healing magic.
The game is thus mostly built around martial classes (with the exception of the arcanist) that have interesting tactical and combat abilities. Classes include archer, armiger, berserker, executioner, harrier, hunter, man-at-arms, thief, weapon master, and arcanist. Some of these are obviously derived from standard 3E classes (e.g., man-at-arms = fighter, berserker = barbarian, thief = thief) with tweaks to make them fit the desired style.
Though this may seem, from the above description, to be similar to many recent high power, heroic games, the actual atmosphere is swords & sorcery, enforced by a lack of magical items and a highly dangerous magic system for the one class that uses magic. This is a system for Conan stories, not for teleporting elves. The art is also perfectly in tune with this vibe.
There are many great ideas here for specific mechanics, and the magic system is wonderfully evocative. It uses mana points, and each school has methods with guidelines about how to create effects, based on a character’s level of mastery. A d20 “casting roll” is required (with difficulty based on the amount of mana spent and the power of the ability) and failures can cause minor or major disasters (for example, a major disaster when animating the dead causes the newly created creature to immediately attack the creator arcanist). It is a complicated system that requires calculation for every effect, but it looks like it would be very enjoyable once learned.
Iron Heroes was written by Mike Mearls in 2005, and thus predates Fourth Edition by three years. Many of the concerns that would inform the design of 4E can be seen here in proto form, though the style of the implied game world is very different. Check the following quote (page 248):
When creating adventures, be sure to come up with interesting situations that allow the player characters to use their abilities. Try to avoid fights in plain, empty rooms.
Battles in Iron Heroes tend to last longer than in other games, since the characters have more hit points and more complex abilities. Thus, you must ensure that there is more to the fights than merely two lines of opponents standing still and smacking each other. Throw in lots of interesting terrain to encourage creative, active play.
When designing adventures, remember that you cannot offer magic items to the party as a reward. Gold and jewels also lose some of their value in terms of character power, because the PCs cannot use them to purchase magic items. The onus is on you, as DM, to come up with interesting stories, villains, and enemies. The characters need motivation other than the simple accumulation of treasure to push them ahead to adventures.
Entire books have been written about adventure design, leaving far too little space for the topic here. However, you’ll do fine if you remember one important thing: The characters should always have a good, compelling reason to do something. Whether it’s a noble desire to defeat an evil overlord, a selfish need to escape the law, or some other reason, you need to create a clear and interesting rationale to drive the action forward.
The first two paragraphs outline exactly the kind of play expected by 4E. Creative play is reacting to and using terrain elements tactically. Encounters should be designed to allow characters to show off their abilities. Fights in plain rooms are discouraged, and movement is considered the essence of dynamic combat. This is quite different than traditional D&D, but I don’t mean to highlight it pejoratively. I’ve learned some interesting things from Fourth Edition combat, and though I have come to the conclusion that as a complete system it is too cumbersome and slow, there are aspects of it that I think deserve a place in more freeform and fast-paced combat systems, particularly forced movement and support actions (e.g., things that allow fighter-types to protect other characters if they so desire).
However, there is one aspect of the above advice that I think in retrospect is downright harmful, based on the kind of game that it encourages. Specifically, the bit about characters needing motivation to push them ahead to adventures. Why should players demand “compelling” reasons to do something? Is not the point of the game to have adventures? A referee already has to spend a nontrivial amount of time and energy either familiarizing themselves with a module, writing their own material, or improvising it at the table. Why put this additional burden on the referee? Is the existence of interesting locations and scenarios really not enough?
There is nothing wrong, of course, with using character motivations (revenge, fear of the law, a common enemy, whatever), but it is this sense that the referee is required to convince the players to go after the adventure that bothers me somewhat. Why should the ref need to push the players ahead to adventure? Haven’t they indicated that they are interested in adventure by sitting down around the gaming table?