Dungeon Delve: 4th Edition

A while back I wrote in a post that I had been absent from Dungeons and Dragons for large portions of 3rd Edition and returned around the release of 4th. For me 4th edition was quite different than the RPG games I had left off with insomuch as it deviated pretty hard away from theater of the mind. 4th didn’t just encourage but required the use of miniatures for both players and monsters along with grid based combat maps. For my personal preference I found that especially for new players the battlemap made them focus too much on what they were seeing and less on what was described. Certainly this was not all on them or on the design of 4th because as the DM I shared the blame for not adapting properly to the system and my players. Perhaps at some point in the future I’ll write a more detailed post about where things fell apart for me and 4th but for now I’d like to focus on some positives.

Years on and quite deep into 5th edition it’s easier to look back and appreciate the things that 4th did right and there is one in particular I’d really like to talk about today: items. Shiny loot that we use to reward our players for adventuring out into our worlds and facing its dangers while exploring its mysteries. These are some of the most important things you can use to add flavor to your world, empower your players or in some cases introduce conflict. They run the gamut from useless to humorous and from world saving to world ending. 5th edition has a plethora to take advantage of and more importantly its easy for DMs to create their own to sprinkle throughout the world. The question is, what did 4th do that’s missing from 5th? 

First let’s do a quick breakdown of what item classifications exist in the game to begin with and why they’re valuable rewards for players.

At the base level we’ll start with adventuring gear, tools and utility items which characters usually acquire because of a prior proficiency with it due to their race, class or background.

Some of these include-

Thieve’s Tools 

Cartographer’s Tools

Tinker’s Tools

Smith’s Tools

Woodcarver’s Tools 

While not a comprehensive list each one of these pieces mechanically allows characters to use their proficiency bonus with checks that could be made using these tools further augmenting their chances at success. A recent supplement to 5e, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, also laid out some additional uses to further expand the part they play for characters in the game.

For instance the Cartographer’s Tools augment skill checks on things like Arcana, History and Religion when trying to glean extra information from a map that perhaps includes a cryptic legend or markings. Nature and Survival can also be augmented while using a map allowing a character to assist in charting courses, avoiding dangers or surviving particularly rough terrain. Players can and should also use this while their parties are traveling to create maps they can refer back to later, with the assistance of the DM. Xanathar’s also includes a list of activities that players can undertake with potential DCs for DMs to apply to those activities.

These include-

  • Determining a map’s age and origin.
  • Estimating a direction and distance to a landmark.
  • Discerning whether a map is fake.
  • Filling in a missing part of a map based on available information.

Naturally DMs are free to expand on these uses as they see fit and players certainly should attempt to find creative uses for their characters talents that may otherwise not occur within the written rules.

Other such items that fall within this basic gear list are things like a Climber’s Kit, Disguise Kit, Healer’s Kit and, Poisoner’s Kit. These kits come with supplies that are included when purchased and like tools allow characters to add their proficiency bonus’ to relevant checks.

Outside of these specialized kits there is a veritable laundry list of items characters can purchase or find in their travels to make small or even big tasks somewhat easier. Everything from an abacus to a whetstone which is useful for more than just your everyday cutlery. Beyond these utility items characters will also start with some basic clothes, armor and weapons to assist in their penchant for poking their noses where danger lurks. The fun really begins when DMs start rewarding or players start finding their first magical items of which there is a huge breadth of possibilities that can affect your campaign in major ways. Some of the earliest rewards will probably be in the way of money or other valuables that can help the party purchase higher quality gear but every once in a while they’ll stumble upon something that is truly unique. Early on it might be a +1 weapon of some sort which effectively is a weapon with just a little extra oomph to it. Of course they could be lucky enough to stumble upon something like a Holy Avenger which not only packs a much larger punch but has abilities of it’s own that players can take advantage of. While 5e has a lot of very cool legendary and artifact weapons for players to eventually gain access to I think it leaves a lot up to the DM to fill out these slots in the middling levels to give them interesting and cool things to augment their players. This is where I have found myself turning back to 4e for it’s rather impressive collection of items and some that actually go off the beaten path a bit.

Let me start with one that originally surprised me to find in the supplements at all: Tattoos. This actually isn’t an unfamiliar “item” for myself and some of my friends who played MUDs growing up, several of which actually had tattoos as items you could pick up and put on your character. Each of them came with stats and some additional affects and honestly its been something that I’ve really wanted a chance to implement into my D&D. As it happens on pg83 of the 4e Adventurer’s Vault 2 supplement they have the guidelines for characters obtaining magical tattoos in the game.

Backlash Tattoo

Boars, sharks, and other creatures that enter a frenzy when wounded are used for this tattoo.

Wonderous Item: 4,200gp

Property: The first time you’re bloodied during an encounter, you can make a basic attack as an immediate reaction.

If a tattoo that only affects the person wearing it isn’t enough then don’t worry because next up they also have bonded tattoos which when all worn in visible locations by the party allow for group bonuses.

Quick-Step Tattoo

Cheetahs, panthers, and other fast predators serve well for these tattoos.

Wonderous Item: 2,600gp

Property: When you spend an action point to take an extra action, each ally you can see who also has a quick-step tattoo can shift 1 square as a free action. 

In addition to all the mechanical reasons that these can increase enjoyment for the players there is also the storytelling aspect. Many characters I’ve encountered have varying amounts of tattoos or least talk about getting them and adding in the ability to effect how their character plays is a win for everyone. It also opens up the opportunity for enchanted tattoos to play a more utilitarian roles for people who like to think outside the box.

The next on my list of interesting items to borrow from 4th comes in the shape of Immurements which if you’re not familiar with the mechanic or the word, I don’t blame you, I wasn’t either.

First off a helping hand before we get into it-

Immurement (from Latin im- “in” and murus “wall”; literally “walling in”) is a form of imprisonment, usually for life, in which a person is placed within an enclosed space with no exits. 

This is one of the coolest things that I never got to play around with in 4e and if I’m perfectly honest I didn’t even know about these things until a year or two ago. These wonderful things occupy three whole pages in the Adventurer’s Vault 2, 89-91, and I honestly wish they had been more prominent.

An immurement is a rare form of magical prison that contains a place that has been sealed away from the rest of the world. The enchantments placed on immurements are fragile; when an immurement’s power is expended in a blast, it releases the terrain and effects contained within it into the blast area for a short time.” 

  • Adventurer’s Vault 2, pg 88

With as little commentary as possible I’m going to try and let the item speak for itself –

Immurement of Arcane Suspension

This chunk of earth feels as light as a feather.

Other Consumable 21,000 gp

Power (Daily): Move Action. You can move 4 squares vertically and then 1 square horizontally. At the start of your next turn, you float safely to the ground. This power is lost when you use the immurement’s consumable power.

Power (Consumable): Standard Action. You destroy this immurement and change the terrain in a close blast 8 until the end of the encounter. Replace the terrain in the blast with the following terrain effects.

  • The marked areas tear themselves free of the ground (and any moorings they’re attached to) and rise to float 4 squares above the ground. A creature on one of these floating sections has cover against creatures on the ground.
  • There are shallow pits where the ground pulls away. Treat these areas as difficult terrain.
  • At the start of your turn, shift each floating object 1 square in any direction. Creatures on the object move with it.
  • The other terrain in the area doesn’t change.

Special: Using this item counts as a use of a magic item daily power.

It is difficult for me to describe just how much I love this and the great part is that all of this is pretty easily transferable to 5E even without the use of a grid system or the battlemats. Being a PC or DM on either side of someone crushing one of these and radically altering the layout of a battlefield to me is a pretty awesome visual. Not to mention that as soon as I read about these it sparked a lot of cool ideas about narrative implications of magic like this being used in the world. Overall I think in particular this is an item that should see future use in D&D campaigns.

Last but absolutely not least brings me to one of my favorite discoveries when it comes to items in 4e: Item Sets.

This is one of those concepts that makes sense as soon as you hear it, especially if you spend any time in loot based video games, and I think doesn’t see nearly enough use in tabletop RPGs. I’m sure people do use these in their homebrews and whatnot but as someone who religiously browses places where people post their ideas I see very few if any mentions of item sets.

Some magic items were made to work together. When all the items belonging to a set are collected and wielded in unison, their power becomes greater than the sum of their parts. Depending on how much of a magic item set has been assembled, its collective items can grant additional qualities, different properties, and new powers to their wielders.

  • Adventurer’s Vault 2, pg 92

These sets come in four different flavors, those being-

  • Heroic Tier Item Sets
  • Paragon Tier Item Sets
  • Epic Tier Item Sets
  • Group Item Sets

One of the things that struck me about these was that they were not limited to simply high level play and instead could be spread out through the life of a campaign. Among other things this adds additional layers of storytelling and narrative threads that can easily run alongside the main story at any table.

Like I did before I want to run through one of many available sets just to functionally how they work and the one I’ve chosen is the Golden Lion’s Battle Regalia.

Credit to the amazing Chris Seaman who still does art for Wizards of The Coast. Art from pg99 of the Adventurer’s Vault 2.

A legendary barbarian chieftain of the great deserts, the Golden Lion of Summer was a warrior renowned for her single-minded ferocity and military cunning. Her cloak, gauntlets, and boots were fashioned from the hide of a desert lion, and her weapons bore mark of that fearsome beast.

  • Adventurer’s Vault 2, pg 98

Each of these sets as written in the book comes with a list of history blurbs available at varying DC checks for the characters who may hear the tale of this armor and want to know more. For the set itself lets take a look at what items comprise it, what they do and what set bonuses come along with it. Its also important to note that the items themselves are spread across a few different levels, in this particular sets case the item levels are from 2 to 5+. Effectively this gives the DM a time range when the player can be tracking down and acquiring the pieces to this set in order to keep it balanced within the game.

Items of the set are-

  • Hungry spear, level 2+.

A roaring lion engraved on the head of this spear pins your foe in place while you close for the kill. 

Power (Encounter): Standard Action. Make a ranged basic attack with this spear. On a hit, the target is also immobilized (save ends). The spear doesn’t return to you until the immobilized effect on the target imposed by this weapon is ended.

  • Swiftpad boots, level 3.

These supple boots lend a lion’s strength to your leaps.

Power (Daily): Move Action. You jump a number of squares equal to your Strength modifier.

  • Cloak of the lion’s mane, level 4+.

This lionskin cloak bestows the majest of that desert predator upon you to strike fear into the hearts of your foes.

Power (Daily): Free Action. Trigger: You reduce an enemy to 0 hit points. Effect: Each enemy within 5 squares of you takes a -2 penalty to attack rolls until the end of your next turn.

  • Lion’s claw gauntlets, level 5.

These gauntlets, crafted from a lion’s paws, help overcome the toughest adversaries.

Property: When you make a weapon attack that targets Fortitude and your attack roll is 20 or lower, add a +1 item bonus to the roll.

  • Thane blood weapon, level 5+.

Each time you drop an enemy, the bloodlust in your allies mounts.

Property: When you use this weapon to reduce an enemy to 0 hit points, you and each ally adjacent to you gain a +2 item bonus to your next attack roll before the end of the encounter.

While on their own each of these is powerful as the character pieces the entire set together there are even more additional effects that come along with it, eventually reaching its full potential. It’s also important to note that while any of these sets are generally geared more toward one class than another there is no restriction on who can wear it as long as they can wield or wear the various pieces.

Set Bonuses –

3 Pieces – When you’re adjacent to three or more enemies you can see, you gain a +1 bonus to attack rolls.

5 Pieces – Your roar of triumph power increases to a close burst 7. When you use your swift charge power, you gain a +2 bonus to speed until the end of your next turn.

A lot of 4th edition design didn’t exactly work for me but I do have to give them credit where it’s due especially in the area of the magic item design and others but that’s for another post. While many people may not play this edition of Dungeons and Dragons anymore its important to remember just how worthwhile the books can be as inspiration for our ongoing games. I still regularly revisit these supplements to find inspiration for narrative threads, characters, items, even so far as to look for skills or spells to bring forward into my games. The same goes for resources even prior to 3rd edition D&D which came with quite a few amazing mainline and third party supplements to draw fuel from for our games.

I hope that this exposed some of you to things you might have missed if you only started in the most recent edition or even some of you like me who had played previously and simply never got far enough in to see these things.

Lastly, we may in general terms thank the hard working folks who bring us this content year after year but in this specific case I’d love to thank Robert Heinsoo who was the lead designer for 4th edition and his amazing team. Regardless of my overall feelings on the product itself I respect the titanic amount of creative effort it took to build it effectively from the ground up.

That’s it for me right now, until next time, happy rolling!

  • Non-Washable

P.S. Here is a video I enjoyed from Matt Colville about using 4e to augment combat in 5e. Lots of good info, ideas and commentary about the history of 4th edition!

3 thoughts on “Dungeon Delve: 4th Edition

  1. I like Tattoos, but I like linking them to story-line. Perhaps you have to earn them. The Tattoo has to commemorate a real event. Or perhaps you have to get them in conjunction with someone else to complete a story theme (CF some Polynesian traditions), and then of course the benefit of the tattoo would apply when you help each other. Tattoos that re-enforce moral values or other personality characteristics with game rule functions are also fun.

    1. Great point and I agree! One of the best things about all of these is how much potential there is to tie them into the narrative. Whether that is through character backgrounds, overarching world story or regional customs/morality it all adds depth and flavor to the world and new aspects for your PCs to play around with.

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