I still have a lot to learn about designing well for D&D 4E; I’m by no means an expert. It is, however, significantly easier to see bad design. Here are a few things I’ve noticed that are common failings of would-be 4th Edition designers, whether they intend to publish or just run a home campaign:
1. They won’t buy the game. (No Purchase = No Dedication)
This is the single biggest indicator that someone will produce terrible work. Dungeons & Dragons has a roughly $100 buy-in if you want to be a Dungeon Master. The Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual are all $34.95 each at retail. Boo hoo hoo.
You don’t need to bother to support your local gaming store, after all. You can shop on Amazon, or convince a jaded friend to part with theirs. Maybe you get it for your birthday. It isn’t a matter of how much you spend, really, but the fact you’re willing to put the effort into getting it. You know that guy who shows up to your gaming sessions and never has even a PHB, and is always bumming it off of others, and two years have gone by? Never let that person be DM.
2. They think it’s 3rd Edition. (NPCs Are Not PCs)
Repeat after me:
4th Edition is not 3rd Edition.
It’s a shock, I know. Yet this is certainly the most common cause of bad 4th Edition design. For instance, a +1 bonus is a much bigger deal in 4E than it was in 3E/3.5. Wizards who can take one or two hits are a feature, not a flaw. Minions, elites, and solos matter, and knowing what each of those means is important.
4th Edition is a very flexible system, and monsters and villains especially are much easier to develop within the rules. Someone asked me the other day about creating a necromancer, and was frustrated that there was no necromancer class. I explained the character didn’t need a class, since NPCs are not built the same way as PCs like they were in 3rd Edition. You can literally just give them an ability to summon minions, and as long as you keep it in scale with the appropriate level it isn’t too hard. Learning that scale takes a bit of effort and I’m certainly no master, but like I said, I may not be a great designer, but I know what makes bad design.
3. They think it’s 1st Edition. (Humans Are But One Race )
This one doesn’t deal much with crunch-based design; it’s all about flavor, which believe it or not is equally important. Really this issue tends to crop up more in people who were around to play 1st Edition AD&D in its heyday—and to some extent 2nd Edition—but it’s worth noting for you younger kids as well.
I see this a bit. The DM comes up to me and shows me the latest town the PCs will visit. There’s a human blacksmith, a human mayor, a human wainwright, a human barmaid, a human groundskeeper, a human tour guide…
There are eight races in the Player’s Handbook. Use them.
There is a good mix of races in each of the premade settings for D&D, including the implied setting in the PHB that most DMs are on some level creating for even if they change all the names and move the map around a bit. Typically, there is no good reason the wainwright can’t be a dwarf, the barmaid a dragonborn, and so on. It’s okay for them to not be everywhere in a mostly human kingdom, but they should appear in fairly frequent numbers among the circles PCs encounter.
If you know what you’re doing, you can ignore this, but be sure you actually know and don’t just think you do. (I miss you, Necromancer Games.)