A detailed review of Fourthcore Alphabet follows, but I believe my thoughts can be summarized effectively with a visual representation. First, look above at Iddy the Lich. He’s the mascot for my blog. He’s cute, he’s cuddly and you just want to pinch his cheek and squeeze him.
Now, take a look at Iddy the Lich after he spent a few hours reading through Fourthcore Alphabet.
Good god almighty! Iddy has been forever changed!
I had previously commissioned the viciously-talented Cat Staggs to draw an image of Iddy the Lich, and I received the art just a few days ago. I’m scared of the image above! Many thanks to Cat for taking on the project, and as luck would have it, the image is a perfect representation for my review of Fouthcore Alphabet. The review below is structured by the questions a DM may ask before committing to the product.
What is Fourthcore?
Fourthcore is another way to play Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition, although themes from the Fourthcore philosophy can be applied to other game systems. Save Versus Death, the creator of Fourthcore, answers this question clearly with the following:
Fourthcore is an unusual genre of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS that departs from some aspects of the game’s design philosophy. While fourthcore doesn’t require different materials or use different rules, it does embrace a set of assumptions that may not be obvious at first glance. It’s important that these assumptions are made clear to everyone playing, as fourthcore can be very jarring and unpleasant for those who aren’t prepared for or don’t understand it.
The assumptions are presented early in Fourthcore Alphabet; challenges are expected to be difficult, deadly, lucrative, over-the-top and bleak. Dungeons are deathtraps where every step could be the character’s last. The adventures are game-oriented, which means that metagaming is encouraged while storytelling takes a back seat.
If the assumptions of Fourthcore are still cloudy, then think about the difference between playing a videogame on Easy and then adjusting the difficulty to Insanity. The structure of the game has not changed, but the intensity and challenge of the game has increase. Where previously armor soaked up hits from the bad guys, one hit will now kill the character. Playing on Insanity becomes a test of mastery over the environment in the game while the story of the game fades into the background. Fourthcore takes elements of Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition design and slides them to Insanity.
What is Fourthcore Alphabet? Do I need to learn a new set of rules or something?
Fourthcore Alphabet is “a reference for D&D 4th Edition Dungeon Masters who are building and running dark, deadly dungeons.” The books features a wealth of ideas to create interesting dungeons though the unique Fourthcore Alphabet. Quite simply, the Fourthcore Alphabet is a listing of elements – A through Z – that fit into the assumptions of Fourthcore listed above.
For example, A is for Altars, E is for Echoes, I is for Idols, O is for Overlords and U is for Undead. (Now I have the A-E~A-E-I-O-U . . . and Sometimes Y song stuck in my head!) Each letter of the Fourthcore Alphabet begins with a few paragraphs to overview how the element can be incorporated into an adventure.
The DM does not need to learn a new set of rules to benefit from the book.
I’m happy playing D&D the way our group has been for the past few years. What if I don’t play Fourthcore?
I had the pleasure of playtesting the Fourthcore module C1: Crucible of the Gods earlier in the year. It was a very different experience for me as the module resulted in approximately eight players deaths, and the group did not even progress halfway through the dungeon! However, my style of DMing is more story-focused and I don’t go out of my way to stack the odds against the players. I enjoy how our game runs and I would not consider our game to be Fourthcore.
I did hold some reservations about purchasing Fourthcore Alphabet specifically because I do not run a Fourthcore-style campaign at the moment. Those reservations were blown away quickly from just flipping through the book. The 65-page book is loaded with ideas for any DM running a campaign. Some dungeon elements may need to be adjusted (for example, save-or-die effects), but the book contains a great amount of flavor, which a DM can incorporate into any 4th Edition campaign.
Quite simply, you do not need to play Fourthcore to benefit from Fourthcore Alphabet.
So, the book is just a bunch of letters? How would I use it?
As mentioned, Fourthcore Alphabet lists 26 dungeon elements A through Z. Each letter of the Fourthcore Alphabet is accompanied by a table based on a d20. For example, A (Altars) includes a table with Features and Powers for an Altar. The book instructs the DM to roll twice on the Features column and once on the Powers column to create an altar that can be plugged into a dungeon.
The book has 26 dungeon elements and approximately 60 columns across the various element tables. Plus, some of the d20 tables are extended to 2d20 tables; instead of 20 options, there are 40. There are over 1,560 ideas listed in Fourthcore Alphabet to get a DM’s creative energies flowing.
For example, I created a small village near a quarry along a mountainside last month. I placed a fountain near the center of the village just to add some flavor, but I did not design anything beyond that; it was just an old fountain. My players were drawn to it and explored it, but I was not prepared to have the fountain mean anything. If I had Fourthcore Alphabet, then I could have opened the book to F (Fountains) and used the d20 tables to quickly design a fountain that had specific Fluids, Adornments and Properties.
The book is fun and interesting to flip through, but a DM could generate multiple ideas for dungeon features and adventure hooks from reading through it. As discussed above, it can also be a useful in-game resource to create on-the-fly adventure elements if an unexpected dungeon feature is required. In the future, I will keep Fourthcore Alphabet readily available before and during sessions!
How much does it cost? Is it worth it?
I purchased the PDF because I really wanted to write a review to go along with Cat Stagg’s version of Iddy the Lich above (it just seemed so perfect!). I may buy the softcover version to add to my collection in the future, but the PDF prints out cleanly and using a copier to make it double-sided, it’s an easily transportable 33 pages.
As I mentioned earlier, Fourthcore Alphabet offers over 1,560 ideas to inspire DMs running 4th Edition campaigns. By my math skills (always suspect!), that means a DM would pay 0.004 cents per idea in the book. Think about the various things that are routinely purchased during the week; one will spend more on a Subway Combo Meal than Fourthcore Alphabet.
I believe the inspiration a DM can draw from Fourthcore Alphabet is worth the price alone. However, the 26 d20 (and in some cases, 2d20) tables, which can be used to create countless features for an adventure, are fantastic. Plus, the book features art by Ego Check veteran, Brian Patterson, of d20monkey fame. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the book.
I do not believe anyone will purchase the book and complain, “Man, this sucks. What a waste of money!” On the contrary, I think the price point is extremely fair as I can only imagine how many hours it took to create and complete the book. Thank you, Save Versus Death.
Buy this book today. It does not disappoint.