Last time in this series we talked about how 4E is TOO balanced for its own good, and I promised to talk about how to put some fear back in your players' hearts. To recap: the "balanced encounter" paradigm fosters a sense of entitlement in players and strains the bounds of verisimilitude.
How do we fix this? Can it be fixed? 4E D&D has a lot riding on big "set piece" battles. It rewards tactical thinking and battlefield stategery. Some might argue that, as a system, it doesn't support Old-School type gameplay, as it doesn't emphasize exploration, player inquiry into the environment, or randomness. On the first two points, I call Shenanigans. There is no reason a 4E game can't emphasize exploration or player inquiry and ingenuity. Hell, there's no reason you can't implement a hex-based wilderness sandbox grid in a 4E game.
In fact, I would argue that 4E would be great for that type of game! It would require a good chunk of DM prep ahead of time, but it can be done. Random charts for each hex, different warbands ready to go when rolled upon, with a range comprising the entirety of the heroic tier. Randomness is what allows a DM to Bring the Pain! Let the dice fall where they may. If the dice call for a pack of gnolls three levels tougher than the heroes, so be it. Throw it at the players. Beat the crap out of them! Once they learn they can't expect everything to be fair and balanced, they'll start thinking outside the dice. And isn't that kind of the point?
And... I just had a devil's advocate moment. In old-school mega-dungeons, wasn't it generally expected that the first level of the dungeon would contain first level monsters, and second level monsters for the next level down, and so on and so forth. Isn't that completely arbitrary, in pretty much the same way 4E pushes its "balanced encounters"? Do old-school DMs still run Dungeons like that? Just curious!
The final Big Thing about Old School Gaming is Resource Management. This is something that 4E can fully support, as long as that's how your DM runs the game. 4E actually has a lot of different resources that must be managed during play, both in combat and in exploration. The most recent Dark Sun offering is probably the best example of just how well 4E does resource management.
Anyway, this post has given me some inspiration to start building a hex-based sandbox for a 4E campaign. Gonna need a good map...