The Seven-Sided Die

The D&D 4e Rust Monster provides no risk

Posted Tuesday July 07, 2009 at 06:56 PM

This is the post I should have written about the Rust Monster. Reading a comment by Chgowiz that he left at the Gamer Dome last month made me realise that I am too forceful when I write about 4e. I tend to write in reaction to the most inflammatory and content-free boosters of 4e rather than the reasonable, even-keeled players of the latest edition of D&D; unsurprisingly my own writing on the subject reflects that inflammatory rancor. It feels justified when compared to the bile-spewing commentors and bloggers, but it's petty and childish when measured by the standard set by the more gracious bloggers. Besides which, swilling that venom for the amount of time it takes to write a blog post can't be good for my well-being.

I'm going to try for analysis instead of trying to viciously savage 4e as if it kicked my dog. (Feedback on where I fail or succeed is welcome.) This won't be opinion-free, because the reason to analyse 4e is to better understand why I like the games that I do and what about 4e makes it not a game I like.

The version of the Rust Monster in 4e is a significant divergence, mechanically, from earlier versions. This is largely because there is no niche within 4e that the old Rust Monster could usefully fill. The way that the creature was rewritten reveals something about the design space that 4e has delimited. Certain things that existed in previous versions simply don't fall within those borders anymore; because the Rust Monster had to be brought from outside the design space to inside, how it has changed in the process reflects the borders of that design space.

In 3e and earlier, the Rust Monster represented a certain amount of risk. It's mere existence in the Monster Manual put characters at risk of losing good magic items since it could ambush them at any moment. If the DM wasn't a dick and used the Rust Monster in a way that made it a clear danger that could be engaged or not, it still presented a risk: give up on whatever the the Rust Monster is blocking or risk having your precious stuff eaten.

4e's Rust Monster eliminates its role as a source of risk. It's a specialised debuff that only works on PCs already benefitting from certain kinds of buffs. Its mere existence in the game canon presents no more risk than any other creature that can temporarily reduce the effectiveness of the PCs. Actually encountering a Rust Monster is not so much a threat as it once was. Fleeing is certainly not going to be the first and smartest choice in 4e. In fact, if there is an item that a PC wants to disenchant, there's incentive for engaging the Rust Monster in combat and deliberately getting that item eaten.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this does not make the Rust Monster a risk. Certainly there is some risk, but it's only the risk of a temporary debuff, which is a run-of-the-mill thing in 4e. Comparing that Rust Monster to previous versions, I'm going to call a temporary debuff no risk at all.

For how I want to play, risk is a necessary ingredient. Risk provides the opportunity to make meaningful choices that distinguish one character from the next. There are other kinds of choices in 4e, especially in character building and optimisation, but those sub-games aren't why I play roleplaying games. Those choices don't reveal anything about the character, just about the player. What is this character willing to risk, to get what they want? What ideals do they (or don't they) choose to fight for? What do they fear so much that flight is the only reasonable course of action? Are they willing to risk the Winged Plate of Acoden meeting an ignoble end in the belly of a Rust Monster in order to pursue their destiny like a hero? Or will they run like a mercenary? Are they willing to backtrack, stash their metal equipment in another room, and risk meeting something nastier than a Rust Monster or having their gear discovered by enemies before they reclaim it?

Risk also makes rewards meaningful. Part of what doesn't suit me about 4e is that reward is assumed. A PC is owed rewards for the mere fact of surviving. They don't have to make good decisions, take risks for a chance to get lucky, explore beyond the obvious, or try clever things. As long as they find and kill badguys, the treasure will be placed in front of them where they can't miss it. "Reward" that is guaranteed, that is not earned, is no longer a reward for anything.

The Rust Monster is another expression of this philosophy that treasure is a right for adventurers, not something that is earned. The old Rust Monster made sense in 2e and earlier because treasure wasn't a right, but something earned by playing a smart adventurer and as easily lost through poor play. 3e was an interesting wrinkle by that measure. It retained the idea of rewards being something earned, given that there were nasty Rust Monsters and that it was possible to "miss" finding all the treasure, but also assumed that the PCs would have access to a certain amount of magical items according to their level. 3e was really a hybrid game, harking back to its roots in AD&D but also foreshadowing what was to come in 4e.

In the end, risk-free entertainment isn't something I'm interested in. I don't think it makes for a very good roleplaying game, although I can see how it can be straight-up entertaining in its own right. There's a certain amount of sense to the idea that it's not fun to have your vehicle for enjoying the game seriously hampered, but that does assume that the audience isn't interested in choices and consequences, just the raw entertainment of following a hero with a manifest destiny. I prefer that my choices make a difference in the destiny of my characters, for good or ill. That is what I find entertaining.

Comments (20)

Sean Holland

Tuesday July 07, 2009 at 08:14 PM

Interesting point. It all falls into the obsession with game balance in 4e and that mean that everyone has to have the same level of treasure as well as the some power level of class abilities and well as . . . it goes on and on. To the point where I just have trouble caring about the character that the numbers are suppose to represent.

Admittedly, I have not played much 4e as it simply does not appeal to me much as a system and the above is partly why.

Sean Holland’s last blog post: Tuesday Magic Item – Shield Bracelets


Tuesday July 07, 2009 at 08:22 PM

I like your post because it isn't a rant or a rave. You state your feelings and opinions in a logical way, and I must say I agree with your statement.

In 4e, treasure and magical items do feel that they are given after each session/encounter. I mean, and I may be getting the name wrong, the whole reward parcel or package or whatever, was something I wasn't comfortable with at all.

I love 3.5, but I do agree with you on that it is a hybrid system and shows a precursor to 4e.

I started playing in 2e and I remember that when you got a magical weapon you CHERISHED it, at least in the games I played in and ran. I remember being a rogue in a game, got a magical dagger at level 2 and used that thing for almost a year of play till lvl 8-10, because there wasn't that whole reward thing. Oh sure we made money and stole money and a few other magical items, but there wasn't this "I'm level 5, I should have X magic items by now.."

Oh well systems changes and fads come and go.. But it doesn't mean we have to play em~.< I'm sticking with 3.5 and Savage Worlds for my kicks!

wrathofzombie’s last blog post: Enter the Five Blades


Tuesday July 07, 2009 at 09:20 PM

You sound like someone complaining about how kids have it easy these days because one used to have to walk seven miles to school barefoot in the snow.

The Rust Monster provides even more risk in 4e than in previous editions precisely because bonuses from magical equipment are baked in to the game balance. If you lose your magic sword, you are well and truly screwed until you can get a replacement. I ran a Rust Monster in a game over the weekend, and my PCs were absolutely terrified to the point of running headlong out of the dungeon to get mundane wooden weapons and hide armor. This was in an encounter that had other critters that posed serious risks to the PCs if they engaged without being in top form.

And you know what? It was fun because it was used in an entertaining way rather than using rusty to try and take back in-game what the DM never should have handed out.

If the designer plans on having fantastic rewards without making them integral to game balance, you get an unsustainable mess.

For what it's worth, I find most of the bile and nastiness coming from people opposed to 4e. Frankly, 4e positive bloggers spend more time making positive content and less time crapping on everyone else.


Tuesday July 07, 2009 at 10:36 PM

LOL, you're still sweating the stupid rust monster? Jeez, go play a game you like, stop dwelling on one you don't.


Tuesday July 07, 2009 at 10:53 PM

A nice analysis. I agree that 3.x is a kind of halfway house between the old and new D&D culture, in that:

A) It fixes a lot of scaling and inter-character balancing problems that exist with older editions, which is good thing...

B) ...but then makes the mistake of scaling and balancing the adventuring environment as well, with too much clinical precision.

In doing so, 3.x includes magical gear in its challenge rating calculations, leading to an default expectation of the magical power level of a typical campaign - and feeding the chimera of player entitlement.

These are aspects of 3.x that went straight out of the window at the outset when I started running it - because of course, the DM is not obliged to follow the formulaic approaches suggested.

But my impression is that many playing groups have embraced the new painting-by-numbers approach to balanced encounters, managed risk and predictable rewards. My own theory is that it resonates with the formulaic design philosophy of much computer-based gaming.

Yes, I know it's a tired cliché that 4e is supposedly tabletop WoW, and I'm certainly not going to try to support that claim here. However, I cannot help suspecting, from my own personal experiences, that many a gamer's RP style has undergone changes since they started hanging around in Azeroth when away from the table.

I'm not saying that people who play WoW are rendered totally incapable of good roleplay, mind. But it affects their expectations of the way the game is structured, I think. Much as the old-schoolers like to lay the blame for less imaginative play at the door of heavyweight rulesets, I think the influence of computer games - essentially, rubbish roleplaying games with good graphics and fast combat resolution - is at least as much to blame.

Lurkinggherkin’s last blog post: Quest For The Hanging Glacier - Part 5


Tuesday July 07, 2009 at 11:00 PM

While I'm on the subject, you might like to check out a related discussion I've been having on Gamegrene about the value of asymmetric encounters.

Lurkinggherkin’s last blog post: Quest For The Hanging Glacier - Part 5


Tuesday July 07, 2009 at 11:53 PM

Heh heh only 1/3 of the commenters are meatheads this time. Did it work?

mxyzplk’s last blog post: I Return! Eat My Links!


Wednesday July 08, 2009 at 12:24 AM

I'm going to assume your sincere.

In our D&D world wide game day lots of players lost their shirts. Here is the key, when it is full, it runs away. Paired with monsters that immobilize, as in the D&D game day adventure, it easily gets away.

When I ran it the players first only saw the rust monster, then after the combat started did they get introduced to the beetles that buried them up to their waists and immobilized them. That is when the players get to watch the rust monster running away.

Also consider that as it attacks the steel wielding PC's are at an increasingly bad disadvantage.

Sure the 'Guide to using the rust monster' is very kind to PC's, but it is only a guide, it isn't a rule.


Wednesday July 08, 2009 at 12:26 AM

mxyzplk, uh, I count two, maybe now three. :)

Wednesday July 08, 2009 at 04:14 AM


Now this is a good post; well-written and with substance.

Also, you seem to have acquired a dedicated troll. That is a sign of fame and influence.’s last blog post: Two months of links

Callan S.

Wednesday July 08, 2009 at 04:29 AM

I basically agree about watered down (to practically nothing) risk.

However, I always found the phrase 'If the GM isn't a dick...' to water down risk as well. Because if, as GM, I'm likely to be called a dick if I drop in a rust monsters, are you really under threat of rust monsters? Or am I too scared of being called a dick to bring one in and your just in the illusion of thinking a rust monster could show up? When really I'm too scared of social sanctioning for doing so?

But yeah, here it seems the mechanical risk of a rust monster, even if its used, has been watered down to not much. There seems to be lots of bookwork in the most recent editions of D&D, but with a fairly predictable result. It's like all the dice rolling and number comparing is just there to give the impression something dramatic is going on, while in the end the result is fairly predicable.

And I'm not sure about the supposed troll - it could have been said constructively. It is relatively true - though true things can be said in mean spirited ways.

Callan S.’s last blog post: Design Effort Vs Predictable results: One solution

The Chatty DM

Wednesday July 08, 2009 at 02:35 PM

Excellent post dear sir, I salute your exercise in self-restraint and writing.

While I'm a somewhat notorious 4e proponent, my old school roots cringed at the 4e version of the Rust Monster. I somewhat believe that it should not have been created in the first place.

I agree that the Rust Monster is no longer about risk. Risk in 4e no lie elsewhere, mostly in protecting one's HPs vs monsters or possibly in meeting story goals but that's outside mechanics.

That being said, were I to use it on my players, I'd totally make it into a "eat and run" encounter, making the players invest some of their time in seeking out the escaped Rust Monster before a set time limit (DM controlled) or lose the item forever.

Heck we could write a Dragon article about how the % of loss of an item's value occurs over time.

The Chatty DM’s last blog post: 4e Lessons: The Penny Arcade/PVP D&D Podcast, Part 1


Wednesday July 08, 2009 at 05:44 PM

I have to say that I see the merit in your entire post, the removal of risk is a big deal with the design of 4E and I can see that being a reasonable problem for many players.

However, I think both for older editions and for 4E the onus always falls to the DM. In older editions, a really bad DM could destroy the game for a player with one badly placed rust monster. Not to be rude, but the entire point of your post can be nullified by one small change by the DM. If your DM is running 4E in a way that there is high risk, let's say his rust monsters give lower value risiduum and you have no opportunities to re-enchant an item for weeks, then the whole issue is moot. As long as these things are clear from the start, then the players can't call you a dick about it.

I do see the appeal though of older editions and the risk aspect, plus at least then the DM can fall back on the rules when they're called names. :)

Bartoneus’s last blog post: 4E: Psion – by the Numbers


Thursday July 09, 2009 at 12:19 AM

@Sean: Just so. I do think that there's some variation, but I feel about the same way about undue balance. It takes away much of the feel of difference between the classes. I never minded that rogues were underpowered compared to paladins, before 4e. In a stand-up fight, the paladin should damn well win! A thief of equal level is better at other things that aren't combat.

@wrathofzombie: Thanks! I think I hit the right balance so that it stands as a critique rather than a rant (I'm unlikely to rave about 4e these days), and your note confirms that a bit. :)

I've always loved the treasure. I dished out for the overpriced Encyclopedia Magica on eBay, I love magic items so much. Opening that chapter in the DMG or those four colourful books was always a trip into the fantastic. Given that's where I was coming from, 4e's treasure chapter nearly made me cry when I opened my brand-new books.

The idea of magic items as rare and cherished treasures in their own right, not just because of the plusses, is important to me. It makes the world feel less like it exists just to spoon-feed power to my character and more like a living, breathing place that is worth exploring. Who knows what riches, or danger, might be around the next corner?

Incidentally, that's my only beef with Savage Worlds: at least one of the XP granted after the session is a gimme, which means it's not a reward for the character's accomplishments. I know that it works on a different level by rewarding the player for participation, but it makes SW less than a perfect match for an old-style sandbox game.

@Anonymous: I'm not sure if you actually expect a civil answer, considering your name and fake email address, but you make good points.

I did try to say that 4e serves a different purpose than roleplaying as I know it. I can't help but think that it was designed for entertainment that is free of the personal emotionally-challenging moments, such as when one's favourite sword is eaten or favourite character gets killed by a bad roll or nasty trap. I can't help but think that, because 4e is designed in such a way that those things, except for character death, have been removed from the game.

It sounds like your players respected the rust monster, and that you used it in a way that suits 4e well. That's great. I don't think we're talking on the same level, though: did they run because they were afraid of permanent loss of their stuff, or because they feared for their combat effectiveness in the short term? I don't find the latter very interesting, personally, for the reasons I wrote about in the OP.

For what it's worth, I count using "rusty" to rake back magic items that the DM regrets giving the PCs as "being a dick", as I also wrote about. Using it as an ambush damages the risk/reward equation, since there's no way for the players to make an informed decision about risking their stuff.

@Tom: Hi Tom! You seem to be really hung up on the timeliness of a blog post. You should get that looked at? Meanwhile, I'll keep writing about whatever I please!

If you want to have a real conversation, please do start a real conversation. Alternatively, "go [read] a [blog] you like, stop dwelling on one you don't," to lift a quote. Cheers!


Thursday July 09, 2009 at 03:22 AM

@Lurkinggherkin: Your post on asymmetric encounters is great, and I see just how it relates to reward and risk. It's all about players needing to make informed choices in order to do well.

I like your observation that videogames have altered our expectations of how a game is structured. There are lots of simplistic takes on the similarity between 4e and videogames, but they tend to harp on superficial resemblances. That videogames set up the expectation of certain structures of play is a much more meaningful comparison.

Based on that, though, I'd have to say that 4e resembles WoW less than it resembles 3e. Consider: to get that awesome magic item in WoW, you either have to track it down in the world, beat the Big Bad that drops it, and then maybe you get it if it actually drops; or you have to make nice with other people in order for them to give it to you if they chance upon it. It's actually easier in 4e (as written—some DMs will run it otherwise) to get desired magic items than it is in WoW, since they just drop in your lap.

@mxyzplk: There's some good discussion on the "other" rust monster post, but yes, it had much more the desired effect. Imagine! Being un-ascerbic and un-offensive actually makes for better discussions! ;)

@dar: That's very interesting. Running it that way puts it almost on par with the old rust monster since the eaten item is (probably) permanently lost. It's not quite on par, since in 4e it can only eat one item per encounter and it's an increasingly bad disadvantage rather than instant. But still, that's significant risk.

I wonder though, how running it that way will interact with general player expectations. Will they think that's a "dick move"? Given that the system assumes a certain amount of magic in the possession of each PC, will they expect to be compensated with a replacement item? If there are players who can grudgingly respect and appreciate a rust monster used that way, then I don't have anything to worry about.

@thanuir: Thank you. Your vote of confidence in particular means quite a bit, as your even-handed treatment of wide-ranging topics is an example worth following.

The troll is cute. I'm not sure how I earned it since the DM of World of Wordpress won't let us players look at the rules for accidentally acquiring pets. It should be good for flinging down suspicious corridors to set off traps.

@Callan: I'm not so concerned with the possibility of merely being called a dick GM, since I do think there are good ways of judging the dickness, or lack thereof, of any given GM action. If my motives in using a rust monster were to get rid of troublesome magic items, ambushing the PCs with one would be a dick move in my books. If the PCs crept over a crest to scout along a gully, only to spot a rust monster hanging out at the far end in front of the Cave of Wonder that they're looking for, they'd have no legs to stand on if they said that was a dick move. They know what's at stake, so they can damn well figure out how—and whether—they want to deal with ol' rusty. :)

@Chatty: Thank you!

I'm not so sure now that the 4e rust monster isn't about some kind of risk, especially if used in that kind of "eat and run" way that you, dar, and Anonymous suggest.

I agree that the 4e rust monster shouldn't have been created in the first place. I'm not really sure what the motive was for porting it, since it's original raison d'être is antithetical to the design goals at Wizards. It occurs to me now that, possibly, it's not about recreating the rust monster at all. It may be more about mining older editions for interesting design inspirations, the way some movies are "based on" a true story but really just used it for piecemeal plot and character elements.

@Bartoneus: It's true, 4e could be bent in such a way that magic items weren't taken as a given, and that significant and damaging loss for the PCs was a known possibility. I do think that as-written the way 4e works is important to consider despite the ability to change it, because of experiences like UncleBear's when he tried that at a con.

Granted it'd be more likely to work with friends in an established gaming group. At that point I have to wonder, though: if the expectations of the system are being significantly altered and a bunch of houserules need to be generated, what's the remaining advantage of using 4e over any other system?

Bad DMs in older editions, though... yeah. Bad DMs were much worse in those.


Thursday July 09, 2009 at 12:48 PM

"At that point I have to wonder, though: if the expectations of the system are being significantly altered and a bunch of houserules need to be generated, what's the remaining advantage of using 4e over any other system?"

For me, 4E is the edition of D&D that my friends and I have had to houserule the least. Essentially your comment can be directed at any edition of D&D, and depending on the person, it changes! I suppose that's why we like the game so damn much. :)

Bartoneus’s last blog post: 4E: Psion – by the Numbers


Thursday July 09, 2009 at 04:42 PM

Well yes. :) If a game already plays substantially the way you want and you don't need to houserule it much, then it's a good fit. That it could be houseruled to fit a substantially different style of play doesn't mean it should be, is all I meant.

Alexandra Erin

Wednesday August 05, 2009 at 11:46 PM

I was pleased but not surprised when the Rust Monster was left out of the MM, because it seemed like it would have been badly out of place in the new edition... I understand people have differing tastes, but to me every step away from the "GOTCHA!" style pioneered by Gary Gygax {PBUH} with his wargaming buddies is a good thing. Save-or-die attacks and screw-you monsters might not have been off-putting to people who were coming from a milieu where individual "characters" didn't count for much and the idea of a hero whose existence counted for something in and of itself was sheer novelty, but they don't really enhance the gaming experience for me.

I mean, credit where credit is due... we wouldn't have 4E without 0E... but I think that original flavor D&D established the idea that "challenge" meant "there is a significant chance that you will not roll well enough to not get screwed outright," and I don't think that was beneficial to the game. 4E's done a good job of changing the definition of "challenge" to mean a fight you'll have a better chance of winning if you think on your feet and work together.

(Sidenote: if you look at the old classics... scavenger creatures that paralyze, trolls that regenerate, slow-moving walls of digestive acid that are practically invisible to the naked eye... there are a lot of things in the D&D bestiary that probably represented "Rust Monster" levels of dickery when they were first sprung on someone.)

So, anyway, I was surprised when they put the Rust Monster back in for the second one... but then, a lot of things that were cut from the first one (including Hydras with regenerating heads and Beholders with anti-magic eyes) made it in. I think it was a matter of having to rethink the old standards to fit the new paradigm.

(I'd call the Hydra and Rust Monster implementations hits. The Beholder's anti-magic eye? Not so much.)

Rust Monsters still pose a unique threat: they debuff in a way that nothing else does, and they have a debuff that can hit PCs where it hurts and that can last beyond a single encounter.

Before if the PCs knew there was a Rust Monster there, they would blast it with magic to take it out quickly or they would avoid it... and if they didn't know it was there, it was a major screw you from the DM. Now PCs facing Rust Monsters are facing an actual dilemma: outside of a few very specific builds (and given that the Rust Monster has no allies with abilities to counter those builds), there's no way to end the fight on the first round. If they engage, they are risking their magic items. Not all of them and not forever, but what do you do if your magic sword or implement or armor that's both an integral part of your game mechanical bonuses and a personal part of your character's story (God, I love how 4E doesn't treat magic wands as the equivalent of disposable cameras or prepaid cellphones) is suddenly removed from play for the duration of a battle, or for the rest of the adventure?

Sure, if you've got an enchanter with the party you could remake the weapon without going back to town... but if you're in the middle of infiltrating a hostile location, and you stop to do a ritual... that's just asking for a fight where one party member is busy doing a ritual and potentially another one is down an important piece of equipment.

To me, that kind of thing is a more interesting consequence than "SHIT SHIT SHIT FUCK COCKSUCKING GOD DAMN IT MY EQUIPMENT IS GONE! FUCKING HELL!"... and with interesting consequences a possibility of encountering a Rust Monster, I have to say they now pose an interesting risk.


Thursday August 06, 2009 at 12:50 AM

Absolutely, the 4e rust monster works well for the 4e paradigm. I know it really suits some players. My point is that the 4e paradigm doesn't suit all players.

I've never played D&D when I wanted to play a game that took it for granted that the PCs were heroes. What I enjoyed about D&D was the uncertainty of success, which made every gain meaningful in its own right, and which made the title of "hero" something that was earned with long effort. When I want to play a game where the PCs are already and forevermore the heroes of a cinematic story, there are other systems I turn to.

The rust monster is called out in this post because it illustrates how 4e is different from all prior incarnation of D&D in a way that makes it incompatible with how I have always played D&D.

The way I see it, if a world full of paralytic scavengers, invisible devourers, and sword-eating pests is what it takes to separate the pretenders from the real heroes, then it's worth the chance of losing a sword or an unworthy PC in the process.

Otherwise, I'd rather play something that really isn't D&D than deal with the cognitive dissonance of playing something called D&D that doesn't feel like it.

It all comes down to personal tastes in the end. 4e has moved D&D firmly into the cinematic style of play while retaining the parts of 3e that I never liked (gridded combat, character building mini-game, prioritising combat over exploration), so it does a poor job of serving me. For people who like those features of 3e, 4e does them even better, and the cinematic style suits those elements more than the hybrid exploration/cinematic style that 3e had.


Thursday August 06, 2009 at 05:25 AM

I should add that I don't mean that 4e heroes are pretenders by that remark in the middle there. The pretenders are the 1e/2e (and maybe 3e) characters that proved they weren't destined to be heroes by becoming worm food. ;)

4e (and maybe 3e) has a different dynamic around heroes, where you've already zoomed in on the people who are (probably) destined to be part of an interesting plot and make something of themselves. That makes for a significantly different sort of play, is all.