Fourth Edition D&D Long Term Test: Powers

“The Weapon rules are stupid. I mean, all the weapons are the same – there’s a hit roll and they do damage. And the rules how many times a day you can use them are just too vague. Where’s the realism in that? This game sucks!”

Of course, I don’t think there’s many people out there who would complain about how weapons work (ok, this is the internet – there’s probably a few) but replace the word “Weapon” with “Powers” and you’ve got an all too common complaint about Fourth Edition D&D.

And it still doesn’t make sense.

But first, let’s take a look at what a Power (in 4e terms) is, what it means to have them and break down a little more about How Powers Work for the benefit of those folks who haven’t yet played the game, but have heard all these terrible things about how they’ve Ruined The Game ™.

At it’s most basic, a Power is nothing more than a special ability which your character can use in combat. Just like a weapon or item of equipment a cunning player could probably find a cool use for a Power outside of combat too – we’ve all seen Fighters try to prise open doors with their Longsword and Quarterstaffs used to test for traps – and some (mainly Utility Powers) are explicitly designed for out-of-combat use, but the majority of them are direct combat effects.

Every Power can be used At-Will, once per Encounter or once per Day, with the bang for your buck rising as the frequency of use drops. This is one of those bones of contention of the system, especially among gamers who haven’t played it. Seriously guys, it really does play better than it reads and it’s an elegant enough solution that requires next to zero in play book-keeping. The alternative would have been some kind of memorization or spell point system that would have just bogged the game down. Especially at lower levels where you have few Encounter and Daily Powers there’s the tactical lure of knowing when to use your big guns and when to hold them back for later. I’m sure a kind GM would let you burn a couple of Encounter Powers and an Action Point to get another use of a Daily Power if you really, really needed it. I would.

All characters have at least two At-Will Powers. These are your meat-and-potato attacks and tricks which you can use as often as you want. Make sure that the two (or more) you choose are mechanically different. The ideal is to have one Power which affects a number of foes and one which targets a single foe for more damage, but that entirely depends on your character concept and whether multi-attack Powers are available. If you’re just using the PHB the Warlord seriously lacks an At-Will which targets multiple foes, but they do have access to Commander’s Strike which makes up for that. The Wizard is king of the At-Will hill with a Human Wizard having access to no less than Seven (7 – count ’em!) At-Will Powers. Four of those are Cantrips which are a whole ton of fun to use both in combat and out. That’s a topic for a whole ‘nuther blogpost though.

Powers that are usable per Encounter can be used just once in a single combat encounter – or once every five minutes, if you read the rules carefully. These are abilities that are slightly greater in effect than your At-wills, but the opportunity to use them doesn’t come around that often. If you’re a Fighter or other Martial type, think of these as the attacks which require just the right opening to pull off. For a spellcaster these are the Spells which demand more effort to cast or need components that you can easily replenish between battles (a hunk of grass or a prepared paste, for example). However it works, there’s a limit on the frequency of use. As your character rises in level they gain more per Encounter Powers – either they learn new attacks and new openings, or gain mastery of new mystic arts.

Per Encounter Powers are replenished after every short rest – about five minutes. There’s nothing in the rules to stop an Eladrin using Fey Step (for example) a total of 240 times per day (12 per hour for 20 hours a day, taking into account 4 hours in a Trance)  so we’ve House Ruled a limit of using each per Encounter Power 4 + CON Bonus times per day before becoming Weakened with an Endurance roll staving off the effect beyond that. This has only come up once in-game. And yes, it was Fey Step.

Daily Powers are much like per Encounter Powers except…. you’re ahead of me, right? Daily Powers are your mighty strikes. These are the openings which rarely come up in combat so you take ’em when you see them, and the Spells which take time to prepare or demand much of the caster. I’ve had a Wizard player who told me three rounds before that he was beginning to cast Ice Storm. That’s uber-cool as it meant we could describe the chill forming in the area well before the Spell took effect. It’s the little things like that which make the game, I swear – no rules needed.

Daily Powers are regained after every extended rest. This normally means “at the end of the day” (hence the name Daily) but it doesn’t have to. There’s nothing to stop the players from going two or three days without taking a rest (though they’re likely to suffer exhaustion), or taking things steady and resting up after an intense battle so long as they take no more than one every 12 hours. As GM, you set the pace not the rules or passing of the sun. Players are usually tempted to stop as soon as they’re used all their Daily Powers. That makes sense as this is the point when their characters will be exhausted from the battle – but it’s fun to sometimes launch an enemy attack right at that point when they’re at their weakest. Toss ’em an Action Point if they survive, and don’t do it too often or They Will Hurt You. I know.

That’s all well and good, but what are Powers?

The word itself is an overused generic term which means “any cool stuff your character can do which the others can’t”. It’s the signature moves which make Your Hero stand out from the crowd. For the Fighter, it’s his combat training which lets him fight mano-a-mano in ways that make your eyes bleed. For the Rogue, it’s his dazzling dexterity and ruthlessness. For the Ranger, it’s his skill with paired blades or bow. And for the Wizard, it’s his Spells. With the notable exception of Rituals, all of a character’s special abilities are represented by a Power block of some kind of other.

That’s not to say that Powers are all that a character can do, whether in battle or no. As with Third Edition D&D your character has his skills, feats and attributes too, all of which play just as important a part in defining who your character is. Yes, the Power system takes up a heck of a lot of pages in the PHB. Yes, that book is written in such a way that makes it sound like this is a combat-heavy boardgame and not a role-playing game at all. Yes, the PHB is far from being the best advocate for Fourth Edition D&D. But this IS a great game. Don’t be fooled by the layout of the PHB!

So Powers come in many forms, from the mighty Cleaving sword swing of a Fighter to the classic Fireball of the Wizard, but they’re all mechanically quite similar. The majority of Powers do Two Things on a successful hit. Usually, they do a certain degree of damage, and some other mechanical effect – Pushing or Shifting the foe, ongoing damage, stun or weakening him or a secondary effect on additional foes. Some Powers just do a straight ton of damage on a single hit with the Rogue’s Assassin’s Point attack (a 29th level Daily which does 7 x weapon damage, grants Combat Advantage and doubles Sneak and Critical damage) being close to king of that particular hill.

The thing though that mechanically similar is not the same as the same. Just as two weapons – a Short Sword and Handaxe, say, can have similar weapon stats, two Powers can feel very different in play and – more importantly – in the mind’s eye. A Fighter’s Sure Strike (At-will, Str +2 vs. AC for 1[W] damage) might be mechanically similar to a Ranger’s Careful Attack (At-will, Str or Dex +2 vs. AC for 1[W] damage) but a Ranger has to be wielding two weapons or a ranged weapon to use theirs whereas a Fighter can use any melee weapon at all. A Sure Strike with a Greataxe is a very different thing to a Careful Attack with paired shortswords or longbow! They are both attacks which trade damage potential for accuracy, but the imagination plays each one out differently.

For all that Wizards’ claimed 4e was an exception-based system, it isn’t. There’s a finite (though growing with each new supplement) list of effects a Power could have, and each Power uses a combination of them to simulate the move or spell. In some ways this means 4e D&D is more like the Mutants & Masterminds system but with the “build your own Superpower” work already done for you. Each Power is a pre-constructed attack, move or spell with the limits and controls already in place. Just add them to your character sheet, and away you go.

Does this mean that Fourth Edition D&D is closer to the world of video games that it is the works of Gygax and Arneson? If you want it to be, yes. But if you don’t want it to be, no. What a Power looks like and how it works is entirely up to you and your DM. If you want your Fighter to leap in the air and shout “HADOUKEN” every time he uses Griffon’s Wrath then go for it. At least until the other players start lobbing dice at you :D Alternatively it could be an elegant swiping move which cuts several armour straps exposing your foe’s flank. Or a blow which leaves an arm hanging useless and hanging by his side. Or any other effect. The mechanics are writ – but how you interpret them is up to you.

So, in short: Powers are combat-based special abilities (though a cunning player will find out-of-combat uses too) that are usable At-Will, once per Encounter or Daily. There are mechanical similarities between many of them, though in actual play the differences and an injection of imagination makes them all unique. What’s not to love?

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16 Responses

  1. I like and dislike powers simultaneously.

    When combined with physical power cards, it greatly eases book keeping and the need to remember rules. It is a great game mechanic and anyone playing 4e for the first time should be given power cards.

    What really bugs me about powers is the “Encounter” powers.

    I can just about accept that a magic user needs 5 minutes to recharge a particular spell before they can use it again. This is no different from having to weight until the next day.

    What I cannot rationalise when I play 4e, is why a fighter can only use their non-magical attacks only once every five minutes. If I know how to knock an opponent down, why can’t I do it whenever I want? Every time I play 4e this breaks my suspension of disbelief.

    The similarity in mechanics between spells and attacks is another bugbear.

    It makes perfect sense from a game design point of view and makes the game a lot easier to learn and play. But sitting around the table, it is hard to distinguish between the classes because everyone’s actions seem the same. Especially with Magic Users being able to repeatedly cast the same spell in the same way fighter can repeatedly hit something.

    This is where (further to your post the other day) I think 4e breaks from the tradition of D&D. I want a magic to be notably different from non-magic. In 4e magic has lost everything that made it special, or to put it another way, magic is no longer magical. Though to be fair to 4e, this trend was well established in 3.5 as the designers sort to introduce more game balance.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..Running Back-to-Back D&D Sessions =-.

  2. EltonJ says:

    I wonder how much Feng Shui (the RPG) has influenced D&D 4th edition. Feng Shui is a roleplaying game designed by Robin D. Laws that is based on the shadowfist card game. At its heart, it’s designed to replicate the Hong Kong action movie.

    In short, everything blows up real good at the end of an adventure (which is, a Hong Kong action movie :).
    .-= EltonJ´s last blog ..World Building, Pt 1 =-.

  3. WolfStar76 says:


    Don’t think of it as “my fighter only knows how to knock someone down once per combat”.

    As stated in the article – but something that does need clarifying (in 4E rules and here) – is that powers can/do also represent opportunities in combat.

    Many martial powers (especially in later books) say things like “You spy an opening in your opponent’s attack” or use similar language that indicates your Encounter/Daily power isn’t so much about you walking up, hitting the opponent then adding in a shove to knock them prone.

    It’s about waiting for the right moment to strike your opponent when it’s already that little bit off-balance, or has swung too wide so you can step in close to deliver your blow.

    And of course, if you’ve pulled that trick once, your opponents for that combat are all going to be a little more wary to make sure you don’t try it a second time.

    Maybe that rationale will work for you, maybe it won’t. But it works for me. :)

  4. drow says:

    why can’t jackie chan knock everyone down whenever he wants? because set-ups like that don’t come often. you get to use that trick once, then your opponents get wise to it and do something to keep it from working again.

  5. It’d be rad if 4e came out w/ a power construction toolkit.
    .-= Mike(aka kaeosdad)´s last blog ..Losing balance =-.

  6. Roger says:

    Back in the day, “All weapons are the same and it sucks!” was a very common complaint. When all weapons do 1d6 damage, I’m inclined to have at least a little sympathy for them.

  7. Kelly says:

    “What a Power looks like and how it works is entirely up to you and your DM.” This is a great explanation of what powers are and I really liked what you wrote at the end of the article. The flavor you give a power is totally up to you and if you are really into role-play and imagination then you can spice it up however you want. My husband plays a tiefling wizard and he has come up with unique and creepy descriptions for all of his powers that add his own flavor but all the mechanics stay the same. Adding your own spin on the power description is a great way to show the party what your character is all about.
    .-= Kelly ´s last blog ..The Trader’s Trellis =-.

  8. j_king says:

    Powers tend to shift focus away from making creative choices in combat, IMO.

    It seems that whenever my players get into a combat, their most difficult choices are: where to move and which power to use. And perhaps whether to use an action point once in a while. I find that it’s rather rare that they think of clever ways to gain the advantage over a monster; especially if the encounter is balanced so that the party is likely to win. More often than not, once an encounter gets past the 15 minute mark it devolves into “Great cleave, 18 — hits, 12 damage. Marked.”

    Could just be uninspired players. However, I think the system could do more to encourage more imaginative thinking rather than purely tactical. Perhaps DMs should throw encounter balancing out the window. Or perhaps we should contemplate using CON as some sort of stamina system for using Powers; further limiting their use in combat (especially at-wills, those are just annoying). Either way, I think the lack of inspiration is encouraged by the rule system — it doesn’t mechanically offer any bonus for creative thinking; at-will powers alone are probably more powerful than tipping over the flaming pot of oil onto the bugbear. Heck, when falling 60ft will do less damage than my strike with a sword… I start to wonder what the point is? Why do the monsters and forces of darkness even come together anymore?
    .-= j_king´s last blog ..Programmer Competency Matrix =-.

  9. greywulf says:

    So many comments, so little time! Thanks, all. Taking each in turn……..

    @Chris One of these days I will sit you down and GM you through Coppernight Hold. I’ll keep going through the entire of Dungeon Delve until you finally admit that 4e is the second best version of D&D ever, or I die trying :D

    Seriously though, I do think that 4e suffers from the Curse of Over-Consistency. All of the classes’ abilities are presented in a near-identical way, so look and read far too much the same. In play though, there is a big difference between a Fighter (close combat specialist who uses Melee weapons) and a blasty Wizard (controlling spellcaster who manipulates friends, foes and the battlefield) – and any other class, for that matter. That’s not apparent though until you’ve played it a fair amount.

    @Elton I’ll add it onto my growing list of games to try!

    @Wolfstar76 Quite so. You put it better than I ever could.

    @drow Exactly. There’s an element of the movie action scene in 4e’s design, by design. Each class gets the big showpiece stunts, but there’s a fine art to knowing when and where to use them.

    @Mike I’d love that too – or at least a Big Book of Powers so it’s even easier to create your own Monsters, Races and Classes.

    @Roger I don’t remember people complaining about all weapons doing d6 damage when they did d6 damage, but I do recall folks later complaining they did when it was. So maybe they did complain after all – or didn’t, but said they did later. I dunno. Either way, it’s not a complaint anyone should make of 4e :D

    @Kelly Thanks! The Powers’ effects are just the starting point – how you interpret them can make for some terrific role-playing opportunities. Way to go!

    @j_king You make a great point, and one I can’t disagree with at all. 4e does rather hand it to you on a plate, doesn’t it? I think the key is for the GM to present situations that can’t be solved using their Powers alone – a 100′ chasm or trap’n’monster setup, for example which just begs for the players to stretch their imagination a notch. Once they get the hang of using their brains rather than just what’s written on their character sheet, it will soon become second nature.

    That’s the theory, anyhow.

    Thanks again, all!

  10. Elda King says:

    Great article… I agree with every word.

    Most people misunderstand the powers. They believe that when you spend a power you are simply “too tired” to do it again, they believe “powers” are supernatural abilities that martial characters can use, they see a bunch of blocks with powers in the game and see no fluff in that. Worse, some people have even said that “previously, you could do everything you wanted because it wasn’t in the rules, but in 4E all you can do is a bunch of powers”. And some of those people pretended to have played the game.
    @j_king: it depends on the players. I have had players like that, but also players that used psychic effects to cloud the minds of NPCs during dialogs, used a dragonborn rogue’s acrobatic power to jump over enemies and breathe fire from a better position, and other cool tricks. You need not choose to do something creative, or use a power – you can do both, to amazing effect (both visual and mecanic).

  11. anarkeith says:

    Great article and I vote for appending Wolfstar76’s comment into the main post. I’ve heard various complaints about powers, but many of them are answered here. I’ve been doing some thinking recently about messing with the frequency of use (making them rarer) with the intention of elevating the basic melee attack a bit. I’d like to see if that makes 4e combat go a bit faster. My thinking is that if players have a fewer tactical options tied to their attacks, they’ll get through their turns faster. That said, it’s a fine line to walk. The tactical options add a lot to combat and are part of what makes 4e special.
    .-= anarkeith´s last blog ..Dungeons and Dragons 4e Encounter Planner =-.

  12. @anarkeith: If your goal is to speed up combat, I would recommend cutting out the middleman and just enforce a time limit on decision-making. In the game world, the PC knows his/her/its abilities so well that he/she/it makes a decision and executes it within 6 seconds. The players should know their PC’s abilities well enough to make and execute a decision without taking 10x that long, with allowances made for new players and shifting physical props (minis, dice). I’d prefer a table rule limiting time to decide rather than a mechanical rule limiting the range of choices. Push the player’s reaction time rather than nerfing the PC.

  13. Nifelhein says:

    Awesome post!

    @ anarkeith The problem with reducing the frequency of power usage is that you also make the combat options more repetitive and will end up with less movement, simply because there is little reason to move.

    Combat length is only a problem when the group is not having fun, insert more terrain, scenarios and encourage them to have fun with their tactics, design unique scenarios for important fights and always present them with cool options to their bread and butter.

  14. Nifelhein says:

    @ Icosahedrophilia I agree, though I found out a while ago that having people announce their action before going through round actions makes for a life saver.

    1st they will already get their minds around what they will be doing.

    2nd If they don’t see any reason to change their tactic they will just use that choice.

    A comrade falling, a spectacular opening are all breaking the pre-planned course but they are probably gonna be spot so fast that they won’t take a minute to decide.

  15. d7 says:

    I think the key is for the GM to present situations that can’t be solved using their Powers alone – a 100′ chasm or trap’n’monster setup, for example which just begs for the players to stretch their imagination a notch. Once they get the hang of using their brains rather than just what’s written on their character sheet, it will soon become second nature.

    I think this gets at why the Powers system falls flat for me. To my mind, the core system of a game shouldn’t be an obstacle to creativity that needs to be GMed around in play to make the game good, and the contents of the character sheet should be inspirational rather than creativity-damping.

    An AD&D character sheet doesn’t have many things on it that a player can “pull” on—most if it is just a quick reference of numbers that are useful in specific circumstances, rather than lists of abilities that could be hauled on like a lever to solve a situation. I think this is good, because most of the levers that are there—2e skills—are rarely inspiring of creativity. Few uninspiring levers is good.

    Conversely I really like some other non-D&D games that have lots of things on the character sheet to “pull”. In all the ones I can think of, the pull-ables all inspire or demand creativity before they can enter play. Burning Wheel’s beliefs and instincts, for example, and even its special way of dealing with skills, all require a creative interpretation before they can apply to a situation.

    So part of my trouble with D&D 4e might just be that it has a lot of levers to pull on (making it easier to opt out of being creative), and those levers don’t ask for creativity before they’ll do mechanical work. (This is why 3.x Diplomacy is so, so bad too.) I can even see how that factors in to my dislike for gridded combat regardless of edition, but that’s a whole ‘nother ramble.
    .-= d7´s last blog ..A comment on POD and shipping =-.

  1. January 23, 2010

    […] which Greywulf replied: 4e does rather hand it to you on a plate, doesn’t it? I think the key is for the GM to present […]

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