The Powers That Be

Posted on November 10, 2010 by


One of my biggest gripes about 4e has always been in the presentation of it, and specifically the presentation of powers.  Now I’m not saying that I dislike the power system of 4e, on the contrary, I find it to be a great way to spice up the otherwise boring attack, repeat, attack treadmills of old.  What I don’t like, however, is the attention they call to themselves at the table.  I feel that the powers concept invites detachment from the game world, which then feeds the critics of the system to say that it hinders roleplaying, or other character options beside what’s on the little card the players are holding.

My thinking is that if on our side of the screen, we DMs keep plenty of stuff under the hood.  We don’t go around telling players the name of the attack a monster is using (at least I don’t, why would you?).  So rather than narrate for example the following attack by an “Orc Beastmaster” this way:

“The Orc Beastmaster uses Warrior’s Surge. He hits you and regains 19 hit points”

You’d likely narrate that in a different way.  Perhaps as so:

“The beastmaster takes a good look at you, walks a few paces, swings his flail and BAM!   He lands a solid hit on your body, and as he does you see that he feels rejuvenated and stronger.”

The difference here is that you told the players the same exact information, that the Orc has gained hitpoints, without letting them peek under the hood of the game, nor removing the, from the immersion of the situation.  So if we can do it, players should be able to do it as well.  In fact, I’m of the belief that player powers should stay in the realm of just being a framework for the mechanics of what they are trying to accomplish, and their resolution, rather than a description of it.

What does that mean exactly?  It means that your players should not be letting everyone else under their hood. Everyone else means you as a DM, and the players.  Remember that this is a game of the imagination, and I find too many players letting the power card imagine for them, taking half the fun out of D&D.  Do not encourage this.  As a DM, never ever ask “What power are you using?” when Ralf’s turn comes up, but rather ask “Ralk, what are you going to do this turn?”.  Imagine the following exchange within the game world:

Fizzy the Wizard: “Ralf, knock them to the floor, and I’ll find a way to burn them to a crisp.”

Ralf the Fighter: “Sounds good, Fizzy.  Tell you what, I’ll use my ‘Spinning Sweep’ power, how’s that?”

Fizzy has no clue what the hell Spinning Sweep is.  He just wants Ralf to knock the enemy down.  And you should be encouraging the players to imagine these attacks a bit differently each time.

Here’s the fighter’s Spinning Sweep power:

Spinning Sweep

You spin beneath your enemy’s guard with a long, powerful cut, and then sweep your leg through his an instant later to knock him head over heels.

EncounterMartial, Weapon
Standard ActionMelee weapon

Target: One creature

Attack: Strength vs. AC

Hit: 1[W] + Strength modifier damage, and you knock the target prone.

Don’t allow Ralf to fall into the trap of saying “I use Spinning Sweep. Take 14 damage, and he’s prone.”  Rather, the player should understand the mechanical aspects of the power, and use that to describe whatever the hell he wants within the limits of the mechanics.  So for example, if the power allows a hit with the weapon, and knocks the enemy prone, maybe he can narrate it a different, more cinematic way each time:

“I going to look at that rejuvenated Orc Beastmaster in the eye, crack a smile, and swing my hammer around his head. If I connect, it’s going to hit him like a gong, and make him drop like a piece of lead. He falls to the ground prone from the impact.”

The next time he uses this power in another encounter, he could describe it in a completely different way.  A hit on the knees, a hit  square on the back, whatever, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that the player is not limiting his actions to the fluff on the card and what he believes is the right way to play his character.

Powers aren’t straitjackets, and the characters shouldn’t always know they exist.  Granted, this type of play is built up over time and familiarity with the system and the other players around the table.  it isn’t for everyone right from the start.  Not everyone is a born roleplayer, so work within your group’s limits.  This shouldn’t keep you from aspiring to reach that level of play, if what you seek is a deeper immersion for your group.

Remember,  in the game world, rogues don’t go around comparing their “Sly Flourishes” with each other.  So don’t let it happen at your table either.