I’m looking at Fourth Edition D&D through the lens of a years’ worth of gaming experience with a critical eye on what it needed to do and what it’s done. This is a long-term test review spread over several posts covering both the theoretical and practical sides of 4e D&D. Welcome to Part Four.
This time around we’re looking at the Powers system. This is arguably the single biggest change 4e wrought on the D&D world, and it’s also the most contentious. One of the first complaints my players had against 4e D&D was that the Powers system felt too generic. And y’know what – they’re wrong. Or, more accurately – it’s the way that we think about the Powers system which is wrong.
Let me explain.
Imagine, if you will, a GM sat around a table with a couple of players. It’s the start of a new campaign and the conversation goes something like this…
GM: “Bob, tell me about your character.”
Bob: “He’s Argul the Class. He’s a Race, and he’s armed with a Weapon and is wearing Armour.”
GM: ” Oooo-kay……. Sally, what about you?”
Sally: “Maxx the Class. She’s a Race and she’s got a Weapon and is clad in Armour.”
GM: “Damn this system! It’s too generic!”
That’s pretty much what happens with the Powers system. “Powers” is a collective term meaning (roughly speaking) “Those special things you can do in combat” but we end up over-using the word. Rather than talk about a Wizard’s Spells, a Fighter’s Exploits or a Cleric’s Prayers, we just group ’em all together and call them Powers regardless of style, source or flavour.
That’s like calling all weapons…. well, just Weapons then arguing that all the weapons are the same – they just to damage. Or that all Armour is the same – it’s just got an Armour Class! I don’t see many folks complaining that a Short Sword is the same as a Short Bow – the only difference is one is ranged and the other isn’t. Instead, we think of the thing, of the way it looks and how it fits into the character concept. Just as a Fighter with a Greatsword conjours up a very different mental image to a Knife Fighting Rogue, so should a Fighter using the Victorious Surge Exploit compared to a Wizard casting a Fireball Spell.
When it comes to role-playing, the mechanical similarities are irrelevent. They exist purely so that that rules are consistent and help keep the game running smoothly. A player can pick any class and know (minor tweaks aside) how to play them without having to learn a whole chunk of class specific rules. In some ways I’ll admit I miss that about the game. I loved the hinky classes of yore which their own special ways of Doing Stuff. My all-time favourite 3e class was the Binder, for example. I’d love to see 4e come out with some really off the wall classes which don’t use the Powers system at all, but that’s just me.
So here’s my challenge to you. Stop using the word “Power” at all in your game. Make the effort to use the specific term for each class’s abilities and you’ll soon find that what was once generic (‘cos you were using the generic term) will feel special again. Give it a try. Go on. You’ll be surprised at what a difference it makes.
Next: More about Powers.