“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?