Using Powers

 Posted by on November 2, 2011  Filed as: Better Gameplay?  Add comments
Nov 022011
 

Given my obvious limitations, I can only really speak in Dungeons & Dragons 4E terms, but this may well apply to all games everywhere, especially if I’m deluded. In 4E, every character has lots and lots of powers of different types and effectiveness: some powers (At-Wills) you can use all the time and are slightly more dangerous than mosquito bites; some powers (Encounters) are cool and deadly but you can only use them once in a battle, kind of like a male “yahoo yahoo yippee” moment; finally, some powers (Dailies) can only be used once a day, tearing apart the earth in a cataclysmic nuclear explosion, laying waste and devastation in all directions, shattering hope, killing dreams, annihilating puppies, and spitting on your toothbrush when you’re not looking.

All of these are fun to varying degrees–no, seriously–but obviously it’s a stepped scale, and Encounters are usually better than At-Wills, and Dailies are usually better than Encounters. As a result of this, players become extremely reluctant to use their big’um, bad’um powers, sticking with the ones that never go away, because sure, this particular fight is going very badly,with most of the party bloodied or unconscious or dead or disintegrated, but who knows what lurks around that next corner? What if we need this particular power? I better hold onto it, just in case.

Trust me, more evil has been done in the service of just in case than any other cliched phrase, and I’m including a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush (hehe, I said bush).

Anyway, we as players need to start thinking and living in the RIGHT NOW instead of the NEXT LATER, because the RIGHT NOW is the only time we can actually do anything. I cannot store a success for an upcoming encounter, and I cannot bank a win for tomorrow’s battle. To put it in pure meta-gaming terms, if the next encounter really is super-duper, soul-rendingly difficult, the DM should probably figure out a way to throw the PCs a little sack-time to get ready for it. The point, as I’ve said one million times before, is not for the DM to “win,” but for the DM to tell an exciting and thrilling and heroic story about these characters.

Now then, does this open the door for abuse? Will the players simply burn through all their Deadly Dailies in every single encounter, and then insist the DM give them all nappy-nap time to get ready for the next one? Of course they will. The only way to really deal with this is to establish some sort of social contract between players and DM, wherein the players agree to use their powers judiciously and the DM agrees not to smash the players into unrecognizable pulp with the Vicious Mordenkrad of Ultimate Sorrow.

If I, as a player, decide to drop that Daily in Encounter #1, then I am accepting that I may not have it for Encounter #2. If I, as the DM, see an unrelenting string of natural 20’s on my side of the screen while all those beleaguered players can’t sniff a double digit on their side of the screen for six straight rounds, then I have to be willing to account for the PCs using precious resources for this “easy” battle just to survive, and should start planning for them to recoup those losses.

Just lately, I’ve been blessed with tons of gaming, and it has been both wonderful and lovely, with a creamy topping of excellent. I’ve played a full range of levels, a 5th level one-shot, a 24th level campaign, an 8th level multi-shot, and bits and pieces in between. Over the course of this span, there have been several challenging encounters, ones that pushed me and my compatriots to the absolute limit, where I wasn’t sure if all of us (or any of us) would survive.

For those battles, I’ve thrown down everything I had, furiously checking off powers on my character sheet like a deranged auditor, digging for one more thing, wondering, “Is there anything left? Did I forget an ability? Did I use that Daily on my orb? Do I still have an Encounter lurking on page 4? Wait, did I use my Action Point???” For these big old battles, I feel a sense of accomplishment when I stagger out the other side, bruised and battered and bloodied but still breathing, and I know I gave it my all. I put everything into it. I left nothing on the table.

And then I happen I glance over at the sheet of my fellow player, my ally, my comrade, my blood-brother, and I see he still has most of his powers left, and he’s happy–HAPPY!–about it. “I hardly used anything in that encounter,” he declares with an infuriating grin. And I have no choice but to kill him. It really wouldn’t be my fault. At least, that’s what I plan on telling the jury.

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Dixon Trimline

Dixon Trimline is a halfling that occasionally (and reluctantly) plays a 40-something human who likes to write, dream, and travel around inside the cobwebby darkness of his own mind. This human grew up with role playing games, but his first love and his first choice was always Dungeons & Dragons. Profile Page / Article Portfolio

  6 Responses to “Using Powers”

  1. Conceptually I like the way powers are handled in 4E, the problem though is exactly what you’re illustrating here. When we were playing D&D the game kept slowing down as my players got more and more powers and indecision and over-analysis took over. I’ve also seen the other problem you mention here, a player not “pulling their weight” and hoarding their powers.

    If I went back to playing D&D I think I would handle this by taking a technique from the 3rd edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. In WFRP, all Powers have a “Recharge time” (a number of rounds before the power is available again). The more powerful powers have longer recharge, some have 0 recharge. After SUCCESSFULLY using a power, tokens are placed on the card, at the end of that player’s turn he removes a token from every recharging power. And yes, you read that correctly, if you fail to use your power successfully, it’s still available!

  2. I used to have this problem. Somehow, though, not so much in 4th edition. Probably because I’m playing a vampire and the first level daily is WAY too awesome not to use.

    The thing is, though, it wasn’t 4th edition that taught me to think that way. It was 3rd edition. Of course, back then nearly EVERYTHING was a daily power, and the paralyzing sense of indecision was even stronger.

    It also helps that our table is mostly new players, and we’ve been able to teach them by example to use daily powers when the chance comes up. Because the only thing worse than not having a daily for a later fight is getting to the end of a day filled with battle and glory and still having the darn thing.

  3. Dixon, I totally agree. The problem for me, though, is that the metagamer in me starts creeping out when I realize that the big bad is just around the corner.

    John, I totally dig adding recharge token to your 4e Power cards.

    Jonathan, “Because the only thing worse than not having a daily for a later fight is getting to the end of a day filled with battle and glory and still having the darn thing.” is the most spot on quote I’ve heard in a while.

  4. Great article!

    When I’ve DM’ed, I’ve noticed a lot of holding onto the big hitters for a while, “just in case,” as you said, which is spot on.

    And I’ve talked to my players about that. Some personalities just like the challenge of using as little as possible to “win” as much as possible. After all, resource management is a big feature of 4e combat, moreso than concerns of life and death (which I’m not sure is a good thing, as I’ve alluded to on Twitter).

    That said, when I’ve played, I don’t hold back much. I use my best stuff early and often, including daily item powers. Maybe it’s all the experience as a monster-running DM, where monster shelf life is low. Maybe it’s knowing that, again as DM, session time is precious and short, and dropping the coolest nukes is just plain awesome to see and roleplay! Like you said, it’s equally horrible coming to the end of a big fight or session and *not* have used your most exciting scene-stealing stuff.

    It’s a tough call, but I find it a lot more satisfying when I use my big guns every session, and worry about low resources when I get there. There’s always ways out, there’s always cool attacks and ideas, even when when you’re running on fumes.

  5. @ Tourq: “I totally agree. The problem for me, though, is that the metagamer in me starts creeping out when I realize that the big bad is just around the corner.”

    clearly you need to stop metagaming 😉

    @ Jonathan: Tourq’s comment +1

    @ Dixon: It’s been a little while since I logged any 4E time, but I could not agree more with your insights on this. Kudos and thanks for the cool article.

    “I feel a sense of accomplishment when I stagger out the other side, bruised and battered and bloodied but still breathing, and I know I gave it my all. I put everything into it. I left nothing on the table.” Well said.

    @ Kilsek “It’s a tough call, but I find it a lot more satisfying when I use my big guns every session, and worry about low resources when I get there.” Great intro quote for new players. Stolen!

  6. @John Lewis: That’s an intriguing approach with “Recharge Times,” I hadn’t ever considered that. I’m not crazy about the round management, since I have enough trouble tracking all the other things going on. As I wrote, this is the game for me, but I wish my fellow players weren’t such dolts!

    @Jonathan: It’s kind of the same thing as barbarian rages, where this daily represents the whole purpose of the character, and you HAVE to use it. If you’re running a barbarian and not hulking out, you’re doing something wrong. It’s a beautiful thing, playing with the right kind of new players.

    @Tourq Stevens: Eeergggg, I hate knowing the big-bad is coming too. I know that it affects the way I play, even if I don’t want it to. “Let’s see, if this is a typical delve, we’re in the second encounter now, which means the big finale is coming up next. I’ll hold onto my dailies for that one.”

    @Kilsek: Thank you for reading. I’ve never considered resource restriction as a method of upping the challenge, but I guess it could be fun. There was a fair amount of this in the D&D Lair Assault. As I mentioned above, there are dailies that are fundamental to certain characters, and it would be a shame that the character never really got to shine, sticking to At-Wills for the whole session.

    You sound like a great DM, with a clear understanding that the game isn’t about monster survivability but PC coolness. I’d love to play in one of your games.

    @Colin Dowling: Thanks! I’m not willing to discount all the other roleplaying options out there, but so far, D&D 4E is the one that tells the story I’m most interested in. I’m looking forward to that GM who says to me, “Oh yes, well get a load of THIS game.”

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