Ask anyone who plays D&D what the defining difference is between 4th edition and earlier editions, and almost everyone will certainly say Powers. Every class has its own unique list of class powers. Characters receive a few when they create a character and then gain additional powers almost every level thereafter.

Overview

Powers are very diverse. Each power has a level and characters may not select a power that is higher level than they are. Caster classes have powers with spell-like effects and those powers actually replaced spells. Combat classes have powers that supply high damage or specialty combat styles. Other classes have powers that give the character special abilities. Some powers may only be used once per day or once per encounter. Others may be used as often as desired. Most powers are combat related but some are strictly utilitarian.

Benefits

I really like the concept behind powers. They are a fun way to give each character some additional abilities and make additional options available during combat. I have seen countless encounters where the characters are facing a high level foe and the characters don’t have any attacks or resources more effective than simply trading blows or casting the same spell round after round. I think that powers are an excellent way to revitalize those encounters. Powers would give each character a few unique specialty attacks to use against such a foe. This adds to the overall strategy and tactics and makes every player a more active participant in what otherwise could be a fairly boring slugfest.

Drawbacks

In practice, I quickly started seeing something I didn’t expect. Most 4th edition players don’t view powers as extra specialty attacks that they can use to mix up their routines. Instead they view powers as being their main attacks. When a player’s daily powers and encounter powers are used up, the player symbolically throws up her hands and says “That’s it. I’m done. I’m out of powers.”

That definitely isn’t what I want to happen.

Spells

As I mentioned earlier, powers replace spells for caster classes. However, the number of powers a caster receives does not come anywhere close to the number of spells a caster could cast before, let alone the number of spells a caster had to choose from before. There are ritual spells, spells that require a longer casting time and expensive material components, that close the gap somewhat. But, imo, not enough. I prefer spells as they were.

However, I see no reason that the two can’t coexist. Casters could have powers that don’t produce spell-like effects. Or they could have powers that enhance their spells.

Healing Surges

Healing surges are probably what ultimately turned me off of a 4e-based gaming system. I just don’t care for healing surges, but we’ll discuss that elsewhere. The problem here is though that healing surges are intricately woven into powers. Using powers (as is) and not using healing surges wouldn’t be as simple as editing a few powers. It would be a monumental task to strip them out of powers entirely while leaving the existing powers framework intact.

Too Many Powers

When you create a character, that character gets a handful of powers and then gains more as she levels. So how do I make that work with my class system where I want to encourage players to train in more than one class? Say they start as a Fighter and gain a bunch of Fighter class powers. Then at second level they train as a Cleric and get a bunch of Cleric class powers. Then at third level they train as a Wizard and get a bunch of Wizard class powers. Powers weren’t balanced with any form of low-level multiclassing in mind. This number of powers would be cumbersome for the players as well as overpowering. Obviously that isn’t going to work.

So Now What?

I still like the idea of class powers. So I set out to completely redesign powers in a way that would encompass what I liked about them but dealt with the issues described above.

Keep in mind that I am designing a pre-4e ruleset. I could leave powers out entirely and still have a very good system. But, as I said, I like powers. I want to incorporate a version of them not as a core feature but as icing on the cake.

Redefining Powers

First off, characters won’t get any powers initially. They will gain one class power every even class level (every second level trained within that class). Powers will be more like feats in that they will not have levels. The big distinction will be that feats are passive abilities (abilities that are active all the time without requiring volition to use) whereas powers are active abilities (abilities that only come into use when the player specifically states). Also, powers will have use restrictions: once per day, once per encounter, or once per round.

Powers will not produce any spell-like effects. Instead, casters will have powers that enhance their spells or spellcasting abilities. Increased range, increased damage, and increased area of effect are some examples. Some of these will be similar to 3rd edition caster feats.

Combat classes will have powers similar to their 4e counterparts. Rogues will have some powers that enhance stealthing and thieving abilities. All four classes will have powers that enable the character to be cast as any subclass found in the published rulesets.

Initially, I envisioned grabbing powers from the multitude of 4e classes and coming up with enough to fill out my four core classes. Between healing surges and other game mechanics that don’t apply to 3rd edition, I wasn’t able to do much with this approach. Therefore, all the powers had to be created from scratch.

Last Words

With the changes I’ve implemented, I’m hoping that these powers will be viewed as unique, specialty attacks that expand each character’s arsenal instead of replacements for standard attacks that are mandatory for success. By reducing the number and redefining them more as active feats, I think that goal may be reached.