May 21, 2012 by "Jester" David
Power cards have becomes a large part of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. While cards themselves date back to the boxes of spell cards sold during 2nd Edition, 4e has embraced power cards as a core element of game play and they are handy, as they dramatically reducing the need to reference books during play.
Anyone who has used either of the official Character Builders has seen (and likely used) power cards. The Red Box includes cards for the pre-gens, and the Character Record Sheets included blank cards. And anyone who picked-up a class’ boxes of pre-printed cards has certainly seen them. The designers even worry about card game elements such as “hand size”.
However, power cards can also be something of a crutch: instead of imaging all the things their character could do, players instead look down at the table and see what the game says their character can do. Power cards artificially impose mental limits on a character’s actions. When the only tool you have in your toolbox is a hammer every problem seems like a nail, and when every card on the table says “deal damage and impose a condition” every obstacle seems like an incentive to roll initiative.
While the mechanics of powers are limited for reasons of combat balance, with a little creativity – and some DM adjudication – they do not have to be.
Playing with Power
Here’s how it works: you take your At-Will and Encounter power cards and flip them over. (No, I’m not suggesting the don’t-look-at-your-cards approach; this is only Step #1.) On the backs of the flipped cards copy the name and flavour text of the powers. You now have power cards divorced from mechanic constraints, power cards that are limited only by the description provided.
The empty space below the flavour text is a good place to jot down some ideas of creative uses of the power, unbounded by the restrictions of combat balance or mechanics. Within reason and subject to DM adjudication of course.
This way, when you look down at the table in a role-playing or exploratory situation, instead of being confronted by cards pushing you into combat situations or limiting creativity, there are a series of cards offering starting points for imaginative, creative solutions.
I suggest limiting this to At-Will and Encounter powers because it’s easy to flip them all back over at the start of combat. If Daily powers were included players would have to remember which powers were and were not used at the start of each combat. There’s also the question of the expenditure of Daily powers outside of combat: does dropping a fireball to light a campfire expend the power? Logically it should, but doing so penalizes the player; it’s hard asking a player to improvise with a power they can only use once a day. And ignoring Daily powers also side-steps the question of if Daily powers should be more effective or useful than Encounter powers as they’re a limited resource.
It’s easier to just stick to Encounter powers that can be quickly recharged after “five-minutes and a sandwich.”
I also like writing down the name of the power in appropriately coloured ink, so I can easily tell if it’s an At-Will or Encounter power. Even outside of combat players shouldn’t be firing off Encounter powers in rapid succession without a break.
The DM should reserve the right to veto options, restrict them to far weaker opponents, or call for checks such as attack rolls or skill checks.
Example of Use
My current 4e character is a changeling psion with the telepath build. Telepath psions are a good example of what I’m doing because, despite being called telepaths, they have no powers that let them read and enemy’s thoughts or alter minds outside of a combat situation. For example, using the Memory Hole power my psion can make himself telepathically invisible, but only while dealing d6s of damage. He can remove himself from the minds of guards blocking a door, but in doing so he’ll likely kill them.
The power Memory Hole has the following flavour text: “You sift through your foe’s mind for the mental representation of yourself within it and brutally rip it out.”The “brutally” bit seems aimed at explaining the damage, but sometimes it’d be nice to have the option of finesse, a character who is a little more Professor X and a little less Scanners.
Flipping the card over, I copy the name and the fluff. Below that I write down a couple creative uses of the power, inspired by the fluff text (and a little by the mechanics on the front side).
- I make myself, an ally, or an object invisible
- I fuzzy someone’s recent memories of me, so they don’t recognise me
- I add myself to someone’s mind, creating a fake memory or a false image of myself
Suddenly the power becomes a lot more open to creative use. My psion could become virtually invisible while sneaking into the King’s bedchamber, erase the details of his appearance from the Queen when she suddenly awakens, make the magically sealed glassteel chest containing the crown jewels seem empty, and then add the false image of someone running away down the hall. This leaves the chamber empty long enough for the jewels to be liberated while the guards chase after a fading memory.
Or he could do something as mundane as walking up to a veteran at the bar and insisting they served together in “the war”. Because no one likes to drink alone.
The DM might allow me to freely alter the minds of weak flunkies or minions, but call for an attack roll to see if I penetrate a more formidable person’s mental defences. Alternatively, an Arcana skill check might be needed to see if I can unnoticeably alter the target’s perceptions or if my manipulation ends up looking like some obvious low-budget green screen trickery.
Included below are a few power cards with a few simple examples of how to take powers and add some depth or variety of use. (Plus, it’s a lovely excuse to make some power cards for earlier blog posts by myself and others.)
I’ll start with the theme power from my adapted vampire theme, posted here, with the power revised to accommodate feedback. This is a little bit of a tricky one as tapping a vein tends to be a fairly overtly hostile act. Without a built-in vampiric seduction power or flavour it doesn’t fly in social situations. But I included a few ideas anyway.
Next we have the kwom, which is another hard power as it’s very mechanically and doesn’t exactly have a whole lot of flavour behind it. Kwom stop crits; that’s pretty much their entire mechanical shtick. They’re stubborn extra-planar dwarves who get really pissy when things go bad, which is a fun character hook but doesn’t lend itself to powers.
Lastly, we have the three shifter races. The inspiration for the creative use of the various shifting powers comes from the source animals. The descendant of a werebear, when shifting into a bear-like form, should probably gain some bear-like traits. I fought the urge to include “steal picnic baskets” and “poop in the woods” as options.
This is the Tuskhunt shifter race, one of the three by Jared Glenn of the now defunct Power Source podcast. That article can be found here.
Another race from the shifter series, this one can be found here.
And the last of the shifter races by Mr. Glenn. This one was originally posted here.
And that’s it for now. I hope to get something else written sooner rather than later, baring more illness and distractions like the last couple months.