From the short and sweet dept: take it out

Here’s a quick thought for you to start the day. What would 4e D&D be like if you entirely removed the Powers system? How about if you took out both Powers and Skills? Or replaced the Feats system with something else – tiered skill-based bonuses, perhaps? You might well find a system you really like.

Y’see, that’s the thing. There’s so much emphasis on the Powers system in particular – both in the books themselves and in online discussions – so it’s easy to miss that the core of the game is a darned fine engine all by itself. The numbers add up and scale neatly, the classes and races (mostly) are appealing and there’s none of the mechanical speed bumps (*cough* the Attacks of Opportunity rules or *cough* calculating Encounter Levels based off CR) present in previous editions.

Of course, if you took Powers out of the game you’d  most likely need to replace them with something else – a Wizard without Spells isn’t much of a wizz – but another strength of the system is that it’s very hackable. Perhaps you’d prefer to drop Pathfinder’s Spell Lists into the mix, or use the Four by Five magic system, or even just use the existing Rituals system to give the game a much grittier, low-level flavour.

For half of the first Endday Campaign session the players had no Powers and only Basic Attacks to rely on, and the system flew. Sure, it was tough (the monsters still had their Powers!) but the rules system itself was more than up to the task.  Anyone who thinks 4e D&D is “just a boardgame” ought to try it sometime. I’m sure they’ll find that 4e has everything they need for full-on immersive role-playing. The Powers system just adds to that; it doesn’t take anything away.

If you’re hardcore old school, why not remove the Skills system instead (or as well) if you feel that it’s limiting and prefer a more open-ended approach to the game. It’s true that the less skills exist in a system the more freedom of choice your characters seem to have, and nothing beats a gloriously minimal character sheet to get the imagination flowing. Like this, for example:

Duron, Dwarf Fighter-1
STR 18, CON 16, DEX 10, INT 10, WIS 13, CHA 8
AC17, HP 31, Fort 16, Ref 10, Will 11
Scale Armour, Greatsword (+9, d10+4)

Yes, that’s a real, genuine 4e D&D character without Skills or Powers and it feels so old school I can smell the Erol Otus artwork from here. See?

I’m writing this with 4e D&D in mind of course, but it applies equally well to all rules engines. If you don’t like a part of the system, either take it out, or replace it with something else. It’s your game. Make it how you want.

13 Comments on “From the short and sweet dept: take it out”

  1. This is a great idea because, as you say, the basic mechanics of the game are excellent.

    Removing powers will also lessen, though not remove, my big bugbear with the game – “Encounters”.

    I think the definition of an “Encounter” with some powers coming back afterward each one really broke the game. It introduced a mechanic where none was needed, breaking the suspension of disbelieve and it also effects the GM’s / party’s freedom to be creative.

    Drop powers out 4e and most of this goes away, though you are left with some questions about hit points and healing.

    Great idea. I look forward to your 4e supplement “Powerless and Proud”. Hell, 6d6 will happily publish it for you.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..Unboxing 6d6 Miniatures =-.

  2. No offense to 6D6, but I’m getting kinda irked how people keep saying stuff like the Encounter Powers ruins the players freedom to be creative.

    Everyone is okay by “Spells per Day”, or praising Fantasy Craft for spell points that recharged “By The Scene” yet when 4E breaks up vancian magic by At-Will/Encounter (sounds like “By The Scene” to me) and Daily, it suddenly becomes broken and restrictive on creativity?

    I’m not trying to win peeps over to 4E; if the system doesn’t mesh, it’s not like their isn’t other flavors to play. But I am getting so sick of the “ruins creativity” “lacks role playing” or any other jab of that nature. It honestly sounds to me like a bunch of grognards who couldn’t use THEIR imaginations to work a different way, and thus everyone who does play is doing it wrong. ((Not saying you implied that, Chris, but I’m saying as a whole lately that’s what the broken record is coming off as.))
    .-= Rev. Lazaro´s last blog ..The Dark Underbelly of West Brundiland =-.

  3. @Lazaro

    The problem I found with Encounters is the ‘taking out the guard’ scenario.

    E.g. Where there is one or two guards who the party would like to kill silently and move on.

    In 4e, it seems the only way to do this with any house rules or other adaptions, is to make the guards part of a larger encounter. This mostly removes the point of the player being careful as they know they are about to end up in a big fight.

    Of course, the GM can come up with house rules to address the situation but the encounter mechanic is firmly entrenched within the system.

    The Encounters mechanic, to me at least, also impedes on my imagination. It is too artificial.

    I can believe a wizard needs a good night sleep in order to regain their spells but why can a fighter only do a particularly clever trick during arbitrarily defined ‘encounters’? The encounter mechanic breaks my suspension of disbelief.

    You are right about complaints about role-playing. That is up to the players and nothing to do with the system. However I did find that because combat took so long, we did ended up rushing the other parts of the game. But that was how we choose to play, and it was not forced on us by the game.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..Unboxing 6d6 Miniatures =-.

  4. I can’t even see how the Guard scenario is handled differently than in any other edition, other than the additional options of Skill Challenge it? Stealth roll, succeed, okay, move in for the sneak attack as you would…..or grapple the guys, subdue them, slit some throats or tie them up or whatever. No house rules there; and all because the Encounter Mechanic exists in the game doesn’t mean it’s required for use in every situation.

    Mechanics are just the guidelines; it’s stated as such and I wouldn’t consider passing them up for a simpler resolution that’s part of the core mechanic a house rule.
    .-= Rev. Lazaro´s last blog ..The Dark Underbelly of West Brundiland =-.

  5. I think that D&D 4e without the powers system would look a lot like Star Wars: Saga Edition. And that seems to work fairly well. Granted, there’s a few rules that are a legacy of 3.5, but for the most part, characters can shoot lasers or swing sabers or a special few can use the force. Not too different from firing crossbows or swinging swords or a special few casting spells now is it?

  6. I’m sitting back eating popcorn enjoying how the comments are going, so don’t mind me.

    I will say one thing though…..

    For a “take out the guards” setup a Skill Challenge is definitely the way to go. Make the guards Minions so the heroes can pull an Assassin’s Creed and take ’em out in a single well-targeted hit, and have an additional Guard who is currently out of sight so it requires a Perception roll to spot him. The team needs to make Move Silently rolls to get in position (optimally with other PCs making Aid Another checks to provide distractions, etc) then a well-placed Ranged Attack vs. AC (Combat Advantage gives +2 but the battlements provides -2 cover to balance it out) to take the first guard out as a quick kill. The heroes could move onto the second guard for a Melee vs. AC (or Fort/Ref/Will depending on attack used), spot the third guard then (for example) Intimidate him into surrendering.

    That’s one possible route a Skill Challenge could take. If they get three fails one of the guards raises the alarm. Otherwise, the heroes are inside, and undetected.

    One skill challenge. Just add role-playing to taste, and you’ve a tense and exciting start to the session :D

  7. @Lazaro – The approach to the guards is exactly the same in all editions, as you describe but …

    … in 4e, it is an “Encounter”.

    This means the players have all their encounter powers available and can use them without worry if they think or know entire encounter is one guard.

    This effects the game balance because it makes a Rogue’s sneak attack meaningless if the Fighter can use an encounter power to also deliver a one-off big hit.

    Being an encounter, it should also count towards the party’s action point total. This is obviously stupid and no GM would do it but it raises the question of when is an encounter not an encounter?

    The encounter mechanic is just unnecessary and it just gets in the way.

    If a party is meant to do three encounters per day, why not say they are daily powers you can use three times?

    As to mechanics being just guidelines, that is a red herring.

    When talking about a game, we have to talk about the game as it is written. Otherwise we are comparing apples & oranges.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..Unboxing 6d6 Miniatures =-.

  8. If we are talking about rules as written, the DMG states that it is up to the DM to decide what is worth a milestone (and thus worth handing out action points.) Another important thing to note here is that you need a short rest to recover encounter powers, and a short rest is defined as at least 5 minutes. (Which also answers your question of how to define an encounter–a combat where the party has at lest 5 mins to rest after.)

    If your party went through all the trouble of silently taking out those guards, I doubt they would want to sit around for 5 minutes to get their powers back. If they did want to sit around, I would put them into another short skill challenge to hide the bodies and find a good place to rest. Failing that challenge would be the same as the guards raising the alarm.
    .-= DeadGod´s last blog ..Modern Weapons for 4ed =-.

  9. @Chris I agree with you, kinda.

    Exactly what an Encounter is in 4e terms is pretty woolly, especially given that the DMG talks about Combat and Non-combat Encounters. It also includes a Skill Challenge which features both where a Skill Challenge takes place in the midst of combat (DMG80) – this was one of the points while reading the books where I really began to “get it” as a system.

    In cinematic terms, I guess an Encounter starts when the music changes and ends when the music fades away. It’s The Trash Compactor scene in Star Wars (definitely a Skill Challenge). It’s any battle. It’s Jedi Master Luke in Jabba’s Throne Room (a good example of a Failed Skill Challenge, methinks). An encounter doesn’t have to mean combat all the time (and if it does in your game, that’s not a game I’d wanna play) but it usually does mean there’s an element of risk involved. Our heroes chatting to an ally in a bar isn’t an encounter. Our heroes scaring a crook into talking in the middle of a bar full of Toughs is.

    So can they use their per Encounter and Daily Powers in those non-combat situations? Hell yes!

    Why they can’t use them all the time is due to Dramatic Appropriateness. Awesome moves stop being awesome if you do them all the time. It’s the reason why Katate Kid doesn’t use That Kick every single attack, and the reason why every other movie action hero doesn’t do their bestest move all the frickin’ time, every time. Saving the special moves for the right time is exactly what makes them special in the first place.

    So why not just three times per day instead of per Encounter?

    Because that’s up to you, as GM. If you want three Encounters per day, then you’ve effectively made their per Encounters into “usable 3/day” abilities instead.

    But 4e is better than that – it lets the flow of the action and how you want to pace things dictate how often their Powers are usable, and that’s, imho, is a Good Thing.

    We’re happy playing games where there’s only one or two Combat Encounters in a session surrounded by lots of loverly role-playing (with Skill Challenges backing them up as appropriate). If you want to run a high-body count game with 6 or more Encounters per session instead that’s fine – and the number of times the heroes’ per Encounter Powers are usable scales up automatically. Which is nice.

    Of course, if you want to change it so that some or all of the per Encounter Powers are usable 3/day instead, that’s cool too :D

    As I said, 4e is a very hackable system at the core.

  10. One of my players hates the martial power source because of the encounter and daily powers. I look at it as moves that you can only do when the right circumstances come up. The victim has to let their guard down when you are in position to take advantage of it. That’s why you don’t do it all the time. And once you’ve done it, the bad guys don’t let their guard down again.

    4e’s flexibility has also shown itself in the playtest psion in Dragon magazine. They don’t have encounter powers – they just have at-will powers that can be augmented. I could see a variation on that for a fighter – power points representing fatigue.

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