Beyond the battle: A non-combat guide to using 4e Powers

The Powers system is without doubt the single biggest change to the game that Fourth Edition brought to the D&D genre. By design these are abilities which give your character cool things to do in combat beyond just saying “I hit him” for the thousandth time. As with anything designed for warfare though many (if not all) Powers can also be useful outside combat too. Just like a Fighter using his Longsword to pry open a door or a Wizard using his trusty Staff to check for traps, it’s the imaginitive use for your Powers that help to bring them, and the game itself, alive.

From the keyboard of myself and Randall from Initiative or What, here’s a primer showing how to use Powers beyond the turn-by-turn world of the combat round. We’ll look at the mechanics of using them away from the battlemat as well as suggest cool and cunning uses for the first and second level Powers from each class of the Player’s Handbook. Hopefully this should spark ideas how your character could use their Powers in imaginitive and unusual ways too. If you think of any, we’d love to hear from you in the comments!

But first, a word about frequency. Powers come in three flavours: At-will, per Encounter and Daily. At-will Powers can be used as often as you want, and never run out. Daily Powers are usable just once between an Extended Rest so if you use it outside combat, it’s gone for the day.

Powers which are usable once Per Encounter can only be used once between Short Rests. Remember that 4e D&D describes only the mechanical effects – it’s up to you and your GM to provide the in-game explanations and rationales. Perhaps they are more exhausting to use than your At-wills, require a little more preparation to set up or need easily replaceable spell components. A Wizard in one of our Delves used the short rests to memorize his Encounter Spells, and his extended rests to memorize and prepare the complex components for his Daily Spells. Yes folks – spell memorization in 4e D&D! Who’d have thunk it?

When it comes to using the Encounter Power outside combat, the main thing to be aware of is that if initiative is rolled within 5 minutes of their use, you can’t use that Encounter Power during the battle – you’ve simply not had time to rest and recover the use of the Power. Likewise for Daily Powers – until you’ve had a good night’s sleep, they’re gone so it’s a brave (or desperate!) adventurer who uses a Daily Power in a non-combat situation.

Any Power that can target a creature can also target an object, subject to the GM’s discretion (PHB 57). While it doesn’t make sense for a hero to be able to mind control a door, most Powers can be used to affect objects, walls and the surroundings. In general, if a Power targets Will, it’s not going to work against an inanimate object.

If the Power’s target is listed as “ally” or “allies” then this means that the target must be willing. No matter how hard he tries, a Cleric won’t be able to heal a stone wall! (Though if he could somehow communicate with it first……) Take each suggested use of a Power on it’s own merit – if it makes sense and is Suitably Heroic, allow it.

Many Powers create effects that last until the end of the Encounter, or can be sustained so long as the caster spends a Minor Action maintaining them. Out of combat, these effects last 5 minutes at most (PHB 278), or until the caster takes a rest. This means many Powers are great for short-term game effects – it’s HOW you use them that counts!

Enough with the rules. Here are some suggested uses for the Cleric, Paladin, Rogue and Warlord 1st level and the 2nd level Utility Powers. You’ll find uses for the Fighter, Ranger, Warlock and Wizard over on Initiative or What. The rest, as they say, is up to you.

Cleric Prayers

Lance of Faith
Single out a sinner in a crowd, bathing them in light
Priest’s Shield
Protect a victim from assault
Righteous Brand
Temporarily brand a prisoner for transfer
Sacred Flame
Draw health from a willing subject to save an ally
Cause Fear
Make a fool run from certain danger, or dishearten the leader of a mob
Divine Glow
Signal the beginning of a ceremony by filling the congregation with holy light
Healing Strike
Draw healing energy from a willing sacrifice to heal another
Wrathful Thunder
Punish an unrepentant sinner
Avenging Flame
Holy cow barbeque!
Beacon of Hope
Bless the faithful and punish the doubters – all in one swoop
Cascade of Light
Cast on a novice priest to test their mettle and open them up to their deity’s wishes
Guardian of Faith
Summon a holy ancestor for advice. Grants a bonus to Religion and Insight checks equal to the caster’s Wisdom bonus.
Sends congregation away to ther toil. Grants a +1 bonus to skill checks for 1 hour
Cure Light Wounds
Heal wounded animals and people. Essential for the non-combat working Cleric!
Divine Aid
Assist in curing a long-term illness
Provide a safe zone for trade negotiations
Shield of Faith
Embolden your allies the eve before battle

Paladin Prayers

Bolstering Strike
Push the limits of your endurance during training, drawing on inner reserves from your faith
Enfeebling Strike
Train your squire to anticipate attacks while using wooden swords (1d3 damage)
Holy Strike
Find the weak point in a door before bursting it open
Valiant Strike
Grab a pair of foes and smash them into a treasure chest
Fearsome Smite
Outsmart someone chasing you; they take a penalty to their Athletics equal to your Wisdom bonus
Piercing Smite
Corner a small gang of thugs, keeping close guard over them all with your imposing glare
Radiant Smite
Cause your weapon to glow faintly, suffient to provide illumination in a 5′ radius
Shielding Smite
Create a Shield to protect someone from falling rocks – or to craddle a baby
On Pain of Death
Prevent aggressive action from a captive. Or to torture one (not that a Paladin would ever do such a thing).
Paladin’s Judgement
Literally take a pound of flesh from the guilty, bestowing recompence to the victim
Radiant Delerium
Illuminate a 5′ square area such as a window or archway
Astral Speech
Negotiate a treaty or safe passage
Martyr’s Blessing
Heroic last-minute sacrifice, saving a friend from certain death at the cost of your own life
Sacred Circle
Create a small sanctuary of peace, a calm in the eye of a storm

Rogue Exploits

Deft Strike
Roof run and fire a grappling hook
Piercing Strike
Knife-throwing act and other tricks of hand-eye coordination
Riposte Strike
Hold a foe with a blade on the nape of their neck. One false move…..
Sly Flourish
Sign your initial on a door or somone’s chest with the tip of your blade
Dazing Strike
Punch out a mad dog!
King’s Castle
Swing an ally to safety
Positioning Strike
Force open a barred door
Tortuous Strike
Street boxing match – and probably throw the match too!
Blinding Barrage
Escape from the law by throwing sand in their eyes
Easy Target
Knock out a drunk
Trick Strike
Force back a heavy barrel or stone block
Fleeting Ghost
Pass silently by guards and their dogs – or back home after a night drinking :D
Great Leap
Leap the moat/pit trap/alleyway
Master of Deceit
Persuade the judge you’re innocent, honest
Quick Fingers
Pick pockets while running through a crowd
Escape through the legs of the closing thugs

Warlord Exploits

Commander’s Strike
Order a soldier to whip a prisoner or punish a subordinate. Not recommended unless you’re a harsh taskmaster
Furious Smash
Motivate a warband through a show of force
Viper’s Strike
Trip a fleeing suspect
Wolf Pack Tactics
Close in on a target (be it foe or frightened innocent)
Guarding Attack
Shield an ally while he’s fleeing
Hammer and Anvil
Team up and smash down the door!
Leaf on the Wind
Rescue a captive from a foe’s clutches
Warlord’s Favour
Trick a guard into opening themselves up to a surprise attack
Bastion of Defense
Order a change to a defensive formation while marching
Lead the Attack
Alert your allies to prepare for battle!
Pin the Foe
Hold down a struggling prisoner
White Raven Onslaught
Order your troops to pan out and search for survivors
Aid the Injured
Share war stories with an old comrade
Crescendo of Violence
Cheer on a wrestling match!
Knight’s Move
Help another escape an angry mob
Shake it Off
Encourage an ally to suck it up, soldier!

Find more suggested non-combat uses for Powers over on Initiative or What. See you there!

12 Comments on “Beyond the battle: A non-combat guide to using 4e Powers”

  1. I started up a D&D 4e game using the Urban Arcana d20 Modern setting and really encouraged my players to come up with modern terms for their powers. For instance, one of the players was a Riot Squad Police Officer (Paladin) who used “Police Brutality” instead of “Holy Strike.” I’ve even seen an Inventor (Wizard) who doesn’t believe in magic and uses a “Wrist Gun” (Magic Missile), “Sonic Boom detonator” (Thunderwave), and “Remote Control Robots” (Mage Hand). And of course, he can modify them using his spare parts (spell book) and rig up some more difficult contraptions (rituals) with the aid of his laptop (ritual book).

    And you know what? None of the players creating their own versions like that ever complain that powers are too generic!

  2. That sounds like there are more creative uses of 4E powers than most bother to imagine. But I think I still prefer 3.5E. ;)

    But ya, re-naming, coming up with creative re-namings and uses, make 4E playable for me. :)

  3. I disagree that 4E gives only the mechanic and you come with the flavor. Were it so, we would only have roles and not classes – and yet, the flavor makes similar mechanics very different.
    But people usually think of powers simply as a strategic resource in battles, and not about what the power does and how to use it outside combat. Illusions, for example – most powers are imaginary attacks that cause psychic damage, penalties, forced movement and attacking allies. But if you think about it, it’s simply an illusion, why wouldn’t you be able to use it for something else? Make a stealth check to hide that you are casting something, and it’s done.
    Great post! But, if people start really seeing things this way, I fear someone will start complaining that in 4E you can do nothing but use powers, even outside combat.

  4. @Thunderforge Excellent! I’m all for encouraging the players to customize and rename their Powers. Good Call!

    @Adult Role Playing We will convince you yet :D

    @Elda You’re right, of course. Some people will innevitably see this as yet one more way that 4e is entirely Powers-centric. That’s not the intention of this post at all – the goal is to show that it’s possible to work imaginitively and creatively with the Powers system to enhance the whole role-playing experience. Some people, unfortunately, will never see that because they don’t want to see it. Ah well. Their loss.

  5. more non-combat uses of powers, inspired by ultima online…

    At-will Attack: Kill a chicken for no reason.
    Encounter Attack: Kill a duck for no reason.
    Daily Attack: Kill a man for looking at you funny.

  6. How about putting some non combat skills into 4E in the first place and massively cutting down on the combat ones… bang… problem solved… oops you aren’t supposed to suggest such things as this, are you? ;-)

  7. @The Recursion King Ummm…… 4e HAS non combat skills. They’re called SKILLS. And ability checks. And honest-to-goodness role-playing too. That’s still there too.

    I’ll say it again: Powers adds to all that, they don’t take anything away. If you don’t want to like it or understand though, that’s fine by me.

  8. Well I’m sure some will appreciate these efforts, and taking existing systems and spinning them in creative new directions is a good thing, but honestly, perusing the list made me think you are trying too hard.

    I mean, look at this:

    Crescendo of Violence
    Cheer on a wrestling match!

    Why would anyone need a skill, power or feat to cheer on a wrestling match.

    Or, alternatively, perhaps it’s a joke, something for everyone in the table to laugh at : “I cheer at the wrestling match! ” “Er, no you don’t, you don’t have ‘crescendo of violence’ so you can’t do that”.

    Perhaps if you need non combat powers, you need to scrap the powers system altogether and it won’t shape the way that players approach the game /because it won’t be there/.

  9. @The Recursion King No, you don’t need Crescendo of Violence to be able to cheer on a wrestling match any more than you need a “Walk Forward Ten Paces” Power to be able to …… aww heck, you get the idea :D

    What we’re doing is suggesting ways you could use the Powers in non-combat situations in cool and funky ways. That’s not, no way, ever to imply that you’ve got to have a Power to be able to do a thing.

    Keeping with Crescendo of Violence as an example, because I quite like that one.

    It’s a Warlord 2nd level Utility Power that’s usable once per Encounter. Here’s a quick summary:

    As an immediate reaction when an ally within 5 squares scores a critcal hit, they gain hit points equal to your Charisma modifier.

    Now, imagine that Warlord is at a wrestling match. Everyone is cheering the match (not just those who are Warlords. That would be silly). But your character IS a Warlord, and the wrestler you’re cheering for gets a great hit. “Crescendo of Violence!” you call, “I’m going to stand on my chair and yell at the top of my voice, urging the crowd to get right behind him and keep him going!”

    Net result: the wrestler gets temporary hit points (as per the Power) and the match continues.

    Could anyone else do that? Probably. But the Warlord does it better, because leading and urging people on to do their best is his thing.

    That’s only one example, but it would work fine for any sport where crowd support can make a difference to a player’s morale and energy.

    When I’m GM I’d be happy for my PCs to come up with clever and imaginitive uses for ANYTHING on their character sheet, Powers included.

    Hope that helps!

  10. Yep that does help explain your thinking on it.

    I suspect it comes from this fact: There’s all these powers sitting on people’s character sheets and unless we’re bashing skulls, they never get used.

    What’s missing from your descriptions, though, is an explanation like the one above. They would all really benefit from that immensely.

    I play the D&D minis game and the same problem exists with the powers on some of those creatures. A disconnect between the power, its name and the creature because the power is too /abstract/. It makes it hard to imagine that the power exists for any reason other than it was pulled from a list and put onto a creature for no reason other than balance or that it would be cool. This is not true for all the powers listed, many of them do make sense and are easy to imagine.

    In that game, though, there is a lack of space on each individual card, so its forgivable, but here what you (in my opinion) need to, is explain your thinking with a concrete example, like you just did there, which was brilliant. However, in its original form, it was very difficult to see a link between the power and the suggestion.

    Just my suggestion anyway, and thanks for replying.

  11. @The Recursion King You’re right. I could (and should) have gone into more detail about how you could use the Powers outside combat. I think Randall did a much better job of that than I did – personal time constaints meant I couldn’t put as much into this as I wanted or it deserved. I didn’t want to turn this into a massive multi-part behemoth blogpost either – those things have a bad habit of running away with me.

    I hope I’ve clarified it for you now though. Many thanks for your input :D

  12. I enjoyed the article, and its twin. That said, it hasn’t made me a 4e convert; it’s more a case of giving me something I would want to carry with me if I was in a situation where 4e was the only game available.

    I do have a couple of quibbles:

    1: A lot of the suggestions are, in fact, “combat related”–the wrestling match is combat, it’s just not one where the battle mat has been broken out. Similarly, using Cause Fear to intimidate someone out of combat is still pretty much the same as using it in-combat; essentially, you’re attempting to get a one-hit ‘kill’ by getting the target to yield to you. If it fails, though, it’s quite likely that the dice and battlemat are coming out.

    2: Some of the suggestions almost seem to violate the RAW. For instance, there’s at least a strong implication that fire-based powers do not, in fact, set anything on fire–the target is burnt, yes, but does not combust. A man soaked in water and a man soaked in kerosene take the same amount of damage from a fireball. The rulings posted in these lists often make sense, but do so at the direct cost of undermining the RAW.

    Don’t get me wrong–I’m not a purist when I game. My games are usually full of house rulings, and like I said, these make a lot of sense. But you can’t point to a list of house rules and say that they are why the game itself is good–by that measure, Calvinball would be the only game worth playing (since it intrinsically welcomes all house rules).

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