Dungeons & Dragons Game Mastering

Cinematic Action

This post is part of a series on cinematic combat in Dungeons & Dragons 4E.  You can see the other posts in the series here.

While characters in a movie or comic might have a signature move or two, they often adapt their fighting style to the situation at hand.  On the other hand, in D&D 4E characters have a limited set of powers that they reuse almost every fight.  In an attempt to move away from that monotony, I’ve been looking at ways to allow characters to perform a wider range of actions.

While I think terrain powers offer a powerful tool to open up options unique to a given encounter, I also want to give players more adaptability through options that are more closely linked to their character concepts.

Potential Pitfalls

With any adjustment to give players more options, there are a couple risks.  First, having more options generally makes characters more powerful and could throw off the balance of the game.  As long as each character gets the same sort of adjustment, this is less of a problem, but it could still add work for the DM to scale up encounters a bit.  A second risk is bogging down the game mid-session because players now have even more options to consider on each turn.  To help mitigate that risk, the options I’m considering have some limitations on their scope so that a player won’t have to consider too many additional options mid-session.

Using Action Points

Action points normally allow characters to do something cool (spend an extra standard action*) on a limited basis (every other encounter).  Both of the rule ideas I’m proposing offer alternate uses for action points that give players more options for what “something cool” they do.  I think either one could also entirely replace the option of getting an extra action, but I’d probably let players keep that option.  If you don’t want to adjust the way action points are used in your game, you could also make either of these options an encounter or daily power that all characters get.

Reserve Powers

Characters can find themselves in a situation where one of their class’s powers just screams to be used.  Unfortunately, sometimes they’ve picked a different power for that level and are stuck with something that just doesn’t make sense in the current encounter.  The reserve power rule is meant to help address that situation in order to give players more ability to adapt to the conditions of a particular encounter.

When using reserve powers, a player chooses an additional encounter power for each encounter power that his or her character would normally possess.  These additional powers are the character’s reserve powers and they represent techniques or spells that the character might not have fully mastered but could turn to if needed.  In order to use a reserve power, a character must spend an action point and the use counts as a use of the character’s normal encounter power of that level (sorry, you can’t use both the normal power and the reserve power of the same level in a single encounter).

I’ve scoped the rule to only encounter powers because daily powers should already be used rarely enough to feel special on their own.  The scoping to only one reserve power per slot was because I wanted to keep the option from slowing down gameplay too much.


Where reserve powers are meant to give characters access to completely different powers, metapowers let a player tweak their character’s existing powers to get a little extra use out of them.  Inspired by the metamagic feats of D&D 3.X, metapower effects offer a player a limited ability to apply templates to a power when it is used.

The mechanics for metapowers are pretty simple.  A player can spend an action point in order to apply one metapower effect to an at-will or encounter power used by their character.  I’ve come up with a short list of metapower effects, but there are a ton of possibilities.

  • Accurate Power: +2 bonus on the power’s attack rolls.
  • Devastating Power: Increase the power’s damage by one die.  Ex:  2[W] becomes 3[W] and 5d8 becomes 6d8.
  • Enlarged Power: Increase the burst or blast size of the power by 1.
  • Clinging Power: The power’s target takes a –2 penalty on its first saving throw against the effects of the power.
  • Ranged Power: If the power’s range is 5 or higher, add 5 to it.  Otherwise, double the power’s range.
  • Forceful Power: Any targets hit by the power are pushed 1 square.  If the power already had a push effect, increase the number of squares by 1 instead.

Other Ideas?

Have you tried anything similar in your games to give player characters a little more adaptability?  If so, how did it work out?

*:  For a while, I’ve allowed players to spend action points for either an extra standard action or a reroll of an attack or skill check which has worked pretty well.

By Scott Boehmer

A game enthusiast and software engineer.

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