In Defense of Daily Powers

One frequent complaint about the design of 4e is the concept of encounter and, especially, daily powers. The big Mike Mearls interview has given a lot of attention to this critique of it:

Imagine Robin Hood shooting an arrow and causing someone to jump backwards; or a furious swashbuckling duel with a clever swordsman shifting the ground on which they fight. It’s right there in the fluff text description: Through a series of feints and lures, you maneuver your foe right where you want him.The problem  is that this is a Daily power — which means it can only be used once per day by the rogue.

Huh? Why is Robin Hood losing his skill with the bow after using his skill with the bow? Since when did a swashbuckler have a limited number of feints that they can perform in a day?

There’s a fundamental disconnect between what the mechanics are supposed to be modeling (the rogue’s skill with a blade or a bow) and what the mechanics are actually doing.

If you’re watching a football game, for example, and a player makes an amazing one-handed catch, you don’t think to yourself: “Wow, they won’t be able to do that again until tomorrow!”

And yet that’s exactly the type of thing these mechanics are modeling. Unlike a fireball, I can’t hold any kind of intelligible conversation with the rogue about his trick strike ability:

Me: So what is this thing you’re doing?

Rogue: I’m performing a series of feints and lures, allowing me to maneuver my foe right where I want him.

Me: Nifty. So why can you only do that once per day?

Rogue: … I have no idea.

Well, here’s why.

My wife introduced me to Xena this year. Xena is a great model for action fantasy, which is what 4e combat is. But this also applies to Robin Hood, Star Wars, Terminator and all sorts of other fantasy, science fiction and even non-genre action TV and movies.

In a fight scene, the hero has a technique — fighting with a sword or lightsaber, shooting a laser gun, unleashing arrows at close range. Those are represented in 4e with at-will powers. The hero may also have a signature attack that is used frequently but not constantly. Xena’s chakran (or however the hell you spell it) is like this. And of course, this is an encounter power.

Now, think about the big battle at the end of the movie. The hero is overmatched, but summons a store of will he didn’t even know he had. Or the villain suddenly makes the slightest wrong move, and the hero suddenly takes this opening to spring. Either way, he does something he didn’t do before.

This is the martial daily power. It’s an abstraction of an attack that is made possible only by an unusual circumstance. In the Robin Hood/trick strike example, the power depends on the enemy being exactly where the rogue can take advantage of him. Maybe he’s off-balance; maybe he’s standing under the chandelier. Either way, what the once-per-day mechanic represents is not that the PC forgets the power, but that he won’t have a chance at it again. If this were real life, he might have that chance twice on one day and none on the next.

Not all martial dailies are like this. Some, the 3[W] powers of the fighter, for example, just represent an enormous expenditure of strength, possibly fueled by the desperation of the fight. That’s more akin to the arcane daily, the spell of immense power.

Now, in game, we don’t have to wait for the DM to declare that an opponent has stepped with his left foot six inches forward allowing the perfect opportunity for you to strike. We don’t want that level of detail. We just want to be able to deliver the devastating blow made possible by that.

And that is why the rogue and the ranger have daily powers.

Update: Holy [very bad word], Critical Hits has an awesome example of using 4e to represent cinematic combat.

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