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Why Timmy Can Only Stab Once A Day

posted Monday, March 23rd 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceFourth Edition

I may have mentioned my fourth edition players before. Four sessions in, the players are learning more about the game rules but still have questions.

“Why does the fighter have abilities they can only use once per day?”

In fourth edition, most “powers” – a catch-all term for spells, special attacks and combat techniques – are broken down into At-Will, Encounter, and Daily abilities. Wizards, for example, can use ghost sound or magic missile at will, once every round if they like, but ray of enfeeblement is an Encounter power and can be used once per combat, while flaming sphere can be used once per day.

This makes plenty of sense for the wizard, whose spells adhere to consistent rules of magic. The same goes for the cleric, paladin and warlock, whose abilities draw from deities or powerful entities and are rationed out as those beings wish. The warlord may have rousing shouts that lose their impact if used too frequently. The rogue may have sneaky combat tricks that only work when they’re unexpected and likewise mustn’t be overused, and something similar might be said about the ranger.

But where do the fighter’s combat techniques fit into this? What does it mean that the fighter can only trip once per combat or deal a triply powerful hit only once per day?

There are a few common explanations, but none really fit. It makes no sense that an exploit requires just the right “once in a combat” opportunity, because the fighter can use any ability at any time. If encounter exploits tire a fighter that he can’t use it again without resting, they certainly tire him out in a very specific way that doesn’t affect other tiring exploits. It’s not magic of any sort. There’s little reason for a class dedicated to perfecting combat arts to hold back on his most powerful abilities unless he he has to.

There’s a better explanation, I think, and it’s this. The fighter, eager to perfect the art of combat, trains himself in new and exceptionally difficult techniques of extreme deadliness. However, an earnest battle is never as predictable as the training field, and actually using these new manoevers is a wholly different experience. Once the fighter chooses the moment and commits to the deadly technique, instinct and training take over. So, even though the fighter can choose when to use his attack, he still can’t use it with great frequency – in the heat of battle, he cannot quite remember how he managed to do it.

A related topic is the fighter’s Combat Challenge ability, which lets him pull one enemy’s attention and is criticized by some as unrealistic. The theory is that unlike the paladin whose similar ability is explained by divine magic, there’s no sense in the fighter pulling more attention when he deals less damage than someone else.

I don’t agree. In the real world, consider how a boxer manipulates his opponent with feints, feigned weaknesses and so forth. Similarly, the fighter can feign an opening to entice an opponent to attack, or by intimidating battlefield presence create the impression that he is more dangerous than he really is. Don’t forget that although the fighter expects to use his most powerful attacks only once per combat, his opponent may not know that. As a master of melee combat it’s his job to watch the responses of his opponent and how to use them to his advantage, and “marking” an opponent represents that well.

Comments

  1. Wyatt

    March 23rd, 2009

    Very interesting and creative explanations, thanks!

  2. The Recursion King

    March 23rd, 2009

    I’ve got a better explanation than all of these; it’s a game. Stop trying to retrofit explanations on rules that are there for game balance decisions it will never really work. Just accept it’s a game, it’s unrealistic and if you can’t, just house rule it out of there.

  3. Daniel M. Perez, The Gamer Traveler

    March 23rd, 2009

    This is what took me the longest to get used to about 4e: there is no rationality behind why things last/can be used the frequencies they are listed as. You are welcomed to create one, as you did here, but the designers very much did not care to put such meta thinking into the design, as had been done in previous editions. This liberates the game from too much simulationism, but leaves people scratching their heads sometimes. You just gotta accept it and move on. If you can come up with an explanation, all the better.

  4. The Last Rogue

    March 23rd, 2009

    @ DANIEL — I’ve actually come to enjoy this element of the game as a ‘tinkerer’ DM. I feel, as you do in some measure, that WotC left this particular edition a bit more stripped down in regards to fluff. For me this is not a negative, in fact by focusing on sound mechanics, I (and my players) are able to fill in the flavor as needed . . . for my dwarven guardian fighter he is able to mark because he is so damn effective at getting in the way, whereas a battle vigor fighter is so damn intimidating he demands your attention.

  5. We Need The XP! » Blog Archive » Fixing The Fighter In 4e - Home of Role Playing and Miniatures News and More

    March 23rd, 2009

    [...] Jonathan Drain at D20 Sources has some thoughts on why a fighter has powers they can only use once a day. [...]

  6. RPG Ike

    March 23rd, 2009

    Not bad, Jonathan. Not bad at all. :)

    I’m not a fan of the powers system, especially when applied to the fighter, but your explanation is rather compelling… I like it. Thanks!

  7. anarkeith

    March 23rd, 2009

    Seems like you’ve got good flavor ideas here. As a former fencer I’d add that a lot of maneuvers are muscle-memory related. So until your body learns them (via repetition) they can’t be called up at will. That, combined with the opportunity to use the maneuver (best not to duck when your opponent is attacking in a low line), accounts for the once a day aspect.

  8. Asmor

    March 23rd, 2009

    I came here to say what The Recursion King said.

  9. Dice Girl

    March 23rd, 2009

    Your explanations give a great deal of insight into why the powers system would also apply to the Fighter. I find the power system to make quite a few characters more useful (instead of in 3.5 where a level 1 Wizard was basically useless once they had used all their allotted spells for the day). My first thoughts would have been that encounter powers took a lot of energy and could only be used so frequently.

  10. Tetsubo

    April 3rd, 2009

    I’m with the nay-sayers. The disconnection between the mechanics and the explanations of 4E powers is a deal breaker for me. The entire idea behind encounter abilities strikes me as alien and metagaming.

    As for 3.5 Wizards not being all that powerful or having a great deal of adventuring stamina at 1st level… they’re 1st freaking level. T-ball players don’t put out as much performance as major league baseball players either.

  11. ECOA

    April 4th, 2009

    Eh, earlier and other systems model the variability in combat conditions better, like, say, with a d20 roll. No systems is perfect, but I weigh in with the naysayers on 4th edition in general. No, sir, I don’t like it, and it don’t feel like D&D to me. More power to those who do like it, hope you all have fun.

  12. Mike

    April 10th, 2009

    Or it could just be that 4th edition blows chunks. I agree with Tetsubo and ECOA – it’s completely disconnected from any sense of reality (or meta-reality) and wasting time engaging in mental gymnastics as to how to explain it is pointless.

  13. GiacomoArt

    April 13th, 2009

    Timmy can only stab once a day because it’s more fun that way. Or to put it another way: Recursion King is right on his diagnosis, but pessimistic on his prescription.

    One should never get carried away with retrofitting explanations onto rules – losing sight of the fact that it’s all just a game can lead to endless frustration – but if you entirely eschew attaching explanations to the rules, you’re back to playing strategy games instead of role-playing. Assigning a “why” to the “what” is what allows players to extrapolate beyond the published rules. It’s what lets them leave the game board behind and interact with the endless possibilities of an imaginary world.

    Ultimately, Timmy can only stab once a day because it’s a game. But just as real people die from a lack of oxygen to the brain, NOT from running out of hit points, we have to abstract the reality of every situation to a vastly simplified set of mechanics before we can make a game out of it. And if the most realistic simulations also made for the best rules, D&D would have long ago found itself dead and buried in a landfill. Despite being the most widely played RPG in the world, it has always been one of the most absurdly unrealistic.

    The explanation you gave, then, is a good one, and the why boils down to this: players have more fun choosing that one right moment in a given combat to unleash their hard-to-pull-off maneuver than they would waiting for the DM or the dice to pop up and say, “Wow, Timmy. You finally saw an opening to stab! Do you want to use it? This is probably the only time it’ll happen today.” The unrealistic part with these powers, then, is less how often he stabs than it is that he gets to choose when he stabs.

  14. Zaratustra

    April 28th, 2009

    “Marking” is an artifact of a combat system where turning away from an enemy two inches from you to go beat on someone halfway across the battlefield is sound strategy instead of earning you a well-deserved axe blade in the spine

  15. DR

    June 18th, 2009

    I understand this explanation, and it is compelling. Especially when it all does come down to the fact that this is combat in “abstraction.” However the abstraction still falls short… if I recall, the “Six Second Combat Round” still exists, correct? A lot can be done in six seconds, especially in unarmed combat. In a full minute of hand-to-hand unarmed combat, there can be multiple uses of some of these “once per encounter powers.”
    But then again, some of the skill-feat selections in the previous editions were kinda goofy too, so thank you for a well thought out and plausible rational, that was failed to be put forward by the designers.

  16. Pyrrhus

    June 30th, 2010

    I’m not sure I get the point of nay-saying about something that is meant to help players accept the rules of the game that they are playing. What Jonathan says is meant entirely to make a gaming experience run more smoothly, and therefore be much more easily enjoyable. Bashing on explanations or the game itself is like giving the finger to the Pope; it’s probably for no good reason, it doesn’t accomplish anything.

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