Saturday, January 30, 2010

Beyond the Battle: A Non-Combat Guide to Using 4e Powers

Sometimes it’s possible to snatch some really cool ideas right out of the Twitterverse. Robin “Greywulf” Stacey dropped this idea into the pool and it was too good to pass up. Hat in hand, I asked the ‘Wulf if I might jump in on his idea and help share the load. What follows is my half the goods.

I recommend you pop over to Greywulf’s site first, and read his post. It’s okay. I’ll wait.

All set? Good! Now, here’s my half of the bargain:

As Greywulf mentioned, Powers were a big game changer for 4e DnD. No longer are certain party members just “standing around” after their big guns (I’m looking at you Wizard types here) are exhausted. Clerics are no longer exclusively medics and undead protection. Everyone has powers, and everyone loves to use them. It makes sense, though, that players should be able to use these abilities outside of combat. You had to practice on something other than the family cat, right? To say that these abilities only function in combat is just silly.

From my own humble blog and building on what has already been posted at Greywulf’s Lair, here’s the continuation of the primer showing how to use Powers beyond the combat encounter. I will attempt to follow Greywulf’s example and identify useful ways to incorporate these Powers into “away-from-the-battlemat” situations. Like Greywulf, I’ll be looking at First and Second level powers from classes in the Player’s Handbook. When Robin and I first discussed this idea, we split the Powers up by Source. He took Divine, I jumped on Arcane. Together we split the Martial. Who knows? With your suggestions, this might become a thing, and we’ll have to put together a complete guide (dream big, right?).

Before we jump in to the Powers, let me reiterate some basic rules as set out by Robin’s post:

First, a word about frequency. Powers come in three flavors: 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 an Encounter Power outside combat, the main thing to be aware of is that if initiative is rolled within 5 minutes of its 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 Wisdom, 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. Deadorcs Note: Allow it even if it’s not that Heroic. Maybe the Hero is just having a bad day and wants to wilt the mayor’s flower bed with necrotic energy.

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 rules for now. Here are my suggested uses for the Wizard, Warlock, Ranger, and Fighter 1st level and the 2nd level Utility Powers. Please remember to visit Greywulf’s Lair for the Cleric, Paladin, Rogue, and Warlord Powers.

Wizard Spells:

Notes: It is important to remember that most Arcane based Powers use an energy form of some sort. These effects are easy to denote: fire burns, cold freezes, force moves, lightning shocks, etc. For effects that have a charm or mental effect, I’ve generally determined that it’s possible to simply use a non-damaging version of the Power and give a bonus (usually +2) to an appropriate skill that’s being used against the target. I don’t know if that’s unbalancing or not, but it’s the best rule I could come up with for these kinds of effects. See the specific notes under each Power for more details.

Cloud of Daggers

In general, force based spells can cut or physically move small objects in some way (more powerful spells, can influence larger objects). This Power can be highly effective at cutting down grassy terrain. One square of concealing terrain no thicker than bamboo can be removed per use of this power.

Magic Missile

As a bolt of force, this Power can be used to knock over small objects, not unlike an arrow. However, unlike an arrow, the bolt cannot “stick” into anything.

Ray of Frost

In general, cold based spells can freeze water or lower the temperature of the surrounding area. When aimed at a volume of water less than a gallon, this Power can freeze the water and turn it into ice (used in Taverns way too often).

Scorching Burst

In general, fire spells will set aflame combustible items. Instant spells like this can scorch a wide (5’) area, but unless it’s paper or flammable liquid, it probably won’t continue to burn. This Power can be used to light candles, as long as they’re within the spell’s area of effect.


In general, thunder based spells create a great deal of noise and some pressure which can move small objects in a limited way. This Power can be used to open a stuck door, or throw open a window from a distance.

Burning Hands

Another fire spell, one use of this Power, can get a campfire roaring to life without need for tender or oil.

Chill Strike

Another cold spell, Chill Strike can be used to freeze up to 5 gallons of water.

Force Orb

Essentially a nasty fragmentation grenade. This Power can remove 9 squares of concealing terrain no thicker than bamboo.

Icy Terrain

You can use this Power to create a limited ice bridge over a very shallow (3 inches or less) stream. Also, limited time ice skating rink when cast on a hard surface (wood, stone, etc.)

Ray of Enfeeblement

In general, spells that use necrotic energy wither and age targets. This Power, can wither a single flowering plant or rot a piece of fruit.

Acid Arrow

In general, spells that use acid burn flesh and corrode items such as wood or metal. This Power can corrode a single lock or doorknob with one application of the spell.

Flaming Sphere

As a sustained fire spell, Flaming Sphere can set alight just about any piece of wooden furniture not otherwise magically protected from fire. Large wooden structures (beams or pillars for example) can be substantially weakened by the application of this Power.

Freezing Cloud

When cast adjacent to a room, this Power can temporarily reduce the temperature of a warm room, cooling it to a comfortable level (the cool area of the cloud draws the heat out of the room).


This Power can be used against a willing target that is having trouble sleeping. Think of it as Ambien in a Wand.


Casting Shield will effectively keep you from getting wet for a brief time in the rain or snow. Also effective at keeping dust or sand out of your eyes during a wind storm.


This is one of those rare Powers that can really be applied anywhere, on or off the battlefield. Use Jump to leap the stairs in a single bound, get to the roof of a building, or even leap a low castle wall.

Feather Fall

Another useful all-purpose spell, this Power can slow the fall of any single object, regardless of weight.

Expeditious Retreat

Use this Power to accomplish a single task in half the usual amount of time; provided your task can be done within the limit of your own speed.

Warlock Spells:

Dire Radiance

In general, spells that use radiant energy shed light as bright light. This Power creates a pillar of bright light in a single square.

Eldritch Blast

One of the more difficult Powers to find a non-combat use for, this spell is unusual as “eldritch” is not a defined energy type. I’m open to suggestions on this one, but my first thought is that this Power leaves the Warlock's personal mark of arcane energy when cast at an object (DC 20 Arcana check detects the magic).


Powers involving charm effects are also difficult to apply to non-combat situations. My ruling is that you can use this spell in a non-damaging form to give yourself a +2 bonus to Skill checks involving Thievery skills against the targeted individual.

Hellish Rebuke

This Power functions in the same manner as Scorching Burst (see above).

Diabolic Grasp

You can use this Power to slide a large object a short distance. For dramatic effect, use this Power to pull out a chair for a visiting dignitary.

Dreadful Word

A non-damaging version of this Power can be used to add a +2 to Intimidate Skill checks against the targeted creature.

Vampiric Embrace

A redirected version of this Power can temporarily add hit points to another creature, if another living object (a small plant, rodent, etc.) is sacrificed to take the damage.


This Power is very effective at cooking a single food item (loaf of bread, shank of meat, etc.). When used against a wooden item, the item smolders, but does not burst into flame. When used against stone, the item heats up to an uncomfortable (though not dangerous) temperature.

Armor of Agathys

This Power works just like Freezing Cloud (see above); but you can cool the room from inside it.

Curse of the Dark Dream

You can use a non-damaging version of this Power to add a +2 Skill Bonus to Intimidate or Bluff checks against the targeted creature. A non-damaging use of this Power can also cause another creature to suffer a -2 on Athletics or Acrobatics checks, if the Power hits them.

Dread Star

This spell works like Dire Radiance, except that the light it sheds is twice as bright.

Flames of Phlegethos

This one is pretty self-explanatory when you read the flavor text (see the original text in the Player's Handbook). The liquid fire produced by this Power can ignite pretty much any potentially flammable object. In addition, the liquid fire produced can be poured into goblets and other non-flammable containers for dramatic effect.

Beguiling Tongue

One of the few Powers that requires no translation. This Power is tailor-made for non-combat situations. This Power gives you a +5 to Bluff, Diplomacy, or Intimidate Skill checks.

Shadow Veil

Use a redirected version of this Power in order to shade one 5-foot square in murky darkness.

Ethereal Stride

Use this Power to teleport in any direction, including either up or down. Need to fetch something from the basement of the tavern? Use this one.

Fiendish Resilience

Use an alternate version of this Power to give another object the additional hit points for a brief time. It just might keep those orcs from busting down the door for a little bit longer.

Ranger Exploits:

Notes: Martial Powers are difficult. By definition, such Powers have almost an exclusive purpose to be used in combat. Most represent special maneuvers the fighting man can use against his opponent. Repurposing these is no easy task for a non-combat situation. For most of Ranger Powers, I've tried to use the flavor text of the Power and transpose that to a non-threatening situation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it's well...dodgy. Here's what I came up with:

Careful Attack

Use this Power to add a +2 to any skill check which requires a combination of timing and precision (tossing a coin into a narrow cup, jumping onto a narrow swinging rope, etc.).

Hit and Run

Use a non-damaging version of this Power when you wish to bump an adjacent target and have another adjacent person take the blame for it.

Nimble Strike

With at least one other person adjacent to the target, use a non-damaging version of this Power to snatch an object out of the target’s hand. Use an Opposed Roll (Your attack roll vs. Victim’s Perception Skill check) to determine success. If you succeed, you melt back into the crowd.

Twin Strike

Use this Power when you need to make an attempt to strike something and miss the first time (grab at a beer sliding along the bar, throwing darts, etc.). You may add no additional bonuses to either attempt.

Fox's Cunning

You may use this Power when struck by any object. When struck, shift 1 square. You may now take a basic attack against that object.

Dire Wolverine Strike

Use a non-damaging version of this Power to smack everyone that surrounds you on the head, getting their attention.

Evasive Strike

You can use a non-damaging version of this Power to make your escape in a crowd. Make an Opposed Roll (Your attack roll vs. Opponent’s Perception Skill check). If you succeed, you have evaded the one that chases you.

Two-Fanged Strike

You can use this Power to throw two objects at the same target at the same time. For example, you can use this Power to chuck two oranges at the shopkeeper that just sold you a faulty scabbard.

Hunter's Bear Trap

Use a non-damaging version of this Power to automatically “dead-leg” an opponent, giving him the “Slowed” condition (save ends).

Jaws of the Wolf

This Power is great when you want to prevent someone from leaving an area. Make an Opposed Roll (Your attack roll vs. Opponent’s Insight Skill check). If you succeed, your frantic arm waving and shoving prevents your opponent from leaving the room until the beginning of your next turn.

Split the Tree

Use this Power in a similar fashion to “Two-Fanged Strike”. Instead, you can now strike two different shopkeepers with the oranges.

Sudden Strike

Use a non-damaging version of this Power to shove someone, shift a square (by doing a “tuck and roll”), and then spring up to taunt them.

Crucial Advice

This is one of those rare Powers that has perfect utility in non-combat situations. Remember, you can only use this Power once every 5 minutes or so in a non-combat situation.

Unbalancing Parry

Use this Power as you would in combat, except you may now move an object of no more than human size between you and your opponent. For example: A guard approaches you holding a warrant. As he thrusts it towards you, move a chair from up to three squares away, and position it between you and the guard.

Yield Ground

Use this Power at any point to move away from a potential threat and bolster your defenses. You shift a number of squares equal to your Wisdom modifier and gain a +2 bonus to all defenses until the end of your next turn. Looks a bit silly when you are approached by a barmaid.

Fighter Exploits:

Fighter Powers were the most difficult (which is why I saved them for last). There are two general rules for Fighters using their Powers in non-combat situations. The first, is that you can substitute the word “creature” for “any object no more than one size difference from the Fighter”; the second, is that a Fighter can use a non-damaging version of the Power to utilize a Power’s move effects (if any). See the notes for each power for specific exceptions.


Can be used on an object.

Reaping Strike

Can be used on an object.

Sure Strike

Can be used on an object.

Tide of Iron

Can be used on an object. This Power is very effective for moving heavy furniture around.

Covering Attack

Use a non-damaging version of this Power to distract your opponent, so that a friend can slip by. Use an Opposed Roll (Your attack roll vs. Opponent’s Perception skill check). If you succeed, an ally next to the target can shift 2 squares.

Passing Attack

This Power is effective at breaking down two doors in one attack.

Spinning Sweep

Use a non-damaging version of this Power to knock a target prone (or knock a standing object over) without harming it.

Steel Serpent Strike

This Power has the same effect as “Hunter’s Bear Trap” (see above).

Brute Strike

This Power is great for smashing objects in one dramatic blow.

Comeback Strike

Use a redirected version of this Power to smash an object. Your ferocious display grants an adjacent ally a healing surge.

Villain’s Menace

Use a non-damaging version of this Power to threaten and cajole your foe. Gain a +2 Intimidate Skill check bonus against that opponent for the remainder of the day.

No Opening

Use this Power to negate any single bonus an opponent has over you, in any non-combat situation.

Get Over Here

This Power is very useful for pulling that shy serving wench over to your table. This Power only works if the ally is willing (so good luck with that serving wench).

Boundless Endurance

This Power can be used as is, even if you are not within a combat situation.


This Power can be used in non-combat situations, but will make you look like you are having bad ‘roid rage. Optional: Instead of temporary hit points, use of this Power enables you to drink 2d6 alcoholic beverages without having to make an Endurance Skill check for intoxication.

Well kids, for bad or worse, that’s my take on using Class Powers for non-combat situations. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the Power definitions that Greywulf and I have managed to come up with. Suggestions are welcome, and perhaps some time soon we’ll cover the classes in that other Player’s Handbook.

Until next time…

Game excellently with one another.


  1. Chris L1:49 AM

    I like your ideas here. I've been thinking about doing a very similar thing, if I can get a game together. What I had in mind was allowing players to use skill checks and ability checks in order to bend their powers to use them in creative ways. Arcana for arcane spells, Religion for Divine spells, Nature for primal spells, or in some cases just a straight ability check if that seems more logical.

    I also want to allow Action Points to be used for more things as well.

    I'm all in favor of house rules that encourage creativity and fun for all.

  2. Anonymous11:04 AM

    Personally, the way I use eldritch blast out of combat is alongside my thievery rolls to pop locks open in a hurry by blowing up the insides of the mechanism. Just stick your finger against the keyhole, and channel the blast through a finger instead of the whole hand, or use the point of a dagger stuck in the lock. However you channel it, just blast the entire thing into the mechanism.