It is an inevitable truth in game design that the more attention and detail a game lavishes on a particular aspect or subsystem, the more that aspect or subsystem will be focused upon in play. In D&D’s 4th edition, the vast bulk of the mechanics are focused on combat, and a common criticism of the game is that is all about the combat–at the expense of other aspects of RPGs. This isn’t really true–there’s nothing about 4E that prevents or actively discourages story or roleplaying or all the other out-of-combat elements of a great campaign. But it’s easy to lose sight of that when the game’s mechanical and content spotlight is firmly on the combat aspect of the game.

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I use power cards in my campaigns, and I think they’re a brilliant element of play–the greatest character-organizing innovation since the advent of the pre-printed character sheet. But they exacerbate the problem: They record combat options. Even within combat, they tend to focus players’ attention on those options. A player’s turn is coming up, and his or her natural instinct is to look down at those powers and pick one. The player is encouraged to think about only those options, and tends not to look past them.

Tends not to knock over the brazier to dump hot coals on the baddie. To play dead so the bad guy passes by, thereby setting up a flank. To taunt or bluff or show off or lure the bad guy into a spot of dangerous terrain or blind him with a sunrod. Or whatever.

This isn’t an indictment of my players, by the way–I tend to do the same thing myself, even when I’m trying not to. Flip through the power cards to figure out which mode of attack will work best. And think no further.

Getting rid of power cards isn’t really a solution. That simply transfers the powers to a list or some other organizationally suboptimal method of record; the player is still left sorting through a power catalog. How then to encourage players to think of all the other things they might do in a combat encounter besides a conventional attack?

If the player’s tendency is to sort through his or her cards when trying to come up with ideas for saving the party’s bacon, why not make use of that? That’s what I’ve done. When I start my new campaign on Saturday, I’m going to give my players a new “power.” Not really a power, actually, but a reminder. It happens to be on a power card, because it’s when the players are sifting through their power cards that they most need that reminder.

This power isn’t really anything revolutionary in itself–basically, it says “you attempt to use a skill, bit of equipment, or something in the environment in a creative way.” But it’s phrased as a power and put on a power card. Feel free to download and print–I’ve put six copies of the card on a sheet so you can print out one page and have cards for everyone in the party.

What do you think? Useful to you? Any other ideas for encouraging players to think beyond their specific powers?

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