Thursday, February 26, 2009

When to Use Powers

To follow up from last week, I thought I would go into some issues I've noticed with choosing when to use encounter and daily powers.

For daily powers, if you do not use the power in a given encounter, you can always save it for later encounter. So the question is, when to use the power. Daily powers have two purposes. First, the existence of daily powers allows the character to have a resource he can save for really difficult encounters, in order to rise up to a difficult challenge or escape from a bad situation. They act in this way as a replacement for hero points. Second, a daily power can be a unique and exotic ability that is used even less often than an encounter power.

Unfortunately, the timings of when you would want to use these abilities differ. If daily powers are dramatic emergency abilities, then you want to save them for big fights and emergencies. If daily powers are cool and exotic abilities, you want to make sure to use all of them every day, so that you get to do all of your cool stuff. Since any given day may or may not have a big fight, and you can't predict what will happen during the day, you can't achieve both of these goals. If you use a power at a cool and appropriate moment, you are not saving it up. And if you save it up, there may not be an emergency and you may not use it at all.

My general suggestion has been to compromise. Save up half of your daily powers for emergencies, and try to distribute the other half throughout the day, using them when most effective or appropriate. But this suggestion has proven difficult to follow.

Some powers fit relatively easily into one or the other category, so it is straightforward to determine whether to save them or not. Brute Strike is just about the perfect power to save up for an emergency, because it doesn't really have any situational abilities, it is nothing more than a stronger version of a regular attack. You pretty much know that when you need to increase your damage output, Brute Strike will be the perfect maneuver. On the other hand, something like Web is very situational. You never know when you'll find a situation where you can place it so as to sufficiently annoy a bunch of monsters without annoying your allies. There isn't much point to saving it up for an emergency, because it is not likely that the emergency will also happen to be a good time to use your specialty spell. So you might as well use it when you see the perfect opportunity, while the getting is good.

But most powers are a combination of potency and specialty, and these are tricky to use. Something like Villain’s Menace could be useful in just about any fight, but is clearly more useful if you are fighting an elite or solo monster. Since most powers tend to work like this, it becomes mentally tricky for the players to decide when to use the daily power. If they use the power as soon as they find a reasonably good opportunity, they can easily use their dailies up too soon and not have enough for the big fight. If they say the power for the big fight, it is likely to be something of a letdown when they find they aren't in a situation that is well-suited to the special application of the power, and they have to simply skip the power or “waste” a good part of its effect. Trying to follow my suggestion of “metering” the powers throughout the day is possible, but awkward and mentally taxing. It just doesn't seem like a natural and intuitive way to play the character. When playing, we are always trying to remember to use up powers and action points at the correct rate. It is actually beneficial to do so, since using daily powers at the appropriate time makes the normal fights easier and saves healing surges. But the natural tendency is to be very conservative with the use of daily powers, saving them up solely for the big fight or the “perfect” opportunity - and you don't get a lot of perfect opportunities, or fights which are so obviously big that you know for certain it is a good time to blow all of your powers. So the daily powers can go unused during a day, or they end up being used in a disappointing weak fashion during an emergency and the player really wishes he had selected a more boring daily power.

Encounter powers are more straightforward, since you know you need to use them or lose them in an encounter, but they also suffer from a similar problem. A classic example of an awkward encounter power is Covering Strike. This power both does extra damage, and has a specialized tactical effect. This ends up being somewhat confusing because these 2 aspects want to be used in different situations. The extra damage is something you want to use right away, or at least as soon as you find a juicy target. But the tactical effect is only useful if you save it for just the right moment. In theory, it might seem interesting to have to make a decision between these 2 tactical choices. But in practice, it seems more unpleasant than interesting. If you save it for the right tactical situation, it is likely that this situation will never materialize. But if you ignore the tactical situation and use it right away, it is boring – and frustrating if the tactical situation you are looking for does materialize later on. It seems that Covering Strike would be much more entertaining if the ability to do additional damage and the ability to have a tactical effect were separated into 2 separate powers that could be used separately. Then you could always say the tactical effect for the most interesting and appropriate moment.

These issues with both daily and encounter powers are based on having limited use powers which both make the character flat out more powerful, and have tactically specialized effects, at the same time. I didn't think this was a problem when first reading the rules, but now I think it is not as good an idea as it might have initially appeared to be. I'll have to keep this in mind when designing powers for games.

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