Friday, April 8, 2011

When is an Encounter Power not an Encounter Power?

In my upcoming Dungeons and Dragons game, Sands, Serpents, and Scales, I'm using a number of variant rules regarding daily power usage and healing surges. The reason being that with the style of narrative I'm using, it's more difficult to create Extended Rest time periods that conform to the dramatic narrative, which tends to run to the unhappy situation where every even remotely difficult encounter can be rendered irrelevant by dumping a whole bunch of daily attack powers. Whatever-that's not what's at issue here.

What's at issue here is that, reading the Vampire Preview, I find that the mechanics of the Vampire Class are actually remarkably similar to the mechanics that I'm utilizing-very few "daily" healing surges, but the ability to regain (or rather gain) healing surges upon successful attacks. In the utilized system (which can be found at ; I have the wiki set to open due to the complications of having my players sign up, so please don't abuse the wiki), characters get a certain number of healing surges per encounter. So, what does this have to do with the topic?

Well, in addition to making healing basically impossible when you have 10 encounters per day (or however many), many of whom are more than EL (yes-you level up more than once per "day"), characters are able to use daily powers less often than normal. To allow characters to "Nova" a little bit more often, you'll notice the Finishing Move rules. Once per encounter, a character can use a daily attack power at the cost of healing surges.

Surges per encounter are use them or lose them. That means that, if you're not damaged at the end of an encounter, or if you're damaged only such that one surge (along with the bard's Song of Rest capability-good choice, By the Way) and you have a pool of two surges left over, that's a wasted resource-a resource that, had you used them differently, perhaps you could have prevented someone else from having spent resources.

In a standard campaign, barring the knowledge that certain enemies are more powerful while bloodied (and as thus should be engineered to spend as little time being bloodied as possible), it's natural to unleash one's encounter powers up front, to be sure that you're doing "as much as possible." After all, if you hang on to your strongest attacks, there's a heavy chance you'll have basically wasted them. Daily powers are the same way, except that the calculations are based on whether or not the power will be available this encounter, or available next encounter-so the "Use it or lose it" sense doesn't trigger until the last encounter of an adventure.

Of course, a Killer DM ( may be a master at setting up "False" final battles for an adventure, perhaps throwing a Purple Worm encounter on the way back home. This distorts how much information a player has for making decisions about when to use powers or not, but that's more an issue of Transparency As It Relates To Game Theory (of which I'm sure there are many books on the subject that I am only semi-qualified to even comment on).

But the interesting point is that we're looking at a binary state of Use or Don't Use as it pertains to being Wasted or Not Wasted. When you have something like the new Vampire Class that can utilize healing surges to power other abilities, suddenly, spending a healing surge isn't just an issue of whether you heal or not-it's the opportunity cost of those options you no longer have. Likewise, with the aforementioned Finishing Move rules, the information about how much those surges costs you changes over the course of a battle.

That's the beauty about having multiple Use it or Lose It resources that can interact together in different ways. Instead of dropping Fireball (a 2 surge Finisher) in the first round because, if you don't, you lose the ability to use a finishing move for that encounter, you wait to see just how valuable two surges are going to be to you over the course of the encounter. So if, as the fight is winding down to a close, you notice "Holy crap, I'm at full health and have two encounter surges left and haven't used my finishing move," you know that the opportunity cost of using Fireball goes from "Healing myself to full or not" to "Jack Squat."

They're called Finishing Moves for a reason.

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