Off the Sheet

In my Age of Worms campaign, a buddy of mine decided to make a tempest fighter that wields two whips, wears light armor, and hunts undead. The idea was that he wanted to be able to trip things a lot, having made a similar character in 3rd Edition. Fortunately in 4E whips are much more useful, and there happened to be an at-will exploit that lets you drop a critter prone on a hit. Despite everything except his damage contribution working out well enough, it got me thinking: why can't you just try to trip a creature?

The answer is that, well, you can, so long as your group is a rational bunch. Yes, it's not something specifically called out in the rules, but it's incredibly simple to allow a character to make an attack against a monster's Reflex, knocking them prone on a hit. Since knockdown assault exists as a fighter exploit and deals your Strength modifier in damage, I wouldn't allow any damage at all so as not to render it obsolete, but there you have it.

This train of thought--allowing a player to do something that isn't cited in the rules--reminded me of a thread on, in which a poster explains that with Essentials he can "swing from a chandelier, slide down a banister, and perform a leap attack," something which also isn't cited in the rules, but for some reason is permissible (or perhaps merely encouraged?) via Essentials.

This person isn't alone. I've read other posts from people that have this misconception that if a class provides you with a list of exploits, that that's all you can do (or at least heavily encourages that train of thought). To paraphrase, "if its not on the sheet, it won't happen". In other words the line of thought is that with all the powers character are given in pre-Essentials classes (typically 4-5 if you don't count basic attacks), that they tend to focus on their sheet and less on their environment. On the other hand the statement still holds true for Essentials as well, its just that characters have less on their sheets to work with (especially in the case of martial classes).

So...what about a "normal" class stifles this sort of creativity? 


There is nothing in any class--Essentials or otherwise--that inhibits creative thinking. Personally in my experience players rarely interacted with the environment in older editions simply because the actions and dice rolls required often meant that it would fail, and even if it succeeded, would only contribute in a miniscule way. 4th Edition not only made creative thinking easier to execute, but also grant meaningful results, both of which have encouraged my players to at least consider attempting actions off the sheets.

If you want your players to be creative, give them opportunities to be creative. It's not about the class features or number of powers, but about ensuring that the alternatives are equally compelling. If pushing a monster into a terrain ends up dealing a marginal amount of damage, no one is going to bother trying a bull rush and instead use a "normal" attack (probably something with forced movement). If knocking over a brazier full of searing coals deals a hefty amount of damage to an area of effect, you can bet that its going to be up for consideration.


  1. It is my belief that a creative mind will always be a creative mind; it doesn't matter if they are playing Essentials or not. The people who have imaginative minds may find D&D Essentials to be more challenging since they are given less material to work with when creating a character, and therefore they would require to find interesting ways to use their powers.

    Nevertheless, I know players (myself included,) who prefer pre-Essential classes and are still able to employ creativity when using their powers. For example: in my Nordica campaign, the party entered a town just as it was being attacked by dragons. Even though this town was accustomed to these raids, the players decided to join in and help the defending guards. While all of the players made attacks from elevated grounds (the top of the stairs, etc.,) the female monk of the group asked me if she was able to use Crane's Wing to jump on the back of a dragon as it was making a sweep close to the ground. Though the power did not specify if she was able to land on top of creatures, or better yet, a moving creature, I allowed it and let the player have her fun. She landed a few hits on the dragon before it fell to the ground by ballista wounds.

    That would be one of the many examples I could share, but I will let others post their own.

  2. Shazbot was a fan of flipping tables, doing drop kicks, and using his powers in ways not intended. For example, in the last campaign I ran him in, he would use elemental spirits to freeze a pool that they found. I had him roll Nature, and it took awhile, but he was able to keep a bunch of crauds from ambushing the party.

    In a short-lived campaign he ran, we infiltrated the equivalent of a residuum processing plant, where my minotaur warlord/artificer was able to use Enchant Item to transmute a holding tank into alchemist's fire, causing it to explode when ruptured.

    In a previous campaign, a player was able to use a druid evocation that caused vines to grow in order to give everyone handholds while climbing (I ruled that it gave a +2 bonus, I think).

    These are all things that we did over a year ago, and we didn't need reference from DMG2's terrain powers or any kind of official approval to do it.

  3. So...what about a "normal" class stifles this sort of creativity?


    I disagree. The way powers work in 4e trains you to think a certain way. For example: Creating sets and subsets of powers is very effective in combat. These attacks are my go-to powers, these are my situational powers, these are my emergency powers, etc. It's not unreasonable to say that 4e rewards you for thinking "in-the-box". I've tried playing around with terrain powers and special abilities, and for the most part, players ignore them, because they're too much of an unknown compared with the powers they've already spent time setting up.

    Essentials doesn't exactly break down the "in-the-box" mentality, but for some classes, it does make the box much, much smaller. That may lead some people who wouldn't ordinarily break out of the box to start doing so, simply because they're starved for actions.

  4. "...players ignore them, because they're too much of an unknown..."

    I think that's the problem right there: if the player knew that by pushing over a brazier that it would spill burning coals over an area of the floor, as well as what kind of check it would entail, I think they'd be more apt to go for it.

    In The Twisted Halls, there is a brazier in one of the starting encounters that deals good damage AND hits a close blast 2, so if there's a bunch of goblins huddled together, it becomes a compelling choice (especially for characters that only get to normally attack one monster).

    Also, I don't think that by reducing options you're going to exactly encourage players to break out of the box for the same reasons that you think that players playing "normal" classes wont: its too much of an unknown.

    I think that the best way you're going to get players to try creative thinking is to give them opportunities, and even provide them with examples. When I did panels at MewCon 2010, I actively told players what would be required to do certain actions, whether it would be easy or hard, and the general effect of what it would be.

  5. Perhaps those who have played previous versions of D&D have limit themselves to the options that are presented to them immediately. I say this because the players that usually try to use powers and skills and there environment in interesting ways, are the ones that dont know much about the game (at least in my games). Could it be that experienced players have already inscribed in their brain to play within the rules of the game?

  6. @Planeswalker:

    I disagree. I think that experienced players are more likely to attempt out-of-the-box actions, if anything.

    As Antioch said, I'm fond of trying wacky crap in combats in lieu of my prescribed attack powers because that kind of spontaneity is a big part of what makes gaming fun for me.

    Had I not gotten my start with AD&D back in the day, I wonder if I would have ever learned to think of the arena itself as a weapon. Newer players are more likely to think of the rules as hard-coded, unbending laws that absolutely must be followed, instead of guidelines intended to help a GM make situational judgment calls.

    I think that by regularly including terrain elements that can be manipulated into encounter design, and having enemies use them against players is a good way to broaden their thinking about the game. Besides, at the end of the day it's all about fun...and I think that there's nothing more fun than exercising your creative agency in the gameworld.

  7. @Shazbot:

    I will have to agree with you Shazbot. I based my statement on a few examples of gameplay i saw in my different game groups, but after reading what you wrote i realized i see more of what you describe in other groups that i dont DM. I guess the newbies in my group are special cases.


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