D&D: Power Surges

I was filling out the D&D Classes Survey from Wizards of the Coat the other day. It is clearly aimed at looking at play experience, since it asks you which classes and subclasses you have played before unlocking the opinion questions about them. One of the things I noticed from my own experience, was that, while I have played a wide number of classes: 1) I have favorite subclasses and not as much experience outside of them, and: 2) I couldn’t offer an opinion on many of the high-level class abilities, because the characters I played never made it to those levels. I have played a lot of D&D, but few, if any, of my campaigns have made it up past 15th level. Many more haven’t even made it past 10th.

That led me to think that it’s unfortunate that many campaigns deny players a chance to experience what are supposed to be the pinnacles of their characters’ potential, which led me to consider the following option:

Power Surge

You have access to one use of a higher-level feature of your class. If this feature is ordinarily permanent or long-lasting, it lasts for a minute once it is invoked. If the feature affects or is performed in a single action or round, then it lasts for only that use. The class feature operates at the level of ability you currently possess or its minimum operational level, if your current level is insufficient, and uses traits (ability scores, bonuses, save DCs, etc.) you currently possess.

So, for examples, a lower-level barbarian might gain one use of a brutal critical or one instance of indomitable might, a fighter might gain an indomitable saving throw or use of a maneuver they don’t normally possess (perhaps even with an increased Superiority Die), a lower-level paladin might gain a minute of aura of courage, a Circle of the Moon druid one use of elemental wild shape, or a spellcaster one use of a spell higher level than they can normally cast (using their highest level spell slot to cast it).

The Cost of a Power Surge

At the end of an encounter where a character performs a power surge, that character gains 1 level of exhaustion, reflecting the strain they have exerted in extending their abilities. At the DM’s discretion, higher level power surges (or ones with a larger difference from the character’s current level) may impose multiple levels of exhaustion, although rarely more than 3.

If you want a harder power surge cost, the resulting exhaustion is half the difference between the character’s current level and the level of the power surge feature, rounded down, which effectively limits a power surge to an 11-level difference (5 levels of exhaustion) since 6 levels would kill the character (although it would be quite a way to go!).

Acquiring a Power Surge

Characters acquire the ability to perform a power surge as a boon granted by the DM, similar in some regards to a charm (see Supernatural Gifts in the Dungeon Master’s Guide). This may come from an in-game agency like a deity, powerful creature, wise mentor, spirit guide, or the like, or simply occur as a story-related event, much like Inspiration. Indeed, a power surge can be thought of as an “advanced” use of Inspiration for giving a particular character a “spotlight moment.”

When a surge is granted, the DM specifies what class feature it grants, or may offer a choice of class features; the surge is not good for whatever higher-level feature the player wants! The feature may be negotiable, based on player input, but the DM has the final say in the matter, taking campaign considerations into account (see Power Surge Considerations, following).

Power Surge Considerations

Naturally, power surges are things the Dungeon Master should permit carefully and sparingly, with an eye towards not disrupting the flow of the game too much. Some higher-level class features may be too powerful as power surges, depending on the current level of the character and the overall conditions of the campaign and adventure.

At least, a power surge should be a rare event, something that doesn’t happen more than once per character level (at most) and probably less often than that. It shouldn’t necessarily be something players can plan around or expect, but that shows up at moments of dramatic importance in the campaign. It’s also an opportunity the DM should spread out amongst the player characters—with no one character getting two or more power surges in a row before the other characters in the party have gotten an opportunity.

The availability of a power surge may require some adjustment to the challenge level of certain encounters, but then a power surge is supposed to be impressive, so it is all right if it happens to make a difficult encounter easier than it would otherwise be. Just be prepared to adjust things behind the scenes if necessary, should a power surge come off as anticlimatic rather than an epic peak or finish to an encounter.

D&D: The Spent Condition

In my blog “Acting to Exhaustion” I played around with the idea of using levels of exhaustion in Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition as an additional resource for limited-use abilities, those that reset following a short or long rest. That got me thinking about about resource management in relationship to rests, and a character’s condition being “spent” in terms of those resources, differentiated from mere exhaustion. Essentially:


  • A spent creature has no use of abilities that recover following a short or long rest.
  • The condition ends if the creature completes a long rest.

Spent is a condition that can be achieved simply by using up all of a character’s limited use abilities, but it may also be imposed by some conditions or effects. Other effects may also lead characters to becoming spent if they deny them the benefits of completing a rest. Without the opportunity to rest, characters eventually use up their abilities and are spent.

The spent condition strips characters down to their essential at-will or constant abilities. It definitely places them under duress, but can be used to reflect characters who have been imprisoned, tortured, or otherwise debilitated to the point where they are spent and need time to recover in order to use their abilities.

For example, in the drow prison of Velkynvelve in Out of the Abyss, characters might be spent as a result of their treatment at the hands of their captors, who prevent them from completing a long rest so they cannot remove the condition. They have to rely largely on their wits and most basic abilities in order to escape. The same might be true of a crew of characters who survive a shipwreck or other disaster: Initially, they are spent, and their challenge is finding the time and opportunity to complete the long rest needed to eliminate that condition.

Note that spent differs from exhaustion and characters can have either condition separately or both together. A spent character might still be perfectly capable otherwise (no exhaustion) but they just don’t have the resources (physical, mental, or mystical) for some of their abilities. An exhausted character may likewise still be able to draw upon their limited use abilities, if they are not spent.

This condition combines in interesting ways with the Acting to Exhaustion option: A spent character’s only means of using their limited-use abilities is by taking levels of exhaustion, giving them a small pool of uses at a cost. In this case, the DM may want to consider adding “with no more than 1 level of exhaustion” to the recovery requirement for spent, meaning characters trade-off extending their spent state (by taking on more exhaustion) for immediate additional uses of certain abilities.


The notion of a spent condition also suggests the possibility of “invigoration” effects that grant characters the benefits of a short or long rest without the need to actually rest. They can range from miraculous blessings and magical charms to a burst of determination or a surge of success. They offer Dungeon Masters a useful tool in managing the pacing and dramatic tension of an adventure: There might, for example, be a series of challenging encounters leading up to a climatic fight, and it’s less interesting if the characters camp-out for a good night’s rest on the villain’s doorstep, but also a less interesting encounter if they come to it nearly spent in terms of their various abilities. So the DM might “invigorate” the characters at the start of the final encounter, either providing a resource that does so, or just telling the players that their characters feel a rush of power and determination as they confront their final foe, letting them recover some or all of their limited use abilities.

Champion fundraiser for Rainbow Railroad

ChampionCoverSometimes, I wish I had the power to help, to answer the call of “save me!” in a real and tangible way. Still, I try to do what I can with what I do have, which includes publishing and imagination.

The ongoing pogrom against LGBTQ people, particularly queer men, in Chechnya has filled me with deep sadness and anger, as has the tepid response of the American government. As much as I would like to be the hero who can swoop in and save people—my people—in desperate need, the best I can do for now is to imagine that hero, breathe life into him, and ask for fellow gamers and superhero fans to donate in order to get to know him better.

So, I give you…The Champion! Chosen by the Aristos Eremenos, bearer of the Four Golden Gifts, protector of the people. All profits from the sales of this short pay-what-you-want PDF will be donated to the Rainbow Railroad, a nonprofit dedicated to doing the real heroic work: Getting people in danger out of harm’s way and to somewhere they can be safe. With persecution of LGBTQ people on the rise around the world, not just in Chechnya, their life-saving work is more important than ever. Whether or not you include the Champion in your heroic universe, please consider offering them your support. Be a hero, because the world needs more. Thank you.

Inclusivity: The Next Step

In “The Bad Ol’ Good Ol’ Days” I talked a bit about the challenges of being a minority role-player looking to create characters in settings with even less equality than the modern world. After picking up a bunch of new games at Gen Con, taking part in some LGTBQ-focused events there and at GaymerX, and a bit of online discussion, I gave some thought to the ways of creating more inclusive settings for roleplaying games, and the characters who come to life in them.

One approach to the issue of equality and inclusion in fictional settings is stating “Racism, sexism, and similar prejudices do not exist in this setting,” or something that that effect. While that can help to establish the notion of equality, it shouldn’t be confused with inclusion. In fact, it can sometimes be used as an excuse to justify a lack of inclusion by taking a “mission accomplished” stance: If the problem of inequality has been “solved” simply by declaring it so, why do we have to continue to talk about it or, you know, any of the things or people associated with it? So goes the online joke of “You know what I’d like to see? The inclusion of a minority character that’s so low-key it’s never even mentioned. At all. Ever.”

It’s because equality is different from inclusion. You can include minority characters and themes in settings where they are not treated equally, and you can offer a setting that has equality (at least in theory) without including minority characters and themes, or including some, but not others. That’s another thing about inclusion: It can be unevenly distributed. You can have settings with both inclusion and equality—unfortunately, in that case, you’re into fantasy territory, since we haven’t even gotten there in the real world yet.

That’s one of the issues of the “no -isms” declaration. Not that it’s a fantasy—we deal with all kinds of fantastic elements in our RPG settings, after all—but that it’s often an unexplored fantastic element. The fantastic world of complete equality and inclusion can coincidentally end up looking just like the world lacking those things, the only difference being the prejudice is less overt, and should never be talked about or pointed out or questioned. For example, there may be “no sexism” in a pseudo-medieval fantasy setting, and yet curiously language, relationships, professions, and entire societies remain just as gendered and driven by heterosexist norms as ever. There’s “no racism” in a near-future setting, other than how the “global” culture of Earth still seems remarkably white, middle-class, heterosexist, and Anglo-American—even the punks and rebels.

So inclusiveness in setting is another example of the writing adage “show, don’t tell.” It’s not enough to just say that the issue of inclusion is dealt with, you actually have to deal with it, by including a broad range of characters, and considering how they fit into the world and what their experiences are like. That’s a part of inclusion as well: The stories and experiences of those diverse characters. What is it like to be a woman, a person of color, or a sexual minority in this world? How does it differ from our world and how do those differences affect the fictional world as a whole? Does the world differ from ours in those respects, for that matter?

That’s important, because you can have inclusion without equality in the setting as a whole, just as we can strive for inclusion in our world (as many have done) without full equality having been achieved as yet. This matters particularly for period settings. Take the Agent Carter TV series for example. The setting (post-WWII America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) is far from equal: Peggy Carter’s challenges as a woman in a “man’s job” are a prominent part of the story, but at the same time, the series strives to be inclusive of women, minorities, and differently-abled characters, highlighting their struggles, while making it clear the societal prejudices against them are unfair and unjust.

Inclusion that shows what it is like to be a minority character in the setting provides not only examples for the readers and players of the setting, but permission. It says, “Look! Minority or marginalized people have roles in this world and its stories and they’re like this.” Just like you’d give players guidelines to play a fictional race (like elves or aliens) or a fictional class of people (like deep-space “belters” or members of an arcane order), give guidelines for character concepts and stories that don’t fit the default expectations of our culture. Not only do players who belong to marginalized communities need that, but players who don’t deserve the opportunity to not only see that, but to consider playing it.

In short, the next step beyond recognizing the value of and need for inclusion is actually doing it, and doing it as well as we can.

The Bad Ol’ Good Ol’ Days

I was delighted yesterday to read Fat Goblin Games announcement of renewed support for Castle Falkenstein, a long-time favorite of mine. I still fondly recall purchasing it at GenCon and sitting, ensconced, in one of the side halls of the convention center pouring through its contents, losing myself in its graceful, romantic, and magical setting.

As anyone who knows me will attest, I’m an absolute sucker for Victorian-era alternate history RPGs and generally love my historical roleplaying, but one thing I’ve increasingly grappled with is reconciling the romance of a bygone era with its often harsh realities, particularly with regard to things like gender and sexual equality, colonialism, racism, and the even harsher human brutalities of our shared history. If you’re rolling your eyes at this point about my “spoiling” your enjoyment of a good fictional romp through Steampunk Victorian London, medieval Europe, or the Roman Empire or whatnot, feel free to click the “close” or “back” button and move on. Otherwise, consider with me:

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Poll: Best ICONS Options

What’s your favorite new rules option for ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying? I’ve posted a number of ideas and optional rules on this blog, and I’m looking for you to vote for your favorite.

I’ve also opened up comments for discussion and mentioning your favorite ICONS variations from elsewhere, whether it’s ICONS Team-Up, third-party products, your own series, or elsewhere on the ‘net. What are your favorite ICONS options and hacks? Let’s hear ’em!

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FAE: Shifting Approaches

This is more of a post-let than a detailed post, but it was an idea that occurred to me and I wanted to get it out there for anyone who might benefit from it or do something interesting with it (which, by the way, is carte blanche for you to do so, if you feel so motivated).

In Fate Accelerated Edition, characters use different Approaches to perform actions, choosing from Careful, Flashy, Forceful, etc. (or whatever other names the Approaches are given).

One classic element of fictional conflicts is encouraging, forcing, or tricking an opponent or rival into using an Approach that puts them at a disadvantage: get a normally careful foe angry enough to attack with abandon, make a somewhat dim-witted rival overestimate his own cleverness, put a forceful, flashy character in a situation where being sneaky and subtle is called for (or vice versa).

This is essentially Creating an Advantage except, rather than sussing out or creating an aspect, you’re shifting the conflict to a different approach. So, on a tie or success, you get a sense of the opponent’s weakest approach and get to shift the conflict there for one exchange. If you succeed with style, you keep it there for two exchanges and, at the GM’s option, can spend a fate point to keep it there for an additional exchange.

Example: Two sword-fighters  are facing-off, and it quickly becomes clear they’re evenly matched in the Quick and Flashy department, so one tries to taunt her opponent with a Flashy maneuver to get him angry enough to try a Forceful attack. On a tie or success, she goads her foe into taking a Forceful approach for the next exchange, perhaps giving her an opening for a Quick attack. If she succeeds with style, her foe is so unhinged, he goes Forceful for the next two exchanges at least.

Addendum: Why is this any better than just creating an advantage or getting a bonus? Apart from the flavor of it, shifting approaches can have a more variable bonus (depending on the spread between the subject’s best and worst approaches applicable to the situation) plus it can potentially deny the target access to stunts based on a particular approach: If your foe’s best stunt is based on being Flashy, for example, and you force him into a situation where he has to be Sneaky, then that stunt is likely off the table for the moment, giving you an added advantage.

ICONS Scale Adjectives

Toying around with adjectives for the ICONS 1–10 ability scale:

  1. Weak
  2. Poor
  3. Average
  4. Fair
  5. Good
  6. Great
  7. Fantastic
  8. Incredible
  9. Amazing
  10. Supreme

The mid-range (2–7) matches Fate Core for the most part (although ICONS knocks out the “Mediocre” level, having just two below Average). Overall, I like the contrast between the “normal” (3–6) and “super” (7–10) adjectives.