Neuroglyph Games Only a Pen is Mightier Catch it on the Rise Dust shaken from a Book

The Next D&D Homebrew: Signature Attack Powers

Owned (A Definition): Yep, it's true... all my attack powers just recharged.

Owned (A Definition): Yep, it's true... all my attack powers just recharged.

Some may recall that a few weeks ago in my Questing for the Paragon Path blog, I mentioned that most of the 4E DM’ing I’ve been doing over the past three years have mainly been adventures in the Heroic Tier.  So while I can only speak about the Heroic Tier from personal experience, I’ve seen plenty of other blogs discussing that this problem persists into the Paragon and Epic Tiers as well: big monsters are a pain in the butt!

I’m not referring to “big” as in the monster’s size, but to monsters capacity to have tons of hit points, potent defenses, or both.  It doesn’t take long for most 4E DMs to realize that dropping too many brutes and soldiers into an encounter can really slow down combats.  Elites and solo monsters can slow combats even more – and let’s not even think about encounters involving elite or solo brutes!

There have been some great blogs written by the D&D community with ideas about how to resolve the problem of long combats turning into a slugfest of At-Will powers, and I think I’ve tried nearly every DM tip in this area at least once.  But encounters with elites and solo monsters still went into overtime, and turned into a boring grind.

And I had hoped that by the time the characters in my campaign topped out the Heroic Tier they’d finally have enough class and magic item powers to stomp the occasional elite or solo flat.  Sadly, my final adventure of the Heroic Tier proved it was not the case, and the heroes still were left flailing At-Will attacks against my solo green-dragon-with-alchemical-mutant-powers- super-villain for way too many boring rounds at the end of the finale encounter.

I think the real problem here is just how fast powers are depleted, and whether or not they are effective against the big monster encounters.  Even in the best case scenario for high Heroic Tier characters, Encounter powers will be depleted in the first three rounds of a fight, and they usually have a only a 65% hit rate.  This means that, statistically, one Encounter power per combat is going to do nothing at all!  And to compound the problem, players sometimes expend one or more of their Daily powers early in the day’s adventure, leaving them without the massive punch they need to gain the upper hand against that elite or solo “boss” encounter.

After some consideration, it seems to me that one solution would be to give heroes a way to recover an encounter power back over the course of a long combat.  This would give them a chance to maintain a constant damage output across a combat, instead of always seeing damage declining at the end when they need it most to finish.  As it turns out, quite a few monsters have powers that never run out – potent abilities that, once expended, recharge on a random roll and can really hurt the characters up until the end of a fight.

So why not let the heroes have a power like that too?

It’s what I do… and I do it well…

For my D&D 4E campaigns, I’m defining a Signature Attack Power as a single Encounter Attack Power which becomes a specialty for that hero.  Each hero can select one Encounter Power to become their Signature Attack Power, and doing so give the power a small increase to attack and damage rolls, as well as the ability to recharge in the manner of certain monster attack powers.

Benefits of a Signature Attack Power:

  • +1 to attack rolls
  • +2 to damage rolls per tier
  • 33% Chance to recharge each turn after use – 5 or 6 on a d6

It might not sound like much, but the benefits do allow at least one of the character’s encounter powers to hit a little better, do a little more damage, and be used a second or even third time during an encounter. While Signature Attacks Powers (SAPs) probably won’t tip the balance of power in a short combat, they can demonstrably increase damage output the longer a fight continues – which hopefully will keep a long fight from becoming a really long boring mess!

With a 33% recharge rate (i.e. 5-6 on a d6), statistically speaking, a SAP will refresh on average once every three rounds.  Most of the encounters I’ve been running in my Heroic Tier campaigns tend to finish off in Round 3 or Round 4, so it’s likely that a Signature Attack Power will recharge at least one time for each character – and that will likely shorten the fight by one round.  But in longer encounters, having a SAP will help to alleviate the At-Will slugfest which we’ve all experienced at the end of a big fight, particularly in a battle where you have characters squaring off against brutes, high hit point elites, or a solo monster.

SAP Deployment

Any time after Level 3, a player can choose their one and only Signature Attack Power for their character.  Once designated, a SAP cannot be changed unless the character retrains that power for an alternate power of the same level, or for a higher level power swap.  At that point a character can designate a new SAP, so there is some flexibility built into the players’ decisions.

Players can choose to make any encounter attack power a SAP, even a racial attack power (like a Dragonborn’s Breath attack) or encounter attack powers gained from a Feat.  However, it would probably not be a good idea to allow a Channel Divinity or other limited class attack powers to be used as a Signature Attack Power.  But, of course, as with any set of variant rules, Dungeon Masters are free to make exceptions, and may feel there is no great concern about making Channel Divinity powers an option for a SAP.

For characters with psionic power points and augmented attacks, the designating a Signature Attack Power is a little different.   Rather than getting to designate an entire power, the player must choose one of the augment options to be designated as the SAP.  And unlike other characters, the recharge roll is only checked on that particular augment when the character does not have enough psionic power points to activate it.  Recharging the power does not give the character additional psionic power points, but simply allows the augment to be used from that power immediately.  Most likely, players with psionic characters will likely choose one of their highest point value augment options of their psionic attack powers, so that they get a chance to see it recharge in an encounter.  Of course, psionic characters are still free to designate racial and feat based encounter attacks as their SAP, as opposed to a single augment on a class power.

The d6 roll to check for recharge occurs at the start of the character’s turn before any actions are taken, the same as a monster with a recharge power.  Rolling to recharge a SAP should be relatively quick and easy, and is unlikely to appreciably slow the speed of the combat.

Variant of the Variant

For my campaigns, I plan to use the Signature Attack Powers variant rules as I’ve described them so far, but there are a number of options one could adopt, if game or class balance is a serious concern.  The main point of using the variant SAP rules is to allow characters to avoid having overly long combats, but some DMs might want to impose limits or to not offer them as a “freebie”.

The Options:

  • SAP Feat: Some DMs might not want to give the heroes something potent for nothing, and can choose to make characters spend a Feat slot in order to gain their Signature Attack Power.
  • Reduced Recharge: Rather than a 2 in 6 chance, some DMs might prefer to implement Signature Attack Powers with a 1 in 6 refresh rate (ie. 6 on a d6).  Increasing the recharge rate to 2 in 6 might require a feat slot expenditure.
  • Increased Recharge: Taking a cue from the last option, DMs can go further and choose to allow spending multiple feats to increase the recharge rate of a SAP from 1 in 6 to 2 in 6 and even to 3 in 6!  Note that the refresh rate should probably never exceed 50% (3 in 6), or it might become too overpowered and start to make combats too trivial.
  • Recharge Conditions: DMs can choose to allow recharge checks only when specific conditions occur during an encounter.  Examples of this might include rolling a recharge check only in the event that… the character is bloodied; …is completely out of encounter attack powers; …the encounter has lasted more than 3 rounds; or any combination of the above.
  • Healing Surge Fatigue: To simulate heroes fighting to their last breath, DMs might want to have characters expend a healing surge to use a Signature Attack Power after it has recharged.   This keeps the SAP from being used wantonly if dice luck recharges the power with above average frequency during an encounter.


While I haven’t done a complete “field” playtest of these rules, some simulation math suggests that using Signature Attack Powers should reduce combat length, but without it becoming an issue of making the characters overpowered.  Of course, SAP recharge is based in part upon dice luck, and some encounters will have greater than average recharge rates, while others will have less.  But the big benefit of the Signature Attack Power is to make sure that heroes feel like heroes, capable of fighting the good fight to the very end of an encounter – which will hopefully be a little shorter and a lot more fun to play out than becoming a dull At-Will beat down!

As always, your comments and suggestions are quite welcome, and I look forward to any feedback you might have regarding my rules on Signature Attack Powers.

So until next blog… I wish you happy gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


3 Responses to “The Next D&D Homebrew: Signature Attack Powers

  1. Yong Kyosunim says:

    Why not make encounter powers automatic successes? That way you eliminate the 65% chance of success and you have 100% success and you get to deal with mean damage instead of 65% x mean damage. The only thing the players and monsters are then rolling for is for the 5% chance they perform a critical hit. Secondly, increase the damage of daily or encounter powers.

    One of the great things about 3.0 (IMHO) was that even though some of the spells were seriously broken (w.g. haste, harm, heal), high level combats were fast and were really tense. Those fights were fun (albeit short).

  2. Svafa says:

    Last night I ran a season-ending boss fight wrapping up the Heroic tier that lasted a dozen rounds. There are two things I do to make fights of this length and magnitude work without being reduced to a slugfest of at-wills.

    1. Make sure the players can go all-out.
    2. Allow the players to recharge powers.

    One of my rules for big fights is that the players must have the ability to recharge all their powers beforehand. In the past this has meant one big fight on its own (only fight of the day) or with only a few, small, minion fights beforehand.

    Last night’s game came after six encounters ranging from fairly simple to pretty brutal, so I had to come up with something else. When I realized the problem a few weeks back, I awarded them an item to address the issue. I provided them with five charges (five players in group) of a potion that could be used during a short rest to give them the benefits of an extended rest, or used in combat to give them the benefits of a short rest. They used it in both ways, and still have two charges left for the future, and they used it rather intelligently (for multiple action point uses, burning through all their encounters twice, and using two second winds).

    Another method I use for allowing the recharge of powers uses action points. My current rendition is that an action point can be spent in order to recharge one encounter power already used, rather than grant an additional action. This can be done multiple times in a combat, does not count against the RAW usage, and is a free action. However, only one action point can be spent per round in any manner.

    A variant might allow the player to use an already expended power when they use an action point to gain an action, but only for the action gained from the action point. I prefer the other, because it’s more versatile, but this variant is likely a little more balanced.

  3. Svafa says:

    I should add that I like the Signature Attack Power idea, and will probably propose adding it as a feat option to my players. As I already have another means to recharge abilities, I think it might be a little unbalancing without some cost. :P

Leave a Reply