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This question is similar in intent to How do you help players not focus on the rules?, but more focused on a particular feature of D&D 4E: the power list. On today's Rule of Three's article, Rodney Thompson states:

The execution of the powers system in 4E also has an interesting psychological effect. Given the high number of powers each character has (even at 1st level, a character can have eight or more powers), they create a sort of tunnel vision for many players that makes it harder to improvise actions on the fly.

I've noticed this too, comparing the D&D 2E group I played in to the 4E group I usually DM. How do you make your players notice that they can actually do stuff on their own, without having to always rely on their powercards only?

I've tried giving them a brief on the use of skills (almost word-by-word from the Rules Compendium), but it hasn't worked for most of them (the player of our halfling thief is a notable exception).

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Present them with challenges that simply using powers from their cards won't solve.

No matter how many times you explain it to them, they will forget now and then. But if they solve a challenge by improvising, next time you present them with a challenge, they will remember to at least consider improvising.

After you are sure they consider improvising in every challenge, you don't have to present them with improvisation-only solvable situations. But start somewhere with it, and it will serve you well.

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If all else fails, make at-will power cards for the common skill actions each player can take based on which of their skills are highest. Maybe even a generic power card that says "At-Will: Use your imagination." It may seem silly but if they are focused on their power cards that will be an ever-present reminder that they are playing an RPG, not a video game.

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Inspired by this and this.

There must be real advantage within the mechanical framework of the game to using skills instead of powers.

Players in 4e don't use their skills as much because, in many ways, they perceive their characters as "perfectly spherical adventurers in vacuum." Most GMing styles which involve saying no to innovative usages of skills/environment or more critically doing less damage than an equivalent "real" action.

At the end of the day, the only way to keep the interest of players in their environment (and their skills certainly count as their environment) is to allow their skills to be awesome. The first use of a skill in combat should be the equivalent of a encounter power (especially if it requires a skill check to work.) Cool use of the skill/environment interaction should be the equivalent a daily power.

Outside of combat, the skills as written are incredibly narrow. I recommend the adoption of the Serious skills interpretation of skills as well as the fourthcore philosophy of "Skill check or player ingenuity, whatever works" If a player thinks to describe an action in detail, searching the spot where the thing is hidden, they can find it. Or they can roll perception. Same with the other skills in the broad serious skills interpretation.

By making skills useful in and out of combat, they will become an accepted tool by players. Relegating them to something that doesn't actually solve problems in combat and is just hoop-jumping out of combat will get them taken out of their box when needed and ignored.

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