I've just started a new D&D 4e campaign with a new group of players. One of my players came straight from 2nd edition, and has never played 4e before. She doesn't seem to grasp the layer of abstraction between game flavor and game mechanics used in 4e. For example, xivorts have an at-will net power, which does no damage but applies the restrained condition. My player's reaction to that was, "It's a net, so it doesn't hold me down, so I fly away and am free." We had to explain to her that that wasn't how conditions work. Then after the fight, she wanted to collect all the nets and weapons used in the fight, to use herself (as, since they were able to stop her from escaping even with flight, they must be exceptional nets).

I like this kind of creativity - looking at the environment and finding new and interesting ways to get around obstacles - but allowing her to escape "restrained" by flying because the flavor text is a net invites making entire categories of effects useless in a large percentage of situations. Also, allowing her to pick up those flavor-text nets and use them to the same at-will effect on enemies would break the game balance severely. I don't want the other players to feel I'm favoring her - or to start doing it themselves, because at that point all mechanics and balance both go out the window.

What can I do to encourage her creativity and imagination in situations like these, without sacrificing the mechanics and game balance?

  • 17
    \$\begingroup\$ I ran into this when 4e came out. What happened is that the player quit; and in driving a new player away from RPGs, I discarded 4e as not the sort of game I want to run. Not an answer, unfortunately, but an unfortunate experience I hope you can avoid duplicating. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 10, 2013 at 1:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, the amount of abstraction is very high in lot of recent games (DnD 4E, Cortex+), making adaptation difficult. I Find it interesting, but difficult anyway. I'm surprised by the Xivort's ability though. Is it really supposed to be just a net? Not a web-shooting, or similar? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 10, 2013 at 1:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mikalichov Yeah, it's just a net, nothing fancy. They're level 1 enemies, called Xivort Net Casters, and the power is an area burst 1 just named "Net". (They also throw bolas as an encounter power.) \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Commented Feb 10, 2013 at 1:50
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Not worth an answer, and a blatant self-plug at that, but take a look at my old post: wp.me/pGcTp-1d. While it focuses on interaction with the battlefield itself, it can trivially be extended to accommodate any creativity. It does so by providing rules for it, as that is the 4e way. \$\endgroup\$
    – Magician
    Commented Feb 10, 2013 at 2:19
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ When you mix that kind of players with rule-lawyers at your table, you're in for a constant struggle and an inevitable system change or complete party breakup. \$\endgroup\$
    – user4000
    Commented Feb 10, 2013 at 13:32

7 Answers 7


This is a system transition issue, not a creativity issue.

4e is a very different system and that's okay, but it's not for everyone. There's a gap between the player and the system and your job as GM is to help facilitate bridging that gap. Your goal in this should not be to make the player conform to the system, but to help the player understand the system's approach enough to decide if the system is one she wants to play in.

It's important to realize that creativity is not 'at stake' here: you can be just as creative in 4e as in any other system... just not in exactly the same fields.

What's the difference?

4e instituted multiple ground-level philosophy changes that build on each other:

  • Parties are hardy and self-contained. Instead of needing to exploit their environments and using dirty tricks to desperately survive on 3 hp and exceptionally limited healing, even the lowest-level 4e party has everything it needs to survive and triumph all written there on the character sheets.

  • It's not the net that's special: it's the person throwing it. 4e has feats, features, powers, and magic enchantments which could let a PC mimic that power's restraining effect. The net is probably the least important part of the equation; in 4e items are important and necessary but rarely definitive.

  • Realism takes a back seat to modular balance. Early editions left a great deal of mechanics to what the GM thought felt right, and 3.5 introduced numerous subsystems to provide rules for the same effect. This led to (often unexpected) problems with silly combinations and massive power imbalance. In order to reduce these problems, 4e abandoned most of its predecessors' attempts to mimic a 'real world' feel to its mechanics: it replaced them with standardized power gain, standardized effects, and a universal class system.

Together, means that rules are really important to 4e.

In earlier D&D editions, the player's line of reasoning would be absolutely correct: while a player has ability, most often it is the item the player wields which defines the effects the item can achieve. This was a major theme of D&D for a long time: the item makes the hero, and the heroes MUST grab every advantage they can or they will perish.

But in 4e, combat mechanics are balanced so carefully and already weighted so firmly in the players' favor that remaining within the game's mechanics is important to keep the game from spinning out of control. It's not your responsibility as a GM to make that happen invisibly; it's your responsibility to invite the players to work with you to make the game a good one.

To this end, player creativity in 4e needs to be channeled (voluntarily by the players, with support from the GM) away from scrounging and toward creative application of the existing rules. Finding how effective the nets are might make the PC want to start taking feats and features to learn how to use them, for example.

4e's fun is inside the box

4e is appealing to two major groups of players:

  • Those who enjoy taking a structured system and making it perform to the extremes of its potential.
  • Those who enjoy working in a system where even the least CharOpped builds are capable of achieving a modicum of success.

Other players may or may not find its modular philosophy chafing, but remember that any system can support strong, creative role-playing... just not always in the same areas. It's important for everyone at the table to be on the same page about the kind of system you're playing, or misunderstandings like your nets will crop up.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer, key point about items merely being tools rather than the defining factor in 4e heroes is very true. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 22:51

Look for an Existing Solution, and Respec/Educate

Here's the example Xivort power discussed in the question:

Net (weapon) At-Will DDI

Attack: Area burst 1 within 5 (creatures in the burst); +5 vs. Reflex

Hit: The target is restrained (save ends).

Here is a abridged similar feat (there are several):

Net SnareDDI

You catch an enemy in your net and maneuver it into position.

Attack: Your highest ability vs. AC

Hit: 1[W] damage, and the target is grabbed. The grab automatically ends at the start of your next turn. If you used this power as a melee attack, you slide the target 1 square. If you used this power as a ranged attack, you pull the target 1 square.

So the first thing I always do when players want to do something, is find out how closely I can get with the existing rules. The Compendium makes this easy, if it is possible at all.

Here's how my conversations go in situations like these:

"OK, so you've collected the nets, but aren't trained in using them. There are feats and/or powers that would give you similar abilities, but you'll have to give up one of your other feats/powers in exchange - you haven't been using that action-point-related feat - would you like to switch it for Net Snare instead?"

This way the player sees how the new rules attempt to integrate common player desires (such as wielding a net to ensnare) with game balance.

Usually, this approach works well. Sometimes I need to reskin a feat/power to fit the exact situation (for example changing a pike-based power/feat to work with a lance....)

But, when there's just no way that the 4e rule set is going to stay "balanced" but I really want a player to have something, I ...

... Risk Breaking the Game to Fix it

I've given out Wings of Flying to my 3rd level 4e Artificer, because it made sense with the story and the character. But - Rules As Written - low level flying powers are very, very, limited (typically encounter or daily powers with only turn-length limited use) - not good enough for me.

So, I gave her a much more advanced item, with powers similar to level 10 and stated that she could risk repairing and improving the item, giving it hover and longer time aloft - which she invested every hour and gold into during a month long break between adventures and succeeded at the all-or-nothing skill challenge.

Similarly, I gave the rogue another character a backpack (Power) much more valuable than any Bag of Holding:

Wait! I have one of those! - Daily, Minor Action

“Hey! I know I picked one of those up back there... at that place... you know... Yes! Here it is!”

Effect: You quickly search through your ample backpack, pockets, around in the current area to find a specific mundane, non-weapon item.

These items can be used to break adventures, as written. Yet, I never regretted this decision. I love it when they use these to break encounters.

But, I then use that so-called "unbalance" as license to restore balance to the encounter by adding complications. The flying wings allowed them to assault the Scepter Tower of Spellguard more easily, but - after the BBG engaged the party once, he returned with his own special flying ability in the final battle, hampering the rest of the party's participation. [The artificer ended up carrying the rogue up so she could Backstab the flying villain...]

Experienced GMs adapt encounters to the situation at hand: how powerful the party is, what their character histories contain, what their opponents have learned, etc.

There is no pure mechanical balance - the computational balance is only a starting place that the situation and participants (players, characters, and DM) distort as much as possible to tell an interesting encounter-story.

Once I embraced my Old-School (1e) ways and embraced upping the threat-level whenever my characters are getting too uppity, I've been a happy 4e DM.

[Note: In practice I do both the above almost every week - try to find/reskin existing stuff and just go ahead an break it - and fix it as I go along...]

  • 9
    \$\begingroup\$ And you sir, seem to be a good DM. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 10, 2013 at 14:37
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Out of curiosity, with "1e" you mean the actual first D&D (pre-advanced, I love it), or the first advanced edition? \$\endgroup\$
    – o0'.
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 12:58

First off, I'm guessing your player is using the pixie race, but if not the general principle should be the same. While 4e does demand a higher level of abstraction between mechanics and flavor than other systems, the struggle to balance fostering player creativity and preventing players from picking apart the universe is a tale as old as time (or at least RPGs.)

My best advice for dealing with story-oriented players in 4e is to not be afraid of re-skining monsters and powers to suit the narrative: with a little forethought, most anything can be justified on a mechanical level. Perhaps the nets actually produce some sort of paralyzing electrical field which causes the immobility, but after expending their charge are nothing but mundane weapons. Given the pretty major mechanical implications of the pixie (1st level flying, tiny size, etc.), this is something you are going to have to keep well in mind while designing encounters. Try to engineer challenges which will play to the flavor of these extraordinary abilities rather than limit them - perhaps next to the sealed door there's a tiny-sized crack in the wall for those with keen perception checks (and a lurking spider swarm, for even keener ones).

As for using encounter abilities that allow flight in out-of-combat play, be sure to emphasize that they are both physically taxing and limited in scope. While flight might get you up to a second-story window, it's a bit of a stretch for the player to scale your tower by casting flight, then clinging to the side of the tower for five minutes while waiting to recuperate and cast again.

A great way to link mechanics and narrative for story-oriented players is to allow them to use "magical" powers in skills challenges/checks through related rolls. For example, a wizard might roll arcana to cast feather fall on the party so they can jump from the balcony to escape. Similarly, your druid might roll nature to cause vines to grow, creating a rope down.

And every once in-a-rare-while, if your players think up a particularly ingenious scheme, let them have their day in the sun. Throwing sand in the eyes of the gladiator could conceivably be an improvised ranged attack causing a penalty to hit. But make it clear that he will be ready for the trick next time.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Just to clarify, she's not playing a pixie - she has an encounter fly power from her class. But yeah, the general idea doesn't change. \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Commented Feb 10, 2013 at 4:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, probably for the best for your sanity - the pixie a headache under the best of circumstances :) \$\endgroup\$
    – BRZA
    Commented Feb 10, 2013 at 4:12

I'd go with the "yes, but" solution to this. It's less popular than "yes, and", which encourages you to run with whatever the PCs throw at you. I like it better because "yes, but" lets them try to do what they want, but doesn't oblige you to make it work.

  1. Flying. I'd respond with flavor. What grants the character his flying ability? If it's wings, tough, they're bound in the net. If it's telekinetic hovering, I'd agree that the net can't stop that. This kind of answer will let the player gain an advantage when he's paying attention, but won't let him invalidate every instance of restrained.

  2. Nets. I looked at the Xivort Net Caster in the compendium. In the equipment I see 2 bolas and 4 nets. I see no reason why the player can't collect those. I also see that the NPC has an at-will for Net and Bola attacks. If the PC doesn't have those, I'm not sure what he expects to do with them.

Looking at the net item, it looks like it's just another weapon. I think the player would be able to throw it at a single target, but not use the Xivort's area of effect attack. Seems reasonable. The item description also points out that the net has a rope controlled by the attacker, which could be an argument against flying away, or at least flying out of the area the flyer is tethered to.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ 1: Unfortunately 4e effects are standardized to the point that situation-based exceptions are a very deep rabbit hole. 2: Yes, this. 4e effects are about the wielder, not the weapon. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Commented Feb 10, 2013 at 4:54

Well first of all, a weighted net will prevent you from flying as well as moving. I don't personally see anything that's terribly imbalanced with giving her a net as an encounter power for creativity (maybe it only lasts one round, takes a standard action to throw, and she takes a nonproficiency penalty?). It could even be single use (enemy thrashes around in it and it breaks up). Better still, you could make it an Item Daily. This is self-balancing in the sense that you can only use so many item dailies per extended rest, so even if it's a reasonably strong effect, there's some give-and-take involved.

But it sounds like you're after a more generalized answer. As a rule in 4E, players get loot according to level. So if they loot bodies for magical nets or whathaveyou, you have two options: Either say they only work that way because the enemy trained with it in a certain fashion, or give it to them in exchange for one of the items you would be dropping normally.

Similarly, if a player tries to do something in combat that is outside the rules, you can either flat-out deny them, or offer them an affect you think is reasonable (often a bonus to a regular action).

Alternatively, you could encourage players to flavor their attacks and power uses based on what they want to do. You can really say that any ability you use is "throwing the net", as long as it makes some modicum of sense.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ In 4e, granting powers and effects based on player interpretation of NPC powers (rather than finding some existing way to make it happen, like powers granted by feats) isn't something the system can support without a LOT of careful thought. That's kinda the reason the OP's bringing this up. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Commented Feb 10, 2013 at 4:56

I'd suggest you talk with that player and your other players about your group's desired playstyle. If you really want a game that tries to simulate reality, you should choose another game, Pathfinder or really any other D&D variant. Maybe start playtesting D&D Next. You'll only be happy playing 4e if you all agree to "relax and treat it as a game, not as real." Just explain to her that 4e doesn't do things that way and it's more of a game than a world simulation. Trying to craft a more realistic approach in 4e will just continually break things, including the expectations of the more gamist players. If you all do decide you want a more realistic playstyle, it'll be a lot easier to just use another D&D version than try to swim upstream with one not designed that way.

For more on that, see the older question Can D&D Fourth Edition be played effectively in a non-gamist manner?


If your player is confused or has questions about the nature of the monster's ability vs its equipment (the net), please reference the Rules Compendium, page 264, "Monsters And Equipment" panel, which explains:

If an adventurer gains a monster's equipment, he or she can use it as normal gear. The adventurer does not gain any powers that a monster uses through a piece of equipment.

This should make it clear that it is not the piece of equipment itself that grants the ability, but rather the ability that allows the character to utilize the equipment to generate a certain effect. If your player can accept that it isn't necessarily the net itself that is effecting her, but the power of the monster, then you're on the right track.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .