In 5th edition, why are no abilities listed as usable "once per encounter" or similar?

As far as I am aware, encounter powers were a staple of 4e, meaning that certain abilities and powers could be used just once in a given encounter, but required no resting between encounters to refresh their use. 5e equivalents seem to refresh on a short rest (which is functionally identical to "per encounter" if you assume a short rest between each encounter) or multiple times between short rests - why does 5th edition not phrase these abilities as "once per encounter", and is there anything broken in introducing powers that are "once per encounter" in homebrew classes?


3 Answers 3


In older (pre-4th) editions of D&D, there was a general philosophy that the purpose of the system was to simulate the functioning of a certain fantasy world. Thus magical powers would often be limited to once per day -- with the explanation that this is just how magic works -- but almost all non-magical powers could be used at will. The idea is that, if I could use an "awesome uppercut move" against the last orc, why can't I try the same thing again against this orc? There were also no "once per encounter" powers, even of the magical variety, because "encounter" isn't an in-world concept.

The 4th edition of the game changed this by adding once-per-encounter and once-per-day abilities for almost all classes. This was part of a general move in 4th edition away from simulationism and towards a more gamist view of role-playing games. For example, monsters in 4th edition don't obey the same rules as PC's, and the rules are very much designed for monsters to provide satisfying encounters with a minimum of fuss. This made things easier for the DM in most cases, but also led to the famous problem of, for example, orc swordsmen being unable to use bows or indeed any weapons not listed in their stat block. PC's in 4th edition had once-per-encounter abilities because it's a game, and that's how the game works.

The trouble with abandoning simulationism is that it undermines the reality of the world and the immersion of the players. If you know about once-per-encounter abilities but your character doesn't, it puts a barrier between your perspective and that of your character, since you're thinking about tactical considerations that your character doesn't know about. Instead of playing as your character during a battle, you're playing as yourself with your character as a game piece.

4th edition was criticized a lot for its abandoning of simulationism and embrace of game-oriented rules. Not all players disliked this change, but enough did that it became a controversial aspect of the new edition, and contributed to the split of the D&D player base into 4th edition players and 3.5/Pathfinder players.

Part of the goal of 5th edition is to re-unify the D&D player base by eliminating many of the more controversial aspects of 4th edition. For that reason, 5th edition has returned to a more simulationist vision of D&D, where the goal is to provide coherent rules for a world as opposed to rules for a game. That's why there's no once-per-encounter powers in 5th edition.

An escapist article based on an interview with D&D 5e designer Mike Mearls summed it up this way:

Why could a Rogue only pull off his fancy Daily power once per day? The only answer was because those were the rules of the game, not because that was how combat ought or should work in the fantasy setting...But Mearls doesn't believe that most D&D players want to play that way.

Regarding your question, there's nothing mechanically broken about adding such powers, and you should feel free to add them in your home game. You will have to adjudicate the question of what exactly constitutes an "encounter", and it might hurt some players' immersion and suspension of disbelief, but it might also help to make the game more fun and tactically interesting.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any references that make this more than speculation? \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Feb 26, 2017 at 21:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman This is less speculation and more a summary of some aspects of a controversy that took place over a period of many years over message boards, blog posts, etc. This article from the escapist makes some similar points, and a quick Google search for "4e D&D simulation" yields a variety of hits at EN World, for example. Someone more versed than I am in the fan controversy over 4e might be able to point to some particularly influential posts or articles. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jim Belk
    Feb 26, 2017 at 22:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman Well, here's a blog post that's essentially about this phenomenon, and here's an interview with Mike Mearls (lead designer for 5e) in which he says that he's read the blog post and "It's definitely something [he's] thought of". There is certainly a return to more of a simulationist philosophy in 5th edition, and getting rid of encounter-based powers is part of that pattern. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jim Belk
    Feb 26, 2017 at 22:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman [cont.] I mean, if your complaint is that I can't point to an interview with the designers saying "this change was made for that reason", then that's true. But if that's the criterion for an answer being well-supported, then this question is probably unanswerable. What I'm saying is that an objection to encounter-based powers was one of the central parts of a philosophy towards RPG's that had at least some influence over the design of 5th edition. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jim Belk
    Feb 26, 2017 at 23:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 this is correct, things like "per encounter" were narrativist elements incorporated in 4e and rolled back as part of the return to a more simulationist paradigm in 5e, this is a pretty well known thing and while citations could make this answer stronger, so can votes from everyone whose been in gaming for the last 20 years and understands the history. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Feb 27, 2017 at 0:37


No reason - as long as everyone is on the same page about what an encounter is.

What even is an encounter?

Part of the change from 4th to 5th was "rulings over rules" - the rules would be simplified in some respects so that DMs could keep the game moving quickly. A strict definition of "Encounter" wasn't fitting with the new approach. But DMs and players needed help to figure out how an encounter ended. Is the encounter over when the goblins surrender, or only when they are dead? Is a diplomatic negotiation an encounter?

Short rests help define what an encounter is

It seems so simple - an encounter ends when you can take a breather, light a pipe, and have a bit of banter with your buds about how you all nearly died just now. If you can't take that pause - perhaps because you're still being chased by deadly ogres - the encounter is not over.

From an in-universe perspective, this also explains why you can suddenly use your powers again - using them made you tired, but now you took a rest. A character that used a 1/encounter power to kill an orc, and suddenly turned the corner to find the orc's ten friends, has done nothing to "earn back" the use of that power, even though it might technically be a new encounter with new initiative rolls. However, the player would definitely want a new use of his power, and 5e's rulings-over-rules mindset was designed to root out precisely this kind of game-slowing argument.

If you and your group can expect to always agree on when an encounter ends, you can make homebrew that grants per-encounter powers, and nothing will go wrong.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any references that make this more than speculation? \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Feb 26, 2017 at 21:42

In part this is a misunderstanding. 4E Encounter powers were re-charged on a Short Rest. There was no other mechanical definition of "per Encounter" in 4E that strictly defined what an Encounter was in order to rule when the powers could be used. 5E does have "Encounter Powers", just less of them, and it appears to try to avoid importing emotionally-loaded baggage from 4E by not using the terminology, whilst in effect re-using the idea because it affects game pacing in a positive way.

In 5E there is one mechanical difference:

  • a Short Rest is set to 1 hour (compared to 5 minutes in 4E), making it a more significant event in the game, and meaning that players have to make a meaningful choice between re-charging powers or making more progress in the story.
    • The 5E DMG offers some variants to this (p267), with a "Heroic" setting of 5 minutes (same as 4E) or a "Gritty" setting of 8 hours.

There is one design difference:

  • there are a lot less powers that re-charge on a Short Rest. Some characters will have nothing but the option to spend Hit Dice.

There is one presentation difference:

  • The term "Encounter Power" is not used. Instead individual abilities are noted a being restored on a Short Rest (usually on Long or Short Rest or similar wording).

The design choice of having fewer powers, and avoiding short-hand labels for the rule appears to be a deliberate step to give a different feel to 5E from 4E. However the concept of limiting resources, but giving more player control over when the resource is recovered, is a useful import from 4E. By having a few resources that re-set this way, 5E seems to avoid the "one battle adventuring day" which can be a problem for encounter design in AD&D, v3 and v3.5 editions in situations where players have control over pacing.

In my group playing 5E over the last few months, we find that we take a Short Rest every 2 to 3 encounters, because waiting for an hour in a location with possible active enemies is risky (whilst in 4E a 5 minute break was nearly always justifiable).

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer would be improved by noting the alternative rest mechanics presented in 5e. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Feb 27, 2017 at 14:26

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