Player’s Handbook 1 (Chapter Nine)

Those reading this review on the day its posted, will notice that my review of the PHB1 has leapt from chapter three to chapter nine. Do not fear, I will go back and look at the other chapters in due course. However, I really want to get on to a nice juicy discussion about the rules, and the changes I feel I need to make to the rules to run the game sans miniatures. Before I do that, we all need to know where we stand in the new edition. Which leads us inevitably to chapter nine…


“The Thrill of Victory, and the Agony of Getting Shot” as Tales from the Floating Vagabond once put it. Let’s not delude ourselves, the D&D rules are built around combat and always have been. Out of combat activities have enjoyed a little more time in the sun in third and fourth editions, but they pale into insignificance when compared to the sheer number of options that cater for a player’s more violent and murderous urges.

Combat in fourth edition is very similar to combat in third, but it’s just different enough to be confusing in play. I’ll go through the chapter and point out what has changed and what has not, and hopefully set the scene for discussions to come.

Before I begin, I’d like to point out that the first page of the combat chapter has a section on “visualising the combat”, which announces some very telling (and extremely annoying) conceits of the new edition. Here they are for your edification:

  1. Position is everything: you need to know exactly where you and everyone else is standing in order to make use of various abilities, feats, opportunity actions and more.
  2. Combat is complex… so visual aids are a must.
  3. Terrain matters. So it’s important to realise what areas of the combat have difficult terrain, which don’t, which are zones etc.
  4. Imagination needs help. You can’t rely on a bunch of players to be visualising the same thing no matter how well the GM describes it, so you need a common frame of reference. You need… a battle grid!

Yes, a battle grid. Combat isn’t combat without a battle grid! Each square represents five feet in the real world, so a grid eight squares by ten squares works for most combats. You can use beads or coins to represent where everyone is, but you really want to use miniatures – they’re the most fun you can have in a role playing game!

Fortunately, I am not a violent man. I am the master of my rage. I am able to smile (though clenched teeth) and tell you all how happy I am that those players who like using miniatures in their roleplayinggames have the means, the rules and the resources to do so. I’m very pleased for them. I am a little put out that I have to overhaul the entire combat chapter, as well as numerous powers, feats, items, and skills if I want to run 4e D&D without using miniatures. This is my choice, and I am at peace with that. Just don’t bring it up in conversation.

The Combat Round

The combat rounds lasts six seconds (as it did in third edition). In those six seconds, each character has a turn. In this turn, the character can perform a finite number of actions as dictated by the rules -we will get to those actions in a moment. Generally, each combat follows a pre-established pattern, that will be familiar to many of you.

  1. Determine Surprise. If one side of a battle is initially unnoticed by the other then there will be a Surprise Round before the main combat. Skill checks (notably Perception or Insight) are used to determine surprise. Those characters who are surprised cannot act in the surprise round. They also give their attackers combat advantage. They may take no actions. Those who are not surprised may take a Standard Action, a Move Action or a Minor Action (but not all three). They may also take Free actions. They may not spend Action Points. More on all those options below.
  2. Roll Initiative. Everyone rolls initiative to see when they act. Remember those who are surprised won’t act until after the surprise round. Initiative is your Dexterity modifier + half your level + any other modifiers (like the Improved Initiative feat, for example).
  3. Take surprise round actions. Everyone who can act, does so in order of their initiative – remembering that they have limited actions.
  4. Take turns. After the surprise round, Round One begins and everyone can act. In third edition there was a condition called Flat Footed that applied to all characters before they first acted in a combat. So you could fail to notice your opponent and be flat footed for the surprise round, and then roll a low initiative and be flat footed when the opponent attacked again in round one. That has gone in fourth edition. If you are surprised, you don’t act in the surprise round and you give all your opponents combat advantage (see below). Then you act normally from round one onwards. There are no further complications.

Action Types

Now, pay attention: this is important. Third edition veterans will remember different types of action. In version 3.5 there were standard actions and move actions. You could attack witha standard action, and move with a move action. But the move action could be used for any number of other things. You could drop your standard action for a second move action (but not vice versa). You could combine your standard action and your move action into a full round action – which was essential for characters with more than one attack per round. There were also swift actions, quickened actions (which were effectively the same thing), immediate actions, free actions and even things that were not an action. If you’ve played version 3.0 you may remember partial actions and move-equivalent actions too.

Forget all you know of third edition. Fourth edition uses the same terminology, but the terms mean subtly different things. It is just as complex as third edition, but it’s complex in a different way. It may take a little getting used to. Here are the three core actions that you can take every time you have a turn. You may take them in any order.

Standard Action: This is the core of any combat. Attacking with a weapon, using a power (which could well be a spell) or a complex combat manoeuvre (such as Charge!) are standard actions. Some powers may not be standard actions, so be sure to check the power description, but most of them are.

Move Action: In fourth edition you take a move action to move. There is no such things as a move-equivalent action. The move action is spend moving – be it walking, crawling, running or shifting (more on shifting later). By having a dedicated action each round that you use for moving it’s much easier for characters to be mobile during combat. There’s more moving about, so combats take place over a wider area. This is a deliberate design technique to tie the combat closer to a tactical miniatures game. We’ll explore how well movement without miniatures works later on.

Minor Action: These are described as “enabling action” – they’re simple actions that can lead to much more exciting actions. So sheathing an item, drawing a weapon, opening a door are all minor actions. Some powers are minor actions too.

Free Actions: As in third edition the only limit to the number of free actions you can take in a round is the GM’s common sense. Free actions normally happen on your turn and not someone else’s. Examples would include dropping an item, releasing a grabbed opponent and speaking a few sentences. This is extremely important for taunting the bad guy.

So, on your turn you can take all of the actions above. As in third edition, you can trade down an action. So you can take a Move action instead of a Standard action, or a Minor action instead of a Standard or a Move action. You couldn’t swap out a standard action for a move, or a move for minor. This boils down to five choices:

  1. Standard, Move, Minor
  2. Standard, Minor, Minor
  3. Move, Move, Minor
  4. Move, Minor, Minor
  5. Minor, Minor, Minor

So you could draw your sword (minor action), move to engage the enemy (move action) and hit the enemy with a shiny martial exploit (standard action) all in one round. Or you could spend the same amount of time opening three doors. Eveyoneclear with that?

The above are just the actions you can take on your own turn. In fourth edition, there are a whole host of options you can take on someone else’s turn. These actions are called Triggered Actions because something else has to happen for you to get to use one of these actions. Excited?

Opportunity Action: If an enemy lets its guard down then you might be able to take an opportunity action. The most common of these are opportunity attacks – which are a bit like the third edition Attacks of Opportunity but less heavy on the rules. There’s a big section on Opportunity Attacks coming up in this post. Quick preview: I hate them. You can take as many opportunity actions in a round as you like, but you can only take one on each opponent’s turn – which means you cannot make multiple opportunity attacks against the same target. In third edition, the only way you could take more than one opportunity attacks in one round at all was to have the Combat Reflexes feat, so there has been a relaxation of the rules in this regard. The text in the 4e PHB states that an opportunity action “interrupts” the triggering action. This doesn’t mean it invalidates the triggering action. If a wizard provokes an opportunity attack by casting a spell, attacking him doesn’t stop him from casting the spell. It means that the opportunity action (an attack in this example) is resolved before the action that triggered it. This is a fundamental shift from third edition, which I will discuss at greater length soon.

Immediate Interrupt:This is an action that let’s you jump in and take an action on an opponent’s turn. Your action happens before the opponent’s action. For example, you might have a doody power than allows you to shift out of reach if an opponent attacks you. The foe brings up his sword to strike you, you activate the power as an immediate interrupt and suddenly you’re out of reach of his sword and the attack fails. Just like opportunity actions, an immediate interrupt doesn’t prevent the triggering action from taking place – it just happens before it. So what’s the difference between an opportunity action and an immediate action? You can only take one immediate action (be it an immediate interrupt or an immediate reaction) in one round. Are we clear on that?

Immediate Reaction:This is an action you can take on an opponent’s turn, but you take it in response to something that has already happened. It is a reaction. The clue is in the name. For example, you might have a second doody power that alllows you to trigger a healing surge if you are damaged by a fire spell. You get hit by the spell, take the damage, and then you usethe power as an immediate reaction. You can’t take both an immediate interrupt and an immediate reaction in the same round. One immediate action is all you get. Don’t get greedy on me.

Taking Your Turn

You now have a list of all the actions you can take in combat. What more is there to say about taking your turn? Well, fourth edition formalises the turn you take in a combat round. It divides each turn into three parts – the start of your turn, your turn proper, and the end of your turn. It introduces a consistant procedure to manage all those little housekeeping measures that are often forgotten.

To a degree this changes the turn into something more akin to a turn in a board game, or a collectible card game. I don’t think that this is such a bad thing because there are so many things to keep track of in D&D (of any edition) that anything that makes it easier for the players to stay on top of their characters is fine by me.

So, when it comes to your turn in a combat round, these are the steps you take:

Start of Your Turn: You take no actions at this stage. If you are taking ongoing damage from any source then you lose hit points now. Likewise, if you have regeneration then you gain hit points now. If there are any other effects in play on your character, then you face the music and take their effects now at the beginning of your turn. Some of your own effects and powers may automatically end at the “beginning of your turn”, if they do then they stop now.

The Turn Proper: This is where you take your actions. One standard, one move and one minor – or any combination of actions as listed above. You may also spend an action point at any stage of this phase of your turn. It’s possible that other characters take immediate or opportunity actions against you during this part of your turn as well.

End of Your Turn: You take no actions at this stage. If you are suffering from any conditions that allow you to make a saving throw once per round, then you make that saving throw now. Check the actions you have spent. Some powers can be sustained as long as you spent an action during your turn proper doing so. If you didn’t then those powers end now. Some effects automatically end at the “end of your turn”. They stop now, too.

This may look horrific to all you Cthulhu GMsout there, but this is no more complicated than third edition. I think that it’s really helpful to formalise where everything happens in a combat round. If could be really important to know at what point in a round your regeneration kicks in, for example. It might take a little while for players to get used to the book-keeping, but after a few sessions it should become second nature.

I should point out that if you delay your turn to act later in the round, then a fair amount of the housekeeping is undertaken at your original initiative point. You can’t extend any effect by simply delaying until the end of the round. I won’t bother to explain what the rules are, just take it from me that they exist.

The important thing is that none of the rules for the combat round or actions actually require you to use miniatures, so these rules can stay completely intact. At least for the time being.

Attacks and Defences

This lengthy part of the combat chapter is all about making attacks and damaging your foes. There are various types of attacks and these are covered in some depth. This section doesn’t include Actions in Combat – what were called Special Attacks in third edition. These are actions like grapple, overrun, bull’s rush and so on. I’ll get to those a little later. This is just the basics.

Attacking is the same as third edition. Pick an attack, pick a target, roll to hit, if the roll is higher than the defence you apply damage. In fourth edition this principle is expanded. Everyone rolls to hit. There are no such things as automatic hits any more – the wizard is rolling to hit with his magic missile and with his fireball. And if he’s casting fireball then he’s rolling to hit everyone within the area of effect.

Attack rolls are set at half your level + a related attribute modifier + any other modifiers. So the wizard attacking witha fireball would start with half his level, add his Intelligence modifier and perhaps a bonus to hit granted by focusing the fireball through his wand. He would roll a d20, add all the relevent numbers and compare the result to the targets’ Reflex Defence.

There are four general attack types in fourth edition. Some of them are self explanatory, others take a little more exposition. Let’s have a look at them:

Mêlée Attack:An attack (usually with a weapon) that targets a single enemy within your mêlée reach. Most characters will have a reach of 1 square (five feet), so you can hit anything that is adjacent to you. Some weapons (like polearms) allow you to make a mêlée attack beyond your normal reach. Unlike in third edition, a Reach weapon can be used to attack anyone within reach – so a polearm is just as effective at five feet as it is at ten feet. Note that in fourthedition, attacking with two weapons has completely changed. See the section below on multiple attacks.

Ranged Attack: A strike against a distant target within range of the weapon. Ranged attacks normally target single targets. Powers may set a specific range, such as “Ranged 5” (5 squares = 25 feet) or “Ranged Sight” meaning if you can see it, you can hit it. Ranged weapons such as crossbows and longbows have two ranges: e.g. 20/40 for a longbow. The first figure is normal range, and the second is maximum range. If a target is beyond normal range, but within maximum range then you take a -2 penalty to hit. That’s it, just a -2 penalty. There’s none of this -2 per range increment as there was in third edition. If the target is further away than long range then you cannot even attempt to hit it.

Close Attack:A closeattack originates from you and affects all foes within a certain range. This can either be in the form of a Blast (which is like a cone was in third edition, affecting all foes in a particular direction), or a Burst which attacks all foes in a certain radius of you. Magical powers and martial explots can bothbe closeattacks. One can imagine a martial close attack that ressemblesthe third edition feat, Whirlwind Attack, for example. You must make an different attack roll for every enemy that could be caught in the area of effect, but only one damage roll. Normally, you can choosenot to hit your friends but that isn’t always an option. For a close attack to work you must have Line of Effect (see below).

Area Attack: In an area attack you pick a certain spot within range of the power. That spot becomes the centre of the area attack. The attack is either a burst (all targets in a certain radius) or a wall. You must have line of effect for an area attack to work. You don’t need to see the target “square” – you can still lob a fireball into a dark room and hope for the best.

I will post a discussion topic about converting blasts, bursts and walls from squares to feet. It isn’t quite as simple as you might imagine.

Multiple Attacks

Okay, so I hit with a standard action but as I gain levels I can make more than one attack a round, right? If I’m wielding two weapons I get an extra attack too, don’t I? No! You are living in the past! Multiple attacks are game destabilising… they slow things down and generally skew combat. Fourth edition is all about party balance and speed. I’m not convinced I necessarily believe that, but we’ll see when we start playing it.

In fourth edition no-one gets multiple attacks based on their level. You have one standard action in a round, and in that standard action you can make one basic attack. There are certain powers that allow you to break those rules. Obviously, things like fireball hit multiple targets, but the equivalents of cleave and whirlwind attack are now powers, so a fighter can still attack multiple opponents if he has taken the right power, and if that power is available to him.

As for attacking withtwo weapons – well, that’s completely changed. You can hold a weapon in each hand if you like (as long as one is an off-hand weapon), but you can’t attack with bothof them in the same standard action. You can choosewhich of the two you attack with, but that’s as far as it goes. There is a feat called Two-Weapon Fighting but all that does is give you +1 to damage. This situation is improved by (you guessed it) powers. The only class withpowers related to two-weapon fighting is the ranger. So, if you want to be effective with two-weapons then you have to play a ranger or multiclass into ranger. In 4e the ranger has been divested of his namby-pamby tree-hugging roots, so he is a more attractive choice for players who want the powers but not the associated baggage.

Targeting your Foes

My word, there’s a lot of text describing how you count squares to determine the range of your foes. Lucky we can ignore all that, eh? The general point that the rules are trying to make is that in order to hit something it needs to a viable target. There are two terms that you need to get a handle on as they are used repeatedly by powers and feats: line of sight, and line of effect.

Line of Sight:Can you see the target? If you can’t then powers that rely on line of sight won’t work. Most short range teleports are line of sight, so you can blip around he battlefield, but you can’t teleportto the other side of a closed door. If you can partially see the target then that target has either cover or concealment. We’ll get to them later. While the rules make a bit of a meal of working out whether a target has cover or concealment I don’t think its that important. It should be obvious. If it isn’t then the GM makes a call, just as he always does.

Line of Effect: Line of Effect powers require an unblocked path between you and the target. You might be able to see you target and still not have line of effect. Maybe you can only see them in a mirror, or they are the other side of a force wall for example. Cover makes it more difficult to hit with line of effect powers, but it doesn’t make it impossible unless the target has total cover. Concealment isn’t a barrier to line of effect powers at all, as long as your willing to cast at an area instead of individual.

Bonuses and Penalties

We all know the story from third edition. There are numerous bonuses that accrue from feats, spells and magic items. Some of these stack and some of these don’t. In third edition you could have (deep breath) circumstance, competence, deflection, dodge, enhancement, insight, luck, morale, natural armour, profane, racial, resistance, sacred, shield, size and untyped modifiers. By and large, bonuses gained from the same type of modifier did not stack. So if you had a +2 enhancement bonus from a ring, and a +4 enhancement bonus from a broach then you took the better value, you don’t add them together. Because the system is largely designed to shaft PCs, penalties always stacked with one another.

In fourth edition there is a similar, but far more prosaic approach. There are nine types of bonuses that can be applied to your statistics. Except for untyped bonuses, these bonuses do not stack with themselves. Penalties always stack with each other (there are a couple of exceptions, but as a rule they don’t). The bonuses are as follows:

  • Armour bonus: This is granted by your armour and applies as long as you are wearing armour. It provides a bonus to AC.
  • Enhancement bonus: Usually this is added to a magic item. If its added to a weapon it improves your attack and damage rolls. If its applied to armour, it improves your armour class. If it’s applied to certain magic items it will improve you Fortitude, Reflex and Will defences. You can benefit from several enhancement bonuses at the same time as long as they are applying to different things. A weapon, shield, armour and cape are all fine. Trying to put on two pairs of magic boots is not. The chapter on magic items explains how different magic items interact.
  • Feat bonus: This is a bonus granted by a feat. You have the bonus as long as you have the feat. Feat bonuses that modify the same thing (e.g. your speed, damage rolls) do not stack.
  • Item bonus:Is a bonus derrived from a from certain magical items.
  • Power bonus: A bonus that is granted by (you guessed it) a power.
  • Proficiency bonus: This is the bonus to hit you get from being proficient in a weapon. If you use a weapon to deliver a power (i.e. the power has the “weapon” keyword) then the proficiency bonus applies to that as well.
  • Racial bonus: This is conferred by your race. They do not stack. Having one elf in the party grants all allies a +1 to perception checks. Having two elves does not grant a +2.
  • Shield bonus: This is granted by your shield and it applies to both your AC and your Reflex Defence.
  • Untyped bonus: If the text does not explicitly tell you what the bonus is, then you can assume it is an untyped bonus. Untyped bonuses stack with everything – including themselves. For example, many feats give you bonuses, but not all those bonuses are “feat bonuses”. If a feat gives a feat bonus it will tell you (e.g. Iron Will). If it doesn’t tell you, then it’s an untyped bonus (e.g. Combat Reflexes).

Roll Some Dice!

The chapter now tells you how to calculate your attack roll (for all attacks and powers) and how to work out your defence values for AC, Fortitude, Relfex and Will. I’m not going to dwell on this. It’s pretty straight forward, very similar to third edition, and I’ve no intention of changing any of it. There are just two things I want to spell out here:

Damage: Damage is either expressed in terms of dice, or in terms of the notation [W]. [W] represents the weapon damage. So if a longsword wielding fighter with a strength 18 is asked to inflict 1[W] + Strength Modifier in damage then he’s doing 1d8+4. It he’s asked to do 7[W] + Strength Modifier then he will roll 7d8+4.

Automatic Hits and Misses: A natural 20 is always a hit and a natural 1 is always a miss. No change here from every other edition, but still worth mentioning.

Critical Hits:If you roll a natural 20 then it is a critical hit. You don’t need to roll to confirm the Crit in fourth edition. A natural 20 is a critical pure and simple. Critical hits do maximum damage (not multiple damage). So the fighter who normally rolls 1d8+4 would inflict 12 damage on a critical hit. This has the effect of making the criticals significant, but no longer combat altering. In third edition one lucky shot could completely alter the course of a battle – as anyone who has been on the receiving end of a critical hit from a battle-axe wielding orcbarbarian can testify. Some weapons, feats and powers extend the critical range. High level characters might critical on an 18, 19 or 20 for example.

If you require a natural 20 to hit, then that hit is not a critical hit. Likewise if you have an extended critical range and an 18 or 19 would normally be a miss, then its still a miss.

If you inflict any extra damage on your critical hit (you are wielding a magic or a high crit weapon that does additional dice of damage), this extra damage is not maximised. However, damage from class abilities such as a rogue’s sneak attack is maximised on a critical hit. It should also be apparent that becauseyou have to roll to hit witheverything, the rules for critical hits apply to everything. So it’s quite possible to critical hit with your 29th levelmeteor swarm. As an aside, there are no such things as critical misses in fourth edition D&D.

Resistance and Vulnerability

Energy Resistance, Damage Reducation and Spell Resistance do not exist in fourthedition. Instead they have been replaced with resistances and vulnerabilities. They still work in a similar way, though. If you have Resist 5 Fire then any time you take fire damage you reduce the damage by 5. Some powers or monsters might have Resist 5 All – in which case all damage rolls are reduced by 5. Fortunately these are rare.

Vulnerabilities work the same way, but in reverse. An undead creature might have Vulnerable 10 Radiant. This means when ever it takes any radiant damage (a new category of damage, that sort of replaces positive energy) it takes an additional 10 points of damage. Hit that creature with 2d6 radiant damage, and it’ll actually take 2d6+10.

Where this leaves us with the PCs <cough> Brack <cough> who had managed to get their hands on damage reduction is unclear. Resistance to mêlée weapons is extremely unusual. I think I will have to see the game in play before I make a call on that.


Often in combat you are going to be struck with an ongoing condition. You might be deafened, or blinded, or unable to tie your shoe laces. Like its predecessor, fourth edition formalises this process by giving each condition an absolute defintion. Powers only need to refer to the condition and everyone knows where they stand. Well, if you’ve memorised the conditions that is.

There are sixteen conditions identified in PHB1. This is the same list printed in Keep on the Shadowfell. The conditions are: Blinded, Dazed, Deafened, Dominated, Dying, Helpless, Immobilised, Marked, Petrified, Prone, Restrained, Slowed, Stunned, Surprised, Unconscious and Weakened. I’ve no intention of changing any of those definitions per se, but changes to other rules may require tweaking them a little later on.

Ongoing Damage

There are many effects that deal ongoing damage on your character. A snake’s venom deals ongoing poison damage, a spell might inflict ongoing fire or acid damage and so and so forth. As mentioned above you take ongoing damage at the start of your combat turn before you make any actions. At the end of your turn you can attempt a saving throw to shake off the effect, and prevent you from taking any more ongoing damage the next round. Damage of the same type does not stack. So if you get bitten by a snake for 5 ongoing poison damage per round, and by a spider for 10 ongoing poison damage each round, then you only take the higher value.


Ah yes, here’s a sticky one. Some powers have instanteous durations. Others last “Until the Start of your next turn” or “Until the end of your next turn”. The durations of some rituals are measured in hours or days. All theseare easy to adjudicate. But what about powers that last until the “end of the encounter”. How long do they last? And importantly, how long do they last if you cast them outside of a combat encounter?

If a power lasts “until the end of the encounter” then it ends whenever you stop for a rest, or when five minutes have expired – whichever is less. So all these types of powers effectively last for five minutes.

Some powers have a sustained duration – which means you have to spend an action every round to keep the power going. For example, the power Astral Storm is “Sustain, Minor”. That means you have to spend a minor action every round to keep the power going. Unless the power says otherwise, you can only sustain a power for a maximum of five minutes (50 rounds).

Saving Throws

In an earlier post I said there were no saving throws in fourth edition. I lied. Saving throws do exist, but they are completely altered. If you are affected by a persistanteffect or condition such as blindness or ongoing damage, that can be shaken off by a saving throw then you make such a saving throw (one for each condition or effect) at the end of your turn each round. You will know whether you’re allowed to a make a save, because the affliction will have “save ends” written in the description.

A saving throw is a straight d20 roll. If you roll a 10 or higher then you shake off the effect. You therefore have a 55% chance to shrug off anything at the end of each round. Very few things modify saving throws. You might find some feats or powers that give you a temporary bonus, but on the whole a straight roll is what you have.

Is this appropriate? Coming from third edition we expect saving throws to be dependent upon character level. As you get more powerful your saving throws improve. However, that was in a system where the difficulty class of effects also escalated, creating an arms race between defences and attacks. Third edition worked from the premise that a character has a 50% chance to resist (or affect) a target of an appropriate challenge level. Isn’t this the same thing? I’ve no intention of changing these rules initially. We’ll see how it plays. But for those of you who think it’s a bit odd or undesirable, I know exactly what you mean.

Attack Modifiers

This section lists the most common modifiers to attack rolls in combat. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary here, but I’ll dutifully point out the differences. I’m really very good to you all.

Combat Advantage

You’ve heard the term bandied about for months, but what is combat advantage? Combat advantage represents a situation where the defender cannot devote his full attention to defending himself. He is distracted, or beset by multiple foes, or surprised. Attackers with combat advantage have a +2 to hit their target. Some powers and features only work (or work better) if you have combat advantage. For example, a rogue’s sneak attack only works if you have combat advantage.

So how do you get combat advantage? The PHB  provides a definitive list. If you are balancing, blinded, climbing, dazed, flanked by an attacker, helpless, prone, restrained, running, squeezing, stunned, surprised, unable to see the attacker, unaware of the attacker or unconscious then you give your attacker combat advantage. Remember this, it’s important.

Cover and Concealment

In D&D Cover and Concealment have two distinct definitions. Cover is physical barrier between you and the target. You might be able to partially see the target, but there’s something in the way that could interfere with your attack. Concealment is something that makes it harder to see the target. The barrier is intangible, but for whatever reason (fog, darkness, incorporeality, invisibility) you cannot see exactly where your target is. Cover generally applies to ranged attacks, while concealment can more readily be applied to all attacks.

In third edition, Cover was expressed as a penalty to hit the target, whereas concealment was expressed as a percentage miss chance. You rolled to hit normally, and then rolled a miss chance (50% for an invisible foe) to see if you actually connected. The rules for determining cover and concealment were simplified between version 3.0 and version 3.5. This trend continues in fourth edition.

Cover and Concealment in fourth edition are expressed as penalties to hit, not bonuses to armour class. This is because, cover and concealment apply to all four defences. A ranged attack against a target’s Will defence is made harder by cover. With that in mind, let’s walk through the modifiers.


We have two levels of cover in fourth edition; cover and superior cover. This is a step up from the one-size-fits-all definition of cover from version 3.5, but it’s stil a little simplistic by third edition standards.

Cover: Imposes a -2 penalty to attack rolls. Examples of this sort of cover would be crouching behind a bush, standing just behind a low wall or a small tree.

Superior Cover:Imposes a -5 penalty to attack rolls. Superior cover is standing the other side of an arrow slit, or a portcullis. It represents a siginificant defensive advantage.

Area Attacks and Close Attacks: Burst and blast attacks, be they at close range or at distance are also subject to cover. Shoot a fireball at someone standing behind a tree then you have -2 to hit with the spell.

Creatures and Cover:According to the rules enemies can give other enemies cover (-2 to hit) against a PCs’ ranged attacks. However, allies never give enemies cover and there is no mechanic for accidentally hitting the wrong target when firing into mêlée. This is a bit ridiculous, and I can feel a houserule coming on. However, there it is for the moment. Creatures also don’t providecover for one another against area effect powers. That I’m slightly happier with.


The fourth edition game gives us three different levels of concealment, and then gives us two penalties between them. Concealed creatures can be lightly obscured (the light is dim, there is heavy rain, light foliage or snow); heavily obscured (heavy fog, heavy smoke or dense foliage); Totally Obscured (utter darkness, the target is invisible). Here’s how the mechanics play out:

Concealed: Imposes a -2 penalty to attack rolls. Lightly obscured creatures, and heavily obscured creatures in adjacent squares are considered concealed. As we’re not using squares this is a pointless differentiation. If you’re concealed then foes have a -2 penalty to hit you.

Total Concealment: Imposes a -5 penalty to attack rolls. Do you begin to see a pattern here? The penalties for cover and concealment are the same. I guess there’s less to remember that way. Obviously, totally obscured foes have Total Concealment.

Mêlée and Ranged Attacks only: Common sense should make this abundantly clear, but I’ll say this anyway. Concealment penalties only apply to attacks that target individuals. Area attacks don’t impose a concealment penalty. As long as you aim for more or less the right area then you’ll hit.

PHB1 p281 then has an interesting section on targeting foes with Total Concealment (such as invisible foes). As you can imagine this works by way of contested skill checks between Perception and Stealth. However, it should be noted than an invisible character doesn’t get a bonus to their stealth check if someone is looking for them. Looking at it logically, Stealth is supposed to represent the ability to move silently and hide so perhaps this isn’t too far-fetched. However, those expecting something akin to the +30 hide bonus conferred under the third edition rules are in for something of a shock.

Movement and Position

I’ll run through theserules quickly because I intend to change almost all of them. All the rules for movement rely on a battle grid, and all movement is measured in squares and not in a real-world measure. Although it is largely simple to convert from squares to feet, there are several occassions where it is either tricky or undesirable to do so. To mention that here would be stepping on the toes of a future post. So here are the edited highlights.

Creature Size and Space

A whole page basically informing us that bigger creatures take up move space than smaller ones. An interesting side note to third edition veterans is that size categories of creatures now run: Tiny, Small, Medium, Large, Huge and Gargantuan. Fine and Colossal are no longer categories in their own right. Also, size has absolutely no measurable impact on the rules as far as I can see except for the space the creatures occupies and its reach.

Tactical Movement

This refers to your movement during combat. As in previous editions, this doesn’t necessarily marry up with overland movement rates if your character is walking from one town to another. The information for that is in chapter eight, and we’ll get to that in due course. The tactical speed of your character is the base for your race (usually 6), modified by your armour (heavy armour gives you -1 to speed), and by any feats you might have (e.g. Fleet-Footed gives you +1 to speed; Fast Runner gives you +2 to speed when you are running or charging).

The text dwells on the importance of diagonal movement, whether you can end your move action in an enemy’s square and so on. Without a battle grid, all this is irrelevent. Difficult terrain (such as rubble, undergrowth, shallow bogs, steep stairs) are defined as follows: “Each square of difficult terrain you enter costs 1 extra square of movement”. This is just a convoluted way of saying that you move at half speed in difficult terrain.

This section is also where we find the new rules on falling. I guess this is because there wasn’t a “lack of tactical movement” section. Falling damage hadn’t changed since first edition: 1d6 per ten feet falled, maximum of 20d6. Well, it’s changed now. Now you take 1d10 per ten feet fallen and there is no cap to the amount of dice you roll. Fall of a 1000 foot cliff and you’ll take 100d10 damage. It suggests taking an average result. It’s odd that in a game where the damage potential of so much else has been toned down, that the lethality of falls has been increased in such a manner.

Forced Movement. Now, here’s a tricky one. Various powers say that you can push, pull or slide (move in any direction) a foe. In fact you’ll find that you’ll be flinging enemies and allies across the battlefield with gay abandon in fourth edition. There are only three things to really note. Firstly, you must have line of effect between where the target is, and where you want it to be. Secondly, forced movement doesn’t replace the target’s own move action. They can still come back on their turn. Thirdly, if you fling an enemy over a precipice, they can always get to make a saving throw to “catch themselves”. Whether this means they didn’t fall at all, or are hanging on my their fingernails, seems to be GM fiat.

Actions in Combat

This is the section that corresponds to Special Attacks in third edition. What this amounts to is a list of all the options a character has in combat above and beyond “put the sharp end into the bad guy”. There are less options in this list than there were in third edition. Now, the designers helpfully point out that this list isn’t exhaustive, and that PCs can effectively try anything, which is all well and good but without concrete rules support you wonder how often some things would be attempted. How many players are going to attempt something knowing that success or failure is completely dependent upon the GM’s whims? Some actions that anyone could attempt in 3e (such as disarming), have been turned into powers. We’ll have a look at how that fits in as well.

Action Points

All characters have one action point per tier (some monsters may have more). You can spend no more than one action point per encounter. What does an action point do? It gives you an extra action. Spend the action point (as a free action) and you can choose to take an extra standard, move or minor action when it matters the most. All paragon paths give you an alternative (or additional) benefit for spending an action point, but you can still only spend one per encounter. You get your action point back after you take an extended rest (six hours). GMs can also award an additional action point every two encounters if you don’t rest. I’ll talk more about that when I get onto chapter eight. I like this mechanic, as it empowers the PCs to be extra-heroic at a dramatically appropriate moment.

Aid Another

The rules to aid another haven’t changed much since third edition, and can be used inside or outside of combat. In combat, you make a basic mêlée attack roll against a foe. Your target is AC 10. If you succeed, you deal no damage but your action helps an ally who is also attacking the same foe. That ally gets a +2 bonus to their next attack roll, or +2 to all their defences against the foe’s next attack (you choose). Note, that there is nothing stating that the benficiaryof your aid needs to be in mêlée combat with the target. You could make the foe more vulnerable to a ranged attack from a sniping ally.

Outside combat you can grant a bonus to an ally attempting a skill check or an ability check. First you must make a successful check against DC 10. If you succeed then the ally gets a +2 bonus to his roll.

Up to four people can attempt the Aid Another action on the same ally at the same time. Third edition said that the number of allies that could help was limited, but never actually spelled out how limited. Four is an arbitrary figure, based on the fact that the default party size in the fourth edition game is five characters. However, it sounds about right. And it means that you can get up to +8 to a roll if you work together as a team. Aiding Another is a standard action.

Bull Rush

A Bull Rush is simply an attempt to push away the enemy without dealing any damage to it. The rules for the Bull Rush in third edition were quite complex, and involved attacks of opportunity, specialised feats and the concealment rules. In 4e, adjudication has been streamlined. You simply make a Strength vs Fortitude attack (don’t include modifiers for the weapon you use). If you succeed then you knock the foe back one square (five feet). You travel with the target, so you end up standing where the target was at the beginning of your action. Therefore, you end the action in mêlée range of the target.

The text points out that you can only bull rush creatures of a size category one place higher than your own or less. So a medium-sized creature like a human, has a chance to bull rush an ogre but not a dragon. Obviously, you can bull rush foes from tall buildings or into bubbling pits of lava. However, a saving throw would apply in these circumstances. Bull rush is a standard action.

Basic Attacks

Obviously, in a combat you can take a basic mêlée or a basic ranged attack as a standard action. A basic mêlée attack is Strength vs AC (and your strength modifier is added to damage), a basic ranged attack is Dexterity vs AC (and you add your dexterity modifier to damage). Add your dexterity modifier to damage? How egalitarian is that? Now the elven archer doesn’t need a high strength to pack a wallop with his arrows. Whether it makes any sense is another matter.

Basic attacks tend to be the attacks you make when you run out of powers. A wizard’s magic missile, and a warlocks’ eldritch blast are considered basic attacks so the spellcasters always have their fingers on the trigger in that respect. Opprtunity attacks and free attacks are always made with basic attacks. Some powers will allow you to make a basic attack in addition to the effects of the power.

Interesting, the damage you deal with a basic attack increases as you gain levels. Epic characters (level 21 and up) deal double weapon damage with their basic attack. A normal longsword does 2d8 base damage in the hands of an epic character.


Charge is a standard action. During the action you move up to your speed (but at least 10 feet) and make a basic mêlée attack or a bull rush at the end of it. You receive +1 to the attack roll. After you make the attack roll you can take no further actions unless you spend an action point. Difficult terrain can hamper charge, and you must run in a straight line to build up momentum.

A charge in third edition granted +2 to the attack roll, and gave you a -2 penalty to AC. In comparissonthe 4e charge doesn’t seem to be worth your time. There’s a little more versatility in 4e for the battle-map generation as you don’t have to spend a full round charging as before. You can useyour move and minor actions for something else. Feasibly under fouth edition, you could drink a potion, climb a wall and then charge a foe standing on the roof.

Coup de Grace

In third edition the coup degrace was brutal.  Take a full-round action to attack a helpless defender. You automatically hit and score a critical hit. The target must make a Fortitude saving throw at DC 10 + damage dealt or die instantly. Now, you could say “fair enough” – the coup de grace is designed to represent lying peacefully on the ground while a mad dwarf takes a lump hammer to your skull, it should be fatal. However, it can be annoying.

The combination of an attack that renders the foe helpless (even temporarily) followed by a coup de grace is a disturbing one in the hands of players. When a GM starts doing it, then mayhem can ensue. As a GM I can imagine plenty of monsters and NPCs that would want to make sure their foes aren’t going to get up again. To give them an opportunity to deliver a coup de grace and not take it would be playing them out of character. However, I don’t want to kill my PCs by virtue of random bad luck.

The 4e coup degrace is more to my liking. The target must still be helpless, and probably offers a -5 penalty to all defences because of it (therefore it is not as certain that your coup de grace will hit). A successful hit is still an automatic critical, but crits tend do less damage in fourthedition. There is no death saving throw, but if the attack deals half the characters hit points or more in one blow then the target dies. Still dangerous, but not quite as dangerous. Coup de Grace is a standard action.


As a move action you can crawl. In order to crawl you must be prone (dropping to the ground is a minor action). While crawling you move at half your speed, therefore crawling over difficult terrain means you move at a quarter your base speed. Crawl is still movement and provokes opportunity attacks like any other type of movement.


By far the most complicated rules in the whole game are thosefor what happens when you choose to delay your action in a combat round. I won’t repeat them here, as I’ll end up copying them all out verbatim. Bascially, if you delay you must delay your whole turn (and not just bits of it). Therefore effects that lasted until the “beginning” or the “end” of your next turn cease at your original initiative point. Equally, if you have a magical effect running that requires you to spend an action to sustain it, then delaying your action means that you delayed spending that action, so the effect ends.

Grab and Escape

These are the new grappling rules. The third edition grappling rules were infamous for their complexity – although unless you’ve played Rolemaster you have no concept of complex. Suffice to say the rules were a barrier to even attempting to grapple – certainly, you could master them, but any rules that the 3e Rules Compendium could only succeed in condensing to two pages needed to be looked at again. In fourth edition, grapple is divided into two actions: Grab and Escape.

Grabbingis a standard action. The target must be one size category larger than you or smaller (so no grabbing EarthTitans). You make a Strengthvs Reflex attack, and if you succeed then the target is Immobilised. Immobilised is a condition. It means that you cannot move from where you are, unless someone else forces you to, or you teleport. That one roll is all the grabber has to do. A grab can be maintained each round as a minor action. As long as the grabber doesn’t move away from the target, or is affected by a condition such as dazed, stunned, surprised or unconcscious) then he can continue to hang on. He can even spend his standard actions normally.

If you grab a target you can attempt to drag them off. This requires another attack from the attacker, this one is Strength vs Fortitude. If you succeed you can move half your speed and take your prisoner with you. If you fail, you don’t move. This is also a standard action, so you grab in round #1, and drag away the target in round #2.

Of course, the target is not still during all of this. He can attempt to Escape! Escape is a move action. This means that if your first escape attempt fails, you can convert your Standard action into another move action and try again. You can choose to make an Acrobatics check vs Reflex, or Athletics check vs Fortitude to escape. If you succeed then you are free, if you fail you are still immobilised.

Now, seasoned third edition players may think that there simply isn’t enough complexity to grapple. What actions can you perform while grabbed? Can you cast a spell? Can the grabber hit you with their great sword? Can the grabber further restrain his victim? Enquiring minds need to know!

As it is written, all the Grab rules do is stop your opponent from moving. It is the equivalent of holding onto someone’s t-shirt in the school playgroup. A grabbed opponent can use a move action to escape the grab, or he can stay where he is and usehis standard action to hit the grabber over the head withhis two-handed battle-axe. Actually he can do both. No actions are precluded if you are grabbed. You can still cast spells, shoot a ranged weapon or compose a sonnet. Grabbed characters can’t be overpowered, tied up or similarly restrained. The rules don’t work that way.

So is grab useless? No, not as long as you are using a tactical battle map. Because so much of the fourth edition came is dependent upon movement, stopping someone from moving (even for one round) can be tactically advantageous. It gives the rogue chance to move in and flank an opponent, or stops the grabbee from using his own funky move related power. However, this is of small comfort to those of us not using a battle grid, and not measuring everything in squares.

If you want a system that even vaguely simulates the real world then you need to have these options. If you don’t have them then D&D will run more like a computer game than a RPG. As in third edition, there are increasingly serious conditions relating to restraint. Here they are:

  • Immobilised:You cannot move from where you are standing. You can teleportor be forced to move by a push, pull or slide. Grabbed characters are immobilised.
  • Restrained: You are immobilised. Additionally, you grant combat advantage, you cannot be forced to move with a push, pull or slide and you take a -2 penalty to attack rolls.
  • Helpless:You grant combat advantage. You can be the target of a coup de grace.
  • Unconscious: You’re helpless. You take a -5 penalty to all defences, you can’t take any actions, you fall prone (if possible), you cannot flank an enemy (well, duh!).

Do we feel a houserule coming on here? Could we maintain the shadeof the old grappling rules in 4e. You already have to take a second standard action to move someone who is grabbed, what if you could also take a second standard to restrain someone? Another Strengthvs Reflex attack to impose the restrained condition. Now, restrained is a lot like Pinned was in third edition, but it’s not quite the same. You can still take actions, for example, and there’s nothing to say that you could then be further subdued. Would we look for a third roll to induce the helpless condition – but you can stil take actions if you are helpless in  fourth edition.

I’m not going to get into a house rules discussion here (maybe later!). I will add, that the trouble with altering grab as I have outlined above is that there are several powers that do properly restrain a target, or otherwise give the attacker the benefits of the old grapple/pin rules. These powers are Garrote Grip, Stab and Grab, Bigby’s Icy Grasp and Bigby’s Grasping Hands in PHB1, but you can imagine that will be more of them, particularly when rules for the monk class are published. Change the fundamental nature of grab, and you invalidate some of the utility of those powers.

As they stand the grab rules aren’t really fit for purpose. They are fine as a clever tactic in a wargame, but they do not accurately reflect how a grapple would work in real life. They are simpler to be sure, but in this case simpler is not better. We need to find a way to work around this problem.

Opportunity Attacks

Attacks of Opportunity are now Opportunity Attacks. The same mechanic but with 12% less syllables! Who said 4th edition doesn’t streamline the system? For those of you who have forgotten, never knew, or just weren’t interested… since third edition every character (be they PC, NPC or Monster) threatens an area around them. If foes take certain actions within that threat range then the character can have a free attack against them. There was a very long and complicated list of what provoked an attack of opportunity in third edition. In 4e, the list is shorter. This is what it says on page 290 of PHB1:

  • Mêlée Basic Attack: An opportunity attack is a mêlée basic attack.
  • Moving Provokes:If an enemy leaves a square adjacent to you, you can make an opportunity attack against that enemy. However, you can’t make one if the enemy shifts or teleports, or is forced to move away by a push, pull or slide.
  • Ranged and Area Powers Provoke: If an enemy adjacent to you uses a ranged power or an area power, you can make an opportunity attack against that enemy.
  • One per Combatant’s Turn: You can take only one opportunity action during another combatant’s turn, but you can take any number during a round.
  • Able to Attack: You can’t make an opportunity attack unless you are able to make a mêlée basic attack and you can see your enemy.
  • Interrupts Target’s Action: An opportunity action takes place before the target finishes its action. After the opportunity attack, the creature resumes its action. If the target is reduced to zero hit points or fewer by the opportunity attack, it can’t finish its action because it is dead or dying.
  • Threatening Reach: Some creatures have an ability called threatening reach. This lets them make opportunity attacks against nonadjacent enemies. If an enemy leaves a square that’s within the creature’s reach, or if an enemy anywhere within the creature’s reach makes a ranged attack, the creature can make an opportunity attack against the creature.

I hope you can all tell how hellish it will be to try and and adjudicate opportunity attacks in a freeformcombat system. Because there is no way to verify where everyone is standing, you just can’t tell if a foe is crossing, or standing within a character’s threat range. I have a proposed solution, it’s rather radical, and the subject of the next post on this blog.

However, before moving on, I’d like to point out how these rules have changed between editions. Moving out of an a threatened area provokes an attack as before, as does using a ranged weapon within the threat range. That hasn’t changed. However, spellcasting (or using powers) doesn’t necessarily provoke an attack. You only provoke one if it’s a ranged or an area power. If you are casting a spell on yourself, or if it affects a radius that is centred on you then you don’t provoke an attack of opportunity. There is no concentration skill in fourthedition, so there are no rules to see if your casting has been disrupted. Even if you choose to usea ranged weapon or cast a ranged spell, being hit by an opportunity attack doesn’t stop you following through with your action. The spell still goes off, the arrow is still shot – you just had to run the gauntlet to do it.

In short: attacks of opportunity are neither as versatile, nor as potent as they used to be. The only way they can prevent an action from taking place is if the opportunity attack reduces the target to zero hit points. I’ll leave the discussion there for now.

Ready an Action

When you ready an action you prepare to react to a creature or an event. “When that happens, I will do this!” You can choose to ready a standard, move or minor action. The readied action becomes an Immediate Reaction, but the actual act of readying an action takes up your standard action for the round. You don’t act in a round until the condtions of your readied action are met, so it’s likely your initiative will change, and the rules for Delaying an Action will come into play.


Ah the favoured tactic of all cowards and wizards. Run works very differently in fourth edition. If you run then you add +2 (+10 feet) to you Speed. Running still only occupies your move action for the round, but you move an extra ten feet. In exchange for this burst of speed, you grant combat advantage to your attackers, provoke opportunity attacks from anyone you pass and suffer a -5 penalty to attack rolls. Is it really worth it? 

You can also double move in a round – that is, you convert your standard action into a second move action. If you do this then you apply the +2 bonus from the Run manoeuvre twice. Feats can augment this. Fleet-Footed gives you +1 to Speed, Fast Runner gives +2 to Speed when you run or charge. These bonuses apply to both move actions. Example: a human normally moves 30 feet with a move action. The run manoeuvre adds 10 feet. The Fast Runner feat adds 10 feet. Fleet Footed adds 5 feet. If he double moves he could move 110 feet in one round, which is about 12½ miles per hour. That sounds about right.

Second Wind

The Second Wind action allows you to spend a healing surge during combat. All creatures have healing surges, but far fewer can actually use them in the heat of battle. All PCs can do this which gives them something of an advantage over the common man (or the common dragon). Using second wind is a standard action, but you can only use it once per encounter. As a side effect of restoring hit points, it all so makes you feel so good about yourself that you gain +2 to all your defences until the start of your next turn.


Shift is a form of movement that does not provoke an opportunity attack. You move 1 square (five feet) as a move action. It is primarily used for withdrawing from mêlée combat. You spend your move action to shift away form your foe and then use your standard action (or an action point) to turn around and run for the hills. You can’t shift if the movement requires a check of any kind (swimming or climbing, for example). You also can’t shift over difficult terrain.

Without a battle grid the importance of Shift is diminished. However, if I decide to keep the principle of attackers having a free attack on you if you flee from mêlée then Shift will still have its uses.


You attempt to move through a space smaller than you. There are rules stating how many squares a squeezing character of different sizes occupies. This is irrelevent if there’s no battle grid – the GM just adjudicates this on the fly. All we really need to know is that squeezing characters move at half speed, grant combat advantage to their attackers and take a -5 penalty to attack rolls. Squeezing is a move action.

Stand Up

No, this isn’t some sort of improvised comic routine. You need to spend a move action to get back on your feet if you are lying down, knocked prone or crawling somewhere. I can imagine that this will come up quite often, so it’s probably worth remembering.

Total Defence

As a standard action you can choose to go on a complete defensive. You gain +2 to all defences. You still have a move and minor action in the round to spend as you see fit.

Use a Power

Well, it goes without saying that you can use a power in round. I’ll just remind you that although most powers are Standard actions, some are Move actions and some are Minor actions. There’s nothing stopping you using three powers in one round if you happen to know one of each type.


Okay, this is getting silly now. Did the PHB really need an entry for Walk? Did this blog for that matter? Anyway, Walk is a move action – in fact, it’s the default move action. You move a number of squares equal to your speed during a walk action. Nothing special or fancy about it.

‘Missing’ Combat Actions

So what was in the third edition Player’s Handbook that is missing from the 4e list?

Disarm: In third edition disarm was an opposed attack roll than anyone could do, and those with the Improved Disarm feat could do better. In fourth edition, there is no mention of the mechanic except in the Exorcism of Steel power – and that is a 17th level Fighter Attack power. Why make it so hard and so specialised to disarm a foe. Can’t regular characters of the heroic tier even attempt it? Do we need a house rule for this?

Feint: It’s not in the combat section, but the rules for Feint can be found in the description of the Bluff skill (see PHB1 p183). It works in a similar fashion, but can only be used once per encounter. I’ll get to it a little later in these blog posts.

Mounted Combat: This is now covered in the DMG. Characters can take the Mounted Combat feat and gain access to their mount’s special abilities, as long as they make the prerequisites of the mount. For example, a hippogriff grants its rider a +1 bonus to all defences as long as that rider is friendly, 5th level or higher and has the Mounted Combat feat. This is how 4e attempts to balance mounted combat. There are no rules in the game for a paladin’s special mount at the moment – I think that is coming in the Martial Powersourcebook, due in October. I’ll touch on mounts more thoroughly in a later post.

Overrun: In third edition, this action allowed you to barge past opponents. They could choose to avoid you, if they didn’t then you knocked them prone – the Improved Overrun feat helped a lot. There’s no black and white mechanic for this in fourth edition, but it is not difficult to see how to implement. Overrun works like Bull Rush except that you’re not trying to knock an opponent over.

Sunder:This is the ability to target the weapon and not the opponent. The sunder action allowed characters to damage (and perhaps break) weapons. Again there was a feat called Improved Sunder that made you much better than this – third edition was nothing if not consistant. In fourth edition there is no sunder action per se. The DMG1 (p65) has rules for object hit point points and resistances. From there it’s possible to extrapolate how many hit points an orb, weapon or wand might have. But as to breaking that item while it is being wielded by someone else… that’s currently in the realm of house rules and very specific powers.

Trip: Oddly, the ability to push someone flat on their face is not covered in the combat section. Numerous powers knock an enemy prone, but there’s no specific rules for just anyone to put their foot out and give it a go. However, like overrun this could be easily adjudicated. Dexterity vs Reflex as a standard action, perhaps? Success results in the target falling prone. Not as powerful as powers that knock you prone, but good enough for something off the cuff?


Hit Points in fourth edition have taken on a more abstract form than ever before. Your hit point total does not soley represent your ability to take damage. In addition to sheer physical endurance they are your character’s luck, his morale, his skill and his ability to get out of the way in the nick of time.

A 1st level character and a 30thlevel character both take 20 points of damage from an attack. To the 1st level character, this represents pretty much all his hit points. He is badly wounded, and could be about to kark it. To the 30th level character, this is but a flesh wound. What’s the difference? Well, the 30th level character is no more able to take a sword to the gut than a 1st level character can. The difference is that the 30th level character has seen the blow coming, and rolled with its force; or the stroke has bounced off his epic level cigarillo case; or he has been shot so many times by a fireball that he knows just how to roll to avoid the worse of its effects.

The wounding and the healing system is built around the abstract nature of hit points. This is nothing new to D&D, but fourth edition takes it to new levels. So if you tied a character down so he can’t move at all, then you kill a 30th level character with one blow from a dagger? Potentially, yes – although the coup de grace rolls do not adequately represent that. Actually – I’m not sure that it should.

Your class, level and constitution score determines your maximum hit points. As you do not have to roll these any more, and as your Constitution modifier no longer plays a role in the calculation, there is no longer a great disparity between PCs of the same class. When you take damage it comes off your maximum hit point total, and your current hit points can never exceed the maximum.

When you have been reduced to half your hits points or lower, you are considered “bloodied“. This is a measure of how wounded, pooped and out of luck you are. It has no effect on your character in its own right, but certain conditions, events and powers come into play when you are bloodied. For example, when certain dragons are bloodied they get very cross, and lash out in the form of a free attack against everyone.

When you reach zero hit points (or lower) you fall unconscious and are dying. More on this later, but it’s not very pleasant and can be quite brutal.

Healing Surges

A healing surge equals one quarter of your maximum hit points (or one quarter plus your Con modifier if you’re a dragonborn). You have a finite number of healing surges that you can spend in one day – this is usually about 7 + your Con modifier, but is dependent on your character class. This is every character’s own personal pot of healing, so use it wisely!

During a combat encounter, you can spend a healing surge by using the Second Wind action (chronicled above). You can only use second wind once per encounter, so you can only spend one healing surge – regardless of the number you may have remaining. Second Wind exemplifies the abstract nature of hit points. A fighter that spends a healing surge, isn’t actually healing his wounds – he is shaking his head and regaining his composure, he is gritting his teeth against the pain, hefting his sword with one hand as his other keeps his colon in place. A healing surge is a player’s way of stating that his character isn’t as badly injured as it first appeared – that there’s still some fight in him yet.

I like healing surges – which is just as well, as I’m not sure fourth edition could function without them. They mean that you don’t necessarily need a magical healer like a cleric to keep the party going. There is magical healing, but this all relies on the healing surge mechanic. A power might allow you to spend a healing surge without using second wind, or it might restore hit point “as if you had spent a healing surge”.

Outside combat you can throw around as many healing surges as you like to restore you to full hit points. But be aware that you only have a finite number of healing surges to use. Because I know that I’m not going to be throwing the number of encounters per day at a party that the rules suggest, I might be tempted to reduce the number of healing surges available. But, it’s not something I’m going to introduce any time soon.

As a note, NPCs and Monsters tend to have one healing surge per tier. So Epic adversaries would only have three healing surges. For combat this is fine, as mostly such opponents are only there to be killed. But healing surges play a role in other rules as well – notably those for drowing and starvation. I think that to be fair, foes must have the same healing surges as PCs, even if they never use them.


Some powers or magical items give you the ability to regenerate a number of hit points each round. Regeneration happens at the “start of your turn” phase of your turn. You cannot regenerate hit points above your maximum level, and regeneration doesn’t work if you drop to zero hit points or lower. Importantly, regeneration doesn’t stack. So if you have regeneration from two different sources, you take the higher value –  you don’t add them together.

Temporary Hit Points

Some powers and abilities grant you temporary hit points. This is like having a second pool of hit points. They are not added to your maximum hit point total, but they exist as a separate entity. Any damage you take comes off the temporary hit points first, and when they are gone then they are gone. Like regeneration, temporary hit points do not stack with one another. Take the higher value if you are lucky enough to have them from more than one source.

Death and Dying

When you reach zero hit points you fall unconscious and you are dying. Any further damage continues to subtract from your hit points. So if you are taking ongoing fire damage, you continue to burn when you are unconscious. It is unclear whether you can make a saving throw to end ongoing effects when you are in this condition. That’s a piece of further research I need to do.

When you are dying to need to make a Death Saving Throw at the end of every round. This is a normal saving throw, so you are usually looking for a 10 or better. If you have any abilities that modify saving throws, then they also apply to your death saving throw. If you succeed then nothing bad happens to you. If you fail you are one step closer to death. Fail three times and your character dies. If you roll a natural 20 you automatically spend a healing surge and leap to your feet. See healing the dying below.

Your character dies if he fails three death saving throws, or he takes damage enough to reduce his hit points to minus half his hits (your bloodied value as a negative number). First level characters can still go from healthy to irrevocably dead in one blow in fourth edition, trust me: I’ve made it happen.

Monsters and NPCs usually die when they reach zero hit points. They don’t get to benefit from these rules. However, if it’s a significant NPCor villain, then the GM is well within his rights to rule that they stabilise from a wound.

Knocking Creatures Unconscious

Third edition had its subdual damage (later renamed non-lethal damage) to measure attempts to knock creatures unconscious. Fourth edition doesn’t have anything like it. In fourthedition, whenever you strike a blow that would reduce a foe to zero hit points or less you can choose to knock them unconscious instead. You can even decide after the damage is rolled. Unconscious characters wake up after five minutes with one hit point.

Now, this seems a little preposterous to me. You would think that this sort of thing would be difficult, or that it would at least have to be intentional. This doesn’t offend me so horribly, that I immediately want to change it, but I’ll certainly keep an eye on how this works in play.

Healing the Dying

If you are reduced to negative hit points, and you receive healing from any source (including your own healing surges) then you are considered to be on zero hit points for the purpose of regaining hps. For example, the fighter is down to -30 hit points; his healing surge value is 25; when he spends a healing surge he is actually on 25 hit points, and not -5 hit points.

As soon as you have positive hit points, you become conscious and are no longer dying. You are still prone and must spend a move action to stand up. If you are required to spend a healing surge while dying and you haven’t got a healing surge remaining, then you are restored to 1 hit point.

If you die then some powers and the Raise Dead  ritual can be used to bring you back to life. Resurrection and raise dead do not cause you to lose Constitution or experience points in fourth edition. But getting resurrected might be slightly trickier.


Well, that was a mammoth chapter. This blog is as much about me learning the rules as it is providing information and opinion to the readers, I think. Anyway – next time, we are going to take a break from the PHB and look at some new house rules. We will consider a world without Opportunity Attacks.


3 thoughts on “Player’s Handbook 1 (Chapter Nine)

  1. Hi!

    i have been enjoying your reviews, and this one is no change :) I really liked the section on ‘Missing’ Combat Actions. I had not thought about some of them before! And I am looking forward to seeing where you go with your house rules.

    I did notice a few points needing a little clarification ;)

    Critical Hits happen on natural 20’s, but only if the roll would also hit the creature. If it wouldn’t (say, you rolled 20+7 vs AC 28) then it is an automatic hit, but not a critical.

    You regain action points after an extended rest, not a short rest (but you also gain an additional one for every “milestone” completed – that is, every two encounters).


  2. Hi there! I thought I mentioned about natural 20s not being critical hits if you actually needed a 20 to hit. But to be honest – this post is so long that I have missed it. I’ll go back and check.

    As for regaining Action Points: yes, you’re completely right. This came up in a 4e game I played yesterday evening, when everyone pointed out how wrong I was. Action Points only return after an extended rest. I’ll go and change that now.

    I’ll get onto milestones when I get around to looking at chapter eight. Thanks for reading, and please feel free to keep pointing out my errors!


  3. Hi Neil,

    Yeah, you sorta covered it when talking about 18-20 ‘critical’ ranges, but missed it in the straight 20 section :) Not to worry, for a post that size, you did very well!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s