Power Sources in 5e

It’s strange running 4e and 5e campaigns at the same time. On the one hand, you can appreciate how elegant and streamlined 5e can be. On the other hand, you realise there is a lot of stuff – and I mean, a lot – that 4e does well. Stuff that adds to the game without adding to the complexity. Stuff that gets me thinking: could this be brought across?

One idea that I liked was each class having a power source. Fighters were different from Paladins because the former were martial and the latter, divine. It was a clear framework on how the characters tap into their powers. Martial characters train their bodies to superhuman levels. Divine characters invoke the powers of the gods. Psionic characters harness the power of the mind. And so forth. Compare that to 5e. How do characters tap into their powers? “Magic”.

I like having a framework. Magic is such a nebulous concept that rules and restrictions help. It explains why “magic” isn’t used to solve every problem or explain every phenomenon. And the more tight the framework, the more impressive it is when someone becomes powerful within it. Dumbledore is less impressive when you realise he can make up the rules as he goes.

Now, this power source concept is not perfect. The biggest issue with 4e’s take on it was that the power sources were meaningless labels. There was no real distinction between the primal and the martial, apart from flavour. All classes were built the same. The psionic power source changed the way those classes worked, and I suppose divine characters could Channel Divinity. But in general, the power source was almost irrelevant.

Making Power Sources Cool and Interesting

Does 5e need power sources? I suppose not. There’s nothing wrong with the game that power sources will fix. But can they add something? I’d say so.

Think about a Fighter or a Rogue. They make different characters, sure, but they have things in common. The classic Rogue is sneaky while the classic Fighter is a tank, for example. What do they have in common? They became good at what they do by training, as any soldier or athlete trains today. The classic Rogue probably grew up on the rough streets while the classic Fighter could be an ex-soldier. The details of their training would have differed. But it would have involved a lot of practice, a lot of earning bruises for their mistakes, a lot of pushing through the pain and exhaustion to do what needs to be done.

Compare that to a Paladin. Did the Paladin also train this way? Probably. But they would have learned to use their powers through other lessons, as well. They would have prayed. They would have studied. They would have performed boring, pointless ceremonies and rituals. They would have had epiphanies about the beauty and interconnectedness of all things. Again, I’m thinking about the classic Paladin here. The point is, what they (and Clerics) had to do to tap into their power is different from Fighters and Rogues.

So, what? They went to different schools – what does this mean for the characters? Well, it means they’ll have different skills, experiences and beliefs. All Fighters will have common experiences that no Paladin can understand, and vice versa. All because of the nature of magic and how they access it.

5e Power Sources

I’m going to define four power sources and what they mean. You might agree or not, it’s fine. In fact, I’m not convinced this is all accurate. This is to get me thinking and I encourage you to do the exercise as well. In my mind, the power sources are:

Martial. The character trained their body to its limit, then beyond it. Their muscles are strong, their bones are tough and their mind is disciplined. They are elite athletes and skilled warriors, on the road to the pinnacle of physical achievement. [Fighter; Rogue; Barbarian; Monk; Ranger]

Divine. The character has a connection to the realm of the gods. This connection goes beyond merely spiritual – magic flows from the heavens through their bodies. They are servants of greater entities, tools of beings so powerful as to be alien, and it takes both strength and humility to follow such a path. [Cleric; Paladin]

Primal. The character understands the ambient magic in nature. From the forests to the seas, from wild animals to the inner animals within, magic never stops flowing. They borrow from this stream of power. Never disrupting it, always protecting it, and never forgetting how fragile the balance between all living things is. [Barbarian; Bard; Druid; Ranger]

Arcane. The character researched the laws of reality. In doing so they unmasked a fraction of the universe’s power. Reality floats upon a pool of magic – unseen, ever-present, bound by mysterious yet ironclad rules. Each scrap of knowledge unveils the truth, and with the truth comes understanding on how to use these rules to suit their purposes. [Wizard; Sorcerer; Warlock]

You might object to some of these. By these definitions, shouldn’t a Warlock be divine? (It doesn’t feel right to me.)Why is a Bard primal? (If primal magic includes the inner mind, that’s where Bard’s do their best work.) Shouldn’t Paladins be martial? (Probably.) What, no psionics? (I kinda stuck in it with the power primal source. I assume there will be a 5e psionics source book in the future, so having it as its own category feels like jumping the gun.)

I won’t defend my choices here. And I won’t challenge yours. Do whatever feels right for you. For example, I gave some classes multiple power sources. If that (or anything else here) offends you, I understand, and look forward to seeing how you classify everything.

So What?

At this stage I’ve added an arbitrary (and controversial) label to each class that does nothing. So. Let’s make it do something. You know how 5e has backgrounds the let the character do roleplay stuff? Like a sailor can request a boat ride (terms and conditions apply) and a sage can look up stuff (terms and conditions apply) and so forth. Well, let’s look into that. What would these power sources give you? Here are some random ideas:

  • Players love to come up with crazy schemes – at least, the good ones do. Sometimes these schemes require the characters to anticipate each other (eg “I signal to Gar’g that when the left-handed, red-headed barbarian steps halfway onto the grey-ish-green-ish rock, I will push him into Gar’g for him to grapple.”) If you call for a check to see if Gar’g understood any of that, characters with the same power source (and hence similar worldviews, training styles, etc) will have advantage.
  • Specific items. Examples:
    • Helmet of Discipline [Martial]
    • Bracelet of the Martyr [Divine]
    • Cloak of the Librarian [Arcane]
    • Belt of Storms [Primal]
  • House rule: multiclassing into a different power source is more difficult than within the same power source. A Fighter might not know how to do a Rogue’s sneak attack, but at least they can understand the principle. Whereas a Fighter/Cleric is going to have to learn a whole new way of thinking and fighting. The character might need a mentor to teach them.

Some simple ideas but they don’t change the game much. So how about we add some abilities to each power source? Limit these however you see fit – costing Inspiration could work, or you get one use per character level per long rest. Or something. I haven’t playtested these ideas:

Unwavering Discipline [Pre-requisite: Any Martial Class]

Your superior training allows you to keep a cool head in tough situations. People gravitate to your aura of leadership.

  • As a bonus action, you shout a command to your allies. Allies within 20 ft [40 ft for Martial allies] that can hear/understand you can immediately move 5 ft towards you. This movement does not provoke opportunity attacks.
  • For the next minute, you gain advantage on all Charisma-based checks against people that are panicked, confused, frightened or uncertain.

Unwavering Faith [Pre-requisite: Any Divine Class]

Your insight into the bigger picture allows you to see past the disaster before you – even your death is insignificant in the Grand Plan. People appreciate your serenity and clarity.

  • As a bonus action, move 10 ft towards an enemy of your choosing. Divine allies within 30 ft can immediately move 5 ft towards that same enemy. These movements do not provoke opportunity attacks.
  • For the next minute, you have advantage on all Charisma-based checks against people feeling intense hope or despair.

Unwavering Eye [Pre-requisite: Any Primal Class]

You can see the patterns in nature and people. You see the safety in the seemingly dangerous, and the animal in the seemingly civilised.

  • As a bonus action, you can ignore difficult terrain until the start of your next turn.
  • For the next minute, you have advantage on all Charisma-based checks involving people’s hidden fears and desires.

Unwavering Intellect [Pre-requisite: Any Arcane Class]

You can summon mountains of knowledge in an instant. You know how to use this knowledge to confound and distract your rivals on and off the battlefield.

  • When you are attacked, you can use your reaction to move 10 ft away from the attacker. This movement does not provoke opportunity attacks.
  • For the next minute, you have advantage on all Charisma-based checks against people that lack an education in magic.

Do these abilities make sense? Maybe, maybe not. But I like this idea of a character’s power source directly providing them with abilities they share with other classes. And I like spells that provide a bit of extra movement – in small doses, it opens up the battlefield. And I like the idea of a Wizard technobabbling their enemies into confusion.

I’m not sure if any of this works. But something like this – common frames between Rangers and Fighters; Barbarians and Druids; Sorcerers and Wizards; and Paladins and Clerics – would add a lot to the game. It would provide a glimpse into the inner workings of magic. A glimpse that binds your characters to each other and the world.


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