4e: Alternate Rewards

If you’re one of the many people who these days primarily interact with 4th edition D&D not through a set of physical books or even legally-acquired and properly indexed PDFs but rather through some kind of searchable javascript database, then you may have had some reason to stumble into browsing the items category. This category, typically, is arranged by alphabetical order, with the subcategories also in alphabetical order, meaning that while you may have popped it open expecting to browse Ankheg Armour and Armbands of Apparel, you instead get smacked first and foremost in the face with the category of Alternate Reward, shriven of any and all context describing what they are or how they work. You may even have read some of them and found yourself reacting to something like ‘oh this is cool, I would want that,’ then ‘how much is it, can I afford it in my character’s budget?’ and then a sudden sharp shock.

Because alternate rewards are really cheap, don’t take an item slot, and in some cases, offer nearly unique powers at bargain basement prices. Some that don’t offer unique powers just offer powers that normally only show up on items that have some other expensive purpose, like armour or weapons, and so you want to level them up anyway, meaning the effect never gets to be ‘really’ cheap.

But some of these things are so good for such a tiny amount of money spent, like:

  • Ioun’s Revelation is 680 gp for an item that just gives you a +2 item bonus to all skills. All of them.  That frees up any other items you may have wanted for a skill bonus.
  • Pelor’s Sun’s Blessing, famously strong boon for the Radiant Mafia coalition, gives you bonus damage equal to your constitution or wisdom when you attack radiant-vulnerable foes, which is to say all of them.
  • Corellon’s Boon of Arcane Might. This as its property, its property, adds an arcane at-will power to your repertoire as an encounter power. For the low low price of 680 gp, which is to say, meaninglessly small amounts to a early Paragon adventurer, you can have, say, Queen’s Clemency, a minor action any-target teleport 1 that the Bard gets at level 22. Or Dominant Winds, which gives you or an ally movement up to your dex mod as a flight speed.

And those might seem to you to be kinda unimportant things, and I would agree, but at a price point of 680 gp, the question becomes why doesn’t everyone have this. This is one of the problems of the Magic Economy in D&D, and 4e has it as a problem all the stronger because it tries to treat things as a coherent world that functions properly, where thing A is thing A even if it’s being held by two different people. The problem that follows from that is that something granting you (say) one free square of movement at level 1 is still granting 1 free square of movement at level 30, and a square is still a square. Rewards, because they so often stack, are still great, and items that don’t occupy slots tend to be even better. Space is the real premium. As long as you keep your armour and attacking items as top-notch as possible, the person with more toys and more tools is going to be able to do more stuff in less time and that’s just a way to make a character stronger.

Now I don’t want to sell this too hard. See, one of the things a lot of these Alternate Rewards offer is a Daily Power, and Daily Item powers aren’t free. You can only use so many Daily Powers in a day – one per tier per Milestone, which is a good bit of design that stops you from carrying multiples of a magic item with a daily power so you can just fire them off then huck them over your shoulder like you’re speed-solving Rubik’s Cubes that can also blow people’s heads up. That means that the flexibility offered by having these cheap low-level Daily powers is pretty meh, since odds are good that your highest level item has the best Daily Item Power you want to have access to.

On the other hand I don’t like Daily Item Powers, because I hate feeling like I’ve wasted them by not using them at the right time. I build for passives and encounter powers.

So okay, Alternate Rewards.

They’re kind of a problem.

But what are they? What’s with this category of slotless items that give you some shockingly cute abilities, for seemingly no meaningful reason? The thing is, they’re there to be exactly what they’re called: Alternate Rewards. They appear not in the item books like Mordenkainen’s Big Naturals, but rather in modules, where you could run players through it, and they could fight through standard content and get cool stuff for it, and at the end, rather than necessarily being handed goodies, they could be given blessings or special abilities from divine forces or amazing and important grandmasters of a technique teaching them how to do something cool, and because these cool abilities are meant to represent part of the character’s budget they have prices. That’s a cool use of the money system.

It’s also implied but never-really-hard-defined-how-and-why that these boons should fade in time. Y’know, like how over time you’ll replace a sword you got. Except that’s weird too, because these alternate rewards represent learning experiences and a relationship with a divine entity. What does that mean then? Your character just gets to a certain point and the Raven Queen asks well what have you done for me lately?

But they uh, they sit in the database like stuff you can buy.

Personally, I don’t think that these are bad items. Honestly, I think having them available to muck around with is really cool, and even trying to push the odd ones like Corellon’s Boon and Pelor’s Boon just makes things that are already good or interesting more flexible.  The problem is more about their cheapness and how that results in them being functionally omnipresent.

This isn’t limited to just Alternate Rewards, mind you. Dice of Auspicious Fortune are probably one of the best wondrous items in the game just because they occupy no slots and their use is on-demand and no-action. Any given character who can afford them is going to wind up using them, and it is more of a question of when than if. Personally, I feel that if you’re going to have anything in the game that becomes mandatory like this, it needs to either be folded into how the game works or it needs to go, just because having a choice that’s not a choice creates a power gap between people who do or don’t know, and it makes things in a big top-down view more boring. Much in the same way that 100% of teams running a Snorlax or every deck running a Sol Ring makes a game that promises creative expression, the presence of choices where the only thing asked is ‘why don’t you have this yet’ represent not a failing of players but a failing of the design.