Year of 4E: Power Sources

Today I want to talk about something that is both pretty significant and fairly unimportant: power sources. This sounds odd but, to be honest, these were more descriptive than anything and were not mechanically grounded. Not really anyways. Nevertheless the inclusion of these did a lot for my mind and for the intention of the design track of 4th Edition.


Sources of Magic

Yeah, yeah this isn’t 100% accurate but that is what the power sources were at their core. As I may have mentioned by now each class was given a specific roll and the power source which helped define it. Wizards and warlocks were arcane while paladins and clerics were divine and rogues and fighters were martial. That is almost all they did, describe the types of abilities you used, but it was important in defining the type of character you had. It allowed for creations like warlord when combined with the roles of 4E. You could have a leader (aka healer) that wasn’t casting spells but was, instead, a martial combatant.

Wizard from the 4th Edition Player’s Handbook

In many ways this began simply with the first PHB including martial, arcane, and divine classes. Purposefully left out were some of the core materials of previous editions. Monk was left out, but so were druid and barbarian! The idea was that they would include new power sources in the future, opening and expanding the game with each new manual. This was wonderful in the options it prompted with one class for each power source and role combination.

However, even WotC wasn’t really sure where they were going by the time the initial books were released. In the first PHB there is a sidebar that talks about the power sources within it and also begins to describe future ones. This includes the primal sources of the barbarian and druid as well as shadow, ki, psionic, and elemental. For anyone familiar with 4E, you know that’s not really what happened. They eventually trimmed this down into primal and psionic for the second PHB, though shadow was kind of a side source that came up later.

I think they started to pick up on the problem of introducing so many categories to describe things.


The Problem With Categories

So in 3rd Edition options were something that quickly became a problem, though to be fair Pathfinder embraced the idea and has run full steam ahead with it with tremendous success. But there were just so many. 4E did not do that much better in solving this problem. Sure it limited what you had and introduced rules for manipulating your choices after you learn you dislike them or they don’t work in your group. Still, endless power choices combined with build choices and paragon paths made for a LOT of options even within a single class. And, while incredible for the time, having healers and tanks and more for every power source just made options even more chaotic. Do you make a bard or a warlord or a cleric to heal??? Once you pick that what kind? What powers??? Thing could spiral into indecision quickly without much effort.

Psion from the 4th Edition Player’s Handbook 3

On top of this problem was the lack of mechanical significance. Psionics utilized arcana as a skill (if I remember correctly) even though other sources had their own skills like nature and religion. Of course martial was a bit messed up including physical skills but nothing ritualistic until well into the game’s development. In fact rituals were skill-linked and not class or power source linked, meaning that power source was basically irrelevant to a whole new aspect to powers (we will talk about rituals again). It was an odd choice, but given the development track makes sense.

So, I get why the power sources were removed. But I think they still have a place, just not in a place that implies mechanical importance but has none.

The Use of Power Sources

I still rather like the concept for a lot of reasons. The aid in defining what you do, or at least how you do it, is very nice for figuring out your character and how to play them. Roleplaying can benefit a lot from this simple lore tidbit. It allows you to differentiate one caster from another, among other things. Sources of power help define how you fit into a big high fantasy universe. The only problem was how they were used (or weren’t).

Druid from the 4th Edition Player’s Handbook

For me, skills would have been a much better place to start. This creates a problem for the martial power source, but it doesn’t have to be. In my opinion martial is the exception to the rule. Those who do not utilize “magical” powers are martial in origin, utilizing skill and training to do whatever they do. Even monks and psions, who do this, do it at a level that unlocks a different level and type of ability that transcends skill and practice. Their moves come from a much different place than a fighter’s, even if using the same weapon to fight.

Most importantly the concept failed its potential in the realm of rituals. I loved the idea of rituals, especially making up for the lesser amount of spells that classes got. The important thing was to define them by power source and then associate them with a skill to go along with it. This helps define the world. What spells are linked to what classes are linked to what power sources are linked to what rituals. I understand unlinking class because a favored soul sorcerer is divinity in a classically arcane class. Linking spell, source, and ritual allows you to take something like the divine sorcerer and apply clerical things to it. We even see some of this peeking into 5E.


Power Sources Today

This is a little complicated. We see very little evidence that it matters in 5E. Skills like nature, religion, and arcana still exist but they don’t much matter for anything related to spells or rituals. The concepts are inherent to the flavors of the classes but are not a “thing”. The closest we get is something like the divine sorcerer I mentioned which has the right flavor and access to the cleric spell list.

As I work on my home brewed setting I have things to consider related to this. Rituals are a little too engrained into class spell lists for my liking, but I also wonder about where psionics are going moving forward. Even more I would love to see a set of spell lists that are power source specific with classes having expanded spell access. Perhaps then we could see subclasses like the divine sorcerer more. Of course the simple solution is using cleric, sorcerer, and druid as the baselines for these power sources.


All this being said, power sources are an important descriptive factor in fantasy settings. They pull a lot of weight but also aren’t as intrinsic as they seem sometimes. What do you think of power sources? Should there be more or less? Should they have mechanical sway? Let me know what you think!

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