As 4e D&D has matured, the sheer number of powers to choose from has grown significantly. At its inception, a character made from the Player’s Handbook would choose two or three at-will powers from a total of four listed, one encounter power from four listed and one daily power form four listed. The occasional utility power sometimes provided three or four choices for a character, which served primarily to enhance either their primary role or their secondary role in the party.
With the advent of non-AEDU (at-will, encounter, daily, utility) character classes, such as the psionic classes, as well as the Essentials classes, the one aspect of the power selection that was not changed was the choice of utility powers at level 2, 6, and so on. The introduction of skill powers in the Player’s Handbook 3 began to finally expand the utility power into more than simply a way to enhance your existing class features and powers. In the last year and a half of development, 4e has introduced themes for heroic tier character characters, as well as several articles on the subject of new racial utility powers. Utility powers have shifted away from their original role in a character, and have taken on a new importance as the new true form of character customization.
Aside from power and feat selection, there are five major choices in a character’s playlife. The first three come at character generation, in the form of race, class, and theme, with the other two being paragon path and epic destiny. Counting the subclasses as separate choices, both theme and race serve to form a solid part of the character out of the gate. While there are mechanical benefits associated with both of these choices, they are ultimately less important compared to the mechanical aspect of class. It is in the way that they define the character for purposes of role-playing and story interaction that the choice of race and theme become the strongest.
Utility powers come at points in a character’s development where they can greatly impact a character’s role in and out of combat. At level 2, a utility power is the first time that a character has an opportunity to choose a non-combat related power, or a power that reinforces a secondary combat role. At level 6, the character has reached the middle of the heroic tier, and the second utility power can be used to further enforce their choice of role or secondary role. At level 10, their option of utility power serves as the capstone of their heroic tier, combining with a feat and theme feature to present the picture of a hero on the verge of paragon. The next choice of utility powers comes at level 16, when the character enters into the drive to the end of paragon tier, and the last is chosen at level 22, at the start of a character’s epic career. Each of these levels can be pivotal moments in a character’s development, and in many ways, the choice of a utility power can reflect that.
Finally, it is in the utility powers that characters are given the greatest choice of options. Many class-based utility powers either emphasize their role or their secondary role in combat. However, there are also many that grant useful applications out of combat. Rogues gain mobility, Wizards can manipulate the masses with magic, and Fighters can get advantages to using brute force. With the introduction of theme and racial utility powers, powers can be chosen which move the character more in line with the iconic depiction of either their character’s race or their character’s heroic tier story. Finally, there are the options for skill powers, which can be selected with both the utility slot of the appropriate level, or a feat. This provides most characters with a choice of at least three, and in many cases four, pools of customization. By not being limited to simply in-class, in-combat options, the utility power can be used to provide the character with new options that might otherwise be denied to them.
From personal experience, I have found that it is often the utility powers that intrigue me the most about a class. While most of the other powers provided by a class follow a fairly strict formula for the level of its power, a utility power can run the gamut in action types, as well as the usage. Some utility powers can change the battlefield dramatically, while others give you options of varying power outside of combat. Many assist in skill challenge, an aspect to 4e that does not receive enough attention or support. As opposed to the attack powers, there is no significant power creep per level in utility powers, and a character will have the utility powers they select potentially their entire career. Most importantly, not every utility power is useful in every game, and since they do not have to directly contribute to the equation of tactical combat, this is good. As 4e continues to mature, and more options in the terms of theme, race, and paragon paths are brought to the table, it will remain the utility powers that truly separate characters from each other.