How do you rule powers when they don't make sense?

457 posts / 0 new
Last post

This is question for dms running 4E games. How do you rule powers when they don't make sense?


I've noticed a lot of situations in 4E play where a player wants to use a power, but the way the power is described doesn't make any in game sense that it would actually work in the situation the player is trying to use the power in.


Here's a classic example: The fighter "come and get it" power lets the fighter pull nearby enemies to him, so that he can take a big sweeping swing that will hit them all. It's a cool power, and makes a lot of sense in many situations (like when he's in a fight with a bunch of savage orcs), but what about when he manages to get near an enemy wizard with a very high intelligence who is smart enough to know that he doesn't want to be anywhere near a fighter? Why would an enemy like that suddenly run up to the fighter so that the guy can take a swing at him?


Another Example: There's a couple of rogue powers that let a rogue temporarily blind a foe by apparently slashing the foe and thus causing blood to get in his enemy's eyes. Well what happens when the rogue tries to use such a power on a creature like an air elemental that has no eyes and doesn't bleed?


It seems to me like the dm has two options. Either he nerfs the power and says that the power doesn't work in that situation (or more fairly says that it can't be used ahead before hand so that the player can go with something different) or he lets it work but has to try to come up with some ridiculous justification for why it would have functioned under such circumstances.


So far I've done a bit of both of these. I'll try to justify a power most of the time, attempting to come up with (often with the players help) some reason why it would work, but there have been times where it just seemed too ridiculous and I've told the player that this power just can't work in the given situation. The players have generally accepted such decisions, but usually there is some grumbling.


I find that there is definitely a sense of entitlement among many players that powers should work no matter what as long as the player succeeds with whatever attack roll is needed.


I'm interested to know how other dms have dealt with such situations and how players feel about a dm reserving the right to nerf there powers if he thinks it doesn't make sense in a given situation.

4e is gamist.  That means, there are things that may not logically make sense.  But you ignore that. 

The fighter power would work on an intelligent wizard the same as it works on unintelligent zombies.

Powers should indeed work no matter what in combat as that was how the game was designed. 
To see my campaign world visit http://dnd.chrisnye.net My music -> www.myspace.com/Incarna My music videos -> www.youtube.com/Auticusx
I have never ruled that a power doesn't work.  They *should* work as listed, because that's part of the balance of the system.  That's not 'entitlement' (I'm getting really sick of hearing that word), it's just fair.

In the first case, the fighter has obviously said something that has overridden the target's common sense, or alternately, it would be easy to fluff things so that the fighter rushed him instead of vice-versa; relatively, the positioning is the same.  In the second, while air elementals may not have 'eyes', the obviously must have some sensory organs in specific places, because they have neither blindsight nor any immunity to being flanked (all-around vision); a slash to, or near, those would make it close them in self-protection.
Another day, another three or four entries to my Ignore List.
The powers do what they say they do. The flavor text is irrelevant.
If a power doesn't seem to make sense, I find a way to make it make sense.

I don't think that your players wanting their powers to work is a bad thing.  If you succeed on your roll and your opponent does not have a mechanical immunity, yeah, it should work.  If the fluff needs to be changed a bit, that's fine.  Mechanics and fluff are easily separated, and fluff can then be changed to fit what you want.  An Air Elemental doesn't have "eyes" or "blood" but he can be hit by a weapon and his sight temporarily taken out somehow.  Maybe the rogue tosses a handful of sand(that he keeps in a pocket for just such an occasion) and it swirls in the elemental's eyes, tainting the air for a few seconds and making it hard to see.

If you really can't get over the idea that it shouldn't work, don't nerf the players, buff the monsters.  Change your elemental to be immune to blind, or maybe he gets a free saving throw, even if the effect cannot normally be ended by a save.  
Seriously, though, you should check out the PbP Haven. You might also like Real Adventures, IF you're cool.
Knights of W.T.F.- Silver Spur Winner
4enclave, a place where 4e fans can talk 4e in peace.
Yeah, that's about what I thought people would more or less. say Unfortunately, that stuff really grates and me, so I'm thinking it's probably time for me to find a new game.
If you tend to describe the action as it happens in combat, there are many different options for describing the action. It helps also to have your player try to describe the action as well. Together, you can describe how the power works in that particular situation.

A blow to the face doesn't have to have blood to be blinding. The Elemental could be disoriented, or confused. Either one could be mechanically represented by the blinded condition.

The fighter could be using a footwork lure, a feint, or some sort of threat to draw a target closer. It doesn't have to be Scorpion's "Get over here!" hookshot. Or maybe it is, if they are using a chain, or some polearm.
In my own games, a character's powers do always work as expected, if only because that's what a power is in my games. A character can attempt whatever manuvers they wish (throwing dust in people's eyes to cause blindness, attempting to disorient an enemy with a pommel-strike, channeling magic to create rain to turn the ground to mud, etc.) but if it's not a listed power on your sheet, it's subject to a greater-than-usual amount of DM fiat. It may or may not work, depending on circumstances, the type of enemy involved etc.

When a player uses a power though, I explain it by starting at the result and explaining it from there. For Come and Get It, perhaps the fighter used clever footwork to fake left when he intended to step right, to fool the wizard into going exactly where he wanted. Maybe he aimed what looked like a vicious charge right toward that wizard, making him frantically dodge right into his trap. Maybe he guarded in such a way that the wizard felt that he had to step closer in order to sneak an attack past his defenses, but ended up being just inside the arc of his sword. Whatever works, is the point.

As for the Rogue, maybe upon fighting that air elemental, he whips his cloak around as he attacks, disrupting the air streams that allows the creature to see. Maybe his quick knife-work confuses the beast, making it unable to accurately follow your movements as he darts around him, harassing and distracting him and generally granting the effects of the blinded condition. Or heck, maybe the air elemental has some kind of gaseous component that functions as a sense organ, which the rogue stabs, injuring it untill it reconstitutes. Again, whatever works.

Basically, unless the creature says that it's immune to a particular condition (some creatures really ARE immune to being blinded, for instance) I find that it's usually best to let it stand.
Politeness costs me nothing. Every human being is entitled to basic courtesy simply by virtue of being human. This is my promise: I will always treat you with courtesy and respect, even if I disagree with or am annoyed by you. If I do offend you, it will be entirely accidental, and I apologize for the incident. Again: Politeness costs me nothing.
Woe, hold on a minute. Just because there are a few instances where a power makes little since as written isn't a reason to stop playing the game. I recommend just allowing it to take place for the betterment of the story as well as to let the players have fun pulling off their cool abilities. It is just a game after all. With that said, if you still wish to stop playing the game, then by all means that is your descision. I think it would be a poor choice to do so though.
Here's a classic example: The fighter "come and get it" power lets the fighter pull nearby enemies to him, so that he can take a big sweeping swing that will hit them all. It's a cool power, and makes a lot of sense in many situations (like when he's in a fight with a bunch of savage orcs), but what about when he manages to get near an enemy wizard with a very high intelligence who is smart enough to know that he doesn't want to be anywhere near a fighter? Why would an enemy like that suddenly run up to the fighter so that the guy can take a swing at him?

Position is not static.  The fighter smacks everyone else then grabs him, or feigns a stumble, or smacks a friend into him.

By the way Int doesn't oppose bluff.  Wisdom does.
Another Example: There's a couple of rogue powers that let a rogue temporarily blind a foe by apparently slashing the foe and thus causing blood to get in his enemy's eyes. Well what happens when the rogue tries to use such a power on a creature like an air elemental that has no eyes and doesn't bleed


Replace "eyes" with approprate sensory organ.  Replace "blood" with sand, ichor, magic, or any other annoying thing.
I find that there is definitely a sense of entitlement among many players that powers should work no matter what as long as the player succeeds with whatever attack roll is needed.

I'm interested to know how other dms have dealt with such situations and how players feel about a dm reserving the right to nerf there powers if he thinks it doesn't make sense in a given situation


As a DM I consider the inability to describe a power in a way that makes sense a failure on the Dms part, and thus I don't punish players for it.
Well... At least we got custom avatars....
  It's all in the description you give as a DM.  Realism takes the passenger seat in a game where Giant Lizards fly and spew fire and pointed ear bookworms shoot lightning from their fingertips.  I've taken to reading more the effects of the power rather then the actual fluff.  As a DM you can describe the fluff to fit the situation.

I do agree with EvilleKnight this really isn't a strong reason to leave the game when you are free to describe the power and effect the way you want.
I am Red/Green
I am Red/Green
Take The Magic Dual Colour Test - Beta today!
Created with Rum and Monkey's Personality Test Generator.
I'm both instinctive and emotional. I value my own instincts and desires, and either ignore or crush anything that stands in my way; planning and foresight are unnecessary. At best, I'm determined and fierce; at worst, I'm headstrong and infantile.
Pushing for a Viashino Planeswalker and Ugin!
Here's the thing you have to remember.

Even though you're talking about "martial exploits", you have to remember that these powers are still SUPERNATURAL in nature. Characters are larger than life at Level 1, and it only increases from there. While attacks may look mundane, they most certainly are not.
AlexandraErin: If last season was any indication, I think Encounters is pretty much the elemental opposite of "organized" play!
Yeah, that's about what I thought people would more or less. say Unfortunately, that stuff really grates and me, so I'm thinking it's probably time for me to find a new game.


Yeah, that's about what I thought you would more or less say.  Unfortunately, that stuff really grates on me, so I'm thinking it's probably time for you to find a new game.

It's a game of imagination.  It doesn't take much to change the fluff to fit the situation and on the rare occasion it doesn't work move past it.
People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. --George Orwell There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people. --Howard Zinn He who fights with monsters must take care lest he thereby become a monster. --Friedrich Nietzsche Devil\'s Brigade

To the OPer, I understand your concerns and those things bother me to.  I really like most of 4e and in my almost year of playing 4e (so far) those kinds of things didn't come up much.  One reason for that is that no one played martial characters much.

I also like things to make sense and I don't like having supernatural martial characters (at least at 1st level).  Not that there is anything wrong with those things, it's just not my style.  I approach RPGs story first so I am willing to skew balance some so that things will make sense (to me and my group).


Given all that my group has recently voted to switch to 3.5 (my vote was to stay with 4e despite it's faults).

 Any Edition

Yeah, that's about what I thought people would more or less. say Unfortunately, that stuff really grates and me, so I'm thinking it's probably time for me to find a new game.


Yeah, that's about what I thought you would more or less say.  Unfortunately, that stuff really grates on me, so I'm thinking it's probably time for you to find a new game.

It's a game of imagination.  It doesn't take much to change the fluff to fit the situation and on the rare occasion it doesn't work move past it.



That's a little harsh.  The bottom line is, some people prefer their games to be more simulationist, and some don't.  If he prefers games that more closely mirror the 'real world', then D&D is most definitely not the game for him.
Another day, another three or four entries to my Ignore List.
Yeah, that's about what I thought people would more or less. say Unfortunately, that stuff really grates and me, so I'm thinking it's probably time for me to find a new game.


Yeah, that's about what I thought you would more or less say.  Unfortunately, that stuff really grates on me, so I'm thinking it's probably time for you to find a new game.

It's a game of imagination.  It doesn't take much to change the fluff to fit the situation and on the rare occasion it doesn't work move past it.



That's a little harsh.  The bottom line is, some people prefer their games to be more simulationist, and some don't.  If he prefers games that more closely mirror the 'real world', then D&D is most definitely not the game for him.



It's not that hard to get 4e to conform to a more "believable" play style.  Just ignore a few powers and rule a few others don't work in particular situations.

 Any Edition


It's not that hard to get 4e to conform to a more "believable" play style.  Just ignore a few powers and rule a few others don't work in particular situations.



Which is what most of us are advising the OP not to do because it compromises the balance of the system.
Another day, another three or four entries to my Ignore List.
That's a little harsh.  The bottom line is, some people prefer their games to be more simulationist, and some don't.  If he prefers games that more closely mirror the 'real world', then D&D is most definitely not the game for him.


Harsh?  Maybe.  But why expect it from D&D.  It has never been simulationist.
People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. --George Orwell There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people. --Howard Zinn He who fights with monsters must take care lest he thereby become a monster. --Friedrich Nietzsche Devil\'s Brigade
A good one to ignore would be "archer's stair case", which I find totally ridiculous.

 I think part of my problem is that I have very mixed feelings about really cinematic play. I'll take Coen brothers over Michael Bay any day of the week. That being said I do enjoy a kind of pulp feel from time to time. However, I find it draining, unfun and uninspiring as a dm to try to come up with weird ways to justify why a PCs powers work in situations where they don't readily make sense, and accepting the numbers and just moving on is equally unfun IMO. I like it better when the players come up with something, but I haven't had much success with that.

It's not that hard to get 4e to conform to a more "believable" play style.  Just ignore a few powers and rule a few others don't work in particular situations.



Which is what most of us are advising the OP not to do because it compromises the balance of the system.



Not really that unbalancing.  The Fighter has plenty of powers to choose from removing a few won't hurt, and if the DM puts restrictions on something like "Come and Get It" that you don't like then choose another power.  No big deal.

Or you could just use the Essentials version of martial classes.

 Any Edition

A good one to ignore would be "archer's stair case", which I find totally ridiculous.

 I think part of my problem is that I have very mixed feelings about really cinematic play. I'll take Coen brothers over Michael Bay any day of the week. That being said I do enjoy a kind of pulp feel from time to time. However, I find it draining, unfun and uninspiring as a dm to try to come up with weird ways to justify why a PCs powers work in situations where they don't readily make sense, and accepting the numbers and just moving on is equally unfun IMO. I like it better when the players come up with something, but I haven't had much success with that.

If someone is playing in your game and you would like them to justify the use of a power in certain rare situations, I think that is reasonable. It is your game and you run it. *However*, only if this is a rare occasion because no player wants to constantly justify to the DM why and how they can use their legal power that they are using.
A good one to ignore would be "archer's stair case", which I find totally ridiculous.

 I think part of my problem is that I have very mixed feelings about really cinematic play. I'll take Coen brothers over Michael Bay any day of the week. That being said I do enjoy a kind of pulp feel from time to time. However, I find it draining, unfun and uninspiring as a dm to try to come up with weird ways to justify why a PCs powers work in situations where they don't readily make sense, and accepting the numbers and just moving on is equally unfun IMO. I like it better when the players come up with something, but I haven't had much success with that.



You could play Essentials-only (or just for martial classes).

 Any Edition

I definitely understand what you mean, but like others before... try to remember that Wizards isn't perfect.  The rules of the game- they're not complete!  They're up to you!  When you see what they left undone, fix it.  You're not "cheating" to fudge things, you're literally completing what they left undone.  

I, like you, have a big problem when things are just too unrealistic.  I don't like to "just play it" if it seems completely ridiculous.  If erasing the fluff for your own fluff isn't what you're willing to do, well... that's your call, but that's what I'd do, from one guy who hates goofy occurrences to another.  
I've noticed a lot of situations in 4E play where a player wants to use a power, but the way the power is described doesn't make any in game sense that it would actually work in the situation the player is trying to use the power in.

Ah.  No worries: the description is just a suggestion.  Describe it some other way that does make sense.  If you can't think of anything, just resolve it mechanically and don't sweat the small stuff. 

If you /really/ like having a visualizeable 'narative' or 'fiction' going like a movie in your head, just take it as a fast cut.  The character raises his weapon/implement, there's a dramatic close-up on his face, then a series of fast, blurry cuts (film term, not blade attacks), frenetic incidental music and flashes that are completely indecipherable, and the character is standing over his enemies while they suffer whatever the heck his power just did to them.

Example: There's a couple of rogue powers that let a rogue temporarily blind a foe by apparently slashing the foe and thus causing blood to get in his enemy's eyes. Well what happens when the rogue tries to use such a power on a creature like an air elemental that has no eyes and doesn't bleed?

If the creature is 'blind' (it's a keyword), nothing: it just takes some damage and doesn't care that it's been 'blinded,' because it never seen anything before, anyway.  Otherwise, it's blinded until the condition ends.  I'd suggest first trying to figure out /how/ an eyeless air elemental sees in the first place, from there you might be able to come up with how a handfull of shuriken to the 'face' might be a problem for it.

 

 

Oops, looks like this request tried to create an infinite loop. We do not allow such things here. We are a professional website!

The thing is that the power is already justified within the system, and ratified by you and the other players as part as choosing to use D&D as the basic framework for your shared game of make believe. The fighter gets to use his encounter beanie which everyone else gets to achieved a desired result, get the wizard in his face and try to hit him with a sword.
How? that's where this shared game of imagination gets fun.
Maybe the fighter dropped the bomb of all your momma jokes, 
maybe the fight is one a rocking ship and the wizard stumbled, and slid towards him, 
maybe he was trying to get away from another party member and he went right into the fighter, instead 
or the fighter swung his sword in a spiral creating a temporary vacuum that sucked everyone into him. I don't know. You can drap whatever fluff you want over the crunch and tailoring said crunch to the specifics of each fight helps get the fights unique in their experience.

Letting the fluff dictate the mechanics however is the path that leads to "This is why fighters can't have nice things." It may not be the intention but that is how it usually breaks down in play because every else has the "it's magic" excuse.  

Yes, you can rule that certain powers don't work in certain situations and the balance of power won't be impacted greatly (usually) but have a better reason than "that's not realistic" in a D&D game. There's an fire elemental that the BBEG prepped to get healed from the party's pyromancer's fire attacks, the fighter is fighting Sire Demclye, the elf duelist who has survived in his profession for over 250 years, and come and get it is old hat to him. But it is annoying to the fighter to get beat with the reality stick not because he feels entitled (which he kinda is) but because before the game everyone has decided that each gun in our cops and robbers game holds six bullets and then telling me that two of mine are duds in the middle of play.  

So yeah if I were playing a fighter in your game and something comes up I would roll with it and just make sure later if this would be a common occurrence,and if so if you thought other powers were too unrealistic too so I could avoid those powers, or multi class into a magic user class and flavor everything with "It's magic".


Yeah, that's about what I thought people would more or less. say Unfortunately, that stuff really grates and me, so I'm thinking it's probably time for me to find a new game.



Or else ignore what everyone else here said and just play the game as it makes sense.  My group would not be upset if they failed to "blind" something without eyes.  Why?  Because it makes sense.  As long as you explain things up front, then things should be fine.  This game is "gamist" only if the people playing it want it to be.  That's the great thing about D&D.  However, if you are going to start modifying powers based on common sense, make sure to be aware that the fights will be harder than usual and to compensate the party accordingly.
As far as I am concerned, there are several powers that make sense basically never, at least the way they are written.  You just have to roll with it.  In my opinion expecting the flavor lines of a power to make sense as written any more often than very occasionally is expecting too much.  The devs simply cannot write your combat encounter for you.

The problem with the "description of power does not fit the situation" is that "spells" always seem to fit the description because they are *magic*" and martial arts stunts may not, because they are some how more *real world*

You have to get over that first of all.

If you scrutinise every power in the same way as "come and get it", you should also start telling players who play wizards that their PC's fireball does not make sense occasionally - it might not make sense *ever* if you don't accept that it is supernatural (things can be supernatural even if they are not obvious spells). The martial powers are also the result of supernatural skill - some resemble real world stuff more than others.

If you don't like supernatural fighters or rogues, tell your players and see what they think. If they think like you, they will not pick such powers. If they want to play supernaturally skilled swordsmen, you have to either go with it or they will look for another DM.

The game is a compromise of the DM's and the players' wishes. Both need to be flexible to some extent. You found something you don't like, but you should also think about what the players like.

The game text tells you what a power does. The flavor text suggests how the power does this, but it's just a suggestion. If a power doesn't make sense in a given situation, reflavor it. Only in the most extreme cases should a power just not work as intended.

Examples:
Knocking a gelatinous cube prone.
The cube is not prone, it's form is temporarily disrupted and it needs to spend a move action to pull itself together.

Slashing the forehead of an elemental or construct so that blood drips into its eyes and blinds it.
The character actually hit the eyes themselves, damaging them. However, this is not a natural creature and its body does not work the same as a human's, so the enemy is able to recover easier. Or the enemy has a solid piece of its body nearly sheered off and it hangs in front of its eyes. Or the character throws a handful of dirt in its face while simultaneously lashing out with his blade.

You don't always have to be the one to think of these things, though. Push some of that responsibility onto your players. If they are interested in RP (I assume they are since if this was just a hack n slash game it probably wouldn't have been a problem for you guys in the first place) they should be visualizing what their character is doing. Make them describe the actions and how the power functions the way it does. It will probably help immerse them more into combat anyway.

Owner and Proprietor of the House of Trolls. God of ownership and possession.
Powers "work" in a manner that bests fits the situation and allows them to work.

For the original situation, maybe that wizard really, really loves his mother. I, as a player, would have a character who makes prolific use of Come and Get It tend to be one of those trash-talking types (you can be a "trash-talker" without being fowl, too, so it could be particularly formal sounding if your character is something like a particularly upright knight or something), and when I use the power is when they happen to say something particularly effective. There's one option there. Creatures can be stupid when they're angry.

Another option is stuff lying around the area where the encounter takes place. Maybe the Fighter noticed a length of rope or chain or something that their targets didn't and that's used for dramatic effect (think something like Batman vs. the SWAT team in The Dark Knight or some of the bits with the firehose in Transporter 2 and such).

Again, though, whether as a DM or a player, I'd have a power "work" as best fits the situation it is being used in. Heroes are larger than life; both sides of the DM's screen should run with that thought.
Knowing is Half the Battle. The Other Half is VIOLENCE. Imagine a lightsaber duel between Optimus Prime and Batman. You're welcome.
Knocking a gelatanious cube prone is an interesting example to me. If the stat block doesn't say that it can't be knocked prone, I think it should, and IMO that is an oversight on the part of whoever designed the monster. If I had a player try to knock such a creature prone, I would feel irritated that a player would attempt such a tactic on a creature that so obviously isn't the type of creature that one would knock prone and assume it would work because that is what his power says, and I'd likely adjust the stat block (after all there are other examples in the game of creatures that are immune to being knocked prone) on the fly as opposed to fluff it away by saying that he somehow hit in a way that caused it to temporarily collapse into goo.

In another example, the party was recently raiding a complex and they used a water breathing type ritual to get in from the harbor. I had some eel type constructs defend the waters near the complex, so I knew there would be one aquatic encounter. The party's warlock was a fire specialist and I told him up front that his fire powers wouldn't be useful underwater. Maybe I was being a dick dm by not adhering to the gamist nature of the rules when they didn't make any sense to me, but I knew it was a one off situation, and I told him up front. It meant he wasn't quite as useful as normal in that fight, but it also meant that he had to think to adjust his tactics in an effort to be useful, as opposed to go with the standard set of tactics that he would normally use. I don't think it made the encounter unfun for him (though he obviously wouldn't like it if that sort of stuff happened all the time). 
Do what you like, it's your game. Or just play another game entirely, because you are quite against the heroic feel that DnD is supposed to emulate.

Some of us on the other hand like to activate our imagination and flavor the scene after the attack/spell/whatever has resolved, just because variation in flavor is very nice. That's how I did it in 3E, that's how I did it in the non-D&D RPGs before that and that's what I'll continue to do in 5E or what system I'm playing at that moment.
I'm not against heroic feel per say. However, I don't find that there is generally a lot of imagination being activated after a attack resolves. It's generally more like players hurling a bunch of numbers and statis effects at the dm. However, this may just be me being crusty. I've been basically running a weekly game for the past 8 years with no real break, so I'm probably just a little burned out and maybe feeling bitter that non of the players seem eager to step up and take up the reigns for a while.
I let my players describe their actions, and they tend to come up with stuff that makes sense. If it doesn't, I don't let it bother me, because I'm playing a game and I'll forget about that little part of the multiple hour experience in a few minutes anyway.

As long as your player know and agree that stuff should "make sense" they'll come up with good descriptions themselves. If they refuse and start whining about "the rules allow it and I'm not going to explain it" then there's obviously a difference in playstyle, which is not a fault of the system, but something you should discuss with your players. 
Epic Dungeon Master

Want to give your players a kingdom of their own? I made a 4e rule system to make it happen!

Your Kingdom awaits!
Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
It's generally more like players hurling a bunch of numbers and statis effects at the dm.



I fail to see how that has changed much in 30+ years of RPGs.
PH_dungeon, how do you cope with the fact that some (high level) creatures in the world can survive a 100' fall and walk away, but most can't?  That it's just as quick to get from a diagonally opposite corner of a square room to one of its corners as it is to get there from an adjacent corner, unless there is a solid pillar in the centre of the room?  That "magic" works based on undefined "resource"(?) usage by spell casters?  That characters learn new skills by killing 'monsters'?

Given your desire for an immersive(?), coherent world above a coherent game, I actually do think that a different system would suit you better.  You might take a look at GURPS, or HârnMaster (check out www.lythia.com).  Others may suggest Pathfinder, but I think you will still have issues with that - the escalating hit points (and thus surviving a 100' drop) and 'learning-by-killing' apply just as much there as they do in 4E (but it lacks the coherent game system underpinning of 4E).
======= Balesir

In another example, the party was recently raiding a complex and they used a water breathing type ritual to get in from the harbor. I had some eel type constructs defend the waters near the complex, so I knew there would be one aquatic encounter. The party's warlock was a fire specialist and I told him up front that his fire powers wouldn't be useful underwater. Maybe I was being a dick dm by not adhering to the gamist nature of the rules when they didn't make any sense to me, but I knew it was a one off situation, and I told him up front. It meant he wasn't quite as useful as normal in that fight, but it also meant that he had to think to adjust his tactics in an effort to be useful, as opposed to go with the standard set of tactics that he would normally use. I don't think it made the encounter unfun for him (though he obviously wouldn't like it if that sort of stuff happened all the time). 



There are rules for underwater combat in 4e. You didn't have to house rule them, if that's what you did.

Something I've noticed over the years is that DMs who complain things "don't make sense" usually only do so when it limits the PC's ability to use a power. If the warlock had been thunder based, would you have made his powers more effective because water is a much better conductor of sound?
Knocking a gelatanious cube prone is an interesting example to me. If the stat block doesn't say that it can't be knocked prone, I think it should, and IMO that is an oversight on the part of whoever designed the monster. If I had a player try to knock such a creature prone, I would feel irritated that a player would attempt such a tactic on a creature that so obviously isn't the type of creature that one would knock prone and assume it would work because that is what his power says, and I'd likely adjust the stat block (after all there are other examples in the game of creatures that are immune to being knocked prone) on the fly as opposed to fluff it away by saying that he somehow hit in a way that caused it to temporarily collapse into goo.

In another example, the party was recently raiding a complex and they used a water breathing type ritual to get in from the harbor. I had some eel type constructs defend the waters near the complex, so I knew there would be one aquatic encounter. The party's warlock was a fire specialist and I told him up front that his fire powers wouldn't be useful underwater. Maybe I was being a dick dm by not adhering to the gamist nature of the rules when they didn't make any sense to me, but I knew it was a one off situation, and I told him up front. It meant he wasn't quite as useful as normal in that fight, but it also meant that he had to think to adjust his tactics in an effort to be useful, as opposed to go with the standard set of tactics that he would normally use. I don't think it made the encounter unfun for him (though he obviously wouldn't like it if that sort of stuff happened all the time). 


Funny. You do realize that in RL flames cannot appear out of nowhere either? You need something to burn, and more often then not, those things that burn really well, do so regardless of whether it is in or out of the water as long as there is oxigen? Of course, if you want to make 'fire' make more scientific sense, you could simply call it 'heat' or 'chemical reaction' and suddenly the fluff for why fire works underwater is provided for you. The warlock simply calls forward steam, or there are no open flames, instead the target suddenly reacts violently with the oxigen in the water. Note that the core rules do make the use of fire attacks underwater more difficult since they incur a -2 penalty on the attack rolls. It is a clear example of a rather weird selective approach to so-called RL sensibilities that make no sense what so ever when you look at it closely...

The fact is, you are placing too much stock on the fluff, and the name of a power and condition is just as much fluff as its description. They picked a term that was evocative, and that made sense in most of the circumstances, but just because something is called 'knockdown assault' does not mean it has to knock down its target. Simply removing something because it does not make sense, creates a bit of an arbitrary situation. Something that you as a DM can do in your own campaign, but which has its problems when the designers start doing so.
I think you'd benefit more from a simulationist style game.  Gamist games seem to definitely be at odds with how you want to play. 

I don't reccomend Pathfinder.  I would suggest GURPS or Rolemaster.  I think that those offer you the kind of world that you are looking to game in.

I'm more of a simulationist guy myself, but since my players like D&D I've managed to deal with a lot of the things that defy logic because... it's part of the game lol.
To see my campaign world visit http://dnd.chrisnye.net My music -> www.myspace.com/Incarna My music videos -> www.youtube.com/Auticusx

OP: You see "a sense of entitlement among many players that powers should work no matter what as long as the player succeeds with whatever attack roll is needed," I see "a reasonable expectation that the storytelling will be compatible with the underlying mechanics."  Tomato, tomato.

Let's say a player has used a power on a gelatinous cube that's supposed to "knock it prone."  It makes no sense for a gelatinous cube to "fall down," so it's the burden around the table to make the story fit the mechanical effects of the power.  Ignore what the prone condition means in the game world, and work with what the prone condition means in the game system.  According to the game system, the target grants CA to adjacent foes, its movement rate is reduced, takes a penalty to attacks and gets a defense bonus against range attacks.  To end the condition, it has to spend a move action.  The rest, including the "got knocked down" part is alterable fluff.  A gelatinous cube can't be knocked on its duff, because it has no duff, so it's not.  It still suffers some effect that causes it to grant CA and take the penalties and bonuses conferred by the condition, and still has to spend a move action to end that state.

Your player just initiated a condition against the enemy unit in the game system.  In the game world, something happened to temporarily change the abilities of the unit (that totally wasn't it being knocked down, 'cause that makes no sense).  In the game world, the victim doesn't have to be kicked, doesn't have to fall down.  The character might've swept off his cloak or pulled down a tapestry and thrown it over the cube, obstructing missile attacks from that angle and slowing it down as it either digests or ejects the foreign object.  Maybe the character did something to the terrain in its path that slowed it down and lowered its profile like levering a fallen door into its path or blasting a shallow depression into the ground in front of it.  Honestly, the mechanical effect doesn't even have to be attributed to the character - if the player doesn't need his character to take credit for the effect, the cube could just has easily have tipped some part of the terrain onto itself or fallen into a hole chasing its prey or even gotten hit by lightning.

The game is balanced this way, and since balanced gameplay is one of the goals this game system is supposed to satisfy, I must assume that it's one you desire if you're using this system.  There are, as other posters have pointed out, better simulationist systems and better story-first systems.  That doesn't mean that you have to let the party rogue blind a swarm of fire ants by throwing metal shards in the eyes of every little one of them; it just means that the player has to have the tools to confound the abilities of the opposing units to effectively target and hit his team.  Say he had a bag of exotic pepper on his belt that he uses to disable the tracking dogs of a bounty hunter that's been after him for years, and he blew it at them in a big cloud that stings and irritates them.  The story goes on, and the players aren't losing mechanical competencies because of narrative irregularities.  So he got +2 to hit and damage from his mainhand weapon - the numbers are abstract.  It's really spicy pepper!

"When Friday comes, we'll all call rats fish." D&D Outsider
Repeat after me:

The system won't fall apart if Gelatinous Cubes are immune to the prone condition and fire spells don't work underwater. Really, the system isn't that fragile.

There is a long history of house ruling and customizing D&D that has no reason to stop now.

 Any Edition