As I continue prepping for my next long-term D&D 5e campaign, I’ve started to look at what systems and mechanics I want to include in it. I have a semblance of an idea of what the overarching story will focus on but figuring out how to flesh it out and get the party involved in it a whole different beast.
Hence why I look at different games, TTRPG systems, and media for cool ideas! One example of this is a game mechanic that’s been on my mind a ton lately, borrowed power.
Borrowed power was a focal point of my previous campaign, but it’s a common theme in most D&D 5e campaigns. You’ve probably played in a campaign that’s had some form of borrowed power given to the PCs or party at some point, even if you didn’t realize it at the time.
What is Borrowed Power?
At its core, borrowed power is a power or ability that is granted to a character by outside forces. The character learns to master and utilize this power in their adventures, but the power isn’t theirs to keep forever. It’s a loaned power and can be lost at any time.
This power can even become a focal point of the character’s kit while they have access to it. A great example of this is the covenant abilities from World of Warcraft: Shadowlands.
Basically, every character joins one of four covenants. Upon doing so they get a unique ability based on their class and the covenant they joined. For example, my hunter learned Wild Spirits which was a cool down that added extra damage to my character’s abilities.
Understandably, this meant I now had to change how my playstyle worked to incorporate this borrowed power. In fact, my character played around Wild Spirits because it was such a powerful borrowed power!
However, at the end of this expansion, this borrowed power will be taken away from my hunter. As is customary for every WoW expansion since Legion. It’ll then be replaced by the next expansion’s gimmick.
While this is a widely-used and oftentimes fun mechanic for MMOs and similar games, it’s a lot trickier to do right in RPGs. You can’t have a borrowed power like Wild Spirits that forces a character to adapt their stats and abilities to make the most of it, because there’s the ever-present risk of that power being taken away from them.
Using Borrowed Power in D&D
Adapting borrowed power to D&D and similar RPGs is different from how video games like WoW approach the subject. First of all, you don’t (or shouldn’t) have a rotation of abilities for every combat encounter. Ergo, borrowed powers can’t be an ability that works as such.
Instead, borrowed powers can one of two different forms:
- A limited-use spell or spell-like effect
- A passive ability or feature
The first of these options is easy to envision. The borrowed power allows your character to cast a certain spell X many times and may or may not recharge on a long or short rest. This gives your character another option in or out of combat to utilize alongside the kit.
A passive borrowed power augments your character and can come in all sorts of forms. For example, a god gifts your character a pair of wings for being in their good graces. While in possession of them they can fly.
These passive powers don’t need to be flashy either. They can be as simple as an additional saving throw or skill proficiency gained in the form of a blessing or gift. Basically, these types of borrowed powers give your character enhancements, but not active abilities that they choose to use at a specific time.
Long-Term vs. Short-Term
Unlike WoW where the duration of the borrowed power is known as meta information, ie. when the next expansion releases. The players in a D&D campaign aren’t always privy to that information. Ergo, it’d be a rare circumstance for a player to build their character around a borrowed power since losing it would significantly hinder them.
Therefore, it’s best to categorize the types of borrowed power you’re including in your game so that the players have a better understanding of just how long they have access to these newfound powers.
The first category is a long-term borrowed power. These are powers that will stick with the player for either a long period of time or until the player decides to replace the power with a different one.
A short-term borrowed power has a set duration that is commonly spelled out for the player. For example, an item or power that allows you to cast a spell 3 times is an example of such a power. Another way to depict short-term borrowed powers is to state that the power lasts for X many days or weeks.
Short-term powers are limited in duration or usage and are explicitly stated as such.
Example: Magical Items
Magic items are by far my group’s favorite part about playing D&D 5e. They love getting all the cool and often ridiculous magical items I throw into a campaign.
Magical items that require attunement are the best example of a long-term borrowed power that the player can lose. While your DM can be a jerk and destroy that piece of gear that you built your whole character around that’s generally not the reason why you’d lose access to such an item.
The most likely cause of losing an attuned magical item is because you decided to have your character attune to a new piece of gear. While it’s a net gain, your character still loses all of the perks that came with the previous borrowed power.
Example: Vestiges in Curse of Strahd
The vestiges in The Amber Temple of Curse of Strahd were a fantastic depiction of short-term borrowed powers. These vestiges grant powers to the characters that accept them in the form of passive stat buffs, a new spell, or a unique feature.
However, each vestige had either a time limit or a limited number of uses until they vanished.
Each vestige made the receiver more powerful. Some granted extra firepower while others gave a character some form of utility to help them spy on their arch-nemesis, Strahd von Zarovich, from afar.
Their short-term expiration dates ensured that once the party received them they would march toward their final confrontation with Strahd rather than waste time and lose these powerful boons.
Borrowed power is a common game mechanic in RPGs. However, their implementation in TTRPGs is very different compared to how they look in video games like WoW.
Magical equipment is by far the most common usage of borrowed power in D&D 5e. Magical items are a safe way to augment your character as there’s often little fear of losing your magical items for good.
Although, there are plenty of great ways to implement short-term borrowed power in the form of temporary buffs these types of powers are more narratively charged compared to their magical item counterparts.