Thursday, December 31, 2009

Using World of Warcraft Miniatures to play D&D

Although this blog tends to focus on the more mechanical aspects of D&D, for today's post I'd like to cover a more mundane subject - the choice of miniatures. I am an avid fan of minis, and I can't think of running a 4E encounter without them, but getting a decent selection for your games isn't an easy task. Ages ago, I used to enjoy painting miniatures, but my Warhammer days are long gone. In theory, the official line of prepainted, semi-random D&D miniatures would be the perfect product for me... if they were any good, that is.

Let us face it: minis are not Wizards of the Coast's forte. I have tried really hard to like them, but a combination of mediocre quality, high prices and low proportion of exciting figures has turned me down once and again. To be fair, they have taken steps in the right direction with the PHB Heroes line (non-random minis for PCs) and the new monster collections (with boosters that show one big, cool monster, and have additional, hidden random monsters). However, despite the improvement, the fact remains that, for any given pack, there is a majority of miniatures I don't care about, due to ugliness, lack of usefulness, or both.

I had almost given up hope when the answer to my problems came from the most unexpected of places: the World of Warcraft.

The World of Warcraft Miniatures game is, unlike its D&D Miniatures counterpart, a fast-paced game that condenses the essence of the franchise and, most importantly, is really fun to play. But the relevant thing for today's topic are the actual game miniatures (If you are interested in a full-fledged game review, the good news is, I already wrote one. The bad news? It's for Spanish speakers only). These miniatures share a property that was conspicuously missing from the D&D line - they look good.

As miniatures that are also plastic, prepainted and random, with a price tag slightly higher but close to their D&D equivalent, and being based on a fantasy setting generic enough to fit in the D&D aesthetics (once you get used to the king-sized weapons and shoulder pads), the fact that they are so much more pleasing to the eye can't be overstated. Simply put, where a D&D booster pack would yield maybe one or two worthwhile figures plus a bunch of filler material, each of the three minis in a WoW box tends to be premium material.

What are the differences, you might ask? In the case of WoW, the scale is slightly larger, allowing for some more detail while still fitting in a D&D battlemap. But what really sets them apart is the outstanding paint job, with a richer color palette (I can usually identify 8 different colors per mini) and frequent use of transparencies.

There is one important catch, large and round - the excessive size of the miniature base. Designed to fit into an even larger detachable, Heroclix-like base, it's area is appropiate for Large D&D monsters occupying 2x2 squares, but grossly oversized for the majority of Medium-sized characters. I was lucky enough that a Warhammer-savvy player in our campaign took the time and effort to replace most bases in our collection with others of appropiate size (not hard to find in most Warhammer stores), greatly improving our gaming experience. You can still play without doing so, but it can get uncomfortable at times, particularly if most of your minis are WoW ones.

Nevertheless, there is another redeeming factor in these minis: the selection is good enough that you will, more often than not, find a use for each one of them in your D&D campaign. All figures in a given pack belong to one of three factions: Alliance, Horde, and Monsters. The first two are great for PCs and NPCs, and while the last doesn't cover the full range of D&D creatures, does a good enough job. Most 4E races and character concepts should find matches here (with the notable absence of Dragonborn), though you won't find the most epic or bizarre monsters, such as Dragons or Beholders.
I have compiled a gallery of the minis most frequenly used in our campaign, to give you an idea of what they look like. A very important point you should be aware of: these are all Common figures that can be found online for as little as $1 each, so gathering a similar collection is pretty inexpensive. Enjoy!

Gallery 1.
Minis for PCs: Warlock, Paladin, Rogue, Warlord, Fighter, Wizard, Ranger, Cleric.(click to enlarge)

Gallery 2.
Minis for monsters: orc, ogre, skeleton, elemental, tiger (click to enlarge)

Read More......

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Broken Bits: Hand of Radiance

Straightforward, not overly powerful but with a distinct personality, the at-will power Divine Bolts captures, to me, the essence of the Invoker class. A multi-target attack that takes away the risk of friendly fire inherent to most bursts and blasts, it communicates perfectly the fact that an Invoker, more than any other controller, is a team player. Unfortunately, Divine Bolt's career was prematurely terminated with the release of the Divine Power sourcebook, featuring an unneeded replacement in Hand of Radiance, which has essentially the same effect, but is capable of targeting an additional enemy.

Hand of Radiance is too good. Conventional wisdom tells us that damage spread over multiple targets is vastly inferior to focused fire, and that Controller characters should eschew damage in favor of action-negating and battlefield altering effects. Nevertheless, the numbers achieved by The Hand are high enough to override these concerns: three targets should net you a total damage exceeding that of a Twin Strike (the absolute benchmark for at-will damage calculations) by about 50%. Twin Strike is still the better power (or, for that matter, the best), but they are very respectable amounts.

Making it fairer

I'd like Hand of Radiance to remain strong without obsoleting Divine Bolts as it currently does. The comparison with the recently deceased Scorching Burst is inevitable but, as much as I liked it, the Burst had fallen behind the power curve, whereas Bolts are competitive with most other controller at-wills - except for The Hand.

Though toning down the damage is definitely an option, I am more interested in limiting the ability to reach the maximum number of enemies. Currently, and barring very extreme terrain, an Invoker should be able to target 3 or 4 foes from a safe distance without much effort. The change I propose would make this a little trickier:

Hand of Radiance: On the Range line, replace "Ranged 10" with "Ranged 5".

Short range is not an unknown drawback to the Divine power source and, as any Cleric player will confirm, 5 squares away is an awkward distance for a ranged character to be. An Invoker player would now have to choose between the brute force of The Hand, or the relative safety of Bolts - a comparison that probably favors the former, but not as overwhelmingly as before.
Read More......

Friday, December 18, 2009

Broken Bits: Come and Get It

(Broken bits is a series of short articles that will focus on unbalanced or otherwise broken game elements, one at a time.)

Overpowered attacks in D&D 4E usually fall in one of three categories: those that dish out huge amounts of damage (usually of the single-target variety), those that negate enemy actions with conditions such as stuns and immobilizations, and those that grant massive bonuses to a party's attacks or defenses. These tend to be easy to identify, since damage, enemy actions, and stat enhancenments can be objectively measured and compared as numeric values. Today I will discuss a power that, though not stellar in any of these variables, is nonetheless extremely effective.

How do you quantify strategic advantage? How much is controlling character positions in a battle really worth? These aren't easy questions, but looking at the Fighter's level 7 encounter power Come and Get It, the answers seem to be "Highly" and "A lot".

In many ways, Come and Get It is a success. There are few powers in the game that make such a perfect fit with the class they belong to. Indeed, for most other classes (and even most defenders) it wouldn't be more than a good way of dealing damage to lots of enemies, with an interesting side-effect. In the hands of a Fighter, the ability to attract most nearby enemies and hit them is the ultimate trump card.

It works like this: for a marked enemy, moving away from a Fighter is an annoyingly difficult and dangerous proposition. Under normal conditions, only one or, at best, a few clumped together enemies are threatened this way. But with Come and Get It, this turns into the whole opposing team. Moreover, since the forced movement is guaranteed, and the covered area is considerable, the Fighter has a wide margin for moving before the attack so that a lot of monsters are moved to, and pinned in, a very disadvantageous position.

It's an extremely exciting and amusing maneuver that every Fighter should try at least once in their career. I recently reached Level 7 with my Human Battlerager, and the power has been every bit as good as I expected. Though it is useful in many situations, you will often want to blow it on the first round of combat in order to take your opponents out of cover, mark everybody before your allies get hurt, and set up a barrage of whatever area attacks the party has at its disposal.

What is not to like? Well, for a start, being so terribly effective turns it into an almost automatic choice for the level 7 slot of any Fighter character. And being so convenient at the start of the battle makes it an all-too-common first turn play. But I think that to fully grasp the strength of this power, one has to DM against it.

Regardless of their actual efectiveness, fighters tend to be annoying opponents. Your creatures can't move, they can't safely shift away, and if you choose to stay and fight them, they take forever to bring down. But Come and Get It upgrades that annoyance to downright frustration. Forget about any clever schemes, because as soon as the guy with the sword starts his turn, all your incompetent lackeys will go rushing exactly where he wants them to be. And they won't get away.

A possible solution.

The power's brutality comes from two main factors: the size of the affected area, and the inescapability of the forced movement. A reduced burst would probably be a safe fix, but I'd rather keep the power as a burst 3, and make the pull conditional on an attack roll instead:

Come and Get It, mk2 - Fighter Attack 7
Encounter - Martial, Weapon
Standard Action - Close burst 3
Target: Each non-adjacent enemy in burst you can see.
Attack: Strength vs. Will
Hit: You pull the target 2 squares to a square adjacent to you.
Effect: Make a secondary attack.
Secondary Target: Each adjacent enemy you can see.
Secondary Attack: Strength vs. AC
Hit: 1[W]+Strength modifier damage.

With this version, there is some tension between reaching the maximum number of potential targets within the pulling burst, and having as many adjacent enemies as possible to ensure you can attack someone. The pulling attack can be extremely accurate, but the chance of missing, small though it may be, will make most players think twice about the way they use this power, which is a good thing in my mind. But don't fool yourself: even with this patch, you are still looking at a devastating attack.
Read More......

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Player's Handbook 3 Debut: the Ardent

A warlord with power points. December's preview class from PHB3 is called the Ardent, and consists in a psionic leader based on a great concept: emotion manipulation to boost allies. Also, it is mechanically innovative in that, like all psionic classes except the monk, it features an alternate resource system based on power points, replacing encounter powers. However, despite these interesting premises, Ardents have only managed to instill one emotion on me so far: disappointment.

Despite their other flaws, they do look good in picture.

More than any other class in D&D 4E, Ardents give me the impression that they have nothing new to bring to the game, other than a cross in the intersection of a power source and a role. The unfortunate comparison with the Warlord ("The Ardent is a psionic Warlord") appeared in the first developer commentary, and I couldn't take it off my head as I read the class description, because it's true.

In play, Ardents closely mimic the Warlord style of play, as heavily armored leaders focusing on melee weapon attacks. Their primary ability score is Charisma, but other than that, there's little to set them apart from their martial counterparts: In their case, psionic power manifests in a very mundane way, so most of their powers consist in weapon strikes that grant a boost here or a penalty there - just like a warlord. Oh, there is the occasional teleportation or zone and a couple of attacks even deal psychic damage. But most of the effects could have been done by a Warlord or a melee Cleric. And, what is worse, many of them have.

It's not that the power selection isn't solid, but I failed to find a single at-will or "encounter" (augmented, really) effect that the class could claim as its own. Likewise, the class features are decent yet unexciting: a bonus to defense against opportunity attacks, an encounter attack that grants free movement to your group and a healing word tweaked to grant bonus to either attack or defense, depending on build.

Maybe I am spoiled by the fact that almost every class design since PHB has been nothing short of amazing. To be fair, the class probably plays better than it reads, and it seems to be perfectly capable of fulfilling its role. The addition of psionic power points to a familiar archetype may be just a gimmick, but it does change the way a character is played.

Is that change for the better, though? The psionic resource system uses three augmentable powers for all your at-will and encounter slots. In the best-case scenario, this gives a player up to three at-wills and three encounter-equivalent powers to choose from, which is a net gain of one at-will power above a standard class, and three lesser augments on top of that. On the other hand, the ability to mix and match different styles of attacks is greatly diminished, since each "encounter power" is a stronger-but-similar version of an at-will. Furthermore, the lesser augments for this class are decidedly on the mediocre side, and I can easily see many players ignoring them altogether.

Another problem with the psionic system that I have found for Ardents lies in power progression. Starting at 7th level, whenever you would gain a new encounter power you replace an augmentable at-will with a new one. Psions handled this well, but in the case of Ardents, it is not always clear that each new level offers something you want to upgrade to! Oddly, one of the reasons fo this is the high quality of the 1st level powers.

Of the three level 1 at-wills available to ardents, two have very strong and interesting effects. Energizing Strike and Focusing Strike can be disregarded on first sight due to the fact that they are, essentially, a cleric's Sacred Flame power split into two different weapon attacks. On the other hand, Sacred Flame is one of the best, and more versatile powers in the game, and each one of these Ardent powers has improvements over the corresponding half. Aside from the fact that a [W] attack will typically do much more damage than Sacred Flame's measly 1d6, the temporary hit point power is based on a primary ability (netting 2-3 THP more) and augments into Healing Strike, whereas the saving throw one can also be used on oneself.

You really want to have these powers available throughout the character's career but, unlike Psions, Ardents don't seem to have strictly superior versions of lower level powers. So, when you get to 7th level, the level 3 at-will is actually the most likely to get replaced. And at level 13th, you might not even want to trade any of them...

We will have to see how psionics work in actual play, and how much the class improves when we see the remaining, unpublished half. For now, it leaves a bit to be desired.
Read More......

Monday, December 7, 2009

Fun with Dragons

This week's play session brought something totally unexpected: a fun encounter with a solo monster, a dragon from the first Monster Manual. It's one of the last fights in Thunderspire Labyrinth, and I am going to spoil a good deal of it, so you should probably stop reading if you intend to play that module. Which, by the way, I recommend. It has a slow start, and the first half could do with some heavy revisions or be skipped altogether, but the last part is one of the best dungeon crawls I have had the pleasure of exploring, packed with memorable fights. Enough with the reviews, let's talk dragons.


Solo monsters in 4E are flawed. That is not to say that it's impossible to have a climatic, exciting and strategically deep fight with one of them, but there are many things that can go wrong. Too often, the encounter with the Big Bad Boss ends up consisting in a dozen turns where the baddy sits there hitting someone, while the PCs surround him, unload most of their dailies and eventually repeat at-will attacks until he goes down. Alternately, if you play in a group prone to optimization, you can see the beast locked down for several (if not all) turns through stunning powers, being easily defeated without ever feeling like much of a threat. This happens, and it happens frequently. An unfortunate side effect of this tendency is that dragons, the undisputed most iconic monsters in D&D, are almost always Solos and, more often than not, they suck.

The recipe for a successful Solo battle is not a simple one. It involves a careful selection of terrain, with enough cover and interactive elements. There has to be some incentive for moving around, both for the players and the monster - traps are a great way to achieve this. Your worst enemy is monotony, as even the most well-designed monster is prone to repetition, when alone.

More recent books, like Monster Manual 2, introduce some new ideas to make Solos interesting, such as lowering their defenses and HP, but making them deadlier. But Thunderspire Labyrinth is one of the very first adventure modules published for 4E, and its monsters know nothing of such sophistications. So it has a lot of merit that the fight with the Young Green Dragon in the Wall of Demons works as well as it does.

The fight takes place in one of the poster maps included with the adventure, which is always a good signal. You have a long central room with a pit and a couple of altars, and one door on each extreme. This room is surrounded by a circular corridor, and around the corridor there are four rooms that are also interconected between them: a room with pools, a jail, a chapel, and a statue chamber. Overall, it's a huge and complex scenario, with few large open spaces, and lots of corners and obstacles that break line of sight.

Prior to the start of the encounter, the adventurers have collected four special items, and need to solve a puzzle with them in order to summon the dragon. The puzzle itself isn't particularly challenging, but it does contribute to the feeling of a climatic battle and, more importantly, requires the PCs to be spread all over the map. Once it is solved, two things happen simultaneously: the dragon arrives, and a series of traps activates throughout the map. Each chamber contains some kind of hazard that damages PCs and hinders their movement. In the corridor, a Sphere of Annihilation (!) appears that moves around, blocking movement and line of sight, and threatening to annihilate characters staying there for too long. Only the central room looks moderately safe, providing the players stay at a safe distance from the huge pit in its center, just in case. Problem is, each turn, one of the two doors leading out of that chamber is blocked by the Sphere.

Meanwhile, the dragon in question is moving through the scenery at lightning speed, picking any isolated PC and running away before the group can react. It is a Young Green Dragon, with an impressive array of methods for hitting and running, and many safeguards to prevent the players from locking him down. Planning a proper assault against it is far from easy, as it moves twice as fast as the adventurers, and the main corridor keeps getting blocked by the Sphere. It lacks the firepower to quickly destroy the PCs, so it tries to wear them down, using the convoluted scenario as both a shield and a weapon.

In our session, it worked out perfectly. The four players (I was playing a human fighter) tried to avoid the traps and join in the central room, to engage the dragon together. From there on, we had to move as fast as possible, with many turns of double run actions, and as many of moving and charging. Even the rogue had a good share of charges, which she managed remarkably well, given the fact that she neither had a good strength or Melee Training. Flanking the wretched creature was out of the question, as we barely managed to get within range - nevertheless, the rogue still managed to outdamage the rest of us out of sheer persistence and accuracy. My fighter prouds himself on his ability to block enemy movement, but in this case I couldn't achieve achieve this, as the Dragon used its powers to move while ignoring my Opportunity attacks.

The warlord also struggled to keep the pace, and was slowed several times, but eventually he got close enough to connect with Lead the Attack. This power is typicaly Game Over against a Solo, but in this case we found out that it only works while within 5 squares of the leader, which wasn't exactly a trivial task. Finally, the wizard (a gnome) kept moving in confusion from one extreme of the central room to the other, unable to get a clear shot to the beast. When she eventually got close enough, her Icy Rays and Ray of Frost proved invaluable to temporarily slow down the foe, but as soon as she missed an attack, it all started over again. She only connected with a couple of powers, but somehow managed to deal the killing blow. It had been a long battle, and we had triggered lots of traps, dealt several critical hits, and not suffered a great deal of damage. But it had been an awesome experience! The encounter was one of the high points in our campaign so far (we are at level 7), and I'll keep it as a reference for building homemade encounters against dragons, in the future. A complete success.
Read More......

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Player's Handbook 3 Debut: The Monk

This month's PHB3 Debut consists in one of the builds for the final version of the Monk class. It is the same build (Centered Breath Monk) that we were presented six months ago as a playtest article, and the changes from one article to the other are nowhere near as many as I would have expected.

From my experience playing with monks, I had the impression that not only were they slightly underpowered as Strikers, but they were also missing something in the 'special' department. The thing is, they do have a unique, fun mechanic in full disciplines (which add both great mobility and flexibility), and the playtest version of flurry of blows was different enough from previously see striker damage mechanics, but still... that didn't seem to be enough. The Unarmed Combatant and Unarmed Defense features were basically a wash, since they changed the aesthetics of the class (no weapons, no armor) in a way that made no mechanical difference. Monks needed a power boost to become competitive, and some kind of new feature to become interesting.

They got their power boost all right, but it turns out that the feature that could make it all work was already there, and only needed a small tweak. Here is the complete list of changes from the playtest version.

  • Changed all weapon powers to implement powers. The monk is now a purely implement-based class, though they can use any weapon they are proficient with as an implement.
  • Monk Unarmed Strike is no longer enchantable, but the same effect can be achieved with a new Magic Item type, Ki Focuses (First seen in the Assassin class description).
  • Overall damage increase, affecting a lot of powers as well as the Flurry of Blows feature.
  • Centered Flurry of Blows now always slides your target, and can actually move it away from you if it wasn't the victim of your original attack.
The first three points are fine, addressing balance concerns and cleaning up the class mechanics. The last one, though, is what finally made everything click for me. Sliding someone every turn is exactly the kind of trick that could make the class stand apart, and the only reason I didn't think of it before is because it was already there, but didn't work quite right.

See, the early implementation was terribly clunky, in that you could only slide a guy if you hadn't targeted him with an attack, and he had to end adjacent to you. So you ended up adjacent to at least two enemies, which is an uncomfortable position for a striker, as even with the monk's increased mobility, it's not that easy to get away from that without taking multiple opportunity attacks. The slide was still a cool maneuver, particularly in any scenario with hampering terrain, but it took a bit too much effort to pull off.
The new version of the flurry slide may not seem too much at first, but it is way, way better. First of all, moving someone away is more often than not what a Striker wants to do with forced movement, particularly when that someone isn't your main target. Depending on your at-will selection, you could have the option of pushing your primary target and running away, or knocking him prone and shifting just short of charge range, which combine well with the ability of sliding away another enemy (or enemies, at Paragon tier and beyond). And second, but also important, moving one or more enemies every turn grants you an amazing control of the battlefield.

Overall, Monks look like a really fun class that can pull its weight in a battle. They have great mobility, and decent single-target damage, but they also have pretty good area attacks, and can kill minions like nobody's business. I'm pretty certain that the Centered Flurry's slide will drive many DMs crazy, and turn any map with a pit into a celebration for PCs. Which is a pity, because I will probably be on the DM side when I see it. My only complaint is that they have only released one feat for the class so far, but thankfully we can houserule some more while we wait for PHB3.
Read More......

Monday, November 23, 2009

November errata: Adventurer's Vault, Avengers, and a lot more!

It had been a while since the last rules update (the brief, but excellent july errata), and some of us were starting to think that issuing errata was no longer considered a priority for Wizards. Nothing farther from the truth! Last week, and coinciding with the monthly DDI update, they released a truly massive errata changing well over a hundred rules issues for almost every book between Player's Handbook and Divine Power.

Some of these were merely typos or minor stuff such as missing keywords, but there is also a whole lot of very significant concerns that have been fixed, including some of the most broken magic items in the game, and fundamental changes in the gameplay of classes such as Avengers, Barbarians, Swordmages and Warlocks. It's impossible to comment on all of it - the whole errata document, including previous updates, now covers a whopping 58 pages, but I'll talk about the highlights. Also, I have compiled a list of changes for each book, which I provide at the end of the article.

1- Adventurer's Vault.

AV is the book that is changed the most, both in number and significance of the changes. The most striking one is probably the complete overhaul to the rules of double weapons, which were way too good, particularly in the hands of Tempest Fighters and Rogues. The new ruling now treats each end as a separate weapon with different keywords - among other things, not all of them count as off-hand anymore. Also, a new keyword 'Stout', has been defined to allow some of them to count as two-handed (which is no longer the default assumption). Finally, the weapons themselves have been adjusted - For example, the infamous Double Sword has a reduced damage die and loses the Heavy Blade keyword, whereas the Double Axe is no longer Defensive.

Apart from that, there are lots of revised magic items, including well-known offenders such as Reckless and Bloodclaw weapons. Most items causing saving throw penalties have been weakened, too, though a few are still missing. Other notable changes include preventing Ritualist Ring from granting discounts to item creation, and stopping reagents from working with at-will powers.

2- Avenger

This is a change that will affect almost every Avenger character out there, as Armor Proficiency (Leather) is no longer a valid feat choice. The Armor of Faith class feature has been changed to work only in Cloth Armor, removing the potential for ridiculously high AC scores (well above those of any Defender class) at Epic Tier. A well deserved fix, in my opinion, since the class' defenses and HP are quite good even without Leather.

3- Barbarian

The first of the Barbarian fixes is a small one: Halflings and Gnomes can now be Barbarians! These races' inability to wield two-handed weapons ruled out most PHB2 at-will powers from that class, but these have been modified so that versatile weapons wielded two-handed are a valid option. Not that they will make particularly powerful builds, but at least they will be possible.

The second fix is balance-related, as it consists on weakening the two strongest encounter powers of the class (and, it could be argued, the whole game). Storm of Blades and Hurricane of Blades were multiattack powers capable of dealing absurd amounts of damage. This change leaves Hurricane of Blades as a bit too good to my taste, but tolerably so. Storm of Blades, on the other hand, seems very reasonable to me now.

4- Swordmage

The silly rule about losing your Swordmage Warding when you were knocked out has been removed, which makes a lot of sense. Although it didn't come up too often, that was an annoying drawback for a class that didn't really deserve it. As another minor boost, the Ensnaring Aegis feature from Arcane Power (as well as any other Aegis that may appear in the future) is now compatible with the feats Double Aegis and Total Aegis, which is a good thing because they are almost essential for high level Swordmages.

5- Warlock

If there is a thing I always hated about the Warlock class, it was its complete inflexibility regarding your selection of at-wills, once you had chosen your pact. There is a change in this rule update that is a small step in the right direction, in this regard: the power Eldritch Strike, which was published as a power card handed out with the Player's Handbook Heroes minis, has been errata-ed so that it can now be taken instead of Eldritch Blast. The power itself is a bit weird, in that it is a melee weapon attack (and a basic one, to boot) on an otherwise completely ranged, implement class. But anything that gets rid of Eldritch Blast is good, in my book.

With this, I have barely scratched the surface of the update, but you can probably have an idea of the most relevant modifications. I strongly recommend to take a look at the whole thing, but you should be warned that it is not a light reading by any means. I don't know how useful it will be, but below you can see a list of all the changes made, for each book.

Read More......

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Forbidden Treasures: Adventurer's Vault weapons and armor

Update: This article really got hit by the Great November Errata, which brought many improvements to the game and particularly to Adventurer's Vault. Many weapons in my list were fixed - some of them just as I proposed, others solving a completely different problem than the one I had found!

I continue my series about broken magic items, with the first article dedicated to Adventurer's Vault. AV is a very complicated book, with a vast amount of items and an above-average concentration of problematic stuff, so today's long list will only cover magic armor and weapons. I explained my criteria for determining overpoweredness in the opening article, but given the length of today's list, I have also introduced a clasification of broken weapons, to quickly identify what is wrong with each one, from my point of view. The three categories are Damage Bonus, for those offering a large, continuous boost to damage (which isn't what a 4E weapon enchantment should do), Critical Bonus, for excessive critical hit triggers (also damage boosters, though in a less regular way) and Save Penalty, for items penalizing saving throws (dangerous in combination with stunning effects). Weapons that don't fall in any of these categories are listed as Miscellaneous.



Problem - AC bonus. With the help of your party leader, it's not that difficult to stay out of bloodied range for the majority of turns of each encounter, if you have a good reason to do so. The defense bonus from that armor is usually well worth it and, as a consequence, it becomes almost permanent. Furthermore, at higher tiers it becomes even better, without requiring that much of an investment in Dexterity - a character with a mere starting Dex value of 13 can naturally benefit from the increased bonus at Paragon, and only at Epic tier would he need to increase that ability in order to gain maximum benefit. These bonuses should be much more limited, both in duration and in requirements.
Solution - Change the property to "Property: While have maximum hit points, you gain an item bonus to AC equal to one half your Dexterity modifier up to a maximum of +1."
Comment - The bonus is way harder to keep active, but this will still come up at least a few rounds every encounter. Also, changing the ability requirement ensures the item is aimed at characters that are actually agile, instead of virtually everybody.


Problem - Damage Bonus. The bonus is very respectable. Frequently active under normal circumstances, and with a reckless strategy you can make it work almost every turn.
Solution - Change property to "While you are bloodied if an enemy has damaged you since your last turn, you deal +1d6 damage when you hit with this weapon."
Comment- The requirement of actually getting hurt by enemies makes abusing this much more complicated. It's still possible to get a virtually continuous bonus if enough enemies focus on the character, but it will be hard for an offense-oriented character to survive in that scenario. Extra damage for defensive characters is much less troublesome.

* Bloodclaw (Update: Bloodclaw is no more. I agree 100% with the change, which happens to be virtually identical to what I proposed.)

Problem -Damage Bonus. Together with Reckless (see below), Bloodclaws are the most common weapon of choice for characters trying to optimize their damage, and with good reason. Their constant HP cost is annoying, but they more than make up for it. Also, in case they weren't absurd enough, the loose wording allows a player to activate the power and then attack (with the bonus!) with a different weapon.
Solution - Change power from At-Will to Encounter. Change the beginning of the last sentence of the weapon property to "If you hit with this weapon...".
Comment- A harsh change, but far from bad enough to make the weapon unplayable. The +1 version becomes mediocre, and the use of one-handed weapons is far from optimal, though. As a strong encounter power, this version is prone to abuse by stacking activations from several lower level items (since attacks affected by that power are profitable even at the cost of a reduced enhancenment bonus), but I intend to address that general loophole with item powers in a future article.

* Bloodiron (Update: Also errataed, though they fixed an ambiguous wording that suggested a recursive effect rather than weakening the weapon. I'd like to see further changes, but I agree that the implemented change was needed.)
Problem - Critical Bonus. You can't get much more ridiculous than this with critical effects. Vicious Weapons are a good benchmark for this kind of items and, although it is acceptable for an item of higher level to be stronger, the disparity in this case is just too much.
Solution - Change the property to "When you score a critical hit with this weapon, deal the extra critical hit damage to the target again the next time you hit the target before your next turn".
Comment - The chance that the following attack will miss and the extra damage is lost weakens the property as much as the need to attack the target one more time in order to get the full effect. Given the amount of damage involved, critical hits with these weapons tended to be the last hits a target received. Nevertheless, this still beats Vicious.

Problem - Damage Bonus. Coupled with a very rare, but devastating, bonus to hit. This is only partially offset by the fact that it is very difficult to exploit in the first two rounds of combat (though even that might work, in a group with other strikers with much higher initiative bonuses). On the other hand, after that point, you will probably be able to jump from one bloodied enemy to the next.
Solution - Change property to: "After you hit with this weapon, if the target is bloodied, the next time you attack it with this weapon before the end of your next turn you gain a +1 item bonus to the attack roll and an item bonus equal to the enhancenment bonus to the damage roll."
Comment - The bonuses are still great, but it will take some effort to get them. It will take really accurate characters to make the most out of this, since one miss means you start all over again. Having one guaranteed attack without bonus against each target is another balancing factor.

Problem - Save Penalty. Just out of principle, this shouldn't work for the whole duration of an effect.
Solution - In the item property, replace "to saving throws" with "to the first saving throw".

Problem - Miscellaneous. This won't come up often as it is one of the most boring possible strategies, but at paragon tier and beyond, the item allows a defender with a strong enough mark to use total defense every turn to become almost unhittable. Even if you have houserules for the most likely candidates for mark abuse, this is dangerously degenerate.
Solution - Replace the property with the following power:
Power(encounter). Free action. Use only when you take the total defense or second wind action. Add the enhancement bonus of this weapon as an item bonus to all of your defenses until the start of your next turn.
Comment - What we are left with isn't the most exciting of weapons, but is really close to the original one in the most common (and fair) scenarios: a character using Second Wind once per encounter, and staying away from Total Defense.

Problem- Damage Bonus A very specific item, as it only works for a single build of a character class. On the other hand, the benefit that Trickster Rogues get from this is nothing short of amazing, and probably the only thing that keeps it from being mandatory to such characters is the even-more-broken stuff like Bloodclaw&Reckless.
Solution - Replace the property with the following power:
Power (Encounter): Free Action. Use when you hit an enemy with this weapon and deal extra damage from your Sneak Attack class feature. add your Charisma modifier to the damage roll. When you reduce an enemy to 0 hit points, regain the use of this power.
Comment - Unlike other cases in this article, I have added the chance to recover this power because I thought it ended up a bit too weak for a level+4 item. Still, it will rarely trigger more than a couple of times per encounter unless there is an abundance of minions. And minion slaying is far from an ideal use of a rogue's abilities, anyway.

* Mage's Weapon (Update: The Parrying Dagger trick still works, but they fixed a potential abuse with the encounter power.)
Problem - Miscelaneous. Easiest way in the game to get a +1 bonus to AC, for a character not proficient with shields or otherwise dependant on two-handed weapons: Buy (or craft) a +1 Mage's Parrying Dagger. Some also dislike the combination with superior heavy blades, but that is a lot more fair, as it still requires you to have a level-appropiate item.
Solution - Replace the property with "Anyone trained in Arcana applies this weapon's proficiency bonus to attacks as though he was proficient with it."
Comment - The effect is almost the same for characters not exploiting defensive weapons. I changed the requirement because it was pointless to have a condition that is met by every single player character in the game - needing arcana matches the weapon's flavor and restricts its use to, you know, mages.

Problem - Critical Bonus. Although I like that such an effect exists as an alternative to the hard to get Weapon Mastery epic feats, it is so strong that having it at anything but the highest enchantment level would make it hard to justify taking most other weapons at paragon (once we have dealt with the greatest offenders in this article, at least).
Solution - Change item levels to 15/20/25/30.

Problem - Damage Bonus. As straightforward as it gets, the radiant weapon will always grant its contant bonus unless you happen to find one of the very few monsters that resist radiant damage in the game. For the rest of damage-boosting weapons I have chosen to reduce frequency of use, but in this case, I feel it's appropiate to leave it as a constant benefit (after adjusting the bonus, of course) due to the fact that it's a maximum level enchantment, and its original intent is clear enough. Also, there is the very significant disadvantage of not stacking with other "Item" bonuses to damage (some of which, by the way, will see a similar adjustment in subsequent articles).
Solution - Replace the property with "When this weapon is used to deal radiant damage, add a +2 item bonus to its damage rolls". Add "Level 25 and 30: +3 item bonus".

* Reckless (Update: Fixed, too.)
Problem -Damage Bonus.The second member of the Reckless & Bloodclaw unholy duo, this weapon has a lot in common with its sister. A slightly less brutal boost is compensated by a relatively inexpensive activation, particularly in the optimal scenario of multiple attacks per round, since the AC penalty doesn't stack.
Solution - Replace the power with:
"Power (Encounter): Free Action. Use this power before making a melee attack with this weapon against an adjacent target. You gain a power bonus to that attack’s damage roll equal to twice this weapon’s enhancement bonus. You take a –2 penalty to AC until the end of your next turn. If you are hit while this penalty is active, regain the use of this power."
Comment - The power recovery clause isn't necessary from a balance point of view, as the enchantment should be good enough without it, but I found it fun enough to risk adding it.

Problem - Critical Bonus. Like Bloodiron before, this enchantment pushes too far the benefit for scoring a critical hit.
Solution - Remove the "1d6 damage per plus" line from the Critical line.
Comment - Taking away the extra critical dice, it's not immediately obvious if just having an extra attack is stronger or weaker than other critical triggers. The answer depends heavily on the degree of optimization of each character. It's still a cool effect with interesting interactions, though.

Problem - Damage Bonus. Other enchantments listed here provide higher damage boosts, or do so unconditionally, but this is still a respectable, untyped increase, and the Combat Advantage condition is very easy to meet through flanking. Though it isn't the most aberrant of weapons, it still crosses the line for me.
Solution - Change the property to "When attacking with combat advantage, if you are the only creature adjacent to your target, add extra damage equal to this weapon's enhancenment bonus to the damage roll."
Comment - Requiring you, and only you to be adjacent to the target is the subtle way of preventing this weapon to work while flanking. There are plenty of other ways of gaining combat advantage (most of them involving conditions on the target), but it's not exactly a trick that can be pulled at-will. I have left the bonus untyped because an Item bonus would make it a bit too weak for my taste, and there is no way to justify a Power bonus.

Problem - Damage Bonus. It only works in dedicated charger builds, but it's quite efficient if your character is constantly charging.
Solution - Change property to: "after you hit with a charge attack, your next melee attack against that target before the end of your next turn deals +1d6 thunder damage. Level 23 or 28: +2d6 thunder damage.".
Comment - Though it is possible for a character to make charge attacks almost every turn, doing so without switching targets is much more complicated. As a consequence, using this weapon as a sustained source of single target damage should require a lot of effort. Characters who charge frequently should still be able to trigger this at least a couple of times per encounter, making this a tempting enchantment. Finally, the chosen mechanic was inspired by the Echoes of Thunder concept, which is a theme I like for the damage type.

Problem - Damage Bonus. Like Thundergod above, this shines for dedicated chargers, although the bonus in this one is stronger at lower levels, and a bit worse at higher ones. In this case, there is the added benefit of a decent daily power.
Solution - Add "if the target has maximum hit points" at the end of the property line.
Comment - Limited to once per target, difficult to maximize damage while focusing fire. The kind of play encouraged by the new ruling - being the first to charge to battle, moving from one foe to another - goes well with my concept of 'vanguard'.

Problem - Save Penalty. Just out of principle, this shouldn't work for the whole duration of an effect.
Solution - In the item property, replace "to saving throws" with "to the first saving throw".
Read More......

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Forbidden treasures: Broken magic items in Player's Handbook

Update: The Great November Errata fixed one item in my blacklist, the Rod of Reaving. I'm glad, as it is probably the one that needed it the most. Now, if only they took a look at that helm...

Choosing magic items is the part I enjoy the least of building and leveling a character (or, as a DM, of planning encounters). There's just too many items, and I find most of them either too weak or uninteresting. This still leaves (after a bit of tedious filtering) a good amount of reasonable choices, but the presence of overpowered stuff renders all but a few of these obsolete. In order to improve the situation, I have started to compile a list of broken items, along with rule patches that bring them closer to my idea of balance.

The criteria I'm using to clasify items as overpowered are the following:
  • Static modifiers, when present, should't affect the primary game statistics. Anything granting a flat, non-enhancenment bonus to defenses (and AC in particular), hit, or damage is suspect. Conditional modifiers can be fair game, as long as the conditions are difficult enough to meet - if something can reliably work almost every turn, it should be subject to the same rules as continuous bonuses.
  • Strong daily powers are accepted, and even encouraged. In fact, it's hard to find examples of a daily power making an item too strong. The same can't be said about encounter or at-will powers - these tend to be easy to abuse.
Here's the list of offenders for the first Player's Handbook. I actually intended to include stuff from Player's Handbook 2, too, but I couldn't find anything that screamed broken to me. This is something remarkable, even considering the relatively few items in that book.

* Rod of reaving (Update: This item has been errataed. It's ability now only works on non-minions, which while not too elegant, is a perfectly serviceable solution)
This rod does horrible, horrible things to minions. Of course, in my experience, minions already have a hard time surviving past the first two round of any encounter, but this item's property allows you to kill one each turn, without any kind of attack roll, at the mere cost of a minor action. It could also be combined with various other Warlock feats and items, to curse several enemies in a given turn, annihilating armies of minions at once, though that is likely overkill.

Fix: Add this at the end of the item's Property: "this damage can't reduce an enemy to 0 hit points".

Comments: It was a pity that an interesting mechanic for damage dealing got overshadowed by it's application for minion slaughter. With the minion interaction gone, we are left with a magic item capable of dealing a remarkable amount of extra damage over the course of an encounter, but spread in such a way that it is not too troublesome.

The boots aren't so much broken as too good for their level. They feature an effect (ignoring the worst part of being knocked prone, which is losing a move action) that I would find competitive for a paragon, or maybe even an epic magic item for the same slot. I usually don't bother with correcting a magic item's level, but these boots are tied for the lowest level for magical footwear in the game, which is a bit too much for me.

Fix: Change power from at-will to Encounter. Add a Level 12 version with "this power becomes an at-will power".

If your character is melee oriented and capable of charging (having Str as a primary ability, or Melee Training), this item is too good to pass. The damage bonus is huge, and it's not that difficult to make a charge every other turn, so it can come up quite often. Worn by a character without a specific dedication to charge attacks, this will more often than not make charges more effective than at-will powers, changing the default strategy to 'charge whenever possible', and resulting in a slight damage increase overall. However, it really shines with specialized chargers, such as Barbarians or some Druid builds - to the point of brokenness.

Fix: Remove property, add the following power.
Power (Encounter): Free action. Use this power when you hit with a charge attack. The attack deals an extra 1d6 damage.
Level 16: 2d6 extra damage.
Level 26: 3d6 extra damage.
Read More......

Friday, November 6, 2009

Inglourious basterd sword rogues

Today in DDI we have another marvelous article by Mike Mearls, who redefined the Wizard class only two days ago. It's devoted to the Rogue, and only three pages long, but the density of good options is such that its impact on the class is almost comparable to that of Martial Power.

It's not so much power creep as the complete eradication of anything resembling filler material - almost every power and feat presented here is playable, and some are serious contenders as the best ones in their slots. This has a lot of merit, as I think rogues are one of the most difficult classes to design encounter powers for, and the only way to make such attacks shine seemed to be turning them into minor or immediate actions. Every attack in this article costs a standard action, and still they manage to be awesome.

The article is themed around Duelist Rogues, who are focused in melee and like isolating enemies and fighting them without support, something that was previously almost impossible to pull off with the class. Crucially, there are now feats and powers that allow Sneak Attacking in melee without flanking. A new at-will called Duelist's Flurry slides and deals this damage at the cost of losing the weapon damage die, making it the perfect backup power. Melee rogues will still want to flank (attacking with other at-wills) in order to deal as much damage as possible, but having this as an option is a good safeguard for the times it isn't possible to do so. The power will also see ocasional use even with combat advantage, just because of the slide. The other Sneak Attack enabler is a feat called Flash of the Blade, which works only with rapiers and allows using the class feature if both you and the target have nobody else adjacent.

It's a good thing that rapiers got an important boost, as they are getting fierce competitors in the high-damage rogue weapon department. In what is likely the most significant contribution in this article, the new feat Versatile Duelist allows all (one handed) heavy blades to be used with both rogue powers and Sneak Attack, and grants proficiency with the military ones to boot. This means that a rogue can now use a Longsword as easily as a Rapier (at the cost of a feat), and more importantly that Bastard Swords (and their sweet d10 damage) also become an option, even if they cost a whooping two feats.

As for the power selection, most are variations on two main mechanics. The first one is granting additional movement (shifting a good deal of squares) and significant bonuses to defenses when you attack, helping the squishy rogues to actually survive when isolating their prey. The other one puts the rogue in a sort of temporary defensive stance for a turn, enabling counterattacks against enemies targeting the rogue, or just passing by. A power that stands out is the Level 5 daily Duelist's Demand which, if it works, makes an opponent incapable of escaping from you and granting you combat advantage for the rest of the encounter! This is probably the best 'duel' style power I have seen to date.

A must read for anyone remotely related to a Rogue.

Read More......

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

RIP: Scorching Burst

(Update: As of March, 2010, Winged Horde has received errata that considerably reduces the power's damage. As a consequence of this, Scorching Burst becomes a legitimate option again, as the Wizard power of choice for area damage. Rise from your ashes, scorching burst!)

It seems it was only yesterday when I first opened my 4E Player's Handbook and read the Wizard class. I almost immediately fell in love with Scorching Burst, the straightforward, reliable area attack that could be used turn after turn. For me, this was what set apart the controller role (which at the time consisted exclusively of Wizards) from other classes. Later, I would learn of the subtle ways of the controller, and find that damaging a 3x3 area is far from the most powerful thing you could do with one. But I still stood by Scorching Burst, which brought fun for me, and pain for my enemies.

More rule books came, crowding the controller role, and the new powers put it clear that the original burst attack was no longer deemed good enough. Other classes became capable of creating bursts that were as damaging, but also imposed severe penalties on the targets. Even non-controllers were given better area attacks. Finally, some particularly strong prayers had the power of hurting hordes of foes that weren't confined in small spaces, without risk of hurting the attacker's allies. And yet, Scorching Burst endured, as Wizards had no better option for pure damage at range.

There was a brief glimmer of hope, found in tomes of Arcane Power, when Wizards discovered the way to Enlarge their bursts, and to combine them with Ice magic for lethal effects. I thought the old spell might, after all, find its place of power among controllers. But it was not to last.

The latest Class Acts article for Wizards in DDI (which, by the way, is easily among the best material I have read so far in the magazines, so you should definitely check it out) has signed the death sentence of Scorching Burst, with a new Wizard at-will (called Winged Horde) that improves the basic burst 1 attack in two very significant ways: it prevents targets from taking opportunity actions, and it no longer hurts friendly targets in the area. The new spell deals Psychic damage instead of Fire, but that won't stop most arcane users from writing it in their tomes.

Farewell, Scorching Burst. You were always my favourite Square Fireball. Somehow, I will miss your friendly fire.

Read More......

Martial Power 2: Two-Handed Rangers and Ranged Warlords?

In today's Ampersand article in DDI, we are shown a new mechanic from Martial Power 2, called Combat Styles, which grants bonuses with specific weapons to certain powers, both at-will and encounter. The really interesting part, though, is how the previewed styles strongly suggest what two of the new builds in the book will be.

The ranged Warlord build, hinted by a combat style called Adamant Arrow, is confirmed to be capable of using longbows, though it is too early to know if there will also be support for thrown weapons, and whether the primary ability will still be Strength, or something different like Dexterity. What is certain is that a new at-will called Paint the Bull's Eye will consist on a ranged weapon attack.

The idea that there will be a two-handed weapon Ranger, on the other hand, comes from a style called Black Hood Student, which was already present in an earlier playtest article. Among other changes from that version, the ranger at-will previously (and wrongly) supposed to be used with two-handed axes was Careful Strike though, like most ranger melee powers, it required dual wielding. On the latest preview, however, they mention a new power, called Marauder's Rush. I'd bet that that one works properly with Greataxes, and that it is not the only one in the book to do so.
Read More......

Thursday, October 15, 2009

New feats for the Seeker class

Following the tradition I started with the monk and psion reviews, here are some homebrew feats for your brand new Seeker characters. As usual, I provide a couple of straightforward yet useful multiclass feats, as well as a few more creative ideas. Enjoy!

Expansive Shot
Prerequisite: Seeker, Inevitable Shot class feature
Benefit: When making a ranged attack, you can take a –2 penalty to the attack roll. If the attack hits, you treat creatures within 2 squares of the target as if they were adjacent to the target, for the purposes of any effect caused by the attack.

Familiar Terrain
Prerequisite: Seeker
Benefit: When you create a zone with a Seeker power, enemies gain vulnerable 2 against your attacks and damaging effects while within the zone. Increase the vulnerability to 3 at 11th level, and 4 at 21st level.

Hunter's Focus
Prerequisite: Seeker, Inevitable Shot class feature
Benefit: When you hit an enemy with a ranged basic attack, you gain a +1 bonus to attack rolls with non-basic ranged attacks against that enemy until the end of your next turn.

Guidance of the Earth Spirits
Prerequisite: Any primal class
Benefit: When you make a ranged attack against a prone enemy, that enemy grants combat advantage to you and doesn't get a defense bonus from being prone.

Archery Training [multiclass Seeker]
Prerequisite: Dex 13
Benefit: You gain training in the Nature skill.
Choose a 1st-level seeker at-will power. You can use that power once per encounter.

Initiate of the Bow [multiclass Seeker]
Prerequisite: Dex 13
Benefit: You gain training in one skill from the seeker’s class skill list.
Once per day, you can use the Seeker's Inevitable Shot power.
Read More......

Toning down resistances, vulnerabilities and immunities

Last weekend I DM'ed the fifth level of Dungeon Delve,Tomb of the Tiefling Empress, which features a selection of monsters with more different resistances and vulnerabilities than any other adventure I've seen to date. In addition to the usual damage types related to Undead creatures (radiant, necrotic, poison), my players had to think hard on how to use their fire and cold attacks. We also had the ideal party to show off these mechanics, as there were both a Seeker (who got frustrated by the uselessness of his poison attacks) and an Invoker (who ruled the day with Hand of Radiance and Invocation of Ice and Fire). There was a very satisfying moment, when the players managed to position their enemies so that they were devastated by their own damaging auras.

After the Delve was over (with most of the party knocked out, and the Elf Seeker puttign to good use his amazing mobility), I started thinking about resistances and vulnerabilities, and their effect on the game. The session had proved that these mechanics could serve to create fun challenges. However, it also confirmed my previous impressions about their effects being too extreme. It's not that you deal less damage against certain enemies and more against others - even the most humble of resistances (typically 5, at heroic tier) make attacks of the chosen element almost worthless. On the other hand, some attacks can deal more than double the usual amount because of vulnerabilities. And things only get worse when the damage comes in small packets, such as ongoing damage or auras.

I think resistances and vulnerabilities could be more interesting, without becoming irrelevant, if their effect was slightly subtler. I want a character to be able to use a power (say, one of their cool encounters or dailies) against a resistant enemy without completely wasting an action. Conversely, an at-will exploiting a vulnerability shouldn't be so good as to render encounters or dailies with different damage types pointless. So I've come up with a houserule, consisting on setting a cap for both resisted and vulnerated damage. It reads as follows:

Resist - Add: "The damage resisted from an enemy attack or an effect caused by an enemy can't be greater than half the original amount of damage dealt".

Vulnerable - Add: "The extra damage taken due to a vulnerability can't be greater than half the original amount of damage dealt. If multiple vulnerabilities apply, each one can cause damage up to this limit."

Although this ruling meets my objectives for most cases, we could go even further. Some damage types, and poison in particular, are really undesirable for players due to the fact that a huge number of monsters are Immune to them. Now, it's likely that you weren't familiar with the rules for Immunity (I wasn't). To put it bluntly, they are a mess. Against conditions, it more or less works as expected, preventing you from being affected by them. But then there's the Immunity to damage types, which prevents the damage but nothing else, and immunity to a series of keywords, which stops non-damaging effects without protecting against the actual damage. Finally, in case things weren't confusing enough, immunity to gaze (and gaze only) completely negates attacks with the keyword.

Since these Immunity rules are so lackluster, I changed my original idea of tweaking them a bit and have thought of a new, clearer definition. It may not be too rigorous, but I wanted attacks against immune creatures to deal some damage - again, half damage is a convenient amount. The protection against non-damaging effects can stay and, in fact, I like the idea of extending it to all kinds of immunity. So changing some functionality and adding some consistency, we are left with this:

Immune - A creature that is immune to a condition (such as dazed or petrified) or another specific effect (such as disease or forced movement) is not affected by it. A creature that is immune to a keyword is not affected by the nondamaging effects of a power that has that keyword, and only takes half damage from such a power.
Read More......