Thursday, April 23, 2009

Not at the beginning of turn: Fighter Stances

I have this thing with effects that work at the beginning of an enemy's turn. It's not just that I think they are overpowered -they usually are- but rather, that were several options to express the same game function, and they chose the worst possible one. Consider, for example, the difference with something that triggers at the end of your own turn. Outside of some corner cases of you or your target being slid or pushed by third parties between your initiative turns, both wordings are equivalent. Why, then, do I think one of them is wrong?

Let's use Rain of Steel, arguably the best Fighter daily attack power in its level, as an example. Its wording may lead to false assumptions. By having the damage take place during the enemy's turns, a reader can, as a first impression, think that that enemy is somehow responsible of that damage. That he is taking it as a consecuence of previous actions, or that he could have done something to prevent it. In short, the power is punishing opponents for being next to the fighter. But that is not true.

Imagine that the same power was written in the following way:

There are a few very minor functional changes here, but essentially this works just like the previous version. However, now it should be more clear to the reader that the power's only purpose is to deal extra damage to whoever you move next to. And, by the way, it's very good at what it does.

However, I'm not writing today's article merely to complain about unfortunate templating, or to suggest cosmetic changes. See, even if my perception of Rain of Steel (as a power that punished enemies for their choice of movement) was a lie, it was a lie that I liked. Maybe the game designers just wanted a power that dished inconditional damage all along, but I'm convinced that it would play better if the enemy was given a chance to avoid the damage. Not only would it be more balanced, but it would have far more strategic depth, and be more fun to play, both for players and DMs.

So, how would I (supposedly) improve this Fighter Stance? Just a simple fix - change the effect to trigger at the end of enemies' turns. It may not seem like much, but it makes the power much more interactive. Although your opponents now have a choice to avoid the automatic damage,
the alternatives aren't pretty - since taking opportunity attacks from a fighter is usually a losing rproposition, shifting and getting hit with Combat Challenge becomes the lesser evil. Even if the stance is weakened overall, this new version is now without its advantages, as enemies who charge you or otherwise engage you in melee will be punished. The limited playtesting I have made so far (you don't use daily powers that often, after all) has been very promising, as almost every turn I had a chance to make opportunity attacks or combat challenge attacks.

This is what it would look like:

There are several, higher level Fighter powers using the same mechanic. The revised versions are shown below:

About the power of Rain of Steel

(Warning: this paragraph contains some math. Feel free to skip it if you're not interested in the numbers) To justify the my balancing issues with RoS, let me explain just how much damage this kind of power amounts to. A non-optimized level 5 fighter with Strenth 18, a +1 Bastard sword and weapon focus should deal 1d10+6 damage on a basic attack hit, for an average of 11.5. If he can hit an enemy 60% of the time, this amounts to 6,6 average damage per attack. A single trigger of Rain of Steel, which needs no roll to hit, would deal 7,5 average damage - that is slightly higher than a basic attack, but a bit lower than some at-will powers. As contrast, a simple, pure damage daily power, like Brute Strike would make 3d10+6 (average 22) damage on a hit, or 13.2 per attack. That is less than what you'd make in the first turn you used Rain of Steel (with a minor action) and, say, a basic attack (with the standard action) against the same opponent (about 14 on average). And we're not even counting that RoS lasts for the whole encounter, and can hit several enemies at once.

Granted, Brute Strike is a pretty bad daily, and this is a particular scenario. Switching to a 2-handed weapon, like a Mordenkrad(and assuming, for simplicity, that hit rate doesn't change) would increase it's damage to an average of 30*0.6=18, whereas the basic attack+RoS trigger would be 14*0.6+10=18.4. Increasing the hit rate would benefit Brute Strike, but higher damage bonuses (which are more frequent) would favor RoS. Anyway, the point is: RoS deals a LOT of damage, turn after turn, to many targets.


  1. Rain of Steel would probably be less problematic if it wasn't a damage roll. If you did X damage (either an ability score or whatever, or perhaps just 2 damage but you added your enhancement bonus) then that cuts down on all those things that add bonuses to damage rolls. And makes it comparable to, say, the 16th level power of ... whatever that Ranger Paragon Path is. Really good-probably too good for a 5th level daily (Salve of Power anyone? Though I still prefer Wizard's Fury or Flaming Sphere for 1st level dailies!)-but I wouldn't necessarily call it game breaking...

  2. I know it's a really old post but I wanted to say that I like your fix a lot, and will surely try it, although I will add an "and not prone" clause to the end. I'm already a bit against opportunity attacks made by prone combatants, to accept the swings and flourishes, neccesary to picture these kind of stances operating, being made by someone who is not at least standing on his feet.

    Also, I would like to hear your take on what I think are the worst offenders to the "at the beggining of turn" issue, which are the damaging zones, like Flaming Sphere, Stinking Cloud, Blade Barrier, and the like. Apart form the potential exploit for a "pingpong" effect (pull from the zone, then push to the zone), their encounter durations tend to outshine the rest of the damaging options of their level (take Stinking Cloud vs Fireball, even the revamped one).

    To summarize my own view, I think creatures should only receive this damage once per round, and either when
    - the zone is placed upon them (and they were outside it)
    - they enter the zone
    - at the end of their turn if they stay inside the zone

    This, I think, should fix the pingpong, and unify format, but alas, does nothing to fix the power level.

    Anyway, awesome blog and greetings from another spanish player.

  3. I don't know about the proning thing... adding a 'not prone' clause to all these powers seems a bit too specific to my taste. I'd rather prevent prone characters from making opp. attacks altogether - though that has the problem of making the prone and dazed condition very similar...

    As for the worst offenders for damage at the beginning of turn, I pretty much agree with your list, with a honorary mention to wall of fire. But there are a good lot of powers just as good as these, which is the reason why I haven't ever got to compiling a list.

    As a guideline, anything that deals damage at the start of every turn, without attack roll, and with a damage roll is likely prone to abuse. I'd suggest taking away either condition to make the powers more fair - move it to the end of turn, or make them roll to hit, or make a fixed, reduced amount of damage.

    And then there's the issue with triggering a zone multiple times per turn, which isn't easy to pull off, but can be devastating. Somehow limiting it to once per turn would be in order.

  4. My main concern is that, as much as "Start of Turn" isn't very controllery, we don't want to underpower wizard powers just because we don't like Start of Turn. After all, my insanely slide-spam optimized Wizard/Psion *still* doesn't deal nearly as much damage with a daily nova sliding enemies into and out of stinking cloud as the rogue does!

    Personally, I tend to think the real solution should be 1/turn, as opposed to 1/round. That way, a creature can be pushed into a zone multiple times, but only if it's by multiple creatures, or via opportunity attacks or the like-zones are dailies, so they need to have a serious lasting impact. But it is true that Slide 10 type effects can get out of hand (but since virtually all are single target, all it does is turn a wizard into a striker, or turn a Harrowstorm Warlock into more of a striker).