Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fixing the math: A case against Expertise feats

Unlike other overpowered feats, Implement Expertise (and its cousins Weapon and Focused) was never intended to be balanced. Although feats as absurdly strong as these are usually the consequence of hasty development or lack of playtesting, this time the reason was different: It's an attempt to fix a problem with the game's core mechanics. In today's article, I'll discuss what problem they were meant to solve, why I'm not completely satisfied with the result, and some alternate solutions that might work better.

The problem lies in the game's math. 4e has a remarkably straightforward model behind character progression, since both attack rolls and defenses increase at a constant rate of +1 per level. The idea is brilliant, and among other things it allows DMs to upgrade or downgrade monsters on the fly, as well as ensuring that the success rate of attacks remains the same (typically between 50% and 60%) across levels, both for monsters and PCs. At least, that's the theory, because there's a tiny problem with how it got implemented: they got it wrong.

To be fair, the error is small, though not insignificant. The attack bonus for a level 30 player character is actually 3 points (i.e. 15%) below what it should be. This gap has grown over the course of many levels, becoming noticeable at Paragon tier, and painful at Epic. Monster attacks and player defenses do increase as expected. This difference doesn't make the game unplayable by any means, but it does result in harder, longer encounters at higher levels. Also, the reduced chance to hit makes player actions slightly more frustrating. It is rumored that the game designers were perfectly aware of this from the beginning, and intended for paragon and epic tier encounters to be increasingly challenging. Also, this would be somewhat compensated by the increased access to attack boosting effects, particularly from Leader characters.

By the time Player's Handbook 2 was released, it's obvious that the official stance had changed, as the book featured Expertise feats for weapons and implements that provided an unprecedented, overpowered, and gradually increasing bonus to attack rolls that topped out at a very convenient +3. The attack progression issue would be corrected, as long as every player took the appropiate feat. And they inevitably would, since they would be the most powerful feats anyways. Case solved.

There is something I really dislike about this approach, though - the game now has a mandatory feat. Most other feats, no matter how good, can at least be sometimes ignored, even if only by specific character builds. There is the rare Dwarf out there not interested in Weapon Training (being an implement user, of course). Not everybody can afford the hideously broken avenger multiclass feats. The closest I can think of, in terms of being universally taken, are the Superior Weapon Proficiency feats, though those are also ignored by implement wielders, and they are somewhat interesting because you do have a choice of different weapons to take. The only choice related to Expertise feats is 'when'. You might as well grant everybody a +1/+2/+3 to hit and remove one feat slot, and the effect would almost be the same.

The increased chance to hit is good for the game, and I welcome it, but by removing choice from one precious feat slot, building characters becomes less fun and varied. The problem becomes even worse for classes that usually benefit from multiple weapons, implements, or combinations thereof, such as Paladins, Bards, or Wizards taking the Second Implement feat, since they need multiple expertise feats in order to remain competitive. At least, as a partial patch, the Focused Expertise feat allows PCs using a single item as weapon and implement (Swordmages and Monks) to benefit from Expertise goodness with a single feat. To me, even that is too much - in order to get this needed adjustment, players shouldn't have to sacrifice anything.

My suggestion, then, is to give the bonus for free, without any cost to the players. I will show two ways of achieving this - one is what I would have liked to see in PHB2, and the other is a more practical way to implement it for your campaign.

The ideal solution

The game already had a proven method for dealing with the kind of adjustments that were needed for attack modifiers: Masterwork Armors had successfully solved this same problem, for Armor Class, in the first Player's Handbook. Why didn't the designers choose the same path for attack bonuses? It wouldn't have been difficult to create a series of masterwork weapons and implements that granted an extra bonus to hit, something like:

Magic Weapon/Implement
Level - Masterwork type - Hit bonus - Enhancenment bonus
1-5 - * - +0 - +1
6-15 - Masterwork 1 - +1 - +2
16-25 - Masterwork 2 - +2 - + 4
26-30 - Masterwork 3 - +3 - +6

I think this would have been a good patch to include in PHB2, but it isn't very practical if you intend to use it as a house rule. What kills it, for me, is the fact that it's currently impossible to add this kind of bonuses to a weapon or to individual powers in the Character Builder. Since I'm a Character Builder junkie, and I've become almost physically unable to write character sheets by hand (which led to great suffering with the Assassin release last month), I had to discard this solution in favor of a simpler, if less elegant, one.

The solution that works

This houserule lacks the beauty of the previous idea, but it has the advantage of actually working. It can be explained in two short steps:

- Step 1: Ban all expertise feats.
- Step 2: At level 5, grant all PCs as many Weapon Expertise and Implement Expertise feats as they need. Feel free to add more whenever they need it.

Adding extra feats on Character Builder is pretty easy to do. On the feats tab, above the list of chosen feats, there is a 'houserule' icon you can click to give the character additional feat slots. You can see it on the images below (click to enlarge).

Adding extra feat slots in Character Builder

Choosing feats for your additional slots


  1. I'll use the second solution in the next campaign I'll be mastering. ;)

    A very good post.

  2. I came to a similar conclusion in my game. However, the feats neglect many other aspects of the game, like racial power attacks, some paragon powers, alchemical items and improvised attacks. I always encourage use of these varied abilities and tactics in my games. So, I simply gave all my players a +1 to all attack rolls, which increases to +2 and +3 at paragon and epic. Granted, there is no way to do this in the character builder.

  3. I almost totally disagree with everything said in this article. I do not see the Weapon Expertise feat being mandatory at all. Everything depends on the type of character one decided to build. A lot of people, like the author of the article, have a myopic view of the game and seem to think that everything revolves around toe-to-toe fitting rather than using strategy, terrain advantage, and combat advantage.

    Being a striker, you may think that I'm crazy for not getting Weapon rogue that focuses a lot on invisibility has not taken Weapon Expertise and still does very well in combat at the epic tier by gaining combat advantage nearly 100% of the time. My rogue has some powers that target defenses other than AC so that he has chances to hit that are almost as good as someone that has taken Weapon Expertise.

    The only thing I agree with is that Weapon Expertise has an edge of some other feats (for example, why would a rogue take +1 to attack with CA Nimble Blade feat before taking the passive +1/2/3 to attack Weapon Expertise feat).

    The argument falls flat considering it's possible to list a ton of feats that are useless to some builds and extremely useful to other builds.

    Using the rogue example again, one might argue that the Backstabber feat is essential. I find it essential for my build but I'm not going to scream at the top of my lungs that WotC can't balance the game because they've forced rogues to take this feat...because frankly, I can think of rogue builds that don't put so much focus on gaining combat advantage and dealing a maximum of 10 extra damage on a Sneak Attack at the epic tier.

    There are very many feats that match or exceed Weapon Expertise's so-called "overpoweredness" that I'd pick before Weapon Expertise...two that come to my mind are Agile Athlete and Quick Draw. Picking the better result of two d20 rolls on an Acrobatics or Athletics check is pretty important in life or death situations. Being able to draw the melee or ranged weapon I want, or grabbing the potion I need with an attack action is also, IMO, much more important than gaining a better chance at hitting.

    My character is geared for survival and outlasting the enemy. I don't need no stinkin' Expertise with my weapon because I know I'll eventually kill my foes.

    I'm sure someone can argue the same case for Implement Expertise.

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  5. Let me also make the point clear that feats weren't created to be equal. Some feats are meant to be stronger because they represent a foundation for certain builds. And some feats are meant to be weaker because they are meant to be stacked with the foundation feats.

    Taking my rogue for example, I would never pick Nimble Blade (+1 to attack with combat advantage) before picking Light Blade Expertise (+1/2/3 to attack in any situation). Anyone can see that Light Blade Expertise is much more powerful than Nimble Blade -- however, Nimble Blade stacks with Light Blade Expertise to further specialize my rogue and give him an edge. Knowing that my rogue can get combat advantage almost all the time, it would make sense to take both feats for a +6 bonus to attack with combat advantage at level 25+.

    Another example is Skill Focus. It only grants +3 to a chosen trained skill. But it's to further specialize a build. You can't pick Skill Focus for a skill you're not trained in...that's not a catch though, it's in a sense to prevent stupid people from taking it before taking Skill Training which is obviously better. It would be akin to putting a prereq (Light Blade Expertise) on Nimble Blade.

    Another case could be made with Distant Shot and Far Shot and Far Throw. In almost all cases, Distant Shot is the smartest first pick (a foundation feat) -- you've essentially doubled your range (since the -2 penalty for long range is ignored). Compared to Far Shot and Far Throw which only increase the normal and long range by a few squares, Distant Shot seems like the best first pick to many except perhaps those that don't mind to take the -2 penalty but have the long range extended.

    Far Shot and Far Throw, however, fall in in the "stacking" category. They're weak on their own but can further specialize a build by improving upon a foundation feat. Distant Shot to remove all long range penalties (doubling any ranged weapon's normal range) and then stack Far Throw or Far Shot to add to the range.

    Weapon Expertise is certainly a foundation feat but not a must-have/mandatory/essential feat. The nuance is that a foundation feat should be taken before some other weaker feats that are meant to stack/extend/improve/augment.

  6. Khaan,

    Forgive me if I can't discuss all your points here, as you are talking about a lot of things, but I'll answer as well as I can.

    The main point of disagreement is whether the Expertise feats are mandatory, and your rogue example proves that this is, at least in some cases, not true. I made a very bold statement ('they are the best feats you can take') without many real arguments to back it up, and that is my fault. Also, I probably didn't explain well enough what I meant by it. On the other hand, the post was already quite long, and such a demonstration is hard and not a particularly interesting read. I'll try now.

    I don't think "XYZ Expertise" is the first feat every single PC should take. On the other hand, they are feats with virtually no restrictions as to who can take them, with a power level that is extremely high. A level 30 character without any kind of expertise either has a damn good reason for ignoring the feat (I'll go over your rogue later), or is poorly built. I am inclined to think that most of the times, it will be the latter. But even without going to such extremes, say, at 10th level (before Expertise reaches its full potential) , I doubt there are many builds that wouldn't be improved by having Expertise as one of their feats.

    True, sometimes Expertise isn't what you're looking for for your character. If you're interested in skills, there are the trainings and focuses. If you want to improve your defenses, you take armor proficiencies and specializations, and toughness. So, does that leave us with improving damage output as the only justification for Expertise? Even in that niche, sometimes other choices (weapon proficiencies, backstabber) are superior, at least before Expertise 'level ups' at mid-paragon.

    However, the contribution of Expertise goes beyond better average damage (though it's quite good at that). Much of a character's effectiveness depends on successfully rolling to hit every turn. A defender's ability to protect his allies, or even himself, improve when he hits. Same with leaders getting extra healing or boosting allies, or controllers imposing conditions on enemies. Even Strikers, often seen as mindless damage dealing machines, have lots of powers that prevent their targets from striking back... but only if they hit. It's hard to find a character that won't improve a lot at whatever he does, by taking Expertise.

    If Expertise never got better than a +1 bonus, it would just be a very powerful and bland feat that is strictly better than cooler options, like Nimble Blade or Arcane Spellfury, and I would have complained a bit, and then put up with it. But when the bonus gets to +2, or even +3, it contributes to a character's attacks more than almost any other feat. If there is some other attack boosting feat that rivals with what Expertise does beyond Paragon (say, a Weapon Mastery feat, and that would be debatable), it certainly has more strict requirements than "using a weapon, or an implement, or both". A feat that all rogues, or all dwarves take isn't as bad as one that all characters of any kind have to get. Not that I like the predominance of Backstabber or Dwarven Training, but they are smaller problems.

    'Mandatory' is probably too strong a word to define the status of the Expertise feats. But they are ubiquitious, and way too good (at least at Paragon Tier), and a poor solution for what they're trying to solve. Using your terminology, these feats are foundation feats that happen to work for almost every character build.

  7. As a side note, I wanted to discuss some numbers regarding the chance to hit of a rogue. A rogue, and particularly one that uses daggers and piercing strike-like powers, is probably the most accurate character in the game. With a quick build in Character builder (Starting dex of 20, using level-appropiate magic weapons, Expertise, Daggermaster, and Demigod) I get the following bonuses to hit, before combat advantage.

    lv 21 - +30
    lv 26 - +35
    lv 30 - +38

    To put it in context, I'll use normalized bonuses, as explained in a different blog post:

    Below is a comparison of the values with expertise and without, with the normalized bonus between parenteses.

    With Exp.(normalized bonus) / Without Exp.(normalized bonus)

    lv 21 - +30 (+n9) / +28 (+n7)
    lv 26 - +35 (+n9) / +32(+n6)
    lv 30 - +38 (+n8) / +35(+n5)
    lv1 - 10(n9) / 9 (n8)

    When attacking vs. Reflex, the maximum chance to hit an average enemy of the same level (following the table in the mentioned post) is 95%, which you get with a normalized bonus of +10. If you have Combat Advantage, you only need a +8.

    Comparing these values to the 'hit cap', we find that, indeed, for a rogue focused on using piercing strike-like powers with a dagger, part of the expertise bonus is wasted at levels 21 and 26. You are apparently playing one of the less Expertise-friendly characters possible.

    That doesn't mean expertise is a dead feat for those builds, though. A rogue with Expertise can use Disheartening Strike with as much accuracy (i.e. almost 95%) as one without when using Piercing Strike, so you could consider that the feat effectively grants you +2 defense against one enemy. It would also be useful when fighting higher level monsters. But it definitely wouldn't be nowhere near "mandatory".

    I haven't calculated as much, but as an exercise, how many offense-boosting feats are there for a rogue that would outperform even this handicapped Expertise, considering pure damage? Perhaps Light Blade Mastery, for non-Daggermasters, and maybe even Backstabber. Weapon Focus would probably fall behind...

  8. I actually prefer the Masterwork Weapons system, but I've tried the "expertise as bonus feats" system before. Seemed to work okay, but really, players seem to have enough feats in my games and most are more annoyed by having extra house rules than they are at having to spend a feat on expertise.

    BTW: I have some decent character sheet MS Word templates (a "full" character sheet design, and a "Quickplay" design; the former is designed to be completionist, whereas the latter is designed just to be a quick way to handle powers, and is sorted by action type) if you wanna eventually relearn how to do things analog. Though, I tend to use the builder for building, then just copy characters over, checking the math.