Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Fixing the math: Fortitude, Reflex, Will (II)

After the lengthy explanation of current issues with Fortitude, Reflex, and Will progression, I think we are ready to look at the crunchy bits. The house rule I propose for the non-AC defenses is not, in fact, a single rule, but a set of three different modifications: the introduction of masterwork neck slot items, the creation of a new type of magic item that ensures a minimum ability modifier to defenses without costing any additional item slot, and the ban of a series of feats.

1- The masterwork necks

The first step of the patch is to allow the use of masterwork neck slot items. Following the same principle as masterwork armor (see PHB, p.212), a masterwork neck grants a higher bonus to Fortitude, Reflex and Will than a non-masterwork neck. The type and level of a magic neck item determines if it can be masterwork, as detailed in the table below. The cost of a masterwork neck is included in the cost of the magic item, so higher-level characters should seek out masterwork necks instead of normal magic necks.


Masterwork necks are a functional replacement for defense-enhancing feats, providing equivalent bonuses without any cost for the PCs. As such, they fix, by themselves the problems associated with good defenses (as defined in the previous article). However, an additional measure is needed in order to patch bad defenses.

2- The Lucky Badges

A player's bad defenses suffer from lack of progression in ability modifiers. In order to compensate for that, you can allow players the use of the Badge of the Lucky Hero magic item.

If you are using this house rule, a level-appropiate Badge of the Lucky Hero is an item that every Player Character needs and is assumed to have, much like PCs in the basic rules need and are assumed to have level-appropiate magic Weapons/Implements, Armor, and Neck items. DMs will have to assign additional treasure parcels to account for that: for a normal 5-player party, an additional magic item of the PCs' level for each level would be enough.

Alternately, you can have all characters in a party earn a Badge of an appropiate level upon completion of a major quest, instead of granting additional parcels.

Lucky Badges ensure that a character's defenses don't fall below a minimum threshold regardless of having low ability scores. This threshold is set so that monsters of the same level will hit these defenses roughly 70% of the times - a value noticeably worse than that of any defense affected by primary or secondary abilities, but high enough for enemies to occasionally miss.

3- The ban

While using this rules patch, the following feats should be disallowed, since their bonus is effectively given for free:
The following feats are still permited, since they allow players to customize their defenses through modest bonuses, and are neither dangerously strong nor required for most builds:
4- Changing your defense values in Character Builder

Unlike attack bonuses, your defenses can be modified in a Character Builder sheet. In order to do that, you only need to double click on the defense score in the character sheet, and type the desired value.


  1. Given the nature of the math problem, and the (quite frankly) absurd amount of NAD boosting feats currently in the system, this is an elegant a fix as can be expected. My players are still in early Heroic, but as they level up I'm probably going to incorporate this house rule into the campaign.

    Thanks for posting it!

  2. It's a wonder that such a big hole in the balance of the game exists, although probably very few people will notice it at its peak (epic levels).

    Not having played an epic character before, ¿are you sure that this isn't intended to compensate the monsters for all the powers characters have at those levels?

    If not, it's a very very big hole in the math of the game.

  3. >¿are you sure that this isn't intended to compensate the monsters for all the powers characters have at those levels?

    I haven't found any developer commenting specifically on the matter, so this is pure speculation, but... I believe at least some of the apparent miscalculations in the game's math must be deliberate.

    Up until Player's Handbook 2 (and the Expertise feats), the "expertise" 3-point gap in attack bonuses was assumed to be a conscious design decision. The game at higher tiers was harder because monsters were more difficult to hit, but players could partially compensate through careful tactics (combat advantage became essential) and bonuses to hit from leader characters.

    Of course, this didn't last, as PHB 2 reverted this choice by adding expertise. Presumably, a number of complaints from Epic-tier players who felt that encounters at those levels tended to drag for too long made the designers rethink their position.

    As for the number of encounter and daily powers that high-level characters enjoy, I think it is compensated, but not as you suggest. The major consequence of all these powers is an increase in player damage output - which would be matched, in my opinion by the larger HP pool of monsters, compared to that of PCs.

    So, what about defenses? The weakness of defenses at higher levels is difficult to justify, because it is so inconsistent. AC progresses just fine, so it's just as easy to hit at 30 as at level 1 (barring some poor Constitution Shaman out there). So it's not that all monster attacks are getting stronger - only those against NADs are. I guess you could sell it as a way of having a kind of attack that is much stronger than the rest, but I find it hard to swallow. And the pathetic scores for "bad" defenses can hardly be anything but a mistake: it is one thing to have strong attacks, and a very different matter to abolish the attack roll under certain (very common) circumstances.

    Even if the NAD situation was originally intended that way, the fact that PHB 2 included feats with outrageous (+4!) bonus to defenses means that epic auto-hits do not match the desingers' current vision for the game.

  4. There are two observations I've made over the last several months of playing DnD, both as the DM and the player that the author doesn't take into consideration. The first is that monsters never hit as hard as the PCs. When the hits by the players shrink to the amount of damage that the monster can do, some incredibly powerful status effects are applied. It's not only one or two status effects but multiple effects that can overlap. For example, I've yet to see anything resembling a monster with the orb of imposition when applying a condition or being able to completely remove someone's ability to move away from a tank.

    The second thing I've noticed about creatures is the lack of abilities to slough off status effects. For example, players will often have an item or three that will assist with their saves (or even automatically make a save). Classes like the warden can remove effects faster but cannot be penalized twice for the same effect. Most leader types also apply save modifiers, have a player save out of order or remove the effect completely. No monster has these types of defenses.

    The author is likely right that monsters can hit the NADS more often but it's largely irrelevant as the creatures hit with pillows and sometimes apply conditions which are easily removed.

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  6. Wow, Therence has made some great points. I'll try to answer as well as I can. You are arguing that PCs hit a lot harder than monsters. Because of this, the fact that some monster attacks can sometimes hit automatically is irrelevant and/or shouldn't be fixed.

    That is to say, the balance of power between monsters and PCs is fine as it is, or it excessively favors PCs. Changes that give even more advantage to the PCs are unnecesary, or even detrimental. I don't necessarily disagree with this.

    The fact is, I don't think the math of NADs is problematic because of how it affects the balance between PCs and monsters - but because it screws the balance between different PCs, and the balance from one monster to the other.

    At epic tier, there is a considerable difference between a PC with two bad defenses, and other with just one. I don't think there should - this is one of the concerns I've tried to address.

    Also at that tier, the outcome of an encounter can vary greatly depending on whether or not a monster group has attacks that match the party's weakest defenses. This is also bad for the game.

    Both of these problems, in my opinion, affect very negatively the play experience at higher levels. The second set of changes I suggest in this post (the "lucky charms") fixes this, and as an unintended side-effect, it makes PCs stronger compared to monsters.

    Now, there is an additional adjustment I have made ("masterwork necks") that isn't really related to the existence of bad defenses. It just prevents epic monster's hit chance from being three points higher than that of heroic ones. You could say that my motivation for applying this change is aesthetic: I like the game's math remaining consistent throughout levels. An average 60% hit rate is, in my experience, a very good value with the right amounts of randomness and reliability.

    But this second change does affect the monster-PC balance, for a benefit that is not as important as that of the first change. I hadn't even considered that until you mentioned it. So maybe the best solution would be one that didn't involve the masterwork necks, as much as I like them. It would take some playtesting at epic levels, with both of my suggested fixes and only with the second, to determine which option is best. It will still take quite a while for my campaign to reach that point, but I will bring more feedback on the matter when it does!

  7. Our campaign as yet to reach more than halfway into the paragon tier so I haven't thoroughly played through the entire range of levels yet. My feeling so far is that a character with about 66% chance to hit is about right. When additional modifiers are tacked on, then the chance to hit increases but doesn't become automatic...which is fine for me. As long as the chance for players to hit at this percentage remains about the same through all the tiers is alright with me.

    My feeling is that the ability of the monsters to hit more often than the players was not a design intent but rather something that happened because of a mistake in the playtesters/designers math. However, with the players gaining power, the math errors actually became part of a balanced game. If the math errors were fixed to the detriment of monsters hitting, additional changes would need to be made. For example, make lurkers hit really hard. A quickling in the last session I played ran up and hit me for 24 points of damage. I was able to get CA on him and did about 44 in return. If the monsters get penalized, then the difference between the 24 and 44 would also need to shrink.

    I play a rogue with a warden, psion, wizard and warlord in the party. When the party was younger (heroic tier), it felt like it took several rounds for the winner to be determined. We definitely hit softer but also had fewer ways to lock down monsters and fewer ways to get out of opposing status effects. In the last couple levels, it feels as if we can lock down important enemy monsters and have a clear winner by the end of the second round. Basically, we're steamrolling monsters. This may be from poor tactics from the DM but I'm more willing to believe that the PCs are much more powerful than in the previous tier.

    On the part of the low NADs for different types of classes: I definitely see what you are saying with regard to the low scores as some classes (like the warden) often have two high scores in one block that can only stack once in the NAD (again, and example is fort defense). The other two NADs are low, which may or may not cause an issue. On one hand, you are worried that the class may be more vulnerable to non-AC attacks. On the other hand, most attacks made by monsters are going to be AC related and any NAD based attacks are less often and should never be considered as powerful as the primary AC defense. This is something I haven't yet had the opportunity to play through in higher tiers so don't know if this continues to hold true or if somewhere along the way the wheels fall off and monsters completely blow up PCs specifically due to low NADs.

    In effect, I'm not sure if the NADs really needs fixing. Yeah it pretties up the math but I'm still not sure that it really affects much in the long term wrt how the game is played. I do look forward to seeing your analysis regarding the epic tier.

  8. Is there a reason so many folks are trying to fix this with characters and not with the monsters themselves?

    I prefer my players to run non-houseruled Character Builder sanctioned characters. It's way easier for me to alter the monsters a bit, than the PCs in this scenario.

    So if we're talking about a fix for the monsters, what are we looking at?

  9. >Is there a reason so many folks are trying to fix this with characters and not with the monsters themselves?

    There are two components in the NAD problem, and only one of them can be treated effectively on the monster side. Flat positive modifiers affecting all defenses can be easily converted into a flat negative modifier for all monster attacks against NADs. In this case, monsters would gain a cumulative penalty at levels 6, 16, and 26, and you could do away with my suggested "masterwork necks".

    On the other hand, the difference between good NADs and bad NADs is inherent to the PCs, and no monster modifier will be able to remove it. The best you could do would be, since bad NADs are 3 points worse than they should, add a further 1-2 points of penalty to monster attacks vs AC. That would leave good defenses better than before, and bad defenses not so bad, but still dangerously close to auto-hit.

    And this assumes that you are banning the NAD feats (which is technically a house rule, but won't be a problem with Character Builder). Without removing those feats, there is little you can modify from the monsters side, that won't result in unhittable characters when they take the feats and their good defenses are attacked.

  10. One thing that I think may have been forgotten about is that there are a lot of *items* that give NAD bonuses. It's only when you're ~30th level that it's really noticable, because by that point you can load on on heroic and paragon belts of vim etc and still take Robust Defenses AND Epic Fort/Ref/Will. I compared some of my 30th level builds, which had higher NADs than AC, and using these rules, they're substantially lower-but only since I assumed that the Masterwork bonuses to amulets replace the availability of Belts of Vim.

    Granted, I prefer this system by a lot. It may not fix Iron Armbands of Power, but now people won't automatically gravitate to Circlets of Indomitability for their head slot item.

  11. Ouch. I had totally forgotten about the dozens of random items granting bonuses! I'll have to make a list of those someday.

    A possible solution might be to convert all constant NAD bonuses from an item into something more manageable. The system can handle a non-stackable +1 just fine, but if memory serves, some of those got up to +3, and a few were even untyped. So you could use the following table:

    Current bonus -> Alternate bonus
    +1 -> +1
    +2 -> +1, and resist 2 (attacks vs that def.)
    +3 -> +1, and resist 4 (attacks vs that def.)

    The +1 bonus would always be an item bonus, regardless of what the original item said. Resistances are a useful, yet mostly harmless alternative to scaling bonuses. This would only apply to bonuses from properties... anything triggered by an item power and lasting a turn or so should be fine as is.

    By the way, in my previous post, where I said "...points of penalty to monster attacks vs AC", I meant attacks vs NADs.