The latest Martial Power 2 preview shows the much anticipated ranged Warlord build: the Skirmishing Warlord. This build may have been an obvious move, but it does represent the most drastic shift for a 4E class to date: adding ranged capabilities to a previously pure melee character.
The idea of a bow-using martial commander, shouting orders from the rear is actually a very intuitive one. Indeed, in the months leading to 4E release, when we had a general idea of what a warlord would do but hadn't the rules for them yet, many of us assumed that the use of ranged weapons would be one of the options for the class, if not the main one. That was not to be, though, as the final class had a strong emphasis on fighting on the front lines, to the point that it became one of its main differentiating points. Being on melee was what a Warlord was about, and the idea of giving them ranged powers looked a bit silly on hindsight, like a Fighter focusing on bows.
And here comes Martial Power 2 and reverses with trend with a ranged build. Was it necessary? Does it actually add something to the class, or is it taking away part of what made it special in order to fill the ever-growing option tree? We will reflect about that soon, but first we should take a look at how the Bowlord works.
The Skirmishing Warlord build is supported by two new features, Archer Warlord and Skirmishing Presence. The first one provides the necessary weapon proficiencies, while the other is a new Commanding Presence option that greatly boosts party mobility. What's interesting here is that, while the recommended build has both of these features, you should be able to make a capable archer with just one of them, or maybe skip them altogether and have a character that switches fom melee to ranged depending on the situation.
The Archer Warlord feature doesn't replace any existing feature, but you can optionally take it to trade some proficiencies with others. In particular, it allows a warlord to give up heavy armor and shields in order to use military ranged weapons as well as making
melee ranged basic attacks with strength.
I can see many bow warlords skipping on this one because it becomes pretty much redundant as soon as you get a superior weapon proficiency - basic attacks are only really significant when the leader in your party can grant you one, but having additional leaders in a party with a warlord is unlikely. Still, some warlord feats will require this feature, which is another factor to take into account.
On the other hand, a warlord who wouldn't use heavy armor or a shield to begin with (as many Intelligence-based Warlords do) doesn't really give up anything for this. Because of this, you can expect Tactical warlords to try this feature, and either use it for the ocassional basic ranged attack or to complement Commander's Strike with one of the new ranged at-wills.
I think that the new Comanding Presence, called Skirmishing Presence, has a cool effect but is sadly underpowered, compared to the excellent Presences we already have. It keys off either Intelligence or Wisdom, providing a very welcome flexibility, but it just serves to let an ally shift a bunch of squares when he spends action points. I find that a bit underwhelming, after the healing and offensive boosts we've become accustomed to, though I have to admit it has an interesting tactical potential. Maybe some feat will enhance this feature enough for me to take it with out feeling guilty.
The most important aspect of Skirmishing Presence is that it will likely be the only Warlord feature that boosts ranged encounter powers. This means that in order to fully use your archer capabilities you have to give up a good deal of raw power in a crucial Warlord feature. We will have to take a look at the full power list in order to decide whether this is worth it.
The excerpt showed just enough powers to build a level 1 PC: two at-wills, an encounter, and a daily. Like Skirmishing Presence, all of these powers gave a choice of either Intelligence or Wisdom as a secondary ability. Class feature choices (apart from the need for some kind of proficiency with ranged weapons) are only relevant for the encounter power - but they do make a great difference for that one.
The at-will powers complement each other very well: one is for the turns when your party can make a concentrated offensive on the target, whereas the other is a general-purpose damaging shot. The first one is called Paint the Bull's-Eye, and is the main reason anyone would want to make a ranged Warlord. It has a low base damage, but an insane effect that was previously reserved for encounter powers: add a secondary ability modifier as bonus damage to all ally attacks against the target, for a turn. It truly does justice to its name, as a hit from that will usually signal a party to blow up action points and overall unleash hell on the unfortunate target. As good as this is, the low base damage means that you don't really want to use the power when heavily focused fire isn't possible - with 2 or less allies attacking the same target, this isn't really worh it over a basic attack.
The second at-will, Risky Shot, doesn't really have any leader qualities, but is quite good nevertheless. A ranged version of Brash Strike (minus the insane accuracy bonus), it gets a secondary ability modifier to damage for the small sacrifice of granting combat advantage for a turn. This is usually much less of a drawback for a ranged attack than for a melee one. One very remarkable aspect of this power is that, to my knowledge, it is the very first warlord at-will that beats a basic attack in any situation when you don't have allies nearby.
The encounter power isn't noteworthy for its mechanics, but it more than makes for it with awesome flavor. It's called Race the Arrow and does just that, granting one ally a charge attack on a hit. Though merely passable on its own, it does gain a tremendous boost from the Skirmishing Presence feature.
The daily is as bland as its name (Inspiring Shot) would suggest, consisting on a reliable ranged attack dealing 3[W] and granting a small boost to subsequent healing powers. The best that can be said about it is that it isn't as terrible as Brute Strike.
I'm still not sold on the prospect of a purely ranged Warlord, so I reserve my judgement on the matter until I read the whole book. That said, I could live with a traditional melee warlord build splashing for a few ranged attacks, either through the Archer Warlord feature or by taking one of the at-wills (most likely, Paint the Bull's-Eye). The Bullseye is strong enough to consider adding in conventional builds, to use in appropiate moments with a throwing axe or, more likely, a dagger.
How are the class' theme and personality affected by this new variety of shooting commanders? Again, it may be too soon to say, but it doesn't feel completely right, to me. It's a bit weird, since other martial classes like Rogues and Rangers can already go both ways (melee and ranged) just fine, so it might just be a problem of prejudices. I'll have to wait and see if the powers they have come up with are warlord'y enough.