Friday, January 15, 2010

A role-defining class feature for controllers.

I have fallen in love with a new wizard spell. I didn't think I was ready for a relationship, after my tragic loss of a beloved at-will. But this Utility is different: the first time I saw it, I knew we were made for each other...

Mystical Debris is a level 2 Wizard Utility power featured in today's Class Acts article. It is not the strongest power out there (most optimizers would probably take Shield for that slot), but it does have an unprecedented, cool effect: It allows the wizard to create squares of difficult terrain, one at a time... at-will. Think of the possibilities. Turn after turn, the wizard can modify the battlefield, blocking corridors with the help of a Defender, preventing shifts to flanking positions, and generally annoying the DM. This is the perfect controller power!

Then, the cogs in my brain started turning. Costing a mere minor action and being usable at-will for almost every turn of an encounter, this power almost feels like a class feature. In fact, it would have made a great feature for the Wizard - it couldn't fit better in the philosophy of the class and its role, and Wizards have always felt like they missed some extra combat-related feature. Come to think of it, so does every other controller, as that role... lacks... the defining feature...

Could it be possible? Is Mystical Debris the missing link? The Lost Controller Feature?

Dun Dun DUN!!!

Featuring: the controller

Of the four roles in D&D 4E, the controller clearly got the shaft. Everybody else has a well-defined function in a battle, whereas controllers... they control. Whatever that means. A crucial factor in this confusion lies in the role-defining features: Every striker has extra damage, all defenders get some kind of mark, and leaders speak their words of healing. These tend to be the strongest features of each class, and they usually define a character's gameplay.

It is not that controllers are lacking in strength. They do have better-than-average powers to compensate. But making a class special solely through its powers is dangerous, in that others can get them through multiclass and put them to better use because they have actual class features. It also means that a controller character, more than any other, can be crippled by unfortunate decisions in character building (imagine a hypothetical newbie wizard taking Magic Missile and Ray of Frost as at-wills... the pain, the pain!).

I have long wondered how I would design the role-defining feature that controllers need, but so far, I always got stuck at dead ends. With Mystical Debris, I finally saw it clear: terrain manipulation is the way to go. It is tame enough, power-wise, that you can tack it onto existing classes without having to remove or fearing to break anything. It's also open-ended, creative, and subtle. There is enough design space to introduce small variations for each class, further differentiating them and fitting with existing mechanics and flavor. There is also an enormous potential for future extensions, feats and powers affecting altered terrain in various ways - but I won't go into that today, as I prefer to focus on the basics.

So here is the deal: I propose, as a house rule, to add a terrain-altering feature to each controller class in the game. There would be no tradeoffs or drawbacks, since I consider it a small enough change in raw power so as to be acceptable. They would work as follows:

Add the Mystical Debris class feature.
Mystical Debris - You gain the Mystical Debris power (see Dragon 383).

Add the Pool of Radiance class feature.
Pool of Radiance - You gain the Pool of Radiance power.

Pool of Radiance - Invoker Feature
You fill an area with a puddle of radiant liquid that hinders enemy maneuvers.
At-Will * Divine
Minor Action Ranged 5
Effect: One square in range becomes difficult terrain for your enemies and sheds dim light until the end of the encounter. You can end this effect as a minor action.
Special: You cannot use this power more than once per turn, and you cannot have more squares than your Wisdom modifier under this effect at one time.

Add the Rampant Growth class feature.
Rampant Growth - When you use Wild Shape to change to beast form, you can have up to two adjacent squares become difficult terrain until the end of the encounter. When you use Wild Shape to change to humanoid form, you can end this effect in up to two squares you can see. You cannot have more squares than your Wisdom modifier under this effect at one time.

Add the Entangling Roots class feature.
Entangling Roots - When you make a Seeker attack, you can have a square adjacent to a target of the attack become difficult terrain until the end of the encounter. If you don't, you can end this effect in a square you can see. You cannot have more squares than your Wisdom modifier under this effect at one time.

Add the Illusionary Terrain class feature.
Illusionary Terrain - You gain the Phantasmal terrain power.

Illusionary Terrain - Psion Feature
You alter the perceptions of surrounding creatures to fill a small area with false obstacles.
At-Will * Psionic, Illusion
Minor Action Ranged 5
Effect: Until the end of the encounter, one unoccupied square in range costs 1 extra square of movement for other creatures. You can end this effect as a minor action.
Special: You cannot have more squares than your Intelligence modifier under this effect at one time.


  1. I like it! If only you could convince WotC to officially adopt this feature...

  2. Perfect. Simple. And Role defining.
    Well done.

  3. I once built a stand-alone 4E based system, and used a class called "manipulator." They had a class feature that let them "trap" squares. When an enemy moved into a trapped square, they were allowed to make a basic attack against them. Other powers let you trap various squares, but most trap effects had caveats-either a trapped square had to be such and such distance away from the target or you (or both)-or there were other effects riding on it. Really, a controller doesn't just want to change the battlefield, they want to take advantage of it. For instance, a class feature that adds +damage whenever an enemy is in a square of difficult terrain would be nice (probably OP, with the aforementioned utility, since suddenly wizards have a striker feature).

    One thing that I have a problem with for Mystical Debris is that it only has a range of 5. That's kind of annoying. But at least it's not a conjuration power.

    Personally, I'd prefer a feature that makes your area burst encounter and daily powers into difficult terrain for one round. But that overlaps with too many wizard powers as is. Hmm...

  4. However, what I think is probably the single best example of a controller power is the Rain of Fire Needles power (Druid 23). This power has a fairly mediocre direct damage effect (1d8+X for a 23rd level? Area Burst two or no, that's not great, especially for single common damage type). But the secondary effect is awesome: 2d8+X damage automatic damage. But instead of "at the start of the target's turn" it's at the start of YOUR next turn. The power works exceptionally well with Slow and Immobilize effects, and difficult terrain as well, even against enemies that have no reason to need to be mobile. It's a great example of what it means to be a controller-penalizing enemies for taking certain options, basically. It's not just limiting those options, it's about making some of those options more painful. Ironically, this is really just the flip side of what the defender does-while the defender makes it painful for the enemy to ignore them, the controller makes it painful for the enemy to do... well, whatever the enemy wants to do. Summons take the defender approach as well, and a lot of summons even double as defenders.

  5. I just discovered it today while leveling up my goblin wizard-- VERY exciting.

  6. This is possibly the coolest idea I've seen on this site. I love it. If only I had a controller in my Eberron group (I suspect that the lack of this homebrewed feature is part of that lack of 'trollers).