Thursday, February 11, 2010

Broken Bits: Barbarian Agility

One of the most important changes introduced in the Great Errata of november, 2009 was the Avenger fix, which prevented a striker class from easily surpassing the Armor Class of a defender in plate armor and shield, while wielding a massive two-handed weapon. Unfortunately, another class with almost the same symptoms got left behind: the Barbarian. I expect that some official errata on the subject will happen sooner than later, but meanwhile, it might be a good idea to present a house rule that deals with it.

The problem has existed since the first appearance of the class on Player's Handbook 2, but only got aggravated with Primal Power. Essentially, Barbarians are expected to work with really low stat modifiers to AC, and have a feature called Barbarian Agility which adjusts their defenses under these conditions. A starting 14 Dexterity used as tertiary ability (that is, never increased when you level up) nets you the same AC progression as a Chainmail, which is far from impressive, but functional nonetheless. Also common starting values of 12-10 end up one or two AC points below that,a value slightly below that of other melee strikers (other than the unplayable-without-AC-upgrades melee ranger). The upgrade to Chain is usually affordable, but not necessarily a priority, since it won't grant that much of an increase.

That is the baseline, PHB2 scenario: as long as you are not continuously playing the archetypical barbarian who charges without support against the largest group of enemies he can see, you can do fine. You might even have the hit points to survive for a turn or two that way, but more often than not, you'll want to stay close to your defender, or just charge isolated or weaker targets. What this design didn't take into account was that, with the right stat and feat allocation, a barbarian's defense can rise to a point where it embarrases most defenders.

Because Barbarian Agility was implemented without any kind of safeguards, nothing prevents a player from building a Barbarian with a starting 18 Dex (or 18 Con with Hide Armor Expertise). Assuming that Dexterity or Constitution are your secondary abilities, the character will have plate-equivalent AC at Heroic tier, plate+light shield at Paragon, and as much as plate+heavy shield at Epic. That can be further optimized, but it's beside the point: these values are already too high for a striker wielding a two-handed weapon who has invested as little as 0-1 feats in defense.

A not-so-agile Barbarian

The following is a refinement of a solution I proposed at errata forums. The principle is simple: have Barbarian Agility grant a bonus to characters with low Dex (as it currently does), but not to those with good base defenses. Also, I have added a small conditional bonus to reflex so that the feature doesn't become completely worthless for the characters that were abusing it.

Barbarian Agility, mk2
While you are not wearing heavy armor, you can use a +2 modifier in place of your Dexterity or Intelligence modifier to determine your AC and Reflex. The modifier increases to +3 at 11th level, +4 at 16th level, +5 at 21st level and +6 at 26th level.
While raging, you gain a +2 bonus to Reflex.

This version of the feature guarantees that a Barbarian's AC will, at worst, be 1 point lower than Chain Armor (for a normalized value of N14, and an enemy hit rate of 60%). This is a low armor value, but it won't kill you, and requires no investment on defense whatsoever.


  1. Interesting find. I'm not sure I'd actually want to fix this in my games, though. I like the idea of a barbarian with a crazy AC, particularly at Epic levels - it simulates the sort of "why won't he DIE?" frustration that follows archetypal Barbarians in fantasy literature. I'll at least play around with your fix here, but as long as I run "low blow" encounters (that is, I prefer to hit my PCs in the NADs. heh heh) I think I can live with it.

  2. The simplest thing to do would be to just change Barbarian agility to be a bonus to AC based on their class feature-ala, using either constitution or charisma in place of dexterity. This would put their AC at the same level as Avengers pre-Improved Armor of Faith. It makes hide armor expertise useless for non-hybrid barbarians-and moreover, means that a hybrid barbarian taking Hybrid Talent loses only Rage Strike (and who gives a !@#$ about rage strike, am I right?)-but that's okay. Swordmage is in the same circumstances (what with Intelligent Blademaster basically being useless). This is probably a huge paragon/epic tier improvement for Thaneborn barbarians, seeing as how they currently don't have any real way of cranking out their AC to the extreme, and trading in 3 points of AC and Reflex to use Charisma in place of Dex at epic is probably a huge win on their side.

  3. The original article about Barbarian Agility seems to have been replaced with the article about the Dragon Magazine's issue about Monks.

  4. Thanks, I've been aware of the problem for a while, and it's on the to-do list (thankfully, I had a backup), so I'll fix it when I have time.