Thursday, February 18, 2010

Player's Handbook 3 preview: Cloth Armor becomes playable!

A character using Cloth Armor in D&D 4E is a rare occurrence. Right now, there are only two kinds of cloth-wearing PCs: those who are forced to do so because of their class features, like Avengers and Monks, and those who are waiting to level up and grab Armor Proficiency (Leather). The truth is that the upgrade from Cloth to Leather armor is one of the best conceivable uses for a feat slot, rivalling even the almighty Expertise (and arguably even better, at Heroic Tier). Because of this, dresses, robes and vestments have banished from the wardrobes of most adventurers, as even Wizards go around wearing leather jackets. Thankfully, Player's Handbook 3 is going to put an end to this madness, by allowing players to remain unarmored without incurring in significant mechanical penalties. Let's see how this will happen.

Remember how the Brawler Fighter from Martial Power 2 was sneakily previewed in a FAQ page? Well, it appears that they liked the trick, because they are doing it again with Player's Handbook 3. This time, we are shown a simple heroic feat called Unarmored Agility. It has no requirements, and grants you a +2 bonus to AC as long as you are wearing cloth. This is, very conveniently, just as good as Leather Armor Proficiency, and has three major implications for the game: a change in aesthetics, the redeeming of an entire magic item category, and an unexpected AC boost for certain strikers.

The aesthetic change

Wizards, Sorcerers and Psions are no longer punished for wearing their iconic robes. Hooray! Sure, we could (and did) use Leather for the mechanics while saying that our character was dressing as we liked, but this is the real deal. I'm glad this has changed.

The forgotten treasures

There is quite a bit of space in both Player's Handbooks and Adventurer's Vaults devoted to Armor enchantments available solely for Cloth - I counted around 40 of them, and this will surely increase with PHB 3. Most of this space was as good as blank before, but now it will actually be of some use. I'd recommend to take a look at these books (or the Compendium, of course), because there are some real jewels waiting to be uncovered. Among my favourites are the extremely cool Robe of Eyes, the incredibly useful Shimmering Armor and the almost broken Bloodthread Armor.

AC Inflation (and erratas undone)

Avengers and Monks rejoice, for you have just gained 2 extra points of AC. Which is very odd in the case of avengers, since they just lost a similar amount a few months ago. In that occassion, I commented the following: "The Armor of Faith class feature has been changed to work only in Cloth Armor, removing the potential for ridiculously high AC ".

Well, I guess this change gives them back the potential for ridiculously high AC. Admittedly, this cuts 2-3 points off the maximum defense score that could be achieved through extreme optimization and feat investments, because upgrading to Hide Armor is no longer feasible. On the other hand, Bloodthread Armor will partially compensate for that, making the AC cap (getting hit on 20s only) dangerously close for bloodied, epic Avengers.

With the new feat, even an 'innocent', non-optimizing Avenger is going to have impressive defenses:

Level 1 Avenger, 18 Dexterity or Intelligence, Unarmored Agility: AC 19 (N18)

A *normalized AC* of 18 is equivalent to Scale Armor and a Heavy Shield, and other than investing a single feat, this character is not sacrificing anything - and certainly not the ability to wield a massive two-handed weapon. An additional feat (*Improved Armor of Faith*) brings this on par with Plate + Shield, or even better at Paragon and beyond.

Let's see a more extreme scenario, though:

Level 30 Avenger, starting 18 Dexterity or Intelligence, Unarmored Agility, Improved Armor of Faith, weapon with the 'defensive' property, +6 Starweave Bloodthread Armor, Demigod Epic Destiny and two-weapon Defense: AC 52 (N21), or 54 (N23) while bloodied.

It is virtually impossible for a defender character to match these results. And I'm pretty certain that you could get an extra point or two, with enough optimizing. This character, while bloodied, would be just 2 points below the cap (N25), which is a real nightmare for most monsters. This just feels wrong. Maybe Improved Armor of Faith should be changed into a flat +1 bonus, rather than a scaling one.

What about monks? It will depend on the feat selection they get. If there is anything like "Improved Unarmored Defense", I'm afraid they will also outperform shielded defenders on the AC department - otherwise, they will be more or less at their level.

Level 1 Monk, 20 Dexterity, Unarmored Agility: AC 19 (N18)

Overall, I can't say I'm happy with the way Unarmored Agility interacts with these classes. On the other hand, I do like what it does for casters with robes. I think those in charge of Errata should definitely be keeping an eye on the following items:
- Improved Armor of Faith
- Bloodthread Armor
- Any monk feat enhancing Unarmored Defense.


  1. My favorite Max AC build: Hybrid Avenger/Swordmage.

    Preference for Ensnarement Swordmage for aegis, and hybrid talent at heroic and then paragon for Blade Ward and Armor of Faith. With Improved Blade Ward, Greater Blade Ward (yes, this requires starting with 12 in Str, Con, and Dex) and Improved Armor of Faith, your AC is pretty insane-and now we get to add in an additional +2 from Unarmored Agility (a feat that I've used, in name anyway, numerous times in the past)? Awesome.

    But in my experience, maxing AC? Not that helpful. If you're not a defender, you can't really pull aggro and most of the multi-target attacks target NADs. Obviously, results may vary, especially depending on what level you are and what types of monsters your DM uses. I think +2 to AC for an Avenger at heroic tier is probably huge.

    Now, finally Avengers will have higher AC than Whirling Barbarians.

  2. Follow up: Bloodthread cloth is awesome and all, but it's Lvl+4 enchantment. There's definitely a higher cost for 16th level armor than 15th level armor, but wearing the latter prevents you from wearing the former. But the 16th level armor has not only +1 enhancement bonus but also an improved masterwork bonus-and unlike bloodthread cloth, it takes place over the course of the entire battle, rather than just when you're bloodied. Personally, I tend to *expect* Level+4 items to be a wee bit overpowered.

  3. My play experience is limited to heroic tier, but Avengers (and Pursuit ones in particular) have impressed me with their stickyness. Overwhelming strikes turned into basic attacks through Power of Skill, plus Censure of Pursuit are REALLY good at drawing someone's attention.

    The double-dipping potential for defensive features of some hybrid characters (other favourites being sorcerer/barbarian or warlock/any heavy armor) annoy me considerably. But I don't think there was any elegant way to keep them out of the hybrid rules - except nerfing the original features to begin with, of course.

    Finally, re: Bloodthread... its value does shift depending on your level. +3 and +5 should probably be useless because of the masterwork increase at the following level, but the rest aren't half bad... and +6 is just awesome.

  4. Another large part of the issue is whether or not characters have "free access" to items. Many of the optimization builds are kind of like a lot of economic theories-well thought out, but not entirely realistic or practical. If the DM doesn't drop *exactly* the items the party wants, then they're basically getting 1/5th as much treasure. Of course, raw gold can cover the cost there, but a crafty DM can be a jerk and only drop potions! It really depends how much your Ritual Caster likes to use Enchant Magic Item and how much resources you have. There are so many insane item combinations, but if every character you ever play starts with only starting gear appropriate for his level (Level -1, Level, Level +1, Level -1 in gold), half or more of those builds aren't even doable.