Monday, June 21, 2010

The Fall of Paragon Paths

Broken Paragon Paths, Introduction
Go to broken path index

Since the first Player’s Handbook, most aspects of a player character in D&D 4E have experienced a slow, but steady increase in power. From power selection to feats and magic items, the constant release of new options in rulebooks and magazines means that characters are noticeably stronger today than two years ago. With one remarkable exception: Paragon Paths.

The original PHB is the book with the most powerful paragon paths in the game, by a good margin. Not that there aren’t some bad options (the rogue class in particular has a couple of very mediocre ones), but the overall level is impressive. Lots of bonuses to damage, hit, and defenses, ways to deal automatic damage, even against groups, increased critical ranges, encounter-long negative conditions, power recovery... more often than not, these paths have a feature that drastically affects the efficiency of your character. The first book in the edition set a very high bar for paragon paths.

Then the bar dropped. The books that followed PHB included a noticeable amount of filler paths, which was worrying but not all that surprising. More important, though, was the fact that even the strongest options seemed to be deliberately toned down, compared to their PHB counterparts. Bonuses that would have been continuous only worked under certain circumstances, effects that were automatic now required some effort from the character’s part - it looked as if paragon awesomeness had been put temporarily on hold.

Except that it wasn’t temporary. Two years have passed, and about a dozen player rule books, and it is clear now that these modest, post-PHB paths have become the norm. It is hard to make accurate comparisons of power level on game elements as complex and varied as paragon paths, but I’ve tried to come up with an easy to quantify example. One of the areas where PHB paths excel is that of damage bonuses and, among these, a common, and extremely effective mechanic consists in adding an ability bonus to attack damage. So I focused on that.

I compiled a list of all the paths from rulebooks that could consistently provide extra damage equal to an ability modifier, and ordered them by source book. There are a good deal of these paths from PHB and Martial Power (which was the first Power book to come out, and shows a bit of a transition between PHB levels and the current standard), but then they become really scarce, with subsequent books including at most a couple of them.

That only tells half of the story, though, because not all these bonuses are created equal. Some can easily apply to all of a character’s attacks, but others require such specific circumstances that you’ll be missing on them for several turns over an encounter. I called the former unconditional bonuses, and examined their presence across sourcebooks. You can see the number of paths with ability damage bonuses per book, and the ones with unconditional ability bonuses, in the figure below:

For reference, I classified as unconditional those bonuses that could reliably be applied for all of a character’s turns in an encounter (provided they hit, of course), even if they required some specific equipment . The paths that meet this requirement are: Pit Fighter, Stormwarden, Feytouched, Blade Banshee, Sylvan Archer, Lyrandar Wind-Rider and Master of Poisons. There are a couple other paths, such as Iron Vanguard, that could arguably be included here, but these are the ones I found more clearly cut.

As we can see, most paths with unconditional bonuses are in PHB. It is interesting to see that even though Martial Power has more paths with bonuses overall, they tend to be of lower quality than the PHB ones.

It is not a huge factor, but the figure above doesn’t take into account the total number of paths included in a book. Martial Power in particular has a lot more paths than the rest, so this slightly distorts the comparison. The figure below shows ability bonus PPs and unconditional bonus PPs as a percentage of the paths in each book:

Looking at the percentages, Martial Power’s still the leader in raw numbers, but not for such a wide margin.

So, once we know this trend exists, how does it affect the game? I’m afraid that the answer is that it hurts class balance. Starting at paragon tier, the classes from Player’s Handbook have an unfair advantage over the rest - and this is more pronounced for the martial ones, due to the fact that Martial Power’s path design was halfway between the PHB system and the current one. This becomes evident when we organize the previous PP lists by class:

The results are worrying: every martial class has more options for a damage-boosting path than any non-martial one. Most other classes are lucky if they get a single path that good - and that will rarely cover all of the class’ builds. The solution, then, for a character who wants competitive damage at higher tiers of play, is usually to either play a martial class, or multiclass into one to gain access to one of the stronger paths.

How much does an extra ability modifier to damage affect a character’s performance? Depending on level and starting scores, the modifier itself can range between +5 and +10 if it corresponds to a primary ability, or between +3 and +9 for a secondary. That’s easily comparable to the contribution of a Striker’s extra damage feature, which is typically worth around 7 damage at paragon, and 11 at epic.

Nevertheless, there can be a lot of variance depending on the specific implementation - some of these bonuses work on any number of attacks, whereas striker features are often limited to one use per round; also, there are path features that deal automatic damage, rather than working on a hit. Finally, damage bonuses that are conditional can see a decrease in effectiveness of up to 50%, compared to unconditional ones. At any rate, one thing is for sure - having any of these paths can make quite a difference.

Balance issues aside, the shift in power level also brings another problem: player perception of new material. It’s common for players to compare newly released options to the best previously available, and that is only aggravated by these best references coming from the first and most popular book. Inevitably, reading the paragon path section of any new book leads to disappointment, as player expectations don’t correspond with the design philosophy applied.

It’s not clear how these problems could be addressed. I don’t think lowering the power level of paths was a good call, to begin with - even if the ones in PHB ones were too strong, the damage was already done. You can’t just ignore the existence of 30+ great options that can easily be multiclassed into. But I don’t think switching back is a viable option, either. Perhaps a year ago, but not anymore - now that 90% of the existing paths have been released under the new design principles, declaring them obsolete would be a terrible decision. And there are just too many of them to errata into playability.

At least, it looks like the developers have partially acknowledged these problems, as recent erratas have modified some very popular paths, like Pit Fighter, Daggermaster, or Blood Mage. But the focus seems to be in preventing excessive multiclassing and ‘path stealing’, which to me is attacking the symptoms without touching the underlying problem. On the other hand, even if the original intention was to just limit the access to these paths, the errata has resulted in a small decrease in power level, as basic attacks became incompatible with the path features. And whether it was intended or not, I think it was for good.

My personal stance on this issue, as with many others, is that the answer lies in toning down a bunch of the best paths. It wouldn’t be exactly a surgical solution, since the list would be more than a dozen long. And it’s a bit hard to justify, because there is some kind of balance among all the top tier paths, where you often have multiple options to choose from, as long as you don’t mind most of them being martial, and two years old. But, at the end of the day, this tier represents less than 10% of the existing paths, and is powerful enough that choosing to play options from the remaining 90% can feel like handicapping your character.

In the following posts, I will show the list of what I consider the paragon paths most in need of fixing, and then examine each one in detail, discussing why I see them as overpowered or broken, and how they could be changed for the better.


  1. Oh absolutely. The wild condition-ality (is that a word?) of Paragon Paths has always been a huge turn off to me; question though? How does Multiclassing (as a Paragon Path) stack up?

  2. Paragon Multiclassing is not a very appealing option. It requires a huge investment in feats and, in return, gives less than you'd get with a regular path. The developers were overly cautious on this one, probably based on previous experiences (i.e. 3E's messy multiclass).

    If you are still interested in playing a paragon multiclasser, I'd strongly recommend the following house rule: characters with Paragon Multiclass gain an extra feat at 11th level, and another one at 16th. This would take the place of the paragon features of other paths, and help offset the feat investment.