Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Broken Bits: Battlefield Archer

Broken Paragon Paths, Part Four
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The Battlefield Archer paragon path is the only reason in the game to take the Archer Fighting style for a ranger. There, I said it. It would be an understatement to say that I dislike the original design for the Ranger class, a Twin Strike-spamming monstruosity with little in the way of variety and record-breaking damage figures. One of the most flawed elements (which is saying a lot) of the class, as appeared in the Player’s Handbook, was the Fighting Style class feature, which determines your choice of build. The problem lies in the benefits associated to each build, which consist in a minor bonus and a generic feat for the dual-wielding style, and just a mediocre feat for the archer style.

Yep, the only mechanic benefit of acquiring Archer Fighting Style is a mere feat like Defensive Mobility, which has no requirements whatsoever and isn’t particularly good! Granted, it more or less fits thematically, but as a build reward, it fails miserably. Add that to the fact that there are no feats or powers mechanically linked to the class feature, and it’s no wonder that many ranger players chose to go with the Two-Blade Fighting Style even though they didn’t mean to make a single melee attack in their whole career, just because getting Toughness as an extra feat is a bit less depressing. However, this decision changes considerably if the player intends to play from paragon tier onwards - at those levels, the archer style becomes a requirement for three paragon paths. And although the first two (High Forest Scout and Beast Stalker) are virtually unplayable, the third one is Battlefield Archer. It may not seem like much, but it has kept the Archer Fighting Style alive all by itself!

The problem

As with many other paths in my list, Battlefield Archer would be a solid, yet reasonable choice except for one feature. It has a great utility in Archer’s Glory, which all but guarantees that a character will have action points for every encounter, and that in turn has amazing synergy with the level 16 feature Battle Surge, as it grants encounter-long near-immunity against opportunity attacks after spending an action point. Then there is a very attractive encounter attack that can be used during an opponent’s turn, a playable but unimpressive daily, and a marginal action point feature, which all make for a decent little package. What screws it all up, though, is the attack bonus.

A bonus to attack rolls is one of the coolest effects you can get from a paragon path, right there with adding ability modifiers to damage. Generally speaking, a continuous +1 to hit is a great ability, and you don’t need much more to make a great path. +2 bonuses to hit are very rare, and generally justify by themselves whatever path they are in. Finally, although there are no features in the game that grant a +4 to hit as such, there are ways to gain a reroll for all of your attacks, which are roughly equivalent to a +4/+5 to hit - and needless to say, are automatic candidates for brokenness. Although not quite the same, a continuous +1 to hit to four or five characters is easily comparable to a +4 to hit and, by the same logic, any feature granting anything like that would raise all the alarms. Battlefield Archers gain such a feature at level 11, by the name of Battlefield Experience - and it’s as dangerous as you would expect.

Battlefield Experience is not made of pure evil, as there is a very nice, amusing, and mostly harmless part of the feature that allows you to mark multiple quarries at a time. I like that, and it should remain untouched. On the other hand, you then get the silly text about granting a +1 to all attack rolls against said quarries, regardless of source. That’s right - a nice untyped, unconditional +1 for you and your whole team, as long as you agree to beat up on the couple of unfortunate souls that happen to be your quarries. This means that the occasional area attack will miss the bonus on a few targets, and that one, perhaps two of your allies may not benefit from it at a given turn. But really, it’s downright brutal. It’s the feature that every leader character dreams about when he’s a little kid.

Some would argue that since, as we mentioned above, the Archer Fighting Style is as crappy a class feature as it gets, and that this paragon path is the only nice toy they are ever given, some degree of overpoweredness should be tolerable. I can’t agree with that vision, as I think that classes and paragon paths must stand on their own, with regards to balance. Not to mention that, despite the awkwardness of their Fighting Style, rangers tend to be extremely powerful characters, even before factoring in their broken paths.

A solution

If we can’t allow a feature to grant the bonus to the whole party, an easy fix is to cut back on the number of affected characters. I think that looking towards a target of 2-3 characters benefitting from the bonus (ranger included) would make it weak enough - though ‘weak’ is hardly the appropiate word here, as it would still be an amazing path. Since we can already see a theme about helping allies with ranged attacks in the encounter power Combined Fire, this seems like a natural fit:

Battlefield Experience (11th level): You can designate more than one creature as your quarry at a time, up to a number equal to your Wisdom modifier. In addition, any ranged or area attack made against a quarry receives a +1 bonus to attack rolls.

For most parties, only 2-3 characters will be able to benefit from Battlefield Experience at a time, since it’s usual to have a mix of melee and ranged characters. On the other hand, this could really shine in a dedicated ranged group, which somehow sported a single melee specialist (a defender, I expect), plus a bunch of archers and spellcasters. So the potential for this feature to retain much of its former glory is there, but it should require enough sacrifices so as to be acceptable, as well as interesting. There is also a risk for this to be a bit too good with large parties of 6-7 characters, but I don’t think that is an overwhelming advantage, and these are pretty exceptional anyway. Finally, be aware that the path will be a lot less impressive, but still functional for smaller parties (though it alredy was, to a point), as well as randomly organized groups.

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