As I mentioned yesterday, some bits of preview information about D&D Essentials have been leaked by the community manager at wizards’ site. We have a couple of at-will attacks (or rather, their equivalent for Essential fighters and rogues), a new racial power, and a humble feat that may be a sign of deep changes in design - not many things, but definitely solid stuff. Here’s my opinion on them.
To continue with yesterday’s topic, we’ll start with the Fighter material. There’s a new at-will stance called Defend the Line that is, perhaps, the strongest one revealed to date. It slows enemies hit in melee, providing some crucial movement denial to make up for the loss of Combat Superiority, as well as having amazing synergy with your opportunity attacks and Battle Guardian feature. In fact, I think this stance works better outside of your turn than for your regular attacks, so there should be some fun tension and stance switching games. I can’t imagine skipping this one while building a knight.
Moving on to the Essential Rogue, we have a very nice Rogue Trick called Unbalancing Trick. It features a useful movement effect, and a devastating attack modifier - a 2 square shift and knocking prone on melee hits, respectively. Both parts of the power turn it into an instant classic, even though it isn’t as absurdly strong as it might seem at first glance. This is because the most effective application of melee proning, shifting 1 square so that you are outside of enemy reach but just short of charge range, is not possible this way! As good as Rogue Tricks are, they require you to move before attacking, so your target will be able to stand up and attack you back unless you have reach - which is a possibility, with certain Spiked Chain feats, or perhaps a polearm, if you have the strength and the proficiency to attack with it, and don’t mind giving up on Sneak Attack. Finally, shifting 2 squares is very conveniently the exact distance required to charge an enemy, even if you start off adjacent to it, so this could enable some cool charging builds.
The new racial power shown is interesting in that it belong to humans - a race previously notorious for its lack of racial powers. Since Essential races will present alternate rules rather than replacing the Player’s Handbook versions, this probably means replacing a racial feature - such as the human’s third at-will attack. It wasn’t very clear how this extra at-will would interact with fighter stances or rogue tricks, and this might be our answer - it won’t. Anyway, the power in question is called Heroic Effort, and it provides a moderate bonus to an attack or save, once per encounter. It’s usually an improvement over Elven Accuracy, and that is to say a lot - for many classes, it’s hard to think of a reason for giving up on the extra at-will, but Heroic Effort could be that good. It also fits the existing mechanics for human characters, since one-shot attack bonuses and enhanced defenses were a recurring theme. I like this one, though I personally find the third at-will even cooler.
And finally, we have the feat that might change the game as we know it. Or maybe not, but I suspect that it is the sign that one of the most annoying (and houseruled) game elements in 4E is getting fixed, at last. Let me explain. This is the feat in question:
Bludgeon Expertise: +1 feat bonus to attack rolls with hammers and maces. In addition, any time you push with a weapon attack using a mace or hammer, you gain a +1 feat bonus to that push.
The cool, and potentially game-changing thing about Bludgeon Expertise is that it’s stronger than Weapon Expertise and similar feats, it has an interesting effect, and it provides a meaningful choice. I have explained in length why I think that current Expertise feats are bad for the game, in that they are boring, but virtually mandatory: you will spend a valuable feat slot to gain a +1 to hit (make it +2 or +3 at higher levels) sometime during your career, because it is so effective, even if it is utterly bland and involves no decision whatsoever.
Enter Bludgeon Expertise. I think it is safe to assume that this is just one among a series of feats that provide the bonuses to hit usually associated with Expertise (heck, it even shares the name!) in addition to some other kind of effect that would usually be worth a feat by itself - in this case, extra pushing. I bet there’s one to cover most (if not all) weapon categories, and probably implements too. Admittedly, we also have to imagine that this feat text is incomplete, so that it actually gains the additional bonuses at paragon and epic tier - otherwise it would all fall apart, as people would retrain to the generic feats at those levels. But take all those assumptions, and think about the result: Expertise could work.
Having a single feat that you need to take, no questions asked, is a terrible think. But make it into a full category of different feats that grant the required effect for free, on top of something unique and worth a feat by itself, and it all clicks. It may not be complete freedom, but it’s a kind of freedom I can live with. I think it would be better if the feats were not as strongly tied to your weapon or implement choice as they seem, and the game could actually afford some kind of overlap, with more general Expertise feats as well as weapon-specific ones - the really strong benefit is the bonus to hit, which doesn’t stack, so there would be no real harm in taking two such feats. We’ll have to see the whole range of feats to know how well this solution works in practice, but I must say, this looks great.