Sunday, October 24, 2010

Analyzing the Essentials Assassin

Last month we talked about the new Assassin build (the Executioner) featured in Dragon, which exploited the increased flexibility provided by the Essentials class paradigm, introducing a number of cool, innovative ideas. Although the level of mechanical polish and balance achieved was impressive (and, honestly, quite an improvement over the original Assassin), the new build was still labeled as Beta, so that players could provide feedback before the final version was released later in November. Which is what I intend to do today: give some constructive criticism on the class, pointing out its successes and shortcomings, and eventually send it to the developers.

The class follows a top-down design, emphasizing flavor over pure mechanics.

The good things

I’d like to begin by mentioning that I think the class is based on a very solid foundation. The main features and power structure combine efficiency and fun, and I’m confident that the build as a whole should be enjoyable to play, while performing adequately at the striker role. I particularly like the unique approach to at-wills, encounters, and dailies, with weapon-specific at-wills covering narrow, but compelling niches, Assassin’s Strike condensing all encounter damage in in a devastating attack, and poisons providing a small twist on the traditional concept of daily attack. Some specific powers still may (and do) need improvement, but the overall framework is quite good, in my opinion.

I’d also like to point out the few features and powers that struck me as particularly impressive. Overall, the Executioner does a great job matching evocative flavor and cool new mechanics, but a few elements stood out the most. Death Attack, for example, is nothing short of awesome. It does something that hadn’t been tried in the game, which is no small feat, fits perfectly into the Assassin’s theme, and actually affects play strategy without providing an overwhelming advantage. Likewise, the Unseen Spearhead power, which makes your opponent helpless as an at-will, is a very bold design idea (coup de graces are a very dangerous concept) that somehow has been balanced just right. A (very) complicated maneuver that, if successful, is almost guaranteed to down an opponent is a welcome change of pace in 4E combat. Finally, I loved the Shadow Coffin utility, as it has great storytelling potential.

The inevitable flaws.

1) Red Scales: excessive reliance on hiding, lack of support for stealth.

First off, I understand that Executioner at-will powers are intended to be situational, and that melee basic attacks should fill in the gaps for those times when none of the over-specialized exploits are available. But I think that the attack selection for the Red Scales build goes too far in its narrowness, to the point that a player might feel encouraged to forget about at-wills altogether, and focus on optimizing basic attacks instead. Part of this is due to the fact that too many powers ask the Assassin to make melee attacks from hiding, which is an extremely difficult thing to do.

Both Garrote Strangle and Unseen Spearhead are very cool and balanced powers, but as melee powers that require stealth and result in a grab, there is a lot of overlap between them. Moreover, they are almost impossible to pull off for a 1st level character, and all but require higher level characters to invest heavily in stealth-related utilities in order to have a decent shot at using them. This can prove frustrating for inexperienced players, but even hardened veterans will find that unless their characters specialize in stealth, half of their at-will attacks become almost useless. This is only aggravated by the weakness of Unarmed Throw (see next section).

To be clear, my major concern isn’t that you can’t eventually optimize to make good use of Unseen Spearhead and Garrote Strangle, but the fact that they are only really usable if you do. For the powers to be acceptable in their current state, Red Scale characters should have stronger stealth support as a default - rather than being crippled if they mistakenly skipped, say, the Silent Stalker utility. However, I think that loosening the stealth requirement on at least one of the powers would be the better solution. As an example, Garrote Strangle could be changed to require only combat advantage against the target, but only impose penalties to escape checks if you were hidden from it. That would make it playable even with poor stealth, while rewarding those capable to hide.

2) Unarmed Throw is way too weak

I see the merit in the occasional non-damaging attack, even in a striker class, but the Executioner goes too far in that regard. Half of the Red Scales attacks deal no damage, but at least Unseen Spearhead contributes to bringing down an enemy (and how!). Unarmed Throw should have an impressive effect in order to justify sacrificing a turn’s worth of damage, and it just doesn’t deliver. Pushing and knocking prone would only be slightly overpowered in an at-will that dealt normal damage (since there are already precedents for knocking prone), and I think having it deal 1d6 damage (without Dex modifier) on a hit would make it worth using, but fair.

Alternately, it could remain as a non-damaging option, but have its effect improved somehow. Allowing it to be used as an opportunity attack would make it worth taking (though I still doubt anybody would waste the standard action on it), and letting it knock prone a second enemy adjacent to the target would make it all kinds of awesome.

Incidentally, the power currently suffers from a lack of proficiency bonus with the Assassin’s unarmed attack, which would need to be compensated in the final version.

3) League of Whispers lacks a offensive at-will

Individually, each of the at-wills offered to League of Whispers Assassins is fine: they provide great mobility, or great control, or amazing accuracy. But none of them is actually any better than a ranged basic attack when your purpose is to just kill an opponent. By contrast, Red Scales have a hard hitting, easy to use power in Kukri Lunge, and two complicated but very damaging maneuvers in the grab attacks.

Part of the problem lies in Close-Quarters Shot and Unerring Shuriken overlapping too much as mobility-focused powers. Oddly, I think the solution could be to have one of the powers require combat advantage or hiding (which, ironically, would be MUCH easier to achieve for members of this build than for a Red Scale), and granted some kind of damage boost in return. As an example, you could remove the extra movement effect from Unerring Shuriken and add “If you are hidden from the target, this attack scores a critical hit on a roll of 17-20” instead.

4) Precision Dart lacks synergy with higher level poisons.

Currently, the Precission Dart effect of denying poison saving throws works with the following Assassin poisons:
- Bloodroot Poison (lv1): 1 turn of daze
- Greenblood Oil Poison (lvl1): 1 turn without healing
- Nitharit Poison (lvl1): 1 turn of ongoing damage (worth 5 extra damage)
- Lich Dust (lvl 15): 1 turn of weakened.

So at heroic tier there is a fair amount of poisons that can be used with the at-will, but we only get one at paragon, and none at epic. Coupled with the fact that the lack of a damage roll is particularly painful at higher tiers, this makes the power almost obsolete at those levels. Introducing new poisons for those tiers, or adding an ongoing effect to an existing poison (Dragon Bile would be particularly tempting with its stun ending with a save) would alleviate this. Alternately, Precision Dart’s damage could be increased to 1[W]+Dexterity at level 21, though I’d prefer the other solution.

5) You get to know all existing powers

At maximum level, an assasin will know:
- 4 out of 4 at-will attacks.
- 4 out of 6 level 1 poisons.
- 2 out of 3 level 15 poisons.
- 3 out of 3 level 25 poisons.

This suggests that there are too few options to choose from, at least for certain levels. Getting to know all possible choices feels terrible, particularly at any level where you end up taking the last power in a slot (i.e. levels 17 and 27). I think that the number of known powers is about right, but the amount of options needs to be increased somehow. Adding 1 or 2 extra at-wills, perhaps shared by both builds (a thrown weapon like the dagger would be a good candidate) would probably be enough, as it would match the numbers of an Essentials fighter. As for the poisons, I think 1 extra recipe for levels 15 and 25 is the bare minimum.


So, what do you think of the points above? Are they fair complaints? Is there some fatal flaw I've been missing?


  1. Good analysis!

    I disagree with your thoughts on the At-Wills, though... They're not meant to be bread & butter attacks, by and large, so I'm fine with them being very situational. It's kind of a different paradigm for at-will attacks, and I have to say I like it.

    With that said, I think Unerring Shuriken is pretty deadly. The executioner assassin in my Dark Sun game has used that a few times to good effect. Bolas Takedown has seen some use, too.

  2. I'm playing an Executioner (Red Scales) in a War of Burning Sky (the sprawling ENWorld campaign path) and it's working out pretty well so far. The trick, I realized, was to spot that my specialty weapon at-wills weren't meant to be your standby -- they're for when you want to sneak up and kill a guy. Or in the case of Kukri Lunge run up screaming and kill a guy. Or in the case of Unarmed Throw, in case you want to be useless and then die.

    An Assassin just hitting you with a sword (and they can effortlessly swap between their specialty weapons and any one-handed military weapon) and they're tossing out damage comparable to a Ranger's basic attack (d8 damage die plus a +1d6 precision damage). Of course, an MBA is inferior to any ranger at-will power, but, then, Attack Finesse is even more readily accessible than Hunter's Quarry-- that is, it just works on all your weapon attacks, period. No minor action, no worrying about attacking the nearest target, etc.

    Basically once I started quick swapping to a heftier one-handed weapon instead of trying to garrote or spearhead everybody things went much slicker.

  3. I love these class analyses. An in-depth look at the assassin -- I'm interested to see how many of your concerns are addressed in the final version.