Friday, October 8, 2010

Essentials Ranger preview: A farewell to seekers?

D&D Essentials class previews

For a long time, Wizards of the Coast has stated that they wouldn’t release a purely martial controller in 4E, to the despair of symmetry-loving fans. However, after a first peek at the Hunter, the new controlling Ranger build to be included in Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, we can tell that this stance... hasn’t changed all that much.

As it turns out, the Hunter (not to mistake with the Hunter Ranger build from Martial Power 2) not only brings a different role (controller) to the Ranger class, but it also changes the power source! Like the Essentials Assassin before it, the Hunter mixes martial exploits with a different power source - primal, in this case. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since D&D rangers have a longtime tradition of dabbling in nature magic. Anyway, from what I can see, the primal influence is a minor one, since all the attacks revealed so far lack openly supernatural effects, and the class structure closely resembles that of other Essentials martial classes: no dailies, fixed encounter attacks, and a strong focus on basic attacks for its at-wills. In fact, the only primal elements revealed so far are a series of stances that wouldn’t be that out of place as martial exploits.

Hunters are ranged specialist, being able to choose either bows or crossbows. Accuracy seems to be one of the strong points of the class, with Expertise for the weapon of choice given for free at first level, and a Weapon Talent feature that isn’t shown in the preview but can safely assumed to grant a +1 to hit, like the features with the same name for other martial Essentials classes. They wear leather armor and feature striker-level hit points, their primal heritage apparently compensating for the fragile controller role.

The attack power selection faces the remarkable challenge of performing the controller role without daily attacks, which had historically been a major selling point of controllers, to begin with. The information we currently have is incomplete, but it strongly suggests that hunters will make really fine controllers, and be quite interesting to play, as well. Rather than choosing at-wills, hunters get a fixed array of three attacks, which looks like a letdown at first, until you realize that they play like five different powers - of which at least four are of amazing quality.

The star of the show is, without a doubt, Clever Shot, which consists on a basic ranged attack with a choice of three different controlling effects on a hit. And they are nothing to sneeze at, as they include knocking prone, sliding multiple squares, and slowing the target until it saves. This is a great range of options, both in variety and power level, and the inclusion of save ends effects is unprecedented for an at-will attack, and should provide some cool combinations.

For scenarios where such subtlety isn’t required, the hunter can resort to the more straightforward Rapid Shot, which sacrifices accuracy (of which the class had plenty, anyway) to be able to make basic attacks against enemies in an area, easily making this the hardest-hitting at-will area attack in the game, thanks to the very respectable damage dice of bows and crossbows. Rounding out the package, Aimed Shot is an attack that ignores most penalties to hit, being a decent alternative when a target is invisible or under heavy cover.

A missing piece of the puzzle is the encounter attack, Disruptive Shot, which appears to be a fixed option to boost attacks several times per encounter like a Knight’s Power Attack or a rogue’s Backstab. The name suggests some kind of penalty to attack rolls for the target, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually offered multiple options, like Clever Shot.

Overall, and despite the lack of dailies and the fixed encounter power, hunters seem to offer more strategic options for their attacks than other Essentials martial classes, and actually end up pretty close in complexity, compared to traditional controllers. In fact, there is an additional layer of choice thanks to a feature called Aspects of the Wild, which provides two at-will primal stances (of which you gain more as you level up) which let you switch between different states during combat. So far we’ve been able to see the Aspect of the Cunning Fox, which makes you resistant to opportunity attacks and allows shifting after hitting with an attack, and the Aspect of the Dancing Serpent, which allows you to shift at the end of turn and deal extra damage to isolated enemies.

If anyone was still aching for character building options, there is yet another feature, called Wilderness Knacks, that offers multiple choices - in this case, two skill-related abilities at first level, with additional slots every four levels.

Apart from that, there are a few mystery features left in the heroic progression table, including ‘Close Combat Archery’, which likely allows shooting without provoking opportunity attacks, ‘Reactive Shift’, most likely involving movement during an opponent’s turn, and 'Weapon Mastery', which might boost your Disruptive Shot in different ways depending on use of bows or crossbows, like the fighter features of the same name should give you a flat +1 bonus to damage, like the Knight feature of the same name.

The verdict

I’ve been pretty hyped by the Essentials builds so far, but this one is easily my favourite. I just love the idea of having many different (and potent) at-will attacks, and the range of tricks available covers most of the needs of a controlling character. The Aspects of the Wild are a really cool idea, and mean that you will be choosing between different powers for your standard action and your minor action each turn, providing an unexpected strategic depth. The downside is that, despite Aspects and Knacks, there shouldn’t be that much variety while building the character, but I’m confident that the variety in play will more than compensate for it.

The most painful thing about the Hunter is that, by being a primal-ish controller that uses ranged weapons, focuses on basic attacks, and has a number of mobility-related features, it steps on the Seeker’s toes too much. In fact, it’s hard not to picture the Hunter killing the Seeker, and taking his stuff, and kicking him while he’s down. The fact is, Seekers where deeply flawed, with a decent set of features but lousy powers that made them a failure as controllers. By succeeding in their very same niche, Hunters raise a number of questions about the continuity of Seekers as a class. Will they be supported anymore? With no Primal Power 2 on sight, it would take a major commitment from Dragon articles to bring Seekers up to playability, including a couple of feat patches and a good number of strong powers. Unlikely as that seems, I’m not giving up hope yet. Who knows, maybe one of the drafts I’m preparing to submit could help in that regard...


  1. At first glance I see a serious issue.
    Granted this is an ideal situation, but with Rapid Shot you could attack nine targets (some of which could technically be out of LoS, btw). Then if you have Aspect of the Cunning Fox you can then shift EIGHTEEN squares!

    If people really think that Two-Weapon Strike is about the best at-will out there, how do you handle an at-will that can attack more targets, do more damage (because you get to add your dex-mod to the damage) and can be enhanced by other features. All this with only a -2 to attack as a balancing factor?

  2. Theo, I think you are overrating Rapid Shot - while it's true that it could trigger nine attacks, the same could be said about any burst 1 at-will. Also, I don't think how you could use it to ignore LoS (which is doable with real bursts, btw) since, the way I read it, each ranged basic attack would resolve normally.

    So it wouldn't compete with Twin Strike anymore than Scorching Burst does. Area powers have always been able to deal far more total damage than any other power, but Twin Strike is the undisputed king of concentrated pain - which is extremely useful for knocking down enemies as quickly as possible.

    That said, Rapid Shot does have an impressive potential once you start taking basic attack boosters - though these are reportedly under vigilance, so the strongest options could be errataed back into sanity in the following months. That may, or may not, include Primal Eye

    As for the Cunning Fox ultra-sprint, I don't think you'll ever live the dream and shift the full 18 (since 3x3 clusters of enemies are unheard of, in my book), but 6-8 squares is both achievable and (in my opinion) fair.

    An awesome (and somewhat worrying) trick I heard of in the Character Optimization forums would be to build a human hunter and take Twin Strike as your extra at-will. Sure, you'll lose on Hunter's Quarry, but you'd still be a controller capable of switching to crazy damage mode.

  3. Re: Weapon Mastery, you're thinking of Weapon Specialization. Weapon Mastery is just a plain +1 bonus to weapon attack damage rolls.

  4. Oh, and as for the Rapid Shot / Aspect of the Cunning Fox, I'm interpreting AotCF to mean you would shift 2 squares after making each attack with RS, rather than shifting the combined total of squares after every RS attack is resolved.

    This means shifting the full number of squares may not always be ideal, since you could easily shift outside of the normal or even the long range of your weapon before the full number of possible attacks is made.

    However, I do have a sneaking suspicion that in the finished product, RS could well be re-written in one of two ways:

    "Once per turn, when you hit or miss with a melee attack or a ranged attack, you can take a free action to shift up to 2 squares."

    "Whenever you hit or miss with a melee power or a ranged power on your turn, you can take a free action to shift up to 2 squares."

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  6. Nick, what you say about taking at-wills is true, but the (pre-Essentials) human feature still lets you take a 1st level at-will power from your class. So hunters should be able to take twin strike from that feature, if they're human(though not by any other means). Likewise, a human thief might pick Sly Flourish, and a human Knight could use Crushing Surge. Many powers won't be worthwhile, since you'll be missing on the basic attack related features, but a few have great potential.

    You're also right about the effect of Weapon Mastery, so I'll fix that.

  7. Yep, I realised I'd misread the last paragraph of the post after posting. I didn't want to quadruple post and there's no edit button, so I just clicked 'delete' :).

    Of course, the simple fix for this problem is for the DM to not let the player do that ;).

  8. Since I spent ages typing, I thought I'd link to a post I made over at Wizards, regarding the relatively simplicity of homebrewing a ranged slayer, or even a ranged knight: Link