Thursday, October 28, 2010

Essentials ranger preview: Redeeming Twin Strike

D&D Essentials class previews


Update (11/11/10): Ok, I ran some numbers about Twin Strike, and it looks like it's not as bad as I thought, unless you go out of your way to optimize damage. When making a ranger, a multiattack power will still beat most alternatives, but the comparison with other strikers isn't as terrible as I suggested. So take everything below with two grains of salt.

Edit (03/11/10): Toned down Twin Strike hate.

I have long considered the ranger the most flawed class in 4E, mostly because of its notoriously overpowered at-will, Twin Strike. It is frequent for a ranger to spam Twin Strike in detriment of anything else, on account of its outdamaging most encounter powers, and downright obliterating at-will alternatives a LOT. In this context, it comes off as a surprise that when Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms brings us a Essentialized ranger subclass called the Scout, which consists on a melee dual-wielding striker stripped of daily powers and based on attacking all turns in a very Twin-Striking way, the final result might be something I’d enjoy playing with.


Given that the book included both drows and dual-wielding rangers, it must have been difficult to use any other races for the sample character. I appreciate the effort.

Exploring the class

Much like its cousin the Hunter, a Scout is a hybrid of martial and primal power, though the martial component is by far the most prominent, from the heroic tier preview we have been shown. The core gameplay of this striker consists on the use of Dexterity-based melee basic attacks modified by at-will primal stances called Aspects of the Wild (which take the place of other classes’ at-will attacks) and occasionally boosted by pseudo-encounter attack Power Strike (a feature previously seen in the Essentials Fighter). The class has no other attack powers (notably lacking dailies), but has utilities as usual. True to tradition, the Scout fighting style is based on dual wielding; the striker extra damage feature is called Dual Weapon Attack, and it allows for an additional off-hand attack after hitting an enemy, once per turn. It’s as brutal as it sounds.

The parallels with Twin Strike are obvious as well as alarming, but thankfully the developers seem to have done their homework this time. The worst sin of the original was, by far, the repetitive gameplay it generated, since it rewarded players for spending every single standard action in the overpowered at-will, while dismissing any encounter attack that couldn’t be used with a minor or immediate action doing nothing but bland double attacks, turn after turn. In this regard, although it is true that all Scout turns will include some combination of basic attack and dual attack, the fact that these are modified by a number of wildly different stances effectively turns them into multiple twin-strike-flavored powers (2 at first level, plus additional ones at 7th and 17th). Like other Essential martial builds, this is a drop in complexity and variety from most regular 4E classes - but I’d take it over a Player’s Handbook ranger any day.

Only a few of them have been revealed so far, but each ranger stance seems to beat knight and slayer stances in both number and variety of effects. They tend to offer a mix of mobility and attack boosts, adding an interesting layer of depth to the class since you may want to switch stances both before and after attacking. Of the known stances, two are shared with the Hunter build, and a third is brand new. Aspect of the Cunning Fox is perhaps the least impressive of the pack, though it definitely has interesting applications - it provides free shifts after each attack (whether or not it was successful), triggering multiple times if you get to attack with the off-hand, and generally allowing you to race through the battlefield, switching targets or just escaping enemies. It also reduces significantly any damage taken from opportunity attacks, but that should hardly come up outside of desperate situations.

Aspect of the Dancing Serpent has more of an incentive for offense-oriented characters, as it improves attack and damage rolls against enemies as long as they aren’t close to their allies. It only applies to your main basic attack, though any hit rate improvement will affect Dual Weapon Attack indirectly, by increasing its chances of triggering. It also grants a free shift at the end of turn, which makes it the main contender for a post-attack stance switch. Both of the stances described above can work either in melee or at range, which is a nice added bonus, should a scout ever need to resort to his longbow. Nevertheless, the most striking (pun intended) Aspect is that of the Charging Ram, which only works on charges but makes them truly devastating. It combines the ability to ignore opportunity attacks provoked by the charge (which is huge!) with extra damage (this is gargantuan!) and knocking prone on a hit (colossal!). The synergy of prone enemies and additional melee attacks is quite nice, as is the interaction with typically situational feats like Headsman’s Chop.

Striking a balance

So variety is more or less handled... but what about balance? In 4E, making multiple attacks is inherently superior to any other mechanic for extra damage, and this has made Twin Strike (and the few comparable attacks, like Hellish Rebuke) the best offensive strategy, barring some convolute optimizations. What is to prevent Dual Weapon Attack from similarly topping the at-will damage charts? The answer is: not much, but there are other drawbacks.

Going by my initial calculations, the scout may well be the strongest build in the game for raw at-will damage output, at least at lower levels (since there is little point in evaluating anything beyond that with so many higher level features missing). That doesn’t necessarily mean it will blow up the world, as the class has significant limitations that can make up for it. The most obvious one is lack of dailies and proper encounters, which actually demands that a class has above-average at-will performance to be able to stand to classic builds.

To understand how this balances out (or not), we should take a look at its mechanics in detail. Scouts use main hand weapons and regular-sized off-hands (unless double weapons are involved), and depending on build and off-hand weapon choice can get a +1 to hit rolls (if they use a light blade) or a +2 to damage (if they wield an axe). The initial attack is a melee basic (which can apply your Dexterity modifier if you wish) plus whatever modifiers get added by the active Aspect, and the off-hand one is non-basic, Dex-based, and only happens once per turn, after hitting with the basic. Notably, both attacks get to add an ability modifier to damage, so compared to the original Twin Strike, each individual attack hits much harder, but the off-hand has a significant chance of not triggering, that gets higher the worse your hit rate is. It should also be mentioned that scouts have no Hunter’s Quarry, which didn’t make a huge percentage of Twin Strike’s damage, but contributed nonetheless. Overall, the relationship between Twin Strike and Dual Weapon Attack is a complex one, favoring the former in scenarios with high damage bonuses or low hit rates, and the latter otherwise. That said, for low level characters fighting standard monsters, the Scout outdamages a Ranger with at-will attacks by a good margin.

More importantly, scouts also appear to beat other Essentials martial classes (also lacking dailies and sporting strong at-wills) at their game. Examining a number of heroic character samples, the scout would be the best at at-will damage, with thieves close behind and slayers lagging slightly below that. The difference is likely to increase at higher tiers, though it is quite hard to tell how much, without seeing more features. On the other hand, that only tells half the story. Both thieves and slayers will get more mileage out of their encounter attacks than a scout (even if Power Strike is the same for fighters and thieves, a slayer’s will hit harder thanks to the two-handed weapon), and a slayer’s action point is far more impressive (as neither Sneak Attack or Dual Weapon Attack can trigger more than once per turn). High reliance on hit rates also means that scouts will be worse off against higher level monsters or soldiers - and, on the other hand, they get to slaughter brutes and lesser foes. Interaction with leaders is also interesting - DWA not working in other characters’ turns means that a scout isn’t a good target for leader extra attacks (unlike slayers and thieves, which are awesome in that department). On the other hand, offensive bonuses are great for them. Looking at other factors, scouts get great AC and mobility, but their opportunity attacks are mediocre, they are only decent with ranged weapons, and they lack the HP and surges of a slayer.

Conclusion

At heroic tier, and from what we have seen, the scout is a very strong character, but not to the point of overshadowing other classes or breaking encounters. I would really like to see it remaining the same over the paragon and epic tiers, but the chances are slim. On the other hand, it will still be as enjoyable to play as other Essentials martial characters, which is more than can be said about the original ranger. I’ll cross my fingers and hope it turns out all right.


6 comments:

  1. According to the article Wisdom is their secondary, but how does it matter?

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  2. Given that we know the major features, and they have nothing to do with Wis, my guess is that it won't matter all that much. If it's anything like the knight or the rogue, it will have one or two stances that key off Wis, and probably a random feature in the dedicated paragon path. But you'll probably be able to ignore it without missing anything important.

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  3. I'm still confused about why Twin-Strike is better than encounter powers... Twin-Strike does 1[W]+ 1[W] (assuming two hits), most of my ranger encounter powers do 1[W]+Stat + 1[W]+Stat. Since he's a ranged build that "+Stat" is +Dex mod, which is +6 (twice).

    Now add that the encounter powers do extra effects (like adding Wis Mod damage if both hit, or allowing shifts between/after attacks) and I only spam twin-strike if I'm out of (or saving) encounters. But to do damage, hit well, or maneuver I'll do an encounter over twin-strike every time.

    Can someone please enlighten me? I'm not saying twin-strike isn't a GREAT at-will, I'm just not getting the "...rewarded players for spending every single standard action in the overpowered at-will, while dismissing any encounter attack that couldn’t..." argument.

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  4. Actually, encounters allowing multiple attacks against a single target are pretty rare outside of the ranger class. The standard encounter for weapon users tends to be about 2[W]+Stat (adding a W or two at paragon and epic), plus some extra effect. Likewise, a normal weapon daily attack will deal between 3W and 6W plus stat, depending on level.

    Given the number of available damage bonuses in the game, it doesn't take long for (1[W]+1[W]) to hit harder than (2[W]+stat) (which, remember, is the expectation for an encounter power) and, eventually, no single-attack power with a lot of [W]s can stand up to Twin Strike.

    Now, the ranger is exceptional in that it does have a good number of multiattacking encounters (though note that the same doesn't happen with at-wills, which are mostly a lost cause). Then again, there's also a fair share of "normal" encounters that can't compete in damage and usually become unplayable. Anyway, in principle, it's true that these encounter powers are upgrades over Twin Strike, and should be used over it, preventing the spamming. The problem is, there are even better sources of damage.

    As an example, looking at level 1 encounters, it would seem that the most damaging power is a double attack like Two-Fanged Strike (W+Stat, plus W+Stat, plus sometimes Wis). However, the real stars are Fox's Cunning and Off-Hand Strike, which don't require a Standard action and can be used the same turn you Twin Strike, effectively becoming triple attacks.

    Admittedly, the double attack encounters are still strong contenders, and you can play them just fine if extreme optimization doesn't interest you. So the 'permanent spamming' scenario I painted is probably excessive, and doesn't represent actual behavior in play. But be aware that this strategy exists, and is as effective as boring.

    Finally, I think I should mention the existence of builds that do get away with absurd Twin Strike spamming, though hopefully you won't find such aberrations in a real gaming table. These are usually based on Half-Elf dilettante (or Revenant/Half-Elf dilettante!), and more rarely on Paragon Multiclassing, and try to exploit damaging features or feats of non-ranger classes in combination with the hardest-hitting at-will that can be found.

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  5. Could you please provide a break down of the available damage bonuses that make Twin Strike out damage other powers?

    I've run several ranger players and played as one, and I've never experienced the issues you mention of them using Twin Strike any more or less than other classes use their at-will powers.

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  6. I made some quick builds to answer your question and, having seen the results, I must say I have overstated the issue. Under normal conditions, and even at high levels, Twin Strike provides high damage, but not that far off compared to other great striker at-wills. By 'normal conditions', I mean a character with fairly common damage-boosting feats and items: focus, expertise, superior weapon, bracers of archery/power, and weapon mastery (at epic).

    Still, the fact remains that using these options at paragon and above, the ranger will be dealing about as much damage as any other character, if not more... and with every boost above that, the advantage will grow, due to the way twin strike scales.

    However, most 'fair' damage boosts have been accounted for, at this point. There is certainly the option of going for one of the great paragon paths from earlier books, which can make quite a difference, but other than that, any further improvement depends on rather cheesy stuff, like Lasting Frost, Gloves of Ice, Dragonshards, or Called Shot.

    So the power can still be problematic, but nowhere as much as I thought. My experience with it is limited to heroic tier (where it's actually fair), and I was concerned about its scaling making it too good with regular bonuses at mid-paragon - which doesn't really happen. I stand corrected.

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