Thursday, November 4, 2010

Essentials Paladin: Defender’s aura, shift prevention, less choices.

D&D Essentials class previews

The preview for the Essentials paladin, or Cavalier has been out for some time now, but I hardly found enough newsworthy material to justify posting about... until now. Some lucky player has got hold of an early copy of Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, and there’s a thread at Enworld with him answering questions about the book, including stuff about the latest iteration of the Divine Defender. We can now make reasonable assumptions on how it will play out, and though I must say I’m not terribly impressed, it still looks like it will be a solid package overall.

The new paladin is simple enough for a half-orc to grasp

The best way to describe the Cavalier is as a hybrid between an Essentials Knight (from which it borrows most of its defender mechanics), and a classic Paladin. The power structure is very close to the traditional at-will/encounter/daily, but certain slots (such as the level 1 daily, and the level 2 utility) have been replaced by class features, and there are too many fixed choices to my taste (including at-will and encounter attacks). On the other hand, all this streamlining has a very clear advantage, in that Cavaliers just work. All too often, when building a pre-Essentials paladin, one was left with the impression that the class was pulling in too many directions at once, making it impossible to end up with an entirely satisfying character. This is no longer the case.

Originally, paladins suffered from a lack of definition regarding ability score requirements. In order to be fully functional, you needed Charisma for your defender punishment, Wisdom to power Lay on Hands and similar features, and Strength to have a decent opportunity attack. Never mind that, as a defender, some Constitution was also advisable. But attempts to support more than two scores usually ended in disaster. Divine Power mostly solved the issue through new feats and powers, but the fact remained that you had to sacrifice some valuable slots in order to achieve basic functionality. Not only that, but any novice player who forgot to take Melee Training or Virtuous Strike for the Charisma build, or Mighty Challenge for the Strength one, was still likely to end up with a poor defender. Cavaliers solve this problem by dropping Wisdom altogether, and requiring just Strength (for attack powers and opportunity attacks) and Charisma (for defender punishment, and extra effects in most attacks).

Two Cavalier builds are provided, named after two paladin virtues: Sacrifice (focused on healing) and Valor (apparently . Each virtue determines one of the character’s at-wills (the other being fixed) and a level 1 feature called Spirit of Virtue. Judging by the progression table, no other powers or features appear to be linked to virtues at heroic tier. However, we know that each virtue’s description takes about 3 pages, so we can expect at least some paragon path elements tied to them, and maybe some heroic elements that are not evident by looking at the table. At any rate, level 1 Cavaliers of Sacrifice will be getting a very nifty Lay on Hands proxy, with a power that lets them trade their Second Wind for a ranged heal, whereas Cavaliers of Valor are stuck with a flat bonus to initiative and surge value.

The defender features will be familiar to anybody who has seen the Knight class. Defender Aura makes a comeback here, a word by word copy of the Knight feature, clearly meant to replace the marked condition for Essentials builds. And complementing it we have Righteous Radiance, a mixture of the knight’s Battle Guardian, and the old Divine Challenge. As a paladin, the cavalier will still punish offending enemies with Cha-based, autohitting rays of divine light, but they will now have no problem handling crowds (since the ray triggers as an opportunity action whenever any enemy within the aura ignores you), as well as enjoying an unprecedented stickiness: shifting enemies will also get hurt.

Oddly, despite being an almost strict upgrade over regular paladin marks (sacrificing a bit of range, but becoming much easier to apply in return), the whole package can’t help but feel like a cheap version of the knight’s feature, having pretty much the same functionality with lower damage output. In fact, the flat radiant damage barely beats what any knight can achieve on a miss. It does have a niche application in making minions miserable (since they get killed instantly if they try to ignore you), but it’s not like they were much of a threat anyways. To make things worse, cavaliers are notoriously lacking in the forced movement department, so they rely on their allies for repositioning enemies, and collecting them inside the aura (which should be a basic strategy for essentials defenders).

That is not to say that cavaliers are not capable defenders - even if their toys are individually weaker than those of a knight, they do get more. Specifically, they have a feature called Righteous Shield which triggers on an ally taking damage, and lets the cavalier absorb the damage instead (true to the Paladin style) while gaining a bonus for the counterattack. Working once per encounter, this is clearly a tool for emergencies that can’t replace a real defender mechanic - but it complements it well. In addition, it gets better at higher levels (there is a Level 7 feature called Improved Righteous Shield), adding a small, build-dependent effect.

In the power department, having fixed at-wills for each build is a step backwards, in my opinion. At least they managed to get an interesting attack selection... for one of the virtues, anyway. The common, staple attack will be Valiant Strike, a power included in the original PHB that never got the chance to really shine. This time, however, the added stickiness of the cavalier’s defender aura should ensure that groups of enemies stay close to the paladin long enough for Valiant Strike to reach a respectable (about 2-3 points) bonus to accuracy - that’s some cool synergy. As for the virtue-specific ones, Cavaliers of Sacrifice got lucky with Strike of Hope, a healing attack for nearby allies that only gets better in presence of bloodied friends. Its effect doesn’t beat the best equivalent leader powers (i.e. Sacred Flame and Energizing Strike) at the highest levels, but is otherwise very attractive. The same cannot be said about Virtue of Valor’s Vengeful Strike, a respectable damage dealing attack that unfortunately is only useful with nearby bloodied allies. I’m all for conditional bonuses, when well implemented, but turning off one of your two at-will attacks when the condition isn’t available is far from satisfactory.

As for the rest of the powers, the encounter slot is condensed in Holy Smite, a divine version of Power Strike which adds some radiant damage on top of another attack, as well as dazing the target. I can’t say I’m thrilled by the lack of options, but this one is at least solid enough, and actually looks like a significant improvement over Power Strike, which should make up for the class’ shortcomings in other areas. An additional use of the power is gained at level 3, and likely again at 13, like Power Strike. Thankfully, paladins get to choose their daily powers as normal, even though the level 1 slot is missing from the table (perhaps sacrificed in behalf of the Righteous Shield feature?). Apart from that, utilities are mostly unchanged, but the level 2 one has been replaced by something called Restore vitality, which sound very much like a heal-focused utility of some sort.

There’s not much left to say. A mount-related feature at level 4 called Pace of the Virtuous Charger does not actually provide you with a horse, but it improves your riding speed when you do have one. More interestingly, the level 8 feature Spirit of the Virtuous Charger doesn’t really have anything to do with mounts, but provides a significant damage and speed bonus to charge attacks. Paladins lack the mobility to base their tactics on frequent charges, but this is still a very useful tool, for whenever they need to close a distance.


This is not my favourite Essentials class by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not a bad one, either. Although one of the builds (virtue of Sacrifice) looks compelling enough, the other one strikes me as terribly bland. And the lack of options is almost unprecedented, even when compared to an Essentials martial class: the only build choice a level 1 character is presented is the Cavalier’s Virtue! On the other hand, the core gameplay looks is well thought out: the class will be able to defend all right, with a style that sets it apart from other clases. I really like the Defender Aura concept, even if Knights seem to squeeze more out of it, and just that could be enough to make this worth trying over a regular paladin.


  1. Oh man, dropping Wisdom just made my inner Tiefling Warlock/Paladin smile.

  2. Well, Cavaliers aren't available for hybrid characters, at least until Class Compendium comes out, and at any rate Defender Aura works much worse with warlock powers than Divine Challenge, so I'm not sure this will be of much help for your build.

    On the other hand, the new at-will powers can be borrowed by existing builds... but are Str/Cha attacks any better for a warlock than just going for charisma-based ones?