Friday, July 30, 2010

D&D Essentials preview: The rogue

D&D Essentials class previews

The last of the four character classes to be revamped in Heroes of the Fallen Lands has been revealed today. The Essential version of the Rogue is known as the Thief (in yet another nod to old school D&D fans), and shares many of the mechanical innovations first seen in the Essential Fighter: a new power progression that lacks dailies and is based on applying modifiers to your basic attacks, and a wider range of class features, some of which are acquired at higher levels. We have been able to catch a glimpse of some of these powers and features, including interesting details such as the rediscovered ability to wield shortbows.

Shortbow rogues like Haley couldn’t easily be implemented in 4E, but Essentials will change that.

Rogue powers

The core of the Essential Rogue gameplay consists in a series of powers that alter basic attacks, resulting in effects that are very similar to those of an at-will attack. This follows a similar principle as the Essentials Fighter, though instead of stances, thieves get Rogue Tricks. These are movement actions that grant some kind of movement and boost your attacks for a turn. You start off with two of these but, unlike at-will attacks from a conventional class, you learn more as you level - and at a faster level than an Essential Fighter, too. So far, we have seen that extra tricks become available at levels 4 and 7, and it’s likely that more will come up at higher tiers.

From the three tricks we have seen, it looks like the attack effects won’t deviate much from existing at-wills. Tumbling Trick is a Cleave-like trick to deal Strength damage to a different adjacent enemy. Ambush Trick is a very welcome addition to the rogue’s arsenal, as provides an easy way to gain combat advantage against isolated enemies at short range. By comparison, Feinting Trick looks quite unimpressive, as it provides a bonus to damage based on your Charisma whenever you lack combat advantage - typically, you’d be better off dealing sneak attack damage with Ambush Trick .

More interesting is the way you can get different types of movement from your tricks: some of them simply let you move your speed, but Tumbling Trick actually allows you to shift 3 squares, which is quite an awesome thing to do at-will. Other powers should do even cooler things, such as “run along a wall or shift past an enemy”. It’s clear that Rogue Tricks have been inspired by the monk’s Full Disciplines, with the advantage that they are much more straightforward and easy to grasp. I really like this new emphasis on mobility for strikers, since it’s a feature of the role which is often forgotten in favour of raw damage.

The existence of Rogue Tricks has serious gameplay implications. First of all, there is a strong incentive for rogues to move before attacking. Each trick has a single movement type, so you’d really want a power selection that includes at least some tricks that shift, and some that move your speed. And your move requirements will influence the kind of attack you end up making. For example, Ambush Trick is an excellent attack but it doesn’t allow to shift, so if you have an enemy adjacent, you can only use it to attack that enemy in melee, sacrificing movement for that turn. It also means that rogues will be seriously hindered by the dazed condition, as it prevents them from activating their tricks.

Then there is the fact that you are actually using basic attacks instead of powers. It is unconfirmed, though extremely likely, that the first level class feature Weapon Finesse allows the use of Dexterity for melee basic attacks with light weapons. This means you can charge, make opportunity attacks and benefit from other kinds of effects that provide basic attacks without needing to take the Melee Training feat. However, all of these abilities may not be available from level 1 - there is another feature called Improved Finesse at level 9, so it’s possible that Weapon Finesse only works for attacks made during your turn, and Improved Finesse unlocks the rest. Anyway, Melee Training is a great feat to have for free, even by installments, and it only gets better when your basic attacks can benefit from Rogue Tricks and other class features. Also, you should keep in mind that Dexterity is now an option but no longer a requirement, and that you can have melee rogues attacking with Strength out of the box, or even with other abilities like Charisma, if you do take Melee Training after all.

As with fighters, rogues also have some special rules replacing encounter attacks. Instead of a choice of encounter powers, they get a power called Backstab at level 1, which can be used once per encounter when you have combat advantage and activates before rolling for an attack. It grants a hefty bonus to hit plus some damage, in addition to the effects you may have gained from a Rogue Trick. It is simple yet effective, easily outperforming most average rogue encounters (though not the best ones). Another difference with conventional classes is that they don’t seem to gain additional encounter attacks at levels 3 and 7. However, there is a feature called Improved Backstab, which should provide additional uses of Backstab in some way, maybe through a recharge mechanic.

Rogue weaponry

A defining quality of the Rogue class is their favoured weaponry, as they excel in the use of light weapons that other characters would dismiss due to their low damage. In game terms, this means that most rogue powers and special abilities specifically restrict the weapons they work with, as otherwise most players would go for the less elegant but far more deadly strategy of backstabbing with greataxes. The Essential Rogue handles this a bit differently.

None of the ‘attacks’ (that is, Rogue Tricks or Backstab) have any kind of weapon restriction. Rogues are only limited by their weapon proficiencies and the Sneak Attack feature. These have suffered slight changes, in that Shuriken proficiency has disappeared (not that many characters ever used them), seemingly replaced by shortbows, which make a triumphal comeback to the class. Another subtle difference is that Sneak Attack now works specifically with Hand Crossbows, instead of crossbows of any kind, as Superior Crossbows were excellent (if un-roguish) the weapon of choice of many sniper characters.

What this means for the Essentials rogue is that you can actually use a greataxe to Backstab, after all - it’s only the Sneak Attack (and probably Weapon Finesse) that won’t work. In practice, you’ll always want to Sneak Attack when possible, even with a measly dagger, but it would be possible to take a massive weapon (a Greatbow at range, or a Fullblade in melee if you are a Strength rogue or have Weapon Training) for backup. Feinting Trick could be a particularly interesting trick for these situations.

More changes

Other tidbits that I have collected from the preview article and forum posts are the following:
- Sneak Attack now works 1/turn instead of 1/round, meaning that rogues can have huge opportunity attacks, as well as becoming a Warlord’s best friend. Designer Mike Mearls has confirmed this as intended and will also apply to non-Essentials rogues, but other classes such as Warlocks and Rangers will NOT be getting a similar treatment.
- Feats and items that provide huge boosts to basic attacks (such as Deft Blade, from Martial Power 2, or Eagle Eye Googles, from Adventurer’s Vault) are being looked at for future errata, as they interact insanely with Essentials classes (as well as Seekers, though nobody cares about those).
- Class features include versions of First Strike (available at level 1) and Weapon Talent (at level 2), presumably granting similar benefits as the features of the same name for conventional rogues.
- Among the new class features are Skill Mastery (gained at level 3), Cunning Escape (level 5), and Combat Readiness (level 9).


Although Essentials rogues look as weird as the new Fighters, they seem a bit cooler to me. This may be in part because the Fighter preview was missing many important features (including the mark punishment), so we don’t really know how it will play out. In the case of the rogue, even though it still isn’t complete, the previewed rules are enough to build a playable character - and it looks like such character could be quite a blast to play. In addition, Rogue Tricks look more interesting than stances, offering variety, mobility, and a few strategic dilemmas. Overall, this is a class I’m looking forward to play.

Read More......

Friday, July 23, 2010

D&D Essentials preview: The fighter

D&D Essentials class previews

So we finally get to see the class preview for the Essentials Fighter (for more info about Essentials, check out previous articles) and, man does it bring surprises! For all the forum uproar they caused, the essentialized Cleric and Wizard were little more (and little less) than your regular 4E class build with a few simplified decisions, and a higher level class feature or two, to throw us off-balance. Remember all the talk about classes with different levels of complexity, shaking up the Encounter/Daily power system, and the like? It all makes sense when you see this Fighter. Also, it’s a good thing we were shown the “normal” classes in Essentials first, as this one is nothing but shocking! Let’s see why...

This isn't actually from Essentials, but it needed to go here.

The Essentials Fighter is perhaps the most radical departure from the basic 4E class framework to date. Forget about psionics and powerpoints - these were bold, and cute, and slightly broken, but at the end of the day you still have conventional at-will and encounter powers, even if you got some added flexibility in using them, and a few restrictions in taking them. This Fighter is made of different stuff. Consider the following paragraph from the preview:

Basic Attacks: As a fighter, you make most of your attacks using basic attacks. Some classes rely primarily on class-specific attack powers, whereas you typically make basic attacks enhanced by your fighter stances and other class features and powers.

Anyone remember the older editions of the game, where a fighter’s shtick was to hit the monsters with his standard attack, turn after turn? I sure do,and it was kind of monotonous, and boring, and not that strong compared of what the fancier classes could get... but wasn’t D&D 4E suppossed to bring the end of this mindless spamming? I get that they wanted a straightforward experience, but how can “Basic Attack every turn” become a compelling strategy with a minimum of variety?

Stances instead of At-Will Attacks

From what we have seen, the new fighter gets no attack powers. At least, not attacks as we are used to, with Attack and Hit lines. Just the good old Basic Attack. But do get something to emulate the effect of other classes’ at-will attacks, in the form of at-will stances. Conveniently, a first level fighter gets 2 of these stances (but more on this later), which add modifiers and special riders to all melee basic attacks. This way, instead of, for example, an at-will that adds extra damage, there would be a stance that boosts the damage of all basic attacks.

So far, we have a full writeup of two of these stances in the preview, and the name and general effect of a third. Battle Wrath is your straightforward offensive power, providing a flat bonus to damage that is decent at low levels, though it doesn’t seem to scale properly for higher tiers, unless we are missing something (and we probably are). Cleaving Assault deals damage to other adjacent enemies, as could be expected - a well-known mechanic for fighter players. Finally, Measured Cut seems to provide free movement (likely shifts) with your attacks. Overall, it looks like a fighter using these stances would perform very much like the current ones.

Nevertheless, this system has serious implications. The most obvious is that it feels different, and probably easier to swallow for players of previous editions. I’m perfectly fine with martial characters getting a series of powers that might resemble a spell list, but I’m also aware that this was a shock for some D&D players when 4E was released - making the game less enjoyable for them. On the other hand, a fighter applying modifiers to the standard attack does have precedent in previous editions, and thus looks more familiar.

But this is not just directed to veteran players. This kind of at-wills also has subtle advantages compared to the 4E default, for someone completely new to the game, or who just wants a simpler game experience. Because a stance effect lasts until you turn it off or switch to a different stance, a fighter player would no longer need to choose and declare a specific power each turn. Just saying “I hit the monster with my sword” works just fine. Of course, sometimes it would be preferable to change stances, from a strategic point of view, but you now have a decent default in case you don’t want to think too hard about it.

And I know, from experience, that this kind of things can be useful. There’s a player in our campaign that has been in the party since the beginning (almost two years, now), but who nevertheless doesn’t care much for the mechanical details - she’s just there for the company and the laughs. So, more often than not, when her turn comes, she points to a monster and throws the dice, while shouting “Attaaack!”. Which, of course, isn’t of much help when nobody knows exactly what kind of attack she intended to make - and deciding after everything has been rolled is kind of awkward, so we end up asking her to specify the power and reroll. All of this has happened before, and it will happen again. Well, guess what? The Essential fighter works just fine for this kind of players. And not just because of the at-wills.

Power Strike instead of Encounters

Not content with overhauling the at-will attack mechanics, this version of the fighter also features a twist on encounter attacks. It’s clear that many details escape us at the moment, but one thing is for sure: there are no encounter attacks, only Power Strike.

Power Strike
Free Action
Trigger: You hit an enemy with a melee basic attack using a weapon.
Effect: The target takes 1[W] extra damage from the triggering attack.
The At-Will stances described above didn’t bring that much simplification in character building or game strategy, as you still had a similar number of slots to fill, and of decisions to make each turn. Power Strike is a different beast, entirely replacing a whole category of powers with a straightforward effect. Your encounter power will always be a plain 2[W] attack, easy enough.

Except that it isn’t just that. To begin with, Power Strike is triggered when you hit, so you don’t have to declare it beforehand. Not only is this much more friendly for non-hardcore players, who no longer need to think much before taking an action, but it’s also deceivingly strong. Our simple 2[W] encounter now works as if it had the reliable keyword, becoming a much more potent choice. Moreover, you are still making a basic attack with whatever stance you had active, so any riders of your pseudo-at-will power will also apply. Add to this the fact that it can trigger on opportunity attacks or charges, and our easy-mode encounter replacement doesn’t look so harmless, anymore!

One of the greatest mysteries of Power Strike is how it will advance as you level up. From the Knight advancement table, we see that at level 3 there is a feature called Improved power strike, which likely grants an extra use of the power, or something like that. And, though we lack information on those levels, I’d bet that the extra [W] damage increases at paragon and epic. But the thing that throws me off guard is the fact that there’s nothing like “More Improved Power Strike” at level 7! So you don’t necessarily get up to 3 uses of this, as other classes gain 3 encounter attacks. I wonder how that will work out? Maybe the level 3 feature isn’t a straight second use, and grants you some kind of recharge mechanic instead.

Also, it remains to be seen if we will be able to customize Power Strike through feats or class features. It would be a cool way to emulate the choice of different encounter attacks, but it might also rise the complexity to unacceptable levels (and I’m not just talking about beginner players, here). Again, this preview leaves us with many, many questions.

No dailies, lots of mysterious features

Speaking of questions, the advancement table shows a huge number of class features we still know nothing about. And, unlike with wizards and clerics, we can expect these to be very juicy, strong features, because Essential Fighters do not get Daily Powers. This had been anticipated, but I somehow expected there would be some kind of daily-like mechanic to boost powers, in fact very much like Power Strike. However, none of the features in the table looks like a clear match for that mechanic, so we might end up with something completely different.

At level 1, there are a whopping 4 class features (apart from stances and Power Strike), of which only one appears in the preview. Called Defender Aura, it seems like an interesting twist on the marking mechanic, without all the hassle of inflicting a condition on the enemy. Basically, any enemy adjacent to a fighter takes penalties to attack as if he were marked by him. This is worded so that it doesn’t stack or interfere with marks, suggesting that Essential defenders will probably not mark enemies. It looks like a fine mechanic, but it’s hard to say how effective it will be without knowing about the punishment mechanics.

The remaining level 1 features are Weapon Talent (no idea if it will picking the features with the same name from previous books), Battle Guardian, and Shield Finesse. Battle Guardian looks like the defender punishment, and Shield Finesse seems to be a knight-specific defensive feature. Note that none of these sound like a pseudo-daily feature.

As with other Essentials classes, you gain more features at higher levels. Level 4 brings Combat Readiness, which sounds like something related to Opportunity Attacks, and level 9 has Improved Combat Readiness (again, not daily-like at all). Level 5 has Weapon Mastery, and Level 7 Weapon Specialization. These could all be predefined features, but I expect at least a few of them to offer some choices down the line, to make up for the loss of different encounter and daily powers. Finally, there’s something called Shield Block at level 8.

Something remarkable in this list of features is the one you get at level 7: Extra Fighter Stance. This means that fighters get a third at-will as they level up, and potentially even more at higher tiers.


This preview leaves us with a good impression of what the new fighter is not like (i.e, 4E classes as we know it). However, there are enough gaps to make it almost impossible to guess what it will be like in play. It certainly might end up with a ridiculously low number of options to build and fight, but there’s also potential for a class even more complex than psionic ones (even if I’m almost certain that they won’t go that route). The not-quite-a-mark could be as good as Combat Challenge (which is to say, really good), or almost useless, for all we know (again, I doubt that will be the case). And the balance against classes with encounters and dailies? Your guess is as good as mine - personally, I think there are a LOT of things that could go wrong, but have faith in the game developers, psionic classes notwithstanding.

There is one final point of concern, though. There is an impressive amount of feats and enchantments in the game that can improve a character’s basic attacks, to the point that it is possible to build PCs with basics that outperform their at-wills, or even their encounters. This is worrying by itself (and in fact I was thinking on writing about it some day), but could become disastrous in combination with a class like this warrior that is completely based on souped-up basic attacks. I don’t think it’s possible to implement a fighter that is balanced both with and without these items, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find a massive errata following the release of Essentials.

Read More......

Friday, July 16, 2010

D&D Essentials Wizard: Schools of magic, free Magic Missile, Spellbooks with Encounters

D&D Essentials class previews

It’s time for another preview of the new class builds that will be included in the Essentials book Heroes of the Fallen Lands. Today it’s the wizard’s turn, and we get to see the overview of the new builds, the heroic advancement table and, unlike the cleric preview, even some of the at-wills. For a general look at the Essentials line information we have seen so far, you can check out my post from last week.

The preview starts with developer Bill Slavicsec goin out of his way to explain that, really, Essentials is not a stealth edition change, and that Essentials material can be played along with PHB material, and PHB material can be played along with Essentials as well, and whatever they release in the future will play just fine with boty PHB and Essentials. I’m sure that the 4.5 doomsayers will still find a way to read this as the end of the world (and the edition!), but it does look like the guys at Wizards of the Coast have no interest at all in repeating the PR fiasco of the 3.5 edition reset.

Anyway, on to the juicy bits...

Bill Slavicsek goes out of his way to explain that, really, Essentials is not a stealth change of edition, and Essentials material can be played along with PHB material, and PHB material can be played along with Essentials as well, and whatever they release in the future will play just fine with both PHB and Essentials. I’m sure that the 4.5 doomsayers will still find a way to read this as the end of the world (and the edition!), but I’d say the guys at Wizards of the Coast have no interest at all in repeating the PR fiasco ot the 3.5 edition reset.

Anyway, on to the juicy bits... the Essentials build for the Wizard is called the Mage, and it has an undeniable old school flavor. To begin with, schools of magic are back, as is specialization, and there are three sub-builds for wizards that choose to focus on either Evocation, Enchantment, or Illusion. As with all Essentials classes, Wizards have their own advancement table, with new class features to be gained as they level up. The table also specifies the required experience points for each level, as well as the feats and powers gained, which further contributes to the nostalgic feeling, even though they are all pretty much the same as the general 4E character advancement. Not only that, but you also get a table listing the spells you can prepare each day on your Spellbook for each level, which will also appeal to old timers but doesn’t actually deviate one comma from how it worked in Player’s Handbook.

But old schoolers aren’t the only intended audience for Essentials - according to the previews we have seen so far, they aren’t even the top priority. That honor goes to newer, unexperienced players, for whom the character creation process has supposedly been streamlined. How does that work out? We still have only a fraction of the class description that will be in the book, and the rules framework remains pretty much the same, but some improvements in presentation can be appreciated. I think that the class personality, as well as their place in the world, are better portrayed here than in previous books. You get just enough background to know what wizards and their schools are about, without getting to the point where you want to skip the blocks of text (and I’m not particularly tolerant, in that regard!). Brief paragraphs explaining flavor and function precede not only class features, but also (in an unprecedented and welcome move) powers.

Interestingly, only a brief mention is dedicated to the controller role, and the description of each build focuses more on the look and feel (evokers are all explosions and destruction, enchanters lack damage but disorient or control enemies) than their strategic contribution to a party. Players accustomed to 4E should still be able to figure out that evocation has a bit of Striker and enchantment is more pure Controller, whereas someone new to the game would probably know this intuitively, even if he couldn’t associate it with these words. Anyway, even if a player knows absolutely nothing about the rules, I think these descriptions provide sufficient material to choose a build or power just by how it looks.

To conclude, here’s a quick rundown of the mechanical details for the new wizard:

- Intelligence is still the primary ability score. There are three secondary abilities, and my guess is that they match the different specializations as follows: Constitution for Evocation, Wisdom for Illusion, and Charisma for Evocation.
- The Spellbook class feature now also lets you store multiple encounter powers. Apart from that, it works as before, except that the part about rituals has been cut. There seem to be no rituals in Essentials.
- Wizards still get Cantrips, though it remains to be seen whether they are the same ones as in PHB or not.
- Each mage chooses one school of magic to specialize on, and it determines a series of features to be gained at levels 1, 4,5,8 and 10. At least one of these features (likely the one for level 1) boosts spells related to the chosen school. It’s likely that several of the higher level features provide out of combat functionality that would otherwise be handled by rituals.
- Magic Missile is given for free as a class feature. It has the same text we could see in this month’s Errata, except that the Evocation keyword has been added. I wonder if more old spells will be updated to receive additional keywords for different schools.
- Three more at-wills are shown, for different schools of magic. I think there should be a total of 6 at-wills 2 for each school. We have Arc Lightning, which is a clone of the Invoker's Divine Bolts (pretty cool), Beguiling Strands, which is a less damaging version of Thunderwave with a larger, friendly area and no reliance on Wisdom, and Hypnotism, which can either force an enemy to attack your target of choice, or slide it a bunch of squares.
- Effects that would usually depend on secondary abilities in at-wills now have fixed values. This is likely intended to simplify character creation.

Overall, this looks very similar to the classic 4E wizard. The powers look cool and effective, and not different from the ones we would expect from any other book. In particular, they seem to be well balanced with existing stuff. As for the features, we’ll have to wait until we know more details, but I can’t help the impression that you get a bit more than a regular wizard - not that it was difficult, since PHB wizards got almost nothing in the way of features, anyway. However, the emphasis on benefits affecting a limited set of powers, and pseudo-ritual effects could mean that there’s still room for the original wizard builds - it’s still too early to know. The Spellbook improvements are completely awesome, though, even if they probably don’t affect a character’s effectivenes by much. Spellbooks easily make Wizards the most complex class in Essentials, even if you can easily ignore the feature (as the players in my campaign do) without a significant loss.

So far, so good. I’m still looking forward to the new books. Only a couple of months to go...

Read More......

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Softer, Smaller, Cheaper - A look at the new Essentials format

Although we have talked a bit lately about the previews for D&D Essentials, most of the discussion has been centered on the content of the books, with topics like the new design goals and details about class builds. This is the usual thing, after all. But wait, there’s more! Not content with being innovative (and controversial!) in its content, the Essentials line is also making some bold experiments with book format. Look at the following picture, to see what I mean:

That’s right, the new books will be significantly smaller! Oh, and they will have twice the number of pages to compensate, and switch from hardcover to paperback. This will likely bring chaos to our shelves (the books no longer match!) but, on the bright side, it will also cut prices by a good margin. So far, I’m cautiously optimistic about the change, but I’ll have to hold the books in my hands to really know if I like the new format or not. I mean - what will happen with page layout? I don’t think they will be reducing their font size, but it’s hard to see a double column fitting in the smaller page otherwise - and stuff like power writeups and monster stat blocks would look really weird without the stat block. On the other hand, I sure like the new prices...

This pic is a different take on the format comparison:

Like it or not, this new format is here to stay, as it has been confirmed that it will be used on books outside of the Essentials line. So I’m really hoping that they get it right. Anyway, here’s some numbers on the old and new formats, compiled from data in and a report from this year’s D&D Experience product seminar, by Critical Hits:

Size: 11” x 8.4” (27.9 x 21.3 cm)

Player’s Handbook 3
Pages: 224
Price: $35

Martial Power
Pages: 160
Price: $30

Essentials Softcover
Size: 9” x 6” (22.9 cm x 15 cm) -
Note: Total surface is 58% that of a regular hardcover

Player Essentials
Pages: 368 (~184 hardcover pages)
Price: $20

Rules Compendium
Pages: 320 (~160 hardcover pages)
Price: $20
Read More......

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Broken Bits: Battlefield Archer

Broken Paragon Paths, Part Four
Previous - Index - Next

The Battlefield Archer paragon path is the only reason in the game to take the Archer Fighting style for a ranger. There, I said it. It would be an understatement to say that I dislike the original design for the Ranger class, a Twin Strike-spamming monstruosity with little in the way of variety and record-breaking damage figures. One of the most flawed elements (which is saying a lot) of the class, as appeared in the Player’s Handbook, was the Fighting Style class feature, which determines your choice of build. The problem lies in the benefits associated to each build, which consist in a minor bonus and a generic feat for the dual-wielding style, and just a mediocre feat for the archer style.

Yep, the only mechanic benefit of acquiring Archer Fighting Style is a mere feat like Defensive Mobility, which has no requirements whatsoever and isn’t particularly good! Granted, it more or less fits thematically, but as a build reward, it fails miserably. Add that to the fact that there are no feats or powers mechanically linked to the class feature, and it’s no wonder that many ranger players chose to go with the Two-Blade Fighting Style even though they didn’t mean to make a single melee attack in their whole career, just because getting Toughness as an extra feat is a bit less depressing. However, this decision changes considerably if the player intends to play from paragon tier onwards - at those levels, the archer style becomes a requirement for three paragon paths. And although the first two (High Forest Scout and Beast Stalker) are virtually unplayable, the third one is Battlefield Archer. It may not seem like much, but it has kept the Archer Fighting Style alive all by itself!

The problem

As with many other paths in my list, Battlefield Archer would be a solid, yet reasonable choice except for one feature. It has a great utility in Archer’s Glory, which all but guarantees that a character will have action points for every encounter, and that in turn has amazing synergy with the level 16 feature Battle Surge, as it grants encounter-long near-immunity against opportunity attacks after spending an action point. Then there is a very attractive encounter attack that can be used during an opponent’s turn, a playable but unimpressive daily, and a marginal action point feature, which all make for a decent little package. What screws it all up, though, is the attack bonus.

A bonus to attack rolls is one of the coolest effects you can get from a paragon path, right there with adding ability modifiers to damage. Generally speaking, a continuous +1 to hit is a great ability, and you don’t need much more to make a great path. +2 bonuses to hit are very rare, and generally justify by themselves whatever path they are in. Finally, although there are no features in the game that grant a +4 to hit as such, there are ways to gain a reroll for all of your attacks, which are roughly equivalent to a +4/+5 to hit - and needless to say, are automatic candidates for brokenness. Although not quite the same, a continuous +1 to hit to four or five characters is easily comparable to a +4 to hit and, by the same logic, any feature granting anything like that would raise all the alarms. Battlefield Archers gain such a feature at level 11, by the name of Battlefield Experience - and it’s as dangerous as you would expect.

Battlefield Experience is not made of pure evil, as there is a very nice, amusing, and mostly harmless part of the feature that allows you to mark multiple quarries at a time. I like that, and it should remain untouched. On the other hand, you then get the silly text about granting a +1 to all attack rolls against said quarries, regardless of source. That’s right - a nice untyped, unconditional +1 for you and your whole team, as long as you agree to beat up on the couple of unfortunate souls that happen to be your quarries. This means that the occasional area attack will miss the bonus on a few targets, and that one, perhaps two of your allies may not benefit from it at a given turn. But really, it’s downright brutal. It’s the feature that every leader character dreams about when he’s a little kid.

Some would argue that since, as we mentioned above, the Archer Fighting Style is as crappy a class feature as it gets, and that this paragon path is the only nice toy they are ever given, some degree of overpoweredness should be tolerable. I can’t agree with that vision, as I think that classes and paragon paths must stand on their own, with regards to balance. Not to mention that, despite the awkwardness of their Fighting Style, rangers tend to be extremely powerful characters, even before factoring in their broken paths.

A solution

If we can’t allow a feature to grant the bonus to the whole party, an easy fix is to cut back on the number of affected characters. I think that looking towards a target of 2-3 characters benefitting from the bonus (ranger included) would make it weak enough - though ‘weak’ is hardly the appropiate word here, as it would still be an amazing path. Since we can already see a theme about helping allies with ranged attacks in the encounter power Combined Fire, this seems like a natural fit:

Battlefield Experience (11th level): You can designate more than one creature as your quarry at a time, up to a number equal to your Wisdom modifier. In addition, any ranged or area attack made against a quarry receives a +1 bonus to attack rolls.

For most parties, only 2-3 characters will be able to benefit from Battlefield Experience at a time, since it’s usual to have a mix of melee and ranged characters. On the other hand, this could really shine in a dedicated ranged group, which somehow sported a single melee specialist (a defender, I expect), plus a bunch of archers and spellcasters. So the potential for this feature to retain much of its former glory is there, but it should require enough sacrifices so as to be acceptable, as well as interesting. There is also a risk for this to be a bit too good with large parties of 6-7 characters, but I don’t think that is an overwhelming advantage, and these are pretty exceptional anyway. Finally, be aware that the path will be a lot less impressive, but still functional for smaller parties (though it alredy was, to a point), as well as randomly organized groups.

Read More......

Friday, July 9, 2010

D&D Essentials class preview: The Cleric

D&D Essentials class previews

The previews for D&D Essentials continue, and today we get our first glimpse at the new class mechanics. The developers start by explaining their design goals and philosophy (there is a HUGE emphasis on compatibility with existing products, as well as providing compelling decisions, even for new players), and then show us the crunchy bits. I highly recommend taking a look (no subscription is required), but you can see the highlights below.

This is what we know about new classes in general:
- 8 Existing classes will be getting 2 new builds. They will be divided among 2 books: Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms
- New builds will share some elements with current classes (features, powers, feats), but also have some exclusive features and powers.
- Each class has its own advancement table. Nevertheless, the basic structure (what you get at each level) remains pretty much the same, with just a few additions or changes.
- Classes can now gain additional features while levelling up. In the cleric preview, there are fixed features at levels 4 and 8, and build-dependent features at levels 5 and 10. Some of these seem to overlap with what you could already do with the Ritual system.
- There will be classes with different levels of complexity.
- The previously announced removal of daily powers will only affect certain classes.
- This design philosophy will be applied to all future 4E classes (and presumably builds).

Also, though not a class-related item, flexible racial stat modifiers like the ones in Player's Handbook 3 are confirmed in.

As for the Essentials Cleric, the preview covered the following:
- There is a new subtype of cleric, called Warpriest, which can be further divided into two builds. Each build is associated with a domain and it's corresponding gods - there is the Sun Domain and the Storm Domain.
- The Warpriest is a cleric that focuses on Wisdom-based weapon attacks. Proficient with heavy shields.
- The choice of Domain determines certain class features, at-will attacks, and encounters. In theory, you could take generic cleric encounters, but using domain-appropiate powers grants you bonuses; this sounds just like build-specific encounters work currently.
- Storm Domain specializes in offensive attacks, and weakening enemy defenses. Likewise, Sun Domain emphasizes protection and hindering their foes' attacks.
- Some class features appear as the character levels up. Clerics get "Holy Cleansing" and "Resurrection" at levels 4 and 8, and unspecified domain features at levels 5 and 10. This strongly suggests that the Essentials line might have no rituals, and use features instead, since raising the dead was previously handled by rituals.
- Essential clerics do get daily powers, and suffer no restriction whatsoever to that choice from their domain.
- Healing Word remains the same, and there is still Channel Divinity, but the choice of powers has changed: Smite Undead (a weapon-based undead killing attack) replaces Turn Undead, and the second power is Domain-dependant. Healer's Lore is gone.
- None of the new powers or features have been shown.

On a related note, two new builds for the Fighter have been revealed: the Slayer (two-handed weapon user with a touch of striker) and the Knight (entirely focused on defense).

It's still early to know how these new classes will behave in play. What we can tell, though, is that the mechanics will present a good deal of innovation, but the core of the game remains mostly intact. Also, from what I have seen, the compatibility with previous books has not been compromised in a significant way. We could still find out that the actual powers and feats arent' all that good, or that they destroy game balance as we know it, but somehow I doubt it. It looks like the books will be well worth the investment, for veterans and new players alike.

Read More......

Thursday, July 8, 2010

July Errata: Battleminds, Magic Missile, Monster stats

Another round of errata has gone by, bringing some very needed changes. The biggest news are the fixing of the Battlemind class, the updated DMG tables for monster statistics, and an unexpected power-up for many previously marginal options, including an spell as classic (and worthless) as Magic Missile! Nevertheless, almost as important as what was included is the one missing thing: the psionic system, along with its flawed power point progression that turns heroic augments into spammable monstruosities at higher levels, is left untouched. I hope that one will be fixed by the time Psionic Power is around. Anyway, let’s take a look at today’s changes!

The first change, the new monster design paradigm with increased attack damage and more balanced roles, has already been discussed to death in previous posts. The Dungeon Master’s Guide tables describing monster statistics have been updated accordingly, so you should be prepared for deadlier encounters, particularly after paragon tier (where, to be fair, difficulty tended to be lacking).

Apart from that, the most exciting update is the one applied to Battleminds. The psionic defender, introduced in Player’s Handbook 3, suffered from a poor implementation in a class feature that was key for successfully carrying out their role. Originally, Blurred Step was intended as a way for battleminds to chase after shifting enemies, a crucial function given that their mark punishment only worked in melee. However, as written it cost an opportunity action, which had the unfortunate side-effect of having your follow-up move actually happen before the triggering shift resolved. Among other things, this meant that enemies in a diagonal from the battlemind could always escape freely, with disastrous results.

All that is gone, since Blurred Step is now a free action that can only be used once per turn. This turns battleminds into extremely mobile and sticky defenders, and a force to be reckoned. Not only that, but the increase in monster damage also helps them indirectly, since their punishment mechanic, Mind Spike, deals damage equal to the monster’s.

Also interesting is the revision of several powers that were neither overpowered nor utterly useless. Improving game elements is something that only happens on rare occasions, so it is surprising to see this treatment applied to several mediocre cleric utilities, such as Shield of Faith or Bless (which now work as minor actions rather than standards), but also to definitely playable staples like the rogue’s Tumble (whose movement has been doubled). More understandable, though no less surprising, is the complete redesign of Magic Missile.

Magic Missile! No spell screams “D&D Wizard” like the humble missile (though I can’t deny a soft spot for the good old Fireball, of course). Although 4E Wizards have always stood out because of their selection of awesome powers, Magic Missile wasn’t among them. As bland an attack as it gets, its only virtues were counting as a basic attack and having a range of 20, so a wizard who invested an at-will slot for it only got what any bow wielder already had for free. Well, that has come to an end. Starting this month, Magic Missile gets some brand new mechanics with a classic flavor: now it no longer requires an attack roll, but it automatically deals a fixed amount of damage instead. The final result is not quite a powerhouse (in fact, it performs worse in hyper-optimized scenarios), but is pretty decent, and has a well defined function. So, if you really need to damage something reliably, the Missile is your new go-to power. Either that, or Cloud of Daggers.

Finally, the errata has hit an impressive number of munchkin favourites. Forgotten Realms regional background Windrise Ports, for example, used to allow additional multiclass options, populating its associated region with a number of characters only comparable to the amount of followers of Tempus. This enabled many weird builds, and has been removed from the game. The paragon paths Long Night Scion and Feytouched used to be part of the most damaging build in the game, and have been appropiately toned down. The avenger feat, Improved Armor of Faith, granted an AC bonus that scaled across tiers for no apparent reason, boosting epic avengers’ defenses to the astral plane - so it has been reduced to a flat modifier. The epic wizard daily, Legion’s Hold, was arguably the strongest controller power in the game, and has become slightly less brutal. Also, the wizard utility Wizard’s Escape no longer negates automatically a melee hit per encounter (being reduced to a daily), whereas ranger daily Snarling Wolf Stance has completely lost it’s attack cancelling capabilities. On a more general note, free action attacks now have a hard limit of one per turn, in order to prevent some almost infinite chains, usually triggered off crits in combination with multiattacks.

There are many more fixes - mostly overpowered elements and clarifications, but the ones above are probably the most significant. Overall, this has been a very positive round of errata, and very likely one of the last with such sweeping changes, as the developers intend to have a more stable game by the time the Essentials line is released.
Read More......

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

New monster damage formulas

I have previously reported on how Monster Manual 3 brings a new monster design principle, with several adjustments to monster roles and an overall increase in damage. There was an important detail that was missing, though - the specific damage values under these new principles. This has been addressed in the latest round of rule updates, which introduce a new damage table for monsters and traps, replacing the one in page 185 of Dungeon Master’s Guide.

A nice thing about this new table is that it streamlines the process - instead of two tables with entries for low, medium and high damage each, there is just a single table with values for single-target damage and area damage. For brutes and limited attacks, you just add a 25% extra damage (or up to 50%, for certain limited attacks).

As for the actual numbers, they are much more streamlined - since the tables now have rows for each level, the increases in damage are much more smooth. In fact, I was able to determine the formula for average standard damage by simply looking at the table: it is now just about eight plus monster level. This is how it breaks down, for the different attacks. For a look at the old formulas, you can check this.
- Low (Area): 6 + 0.75*Level
- Medium: 8 + Level
- High (Brute/Limited): 10 +1.25*Level
- Very High (Limited): 12+1.5*Level

It doesn’t look like minion damage is affected, though I’ll try to check the damage for MM3 minions against the formulas from Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, and see if they fit.

So, now that we have these, we can tell how much the damage has really increased. Early reports from D&D editor Greg Bilsland pointed at an increase between 30% and 40%, but actual values deviate a bit from this, and vary with level:

As we can see from the table, the increase varies between 10 and 30% for heroic levels, 40-60% at paragon tier, and 60-70% at epic. We should be able to appreciate a difference at lower levels, but it is at paragon and beyond where the game experience will change the most. In future posts, I will analyze how this affects character survivability, and difficulty in general.
Read More......

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Alternate classes in Player Essentials: No daily powers, controller overhaul

D&D Essentials class previews

Previews for the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line (to be released in september) start this month, and Mike Mearls has written a very insightful article (check it out, it’s not DDI exclusive!) that sums up much of what we already knew - the product breakdown, and the philosophy behind the new books - as well as hinting at some interesting news.

A major point that wasn’t totally clear up to now, is how Essentials meshes with the existing D&D material. Many players (myself included) thought, from the early announcements of this line of products, that it would be a 4.5 edition in disguise. Later previews suggested that it wouldn’t necessarily be so, but some uncertainties remained - would it include all new stuff, or reprint, and maybe revise existing material? Would it obsolete previous books, or exist in its own, not-quite-compatible space?

From Mr. Mearls' explanations, the answer to these questions is the best we could expect. Yes, there will be new stuff, and specifically builds and powers (among other very intriguing things we’ll discuss below!) for 4E players. Yes, it will be compatible with what we have. And most importantly, it won’t make you rework your character sheet, since none of the existing material has been rewritten - rather, we get all new options to take in addition to what we have.

The burning question, then, is what the new classes and powers will be like. To recap, we will be getting at least one new build for the four most iconic classes (Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, Wizard), to be featured in Heroes of the Fallen Lands, and later for other classical ones (Druid, Paladin, Ranger, Warlock) in Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms. The major races also seem to be getting new options. And, although we don’t know the specifics yet, there will be some pretty radical stuff.

To begin with, the new builds break with the existing power progression of encounters and dailies. Inspired by Player’s Handbook 3’s psionics (which were apparently received with much love, even though some of us feel that the power point thing didn’t quite work out), the designers decided to do away with daily powers while simplifying encounter powers.

This is a huge leap, and it’s not entirely clear how it will work out. I don’t think the game can really afford to grant too many extra encounter slots, but there is no doubt that players should be getting something in exchange for the lost dailies. I guess there will be some kind of encounter recharge mechanic, perhaps to be triggered a limited amount of times per day. As for the encounter simplification, my bet is that they’ll do away with levels and classify powers by tier - that removes a lot of redundancy, and effectively gives players much flexibility without needing to print that many powers. But my guess is as good as yours.

With the dubious precedent of the psionic power source, I can’t help but be cautious at this new twist for the resource system. On the other hand, I’m really excited at the prospect of brand new versions of the archetypal classes, backed by the experience of two years of design for the new edition. I guess we’ll soon know, for better or worse, since the DDI content calendar shows that this friday we’ll have a first look at an Essentials class: the cleric.

One final, but nonetheless remarkable discovery is the one that affects the Wizard class, and presumably the whole controller role. It appears that the Essentials books will bring a single update to apply retroactively to existing characters, though I doubt many players will complain. Through some kind of rules update, wizard encounter spells will get miss effects now, which is amazing, and sorely needed! The article cites Burning Hands as an example, as getting half damage on a miss, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see other kinds of effects for non-damaging spells. At any rate, controllers had long been missing a defining role feature, and this looks like it could fit like a glove!

Read More......

Monday, July 5, 2010

How much damage is a basic attack worth?

A while ago, we discussed some common methods for calculating the damage dealt by a character on average. However, it is common, particularly for leader classes, to have powers that deal a certain amount of damage and allow one or more allies to make an extra attack. Estimating the exact value of these powers is usually difficult, since it varies with party composition and the specific allies chosen. In today’s article, I’d like to provide some basic guidelines about how much damage to expect from a player character’s basic attack, depending on level.

Although the most immediate application is the evaluation of ‘extra attack’ powers, as mentioned above, knowing about average PC attacks can be useful in other ways. We could, for example, use it to estimate how painful it is for certain monsters to provoke opportunity attacks, or to study encounter duration across levels. I’ll take a look at this kind of issues in future posts.

Character stats

The following stats were chosen for this study. They are intended to include all the options that almost every character, regardless of role, normally takes: good ability scores, expertise feats, and feats to increase critical range at epic. Keep in mind that there is much room for improvement here, through specialized feats, paragon paths, and gear, but this should provide a good baseline. If your character is minimally competent at making basic attacks, he should perform at least as well as the numbers below show - or significantly better, if he focuses on boosting accuracy and damage.

Starting main ability score: 18. The character is assumed to make basic attacks with the best (main) ability score. For some classes or builds, this may require taking melee training at level 1. The ability modifier will increase at levels 8, 14, 21 and 28, as usual.

  • Attack: Weapon attack vs AC, +2 proficiency bonus, 1d10 damage die, or Implement attack vs For/Ref/Wil, 1d10 damage die. Both are equivalent.

  • Expertise: The character gains an appropiate expertise feat at level 5.

  • Magic Weapon/Implement: The character gains a +1 weapon/Implement at level 2, and upgrades it at levels 6,11,16,21 and 26. No special enchantments are taken into account, but the crit damage is 1d8 per plus.

  • Epic Tier: At level 21, the basic attack deals an extra d10 damage. Also, the critical hit range rises from 5% to 10% - this assumes the character takes a weapon mastery feat or its equivalent for the chosen implement/class.

In addition to these almost mandatory stats, we have considered the extremely common scenario where a character has a magic item granting item bonuses to damage, such as Iron Armbands of Power, Bracers of Archery, Staff of Ruin. We’ll provide damage values for both cases.

  • Option - Item bonus to damage: The character gains a +1 item bonus to damage at level 2, and increases it by 1 at levels 6,11,16,21 and 26.

Hit Damage

With the stats described above, we have the following damage progressions. Only average damage on a hit is considered:

Since these tables are a bit cumbersome, and damage increases very linearly, we could approximate the values with simple formulas:

BA Damage (levels 1-20) = 9 + 0.6*Lvl
BA Damage (levels 21-30) = 14 + 0.6*Lvl

BA Damage (Item bonus, levels 1-20) = 9 + 0.6*Lvl
BA Damage (Item bonus, levels 21-30) = 14 + 0.6*Lvl

As we can see in the figures below, the formulas don’t deviate too much from the previous table. As a reference, we have also included monster damage progression, as calculated here.

Since our basic attack represents the lower bound of a PC’s damage, we can see that players will usually deal more damage than monsters of their level, even before taking at-will or encounter powers into account. However, this will not be necessarily true with monsters from Monster Manual 3 and later books, since their damage is higher - though we still haven’t figured out the exact numbers.

Hit Rate

The following figure shows the attack bonuses for our character’s basic attacks throughout levels, and the corresponding hit rates. These have been calculated as explained here. As usual, the character is assumed to be attacking a skirmisher monster of his level. Note that attack bonuses correspond with an implement attack; a weapon attack vs AC would have bonuses higher by 2 points. The chance to hit is the same for weapon and implement attacks, nevertheless.

As you can see, hit rates average 60%, never deviating more than 5% from that, and it tends to be slightly better at heroic levels, and slightly worse at epic.

Damage per Round

The next step, then, is to translate this data into actual damage dealt. We talked in depth about Damage-per-Round calculations in a previous article. The simplified formula that applies here would be:

Average Damage= (Hit rate * Average Hit Damage) + Crit Rate * Extra Crit Damage

We are still missing crit rates and damage. The rates are easy enough - the baseline 1/20 chance for heroic and paragon tiers, which increases to 10% with the appropiate feats at epic. As for the extra damage on a crit, it should amount to 1d8 per plus of the weapon, plus whatever damage you gain from maximizing each d10 (which is worth 4.5 average damage).

The table below shows DPR for characters with and without item bonuses to damage:

Adding striker damage, two-handed weapons

There are a LOT of ways to improve a character’s damage and accuracy beyond the minimum levels provided here. As we explained above, it’s not practical to go into every possible combination, so I chose to go for a straightforward build that can nevertheless be useful as a practical benchmark. That said, there are two hugely frequent character choices that affect attack performance and I wanted to comment: striker damage features, and two-handed weapons.

When talking about striker features, I refer specifically to those that directly add extra damage. Although there is a variety of these, the typical feature grants an extra d6 per tier to the damage roll, or some equivalent amount.

As for two-handed weapons, there is obviously a wide variety of them, including superior weapons, so it’s not easy to settle for a set of stats. Since our one-handed weapon attack assumed a +2 proficiency, 1d10 damage weapon, I’ve gone for the direct damage upgrade without feat investment: a +2 proficiency, 2d6 damage weapon. This would deal an extra 1.5 damage per [W].

The table below shows the increases in hit damage and average damage per attack from these options:

Read More......

Friday, July 2, 2010

Class Acts: Monk - Pushing the boundaries of Full Disciplines.

UPDATE: Darn, the errata bugbear hit this article hard! It turns out that movement techniques with immediate actions were deemed too confusing, after all, as they all got changed to minor action shifts in the compilation. Good news is, minor action movement techniques are still there, and the article is still full of awesome.

I haven’t been writing much about Dragon Magazine lately, due to the overall mediocrity of last month’s content. Only two of the articles in June's issue (#388) were of interest to me: an intriguing Winning Races for Dragonborn, featuring an alternate encounter power for the race (which you can take without any kind of feat cost, an idea I fully support, and which I’d like to see more of), and a Class Acts dedicated to fire Wizards that introduced some cool ideas, but irregular mechanics.

It seems like issue #389 may be a different story, though, as we start the month with a great article for the Monk class, signed by Peter Schaefer. Subtitled "Fallen Needle Itinerants", the article features some amusing backstory on a monk master called Fat Aloisus, as well as really inspired mechanics. I already talked about my love for monks when we got to see one half of the class and, after reading the rest, I think they are easily the best thing to come out of Player’s Handbook 3, and one of the coolest strikers in the whole game. However, there is one thing that PHB3 didn’t get completely right but this article redeems: the use of Full Disciplines.

Don't let him deceive you, it's all muscle. Really.

For those not versed in the Way of the Monk, a full discipline is a special kind of attack that actually includes two powers in one: an attack technique, and a movement technique. The attack technique is pretty much your standard 4E attack power, but the other one is the cool part - a special mode of movement that can only be used on the same round you use the associated attack, typically granting effects such as increased movement speed or shifting, but also jumps, teleports, switches, and other tricks that you’d expect from utility powers.

The Full Discipline mechanic shows a lot of potential, as both parts of a power can be tied thematically or mechanically, having special synergies with one another and even resulting in powers with sub-standard attacks that are nevertheless worth taking due to a strong movement effect. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see too much of this in PHB3 - but this short article makes up for it in spades.

The greatest innovation of the new powers in this Class Acts (one At-Will and six Encounters) lies in breaking an unwritten rule of Movement Techniques: that they have to cost a Move Action. By using triggered free and immediate actions, and even minor actions, these disciplines add even more variety and dynamism to your monk, and can result in great frustration for monsters trying to engage in melee.

This kind of powers can be a little confusing, in that many players tended to assume that you could only activate a movement technique in the same round as the corresponding attack technique. However, looking closely at the rules text, we find that the limitation is actually to use them in the same round, so it’s perfectly possible to use the reaction moves as long as you made an appropriate attack during your turn. Also, you should be aware that the rules only prevent you from using different full disciplines, but nothing stops you from spending your standard action on a different kind of attack (like basic attacks or multiclass powers) and choosing any of your at-will movement techniques. This should prove particularly useful for hybrid characters.

Anyway, I hope we can see more DDI material of this quality in the future. Now I just need to get my hands on a monk PC, to try out the new stuff...
Read More......