Thursday, December 22, 2011

Anatomy of the At-Will (II): Broken options

Not all powers are created equal, but it would be nice if they were at least comparable. In the case of at-wills, this is not always the case. There are lots of at-will powers I would like to adjust to some degree, but in today’s article I will talk about the ones that are, in my opinion, in most urgent need of fixing due to their excessive power level. The next time I will discuss the opposite side of the spectrum – utterly weak at-wills that are hardly competitive with plain basic attacks (if not downright worse).

The table below shows what I consider the top tier of at-wills:

In truth, these powers fall into two distinct categories: Twin Strike, and everything else. The infamous ranger attack is way ahead of the competition, and is the go-to option whenever a character has the ability to steal an at-will from another class. I’ll be quick to concede that the other powers in this list aren’t that bad if you are more tolerant to high powered stuff than me (which is often the case), but Twin Strike is the real deal: something that messes with the math of the game, easily outperforming a vast majority of encounter attacks (and quite a few dailies!) in terms of damage.

Let’s take a look at them.

Twin StrikeRanger at-will (PHB)

Problem: By providing two damage rolls (don’t be fooled by the lack of an ability modifier, doubling up on other modifiers more than makes up for it!), Twin Strike has the highest reliable single-target damage of any at-will in the game, by quite a large margin at higher levels. With enough damage bonuses, this eventually outperforms the single-target damage of any encounter power not based on multiple attacks or non-standard actions (i.e. 90+% of them). This virtually obsoletes any other ranger at-will, and seriously warps the value of at-will borrowing mechanics like Half-Elf dilettante.

Note that multi-target powers such as area attacks can often beat the total damage dealt by twin strike, by spreading it over multiple enemies. That doesn’t necessarily make them as good as the ranger power, since concentrated damage is usually much stronger because it allows you to remove enemies from the fight earlier. Thus, it would take a really strong area attack to have a comparable impact on an encounter (though more on that below!).

Suggested Fix: There is no safe way to implement a real multi-attacking at-will. The sensible thing would be to change Twin Strike to something unrecognizable, by removing the second damage roll or having each attack target a different enemy. That said, if you want to remain as faithful as possible to the original (which is my usual approach when changing stuff), this is the best I would allow it to be:

Change Attack line to:Strength -2 vs. AC (melee; main weapon and off-hand weapon) or Dexterity -2 vs. AC (ranged), two attacks.”
Remove the following line: “Increase damage to 2[W] at 21st level.”

There aren’t many powers that would remain playable after taking a -2 penalty to hit, but Twin Strike manages just fine. Still well above the damage of a basic attack, this version of the power is competitive with other damaging at-wills, though it may not be the best option in certain scenarios. Still, even with this penalty the power could become problematic by the time a character reached epic levels, due to the expanded crit range and huge damage modifiers of epic PCs - but removing the extra (W) damage at level 21 helps keep that in check.

If you are interested in reading more about Twin Strike, there are some previous articles on the topic I wrote a while ago.

Hellish RebukeWarlock at-will (PHB)

Problem: When the punishing effect triggers, Hellish Rebuke deals amazing damage, even rivaling the mighty Twin Strike. This wouldn’t be so bad if the trigger was unreliable or could somehow be avoided by an enemy, but unfortunately this isn’t the case. With the current wording, any source of damage to the warlock will activate this effect - even damage inflicted voluntarily in small increments, such as stepping on a fire, or using a variety of self-damaging items like Shadowrift blade.

Suggested Fix: This attack becomes a lot more fair, though still quite useful, by limiting its effect to trigger only on enemy attacks. Its effect also makes a lot more sense as a punishment for enemy attacks than as a masochistic extra damage mechanic.

Change Hit line to: “1d6 + Constitution modifier fire damage. The first time you are damaged by an enemy attack before the end of your next turn, the target takes (...)

Hand of Radiance – Invoker at-will (DP)

Problem: Up until recently, this was hands down the strongest at-will attack for dishing out damage to multiple enemies, obsoleting such reasonable powers as Divine Bolts. I wrote about it in length here.

Suggested Fix: My idea for a ‘fair’ Hand of Radiance consists in a seemingly innocuous change: reducing its range.

Change Range line to: “Ranged 5”.

This has the double drawback of forcing the invoker to get up and close to his enemies and, more subtly, of making it considerably difficult to hit any 3 targets in the battlefield. Reaching the second and third targets (never mind the fourth at epic) will now require some effort and careful positioning from the invoker, and be downright impossible at times.

Magic Stones Druid at-will (HoF)

Problem: The introduction of an improved version of Hand of Radiance could be seen as an acknowledgment that the invoker power is fair, or even underpowered. For me, it’s just a mistake - I appreciate the effort to give Druids better controller options in Heroes of the Feywild, but this one is way above the baseline set for other controllers.

Suggested Fix: What we have here is a multi-target damage source as strong as Hand of Radiance, with a useful controlling effect thrown in for fun. I think the ability to spam pushes on lots of enemies is the most interesting feature of the power, so given the choice, I prefer to cut the damage and leave the rest intact.

Change Hit line to: 1d4 damage, and push the target 1 square.”
Change Level 21 line to:
2d4 damage”.

Compared with my version of Hand of Radiance, this sacrifices a good chunk of damage for good range and control. Next to Beguiling Strands (another top tier controller at-will), this has better damage (except at the lowest levels) and range, whereas the wizard power has a stronger push and the potential to hit 4 or more targets.

Magic Weapon – Artificer at-will (EPG)

Problem: As I’ll discuss in a later article, I consider the baseline for a decent damaging at-will the ability to add a secondary modifier as extra damage. Magic Weapon has the potential to do that... several times. With careful positioning, the artificer can boost the damage of a whole party, but also their accuracy - and with an attack that has above average accuracy to begin with. This is too good a package in the best case scenario.

Suggested Fix: The ability to boost a lot of allies by placing yourself in the so-called “fireball formation” is definitely risky, but offers a hell of an upside. That said, I love the mechanic, though it’s current implementation is too good. For this reason, my revision of Magic Weapon keeps a generous power level, while addressing the most glaring excesses.

Change Hit line to: Hit: 1[W] + Intelligence modifier damage, and up to two allies adjacent to you gain a +1 power bonus to their next attack roll before your next turn and a power bonus to their next damage roll before your next turn equal to your Constitution modifier or your Wisdom modifier.
In the Level 21 line, remove this:
and a +2 power bonus to attack rolls.

This cuts the ability to setup crazy turns, by no longer working with 3 or more allies nor boosting attacks granted by action points. Also, it no longer gets an even stronger boost at epic. Even after that, it remains a force to be reckoned with.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Broken Bits: Master of the Forge

Broken Paragon Paths, Part Eleven
Previous - Index - Next

While going through this list of broken paragon paths we have found that, more often than not, the offenders were... well, focused on offense. Bonuses to attack and damage are the most common sources of unbalance in 4E, by a mile. On the other hand, if you have ever wondered what a broken defensive ability looks like, you need to look no further - Master of the Forge is your choice.

If you are optimizing a character’s defenses, every point counts, but you can certainly make some points worth way more than normal - particularly when you are close to unhittability from monsters of your level range. Master of the Forge is a paragon path for runepriests, which is effective in the hands of any multiclassing character, and allows you to make your allies’ AC almost impossible to hit by providing monstruous bonuses - as an at-will power. When most defenders happily take any +1 bonus to AC that comes over their way, and cry of joy when they find anything remotely resembling a continuous +2 bonus, something like Blessing of the Forge (a minor action utility granting a whopping +4 bonus to an ally adjacent to the runepriest) is a dream come true.

To see how this can become abusive, consider that a typical defender in plate and shield gets hit roughly 35% of the time against AC by enemies of its level. If the defender’s party includes a Master of the Forge, we can add an extra 5 points on top of that (4 from Blessing of the Forge, and another 1 from the extremely convenient Indomitable Steel feature), lowering this chance to a mere 10%, or a 19+ on the d20. This more than triples the defender’s survivability against attacks targeting AC, and makes attacking him an exercise in futility. Providing the bonus to non-defender characters is not as ridiculous, but it can still be quite strong as long as they have heavy armor.

A fix

I think is one case where simple number tweaking may do the job. I believe halving the bonus granted by Blessing of the Forge still leaves the paragon path at a very competitive power level:

Blessing of the Forge v.2 - Utility 12
At-Will - Divine
Minor Action - Melee touch
Target: One ally
Effect: Until the end of your next turn, the target gains a +1 power bonus to AC, or a +2 power bonus if the target is wearing heavy armor.
Special: You can use this power only once per round.

A secondary fix

With that out of the way, we can consider giving a slight boost to another feature of this path which suffers from the opposite problem: an excessively weak effect. Runes of the Blade Smith provides a continuous damage bonus, which is usually a great thing, but it amounts for a mere 1 extra point of damage, which seems way out of place for a paragon path. I’d rather have a slightly higher bonus, and make it into a power bonus to prevent stacking.

Runes of the Blade Smith  (11th level): When you take a short or an extended rest, you can touch one weapon that you or an ally carries. That weapon then gains a +2 power bonus to damage rolls until you grant this bonus to a different weapon

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Anatomy of the At-Will (I): Introduction

Scorching Burst. Tide of Iron. Commander’s Strike. Chaos Bolt. I have a soft spot for at-will attacks, which are one of my favourite innovations of D&D 4E, and I always find a hard time trying to build non-human characters, because I miss the extra at-will so much. I loathe game options that diminish the fun of choosing and using at-wills, including boring, fixed, weak stuff like Eldritch Blast, but also boring, overwhelmingly good powers like Twin Strike. For these reasons, I’m starting a new article series focusing on the most humble tools in an adventurer’s arsenal. I have prepared long lists of issues and improvements for individual powers, discussions on game elements that affect the balance of at-wills with other types of attacks, reflections on at-will related game mechanics, and of course lots of complaints and a few suggestions regarding the combination of psionic at-wills and power points. I hope to get all these topics covered in this blog, eventually... but for now, let us have a quick summary.

The importance of at-wills

The at-will attack slot suffers an interesting progression over the course of a campaign, in that it is the undisputed most character defining set of powers at level 1, but ends up getting very little use by the time you reach level 30. Keep in mind that I’m focusing on characters that follow the archetypal 4E class structure of at-will, encounter and daily attacks (as opposed to psionic classes or essential martial builds), and that this assumes (as the game usually does) that most or all encounter powers cost a standard action to use - so there are plenty of exceptions to this rule, as we discuss below. Still, for most ‘normal’ builds, the fact remains that at-wills make up roughly 80% of a lower level character’s attacks, and as little as 20% (or less) of a higher level character’s. As a consequence, the impact of any lack of balance in a character’s at-will selection will be huge at first, but decrease with each level until it becomes more or less irrelevant. Or so goes the theory...


I said above that the game system assumes that most, if not all of a character’s encounter and daily powers (leaving aside non-conventional Essentials classes for the moment) will cost a standard action. And that is true... up to a point. There are a few encounter attacks that can be used as a minor or immediate action which, among other consequences, increases the rate of usage of at-wills, since every standard action not spent on an encounter is a standard action that you’ll get to use for an at-will, at some point. Given that these off-action attacks only make up a very small proportion of the encounter power pool, one might think that this effect wouldn’t be too pronounced - except for one detail: they are strong.

The ability to make an additional attack aside from your standard action attack scales absurdly well (as long as said attack has a damage roll, which it usually has), to the point that it is extremely difficult for an standard action power to compete with an off-action one (unless the standard action is a multi-attack, though these are perhaps even more rare). As a result, the off-action power will more often than not be the best in its slot, and tend to be taken by players - even over attacks many levels above it. This means that the impact of off-action powers is much greater than what one would guess by looking at power lists, so that at-wills can often remain relevant all the way through the epic tier.


On the previous section, we saw that sometimes encounter attacks powers naturally give way to at-will powers by freeing up attack actions, but there is another, much more worrying way for at-wills to remain in use even at higher levels: to have at-will attacks that are stronger than their encounter alternatives. Such scenario sounds like an alarming failure of the system (because expendable resources need to be the better ones, otherwise what’s the pint?), but it comes up all too often at high levels of optimization for damage-focused characters, particularly when no off-action attacks are available.

The problem is as follows. Leaving aside non-damaging effects, we can expect a single-target at-will attack to deal between 3 and 10 extra damage on a hit compared to a basic attack (provided the character has a decent BA in the first place), depending on level. Likewise, a single-target encounter attack will typically contribute 5 to 15 extra damage (again, depending on level) compared to the at-will, unless said encounter belongs to the vocal minority of off-action powers or multi-attack powers. Given these numbers, if it were possible to consistently add more than 8-25 extra damage to a basic attack (but not to the encounters or at-wills), you might end up with a character whose best option is to just repeat the basic over and over.

This is what happens with the technique known as charge optimization. To summarize, there is an awful lot of stacking ways to pile extra damage onto a charge attack, and it is possible to all but guarantee that a PC will be able to charge every turn of an encounter, making charges one of the best proven methods to have a character deal awesome damage even without access to off-action attacks or multi-attacks. This results in an abnormal use of basic attacks (or at-wills, if they allow their use in a charge) even at the highest levels.
To give optimizers credit, what usually happens is that the charging PC does not ignore his encounter attacks, but instead goes out of his way to get non-action attacks, so he gets the best of both worlds.

Psionic Spam

Psionic augmentable at-wills are in a strange place, in that while they are technically at-will attacks, they also fulfill the role of the character’s encounter attacks. With three different modes of variable effectiveness depending on power point expenditure, these powers are easily the most complex in the game. They are also the most sensitive to balance problems, due to the fact that each of them takes up the equivalent of an at-will slot and an encounter slot, coupled with the ability to use any version of them repeatedly. Unsurprisingly, this is a power category that suffers from serious fundamental issues.

To be fair with the designers of Player’s Handbook 3, I do think that psionic mechanics missed the mark by a very small margin. In fact, they work mostly fine at heroic tier games, and it’s not until paragon that they become problematic, due to the poorly adjusted power point progression. In short, higher level augments are costed so that they require more power points than those of lower level - this is reasonable in principle, since they tend to be stronger, but it fails in practice because the higher levels are severely overcosted. As a consequence, level 1 attacks are often used throughout a character’s career (and some times repeatedly, for most turns of each encounter), in detriment of alleged higher-level upgrades.

The high level psionic mess becomes even more complicated when you account for the fact that unaugmented attacks lack scaling damage at level 21, so they may end up hitting for less than the character’s basic attack. The trivial solution of adding an extra die to unaugmented attacks at epic doesn’t work as well as could be expected, since you end up with augmented versions of the power that deal less damage, or have no benefit at all. Likewise, adding the damage to all versions of the powers can result in augmented attacks that sometimes hit harder than their encounter equivalents for non-psionic classes...

Back to Basics

The point of an at-will is to be more interesting, and marginally stronger, than your plain basic attack. Because of this, any mechanic that provides a permanent improvement for a character’s basic attacks introduces a serious risk of obsoleting the at-will slot, encouraging players to use a turbo-charged basic over and over instead. Unfortunately, there are a series of options in the game that enable this, most notably a cycle of weapon-specific feats in Martial Power 2.

Basic attack boosters are most dangerous when combined with charge optimization, which is a common technique. Also, there are a few at-wills which count as basic attacks and become extremely effective in combination with these options.

What to expect

I intend to continue this series alternating articles that focus on some of the individual topics described above, and lists of at-will powers with my opinion on them and suggestions to bring them to what I think is the right power level. The first ones in my list are an article about charging, and a discussion on my top candidates for most broken at-wills in the game.

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Friday, November 4, 2011

Heroes of the Feywild spoilers

Heroes of the Feywild is coming out this month, and some people have been able to get early copies and share information about its contents. From what I have heard, this could be the best player book to see print since last year. Not that there has been much of a competition - the D&D release schedule has dried up lately, and the only player-oriented products since January have been Heroes of Shadow (which many found underwhelming) and the Neverwinter Campaign Setting (which was split between DM and player content). Nevertheless, the Feywild is an exciting environment of which we still know very little, and the mechanic content revealed so far seems to be rock solid.

The new class options appear to take the best of the Essentials and pre-Essentials styles. On the one hand, we have highly flavorful concepts, a focus on builds for existing classes rather than brand new archetypes, mixed power sources, class features gained at higher levels, and different roles present in a single class (including a genuine striker/defender hybrid!). On the other hand, all options seem to be highly modular and customizable, with few or no fixed power slots, and powers that can be traded freely between new and old builds. And, what is better, not all material is aimed at Fighters at Wizards this time!

There are four new class builds, for Wizards (the Witch), Bards, (the Skald), Barbarians (the Berserker) and Druids (the Protector).

  • The Witch is a Wizard variant which replaces the spellbook for a built-in familiar. Other than that, it’s not too different from a Mage or Arcanist wizard, apart from a fixed encounter attack at first level. The best part is the new array of spells, available to any wizard build, including lots of polymorph effects. The spoiled powers include a vicious controlling melee at-will, a Thunderwave variant that works as a close burst, and dailies to turn your enemies into helpless frogs - or savage monsters.
  • The Skald is a bard with a martial touch who specializes in close combat, casting inspiring spells when hitting with a basic attack. It replaces the usual Healing Word mechanic with a healing aura, which allows allies to heal themselves a couple of times per encounter. Many powers are tied to that aura, and there is a feat that allows regular bards to replace their Majestic Word with the aura, in order to have access to these new attacks.
  • The Berserker Barbarian is the first real dual role class in the game, and it’s based on a very cool concept. A berserker starts an encounter as a martial defender, using martial exploits and a defender aura. However, it has the ability to enter a rage which turns it into a primal striker, switching off the aura, and turning martial attacks into more damaging primal powers. The berserker has complete control over when this change happens (the first time he uses a primal attack), but there doesn’t seem to be a way to switch back. This change of roles should add a lot of tactical depth to the class, and I look forward to trying it out.
  • The Protector is a pure spellcaster druid, without an animal companion or beast form. This is something the class had really been missing, since I always found that the humanoid form had very little going for it. The new build has the power to create a permanent zone of difficult terrain each encounter, which looks very much like a role-defining class feature for a controller. And it doesn’t stop there - from what I have seen, there are plenty of strong controller powers that can be used both by protector druids and regular druids in humanoid form. These follow the trend introduced by recent wizard powers, of adding miss effects on encounter attacks, and include stuff as impressive as an encounter that dominates, as early as level 7. The new dailies focus on summoning beasts with instinctive actions, with the leaked examples looking decent at most, but still playable - an improvement over the mediocre summons from Heroes of Shadow.

To round the book, there are a bunch of new themes  (including the amazing Fey Beast tamer, which grants you a companion that is suspiciously close to that of a Sentinel Druid), and three fey races: The Satyr, the Dryad, and the Pixie. The first two sound pretty boring to me, but the pixie is quite an achievement, in that it allows you to play a tiny flying character that nevertheless remains (mostly) balanced! This is a bold move, but I can see pixies becoming an instant favourite among players, due to how different (and, admittedly, strong) it is compared to most races.

I’m definitely buying this book.

Update: A great, detailed review of the book can be found in The Chamber of Mazarbul

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Broken Bits: Binder (IV)

Broken Bits: Binder
1-Introduction - 2-General Powers - 3-Gloom Pact - 4-Star Pact

For the last article in this series, we have the Star Pact Binder. This one is actually the “strong” binder build, with enough area attacks to make a decent blasting controller impression, and an spectacular, though extremely hard to trigger, pact boon. However, this pact still shows the weaknesses of the class design: even at its best, the binder fails to beat a regular warlock playing its own game. Virtually every star pact binder can be made stronger by rebuilding it as a warlock that picks binder powers – though admittedly, some of these powers are good enough for warlocks to bother taking, which is more than could be said about most of the gloom pact encounters.

Again, I suggest a whole lot of power updates, boosting the binder versions and weakening what normal warlocks get. The Mind Shadows at-will has been changed so that it’s still situational, but it grants a great effect when you manage to trigger it – as written before, an enemy could turn off the effect by walking toward your allies. As for the Hidden Lore boon, I found out I couldn’t loosen the triggering condition as much as I’d like, because the effect is so damn good. As a compromise, I decided that a binder would need to stay dangerously close (within 2 squares) to an enemy to activate the boon, without actively forcing a purely ranged character to move adjacent to enemies.

Mind Shadows - At-Will Warlock Attack 1
Replace Hit line with: (…) damage. Choose any number of allies who are 3 or more squares away from the target. Until the end of your next turn, the chosen allies are invisible to the target.

Hidden Lore - At-Will Warlock Utility
Replace trigger with: You reduce a creature to 0 hit points, or an enemy within 2 squares of you drops to 0 hit points

Shadow Tentacles - Encounter Warlock Attack 1
Replace Hit line with: (…)damage.
Replace Hit(Binder) line with: The target is slowed until the end of your next turn.
Add Effect: The burst creates a zone that lasts until the end of your next turn. The zone is difficult terrain for your enemies.

Cyst of Darkness - Encounter Warlock Attack 7
Remove Hit(Binder) line.
Add Effect (Binder):
  At the start of your next turn, you slide the target 3 squares. The target and each creature adjacent to it at the end of the slide take cold and necrotic damage equal to 5+ your Intelligence modifier.

Soul EaterBinder’s Ally 9
Replace Standard Action line with: (…) you gain 5 temporary hit point and gain a +5 power bonus to your next damage roll.
Add Opportunity Action: At-Will; Trigger: An enemy adjacent to the soul eater takes an action that provokes opportunity attacks. Effect: The soul eater makes its standard action attack against the triggering enemy.

Banish to Darkness - Encounter Master Binder Attack 11
Remove Hit(Binder) line.
Add Effect (Binder):
Until the end of the target's next turn, when it makes an attack, choose one creature within range at random, other than itself. The attack must include that creature.

Devouring Dark - Encounter Warlock Attack 13
Replace Effect(Binder) line with: The targets are slowed until the end of your next turn. Any enemy that ends its turn in the zone takes 5 cold and necrotic damage.

Greater Void Burst - Encounter Warlock Attack 17
Replace Effect line with: The burst creates a zone that lasts until the end of your next turn. The zone is heavily obscured and blocks line of sight. Any creature other than you that ends its turn in the zone takes psychic damage equal to 3 + your Intelligence modifier.
Remove Effect (Binder) line.

Inner Void - Encounter Warlock Attack 23
Remove Hit(Binder) line.
Add Effect (Binder):
  When you hit or miss the target, and at the start of your next turn, you slide the target 3 squares. The target and each enemy within 2 squares of it at the end of the slide take necrotic damage equal to your Intelligence modifier.

Doom HulkBinder’s Ally 25
Replace Standard Action line with: (…) you gain 10 temporary hit point and gain a +5 power bonus to your next damage roll.
Add Opportunity Action: At-Will; Trigger: An enemy adjacent to the doom hulk takes an action that provokes opportunity attacks. Effect: The doom hulk makes its standard action attack against the triggering enemy.

Hungry Void - Encounter Warlock Attack 27
Replace Hit(Binder) line with Effect (Binder): You pull each target 1 square toward the center of the burst. The burst creates a zone that lasts until the end of your next turn. Any enemy that ends its turn in the zone takes 10 cold and necrotic damage, or 20 cold and necrotic damage if it ends its turn in the square at the center of the zone.

1-Introduction - 2-General Powers - 3-Gloom Pact - 4-Star Pact

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Broken Bits: Binder (III)

Broken Bits: Binder
1-Introduction - 2-General Powers - 3-Gloom Pact - 4-Star Pact

In today’s installment, we tackle the pact powers for the Gloom Pact. Gloom Pact Binders have a great at-will attack in Echoing Dirge, but that’s about it - the encounter power selection is mostly underwhelming, with plenty of mediocre single-target attacks that most warlocks wouldn’t bother to take, even with the Binder bonuses. Making competitive single-target attacks for a controller is always a challenging proposition, but I have tried to solve it by combining decent control and reliable effects. Note that the final versions of these attacks aren’t truly single, target, since they feature single-target damage and multi-target control. Compared with the more area-happy star pact binder, the gloom pact should provide more focused damage, as well as very reliable area control that doesn’t hinder your allies.

Shadow Warp - At-Will Warlock Utility
Replace Trigger line with:  You reduce a creature to 0 hit points, or an enemy in the burst drops to 0 hit points.

Hound of Dark Omen - Encounter Warlock Attack 1
Remove Hit(Gloom Pact Binder) line.
Add Effect (Gloom Pact Binder):
You conjure a shadow hound in an unoccupied square adjacent to the target. The hound remains until the end of your next turn and occupies its space. The target is weakened while adjacent to the hound, and if it ends its turn adjacent to the hound, it takes psychic damage equal to 2+ your Dexterity modifier

Ebon Claws - Encounter Warlock Attack 3
Remove Hit(Gloom Pact Binder) line.
Add Effect (Gloom Pact Binder):
Enemies adjacent to the target take necrotic damage equal to your Dexterity modifier and are knocked prone.

Pall of Darkness - Encounter Warlock Attack 7
Remove Hit(Gloom Pact Binder) line.
Add Effect (Gloom Pact Binder):
Until the end of your next turn, your enemies are blinded while adjacent to the target.

Shadow LurkBinder’s Ally 9
Add Opportunity Action - At-Will; Trigger: An enemy adjacent to the shadow lurk takes an action that provokes opportunity attacks. Effect: The shadow lurk makes its standard action attack against the triggering enemy.

Binder’s Action - Paragon Path Feature 11
Add: …and one enemy hit by the attack gains vulnerable all until the end of your next turn. The vulnerability is equal to your Dexterity modifier.

Haunting Shadow- Encounter Warlock Attack 13
Remove Effect line.
Add Effect (Gloom Pact Binder):
You conjure a shadow in in an unoccupied square adjacent to the target. The shadow remains until the end of your next turn and occupies its space. Your enemies are weakened while adjacent to the shadow. In addition, the target takes cold damage equal to your Dexterity modifier for each square it willingly moves on its next turn.

Devouring Tide - Encounter Warlock Attack 17
Remove Hit(Gloom Pact Binder) line.
Add Effect (Gloom Pact Binder):
You slide each target 3 squares and knock it prone.

Umbral Radiance - Encounter Warlock Attack 23
Remove Hit(Gloom Pact Binder) line.
Add Effect (Gloom Pact Binder):
Until the start of your next turn, you and your allies are invisible while within 3 squares of the target.

Umbral Swap- Encounter Warlock Attack 27
Replace Hit line with: 2d10 + Charisma modifier cold and necrotic damage .
Replace Hit(Gloom Pact Binder) line with: The target is removed from play until the end of your next turn.
Add Effect: Choose a square in the target’s space. Until the start of your next turn, any enemy that ends its turn in that square or adjacent to it takes cold and necrotic damage equal to 10 + your Dexterity modifier.

1-Introduction - 2-General Powers - 3-Gloom Pact - 4-Star Pact

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Broken Bits: Binder (II)

Broken Bits: Binder
1-Introduction - 2-General Powers - 3-Gloom Pact - 4-Star Pact

In this article, I revise the powers that are available to all binders: the fixed at-will, and the daily attacks from Heroes of Shadow. Note that, by moving much of the strength of some dailies to Binder-specific effects, this hurts regular warlocks who chose to pick shadow-themed options. I feel this is a necessary compromise to create a niche for the Binder, since the best dailies from HoS were already as good as what a real controller should get, despite being available to both controllers and strikers.

I applied the following design principles for the Binder version of all powers: when compared to a Wizard (the baseline controller), a Binder should have better single-target damage, roughly equivalent single-target control, and slightly worse multi-target attacks. In practice, though, most single-target controller powers in the game (i.e. the ones that don’t stun) are pretty bad compared to area ones, and I didn’t try to balance against those - so expect unusually good single-target stuff.

In addition, I took care to have versions of the powers for non-Binder warlocks that were noticeably weaker, but could still realistically have uses in a game. I followed these guidelines:

  • Control effects limited to single-target attacks. Warlock area attacks should have little or no control. Close burst or blast attacks can be slightly better, in this regard.
  • No big areas: Warlocks shouldn’t have attacks larger than area 1. Close bursts 2 and blasts 5 can exist, but should remain relatively rare.
  • No repeatable control in dailies: Warlocks shouldn’t have access to control effects that can last the whole encounter, unless they are relatively weak.

Finally, some daily powers like Malicious Shadow or Well of Shadows had the potential to lock down an enemy (usually through immobilizing) for many turns, maybe even a whole encounter. As much as I enjoy strong controllers, I find this kind of effect excessive, so I tried to avoid it.

Shadow Claws - At-Will Warlock Attack 1
Add Hit (Binder): If the target moves during its next turn, it takes cold damage equal to your Dex or Int modifier for every 2 squares it moves.
Change Efect line to: If the target moves during its next turn, it takes cold damage equal to your Dexterity or Intelligence modifier.

Hateful Shade - Daily Warlock Attack 1
Change Hit line to: 3d8+Charisma modifier force damage, and the target is grabbed by shadows. Until the grab ends, the target takes ongoing 5 force damage.
Add Effect (Binder): Until the end of the encounter, while no enemy is grabbed by this power, you can use the secondary attack.

Secondary Attack
Minor Action
(1/turn), Ranged 10.
Attack: Charisma vs Will.
Hit: The target is grabbed by shadows. Until the grab ends, the target takes ongoing 5 force damage.

Web of Shadows - Daily Warlock Attack 1
Change Hit line to: (...) damage, and the target is slowed (save ends).
Add Hit (Binder): The target is immobilized (save ends) instead of slowed.
Add to the Effect line: Creatures in the zone take a -2 penalty to saving throws.

Malicious Shadow - Daily Warlock Attack 1
Add Sustain (Binder): When you sustain this power, you can move the shadow half your speed.
Change secondary Trigger line to: An enemy willingly leaves a square adjacent to the shadow without shifting.

Shard of Darkness - Daily Warlock Attack 5
Add Hit(Binder): Instead of slowed (save ends), the target is immobilized and takes ongoing 5 cold damage (save ends both). Until the end of the encounter, when you hit an enemy with a ranged attack, it is slowed, cannot shift, and takes ongoing 5 cold damage (save ends all).

Well of Shadows - Daily Warlock Attack 5
Change Effect line to: The burst creates a zone that lasts until the end of your next turn. Exiting the zone costs an additional square of movement for your enemies. Until the zone ends, you can use the secondary power at will.
Add Effect (Binder) line: The zone lasts until the end of the encounter.
In secondary power, change Hit line to: (...) if the target is already slowed, it is instead knocked prone and takes ongoing 10 necrotic damage (save ends).

Deathly Conduit - Daily Warlock Attack 5
Add Special line: This power does not provoke attacks of opportunity.
Change Hit line to: (...) damage.
Add Hit (Binder): 2d6 + Charisma modifier necrotic damage, and the target is blinded (save ends).
Change Effect line to: Each enemy adjacent to you (...)

Menacing Shadow - Daily Warlock Attack 15
Change secondary Hit line to: 2d6+ Charisma modifier necrotic damage.
Add secondary Hit (Binder) line: The target is dazed until the end of your next turn.

 Oubliette of the Void - Daily Warlock Attack 15
Replace Range line with: Area burst 1 within 10 squares.
Add Range (Binder): Area burst 2 within 10 squares.

Shadow Mire - Daily Warlock Attack 19
Replace Range line with: Area burst 1 within 10 squares.
Add Range (Binder): Area burst 2 within 10 squares.

Star of Death’s Omen - Daily Warlock Attack 19
Add Hit (Binder): The target is stunned (save ends) instead of dazed. Aftereffect: The target is dazed (save ends).

Offering of Magic - Daily Master Binder Attack 20
Move Effect line before Attack line, and replace it with Effect: Until the end of the encounter, you can use your Pact Boon when you hit the target. When the target is reduced to 0 hit points, you gain an additional standard action on your next turn.

Draining Void - Daily Warlock Attack 29
Replace Range line with: Area burst 1 within 10 squares.
Add Range (Binder): Area burst 2 within 10 squares.

Shadow Legion - Daily Warlock Attack 29
Replace Range line with: Area burst 1 within 10 squares.
Add Range (Binder): Area burst 3 within 10 squares.

1-Introduction - 2-General Powers - 3-Gloom Pact - 4-Star Pact

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Class Acts: Assassin–Secrets of the Ninja

We don’t get a lot of exciting player content in Dragon magazine these days, but today’s article made me extremely happy. Written by Dave Chalker, of Critical Hits fame, the article offers an awesome new Executioner build: the Ninja. There are just 2 pages of mechanical content, including six powers, two magic items, and a new superior weapon, but they really get the job done. Ninjas get a Shuriken Barrage attack (which reminds me of a fixed Hand of Radiance), a Smoke Bomb, an short sword attack that rewards them for jumping around randomly, and a vicious double attack with their Kusari-gama – which is a weird, but effective weapon, by the way. On top of that, one of the magic items is a rare Ki Focus with an impressive set of abilities, easily among the best rare items I have seen to date.

I need to play this build. So far, the Executioner had been a class that I admired for its original design, but which didn’t quite convince me to try it out. These new options, along with the ability to use assassin’s shroud (from the Hybrid and Multiclass article), have finally tempted me.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Broken Bits: Binder (I)

Broken Bits: Binder
1-Introduction - 2-General Powers - 3-Gloom Pact - 4-Star Pact

I have recently had the opportunity to make an in-depth reading of Heroes of Shadow and, for the most part, I like what I have found. I’m not even a fan of the anti-hero archetype, but I nevertheless enjoyed the flavor of the book, as well as many of the new builds and powers. The fact that it reprints a whole subclass that had been released months ago was annoying, but forgivable. That said, there is one thing in the book that can only be classified as a failure: the Binder subclass.

The binder is a cool concept spoiled by a flawed execution - even more than other kinds of warlocks, which is saying something. It’s not that they are useless characters (thankfully, that is quite difficult to achieve in D&D 4E), but they certainly feel underwhelming. In terms of power, they compare poorly to regular Warlocks, and those had traditionally been among the weakest classes, to begin with. More specifically, a Binder character does very little that a Warlock can’t do, whereas a Warlock can be build so as to replicate most of a Binder’s abilities - only better. The problems with the subclass could be summarized in that you could give Binders the Warlock’s Curse feature, and they would still be on par with conventional Warlocks. In the following articles, I will suggest an extensive series of revisions aimed at making the Binder competitive as a controller (its intended role). However, you should be aware that it is also perfectly possible to fix them by giving up and turning them into strikers - to do that, just give them Curse, and change their Pact Boons to trigger as those of a normal warlock.

These are the most important problems I found when reading the Binder class:

- Pact Boon reward triggers. The pact boon rewards (those little bonuses you gain when someone dies) are actually pretty decent for Binders, but the triggering condition is a joke. It makes absolutely no sense to have an effect that triggers off the death of enemies adjacent to the Binder, when the class has no melee capabilities whatsoever. These features become all but useless outside of fights with lots of minions.

- Lackluster powers. While not downright bad, the Binder power list is not good enough for its role. Controllers usually have above-average powers to make up for their relative lack of class features, but what the Binder gets is not substantially better than what you’d expect for a typical ranged striker.

- Warlocks steal their tricks. Related to the above point is the fact that regular warlocks can take most of a Binder’s attacks... and actually make better use of them than a real Binder. As an example, a Binder encounter power in the hands of a Warlock loses the pact benefit, but gets to deal curse damage, so to be remotely competitive, pact benefits for these powers should be stronger than 1d6 damage/tier. In most cases, they aren’t. To make things worse, Binders suffer from a fixed selection of encounter powers, whereas Warlocks can pick from a wide variety (including both Binder pacts). And then there are Daily attacks (usually the strongest point of a controller), where Binders don’t gain any benefit whatsoever over a regular warlock.

- Summons are terrible. As a rule of thumb, in order to be playable, a Summoning daily attack has to create a creature that can either make instinctive attacks, opportunity attacks, or have one hell of a standard action attack - and even that doesn’t guarantee a strong daily, just a passable one. Since a Binder’s Ally has neither, it’s impact on the battlefield will usually be negligible.

In order to address these issues, my fix for the class includes the following changes:

- New triggers for Pact Boon rewards. Pretty straightforward. The features are nice, but you need to actually be able to use them.

- Power Upgrades. This involved changing a LOT of powers, including nearly every Binder-specific attack, but also many generic dailies from Heroes of Shadow that were given special bonuses for binders. In general, the revisions made the powers better in the hands of a binder, but also worse for non-binder warlock.

1-Introduction - 2-General Powers - 3-Gloom Pact - 4-Star Pact

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Monsters of the Trollhaunt: Index

I have been working for months in an article series updating the monsters in adventure P1: King of the Trollhaunt Warrens to modern (i.e. post-MM3 standards). Here is a list of the articles released so far.


  1. Trolls
  2. Encounter 1
  3. Encounter T2
  4. Encounter W1
  5. Encounter W4
  6. Encounters W2, W3
  7. Encounters W5, W6
  8. Encounters I1, W7
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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Broken Bits: Messenger of Peace

Broken Paragon Paths, Part Eleven
Previous - Index - Next

As too many paragon paths in my list, Messenger of Peace is a fairly impressive option when used as intended, but can become crazy in less conventional builds. In this case, ‘as intended’ implies being a pacifist cleric, one of the most extreme types of character in the game, as it sacrifices most of its damaging capabilities in order to become the ultimate healer. The powers and features in this path share this pacifist theme, in that they deal no damage on their own, and often ask the character to refrain from otherwise hurting his enemies. However, they impose a lot of negative conditions and penalties on foes, making for a pretty strong package.

While all elements of the path are quite potent, it is the 16th feature which justified its inclusion in the ranks of the broken. Called Aura of Peace, it imposes a continuous -2 penalty to attack rolls on all enemies within 2 squares. This is amazingly strong, yet somewhat balanced by the fact that the pacifist cleric himself is a relatively fragile character focused on ranged attacks, making it hard to really exploit such a short range aura. But put it on the hands of any capable melee combatant, and you have the ultimate defender feature!

To put the effect of Aura of Peace in perspective, we can split it in two separate abilities: one to defend oneself against attacks from nearby enemies (-2 penalty to attack rolls against you), and one that protects your allies (-2 penalty to attack rolls against your allies). The first one, by itself, would be one of the best defensive boosts available for a melee character in the game - almost equivalent to a +2 bonus to all defenses, with the right positioning. As for the second part, it is a defender’s mark/aura on steroids (sans punishment), with the added benefit of actually stacking with marks/auras - both yours, and your allies’. Having both effects is way too effective, as well as out of place for a leader option.

A fix

As written, Aura of Peace greatly rewards characters who can hold large groups of enemies around them, making it a great fit for defender archetypes, but not so much for its alleged target, the pacifist healer. In addition to lowering the power level of the feature, my proposal also tries to add some pacifist flavor:

Aura of Peace (16th level): Enemies within 2 squares of you take a -2 penalty to attack rolls against bloodied allies.

A penalty that only works against bloodied creatures will be less than half as effective as a constant modifier, particularly given how great healers pacifist clerics are. But it’s still nothing to sneeze at, and can realistically be used without staying at the front line at all times - rather, you can stay on the back until a comrade gets low on health. At that point, either you close in to succor him, or he falls back under your protection. You still have the option of getting into melee with this aura, keeping it mind that it won’t help your own chances of surviving - for that, you’ll have to rely on your Vow of Nonviolence.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

Monsters of the Trollhaung VIII: Encounters I1, W7

Monsters of the Trollhaunt: Index – Previous - Next

These articles update monsters in adventure P1: King of the Trollhaunt Warrens – reading them may spoil encounters in the module!

A couple of big, bad trolls…

Skalmad the Troll King (Level 13 Elite Soldier)

The players at last get to meet the King, and it should be a scary fight. The original stat block for Skalmad is surprisingly decent, though it suffers from outdated stats (i.e. poor damage) and a real, Elite-like double attack. With a few updates, it should prove a worthy foe

1. Changes introduced

  • Toned down Troll Healing - see previous article about trolls as a race. Since Skalmad is an elite, I gave it twice the usual amount of regeneration and had Troll Healing bring it back with more HP.
  • Modern Elite: Elite monsters should have roughly as many attacks as two standard monsters, so I gave Skalmad an at-will double attack in Dual Axe, and boosted the encounter and recharging powers to a more impressive level. I also added a bit of damage to Baleful Eye.
  • Modern Soldier: Aside from lowering attack bonuses, I changed the basic attack to mark as an effect. Toppling Swing became a downright scary attack with the addition of a daze (on top of the existing prone effect), but I made it target only marked enemies. This prevents Skalmad from using all its most powerful attacks in the first round, and adds quite a bit of strategy to the monster.
  • Removed redundancy: The claw attack was pointless, so I deleted it.



Warren Troll (Level 11 Brute)

See Encounter W1.

Nothic Gazer (Level 11 Artillery)

See Encounter W6.

Thurk, Troll Smith (Level 12 Soldier)

1. Changes introduced

  • Toned down Troll Healing - see previous article about trolls as a race. Since Skalmad is an elite, I gave it twice the usual amount of regeneration and had Troll Healing bring it back with more HP.
  • Modern Soldier: Aside from lowering attack bonuses, I changed the basic attack to mark as an effect. Toppling Swing became a downright scary attack with the addition of a daze (on top of the existing prone effect), but I made it target only marked enemies. This prevents Skalmad from using all its most powerful attacks in the first round, and adds quite a bit of strategy to the monster.
  • Removed redundancy: The claw attack was pointless, so I deleted it.


Redspawn Firebelcher (Level 12 Artillery)

1. Changes introduced

  • Updated defenses, attack bonuses, and damage. This is a simple yet serviceable monster, so a couple of straightforward number tweaks should leave it ready for use. I upped the ranged attack accuracy, increased damage all around, and boosted some defenses which where excessively weak.

12-Redspawn Firebelcher

Grimlock Minion (Level 14 Minion)

1. Changes introduced

  • Added Role (Brute). As an old minion, this one was missing a role. Brute was the most fitting, by far.
  • Updated defenses, attack bonus, damage. This monster’s stats were unusually low, to the point that they wouldn’t have been out of place in a minion with several less levels. Now it’s up to par with modern minions.
  • Added Trait (Grimlock Resilience). I stole this one from the Human Slaves in Dark Sun, and I think it’s an amazing design. This lets you have threatening minions even if you don’t use any special houserule for minions. With our house rules, they were pretty impressive, though not to the point of becoming unbalanced.

14-Grimlock Minion

All images are (C) 2010 Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. These statistics blocks were generated using the D&D Adventure Tools, despite the tons of bugs. Except for the ones where I gave up, and used MS Word instead.
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Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Magic Item Reset (XIX): Character Wealth and Rarity

Magic Item Reset: Index

In testing the new set of magic items, one problem I have come across is that of equipping new characters of a level above the first. Not owning the Rules Compendium, I consulted the guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.143), finding them rather inadequate for my purposes. The DMG suggests that characters starting at higher level should get three items (of character level, level +1, and level -1) and gold equal to the value of an item of level -1. This wasn’t a bad approximation under the default treasure rules, but with the introduction of item rarity, it leads to inaccurate results.

With item rarity, as a character gains levels he not only acquires more and higher level items, but also more rare ones. Since uncommon and rare items cannot be bought with gold, a character starting with less such items than expected for his level will never recover from this disadvantage, unless the DM somehow compensates for it. The table in this article is intended to give DMs a more accurate guideline for handing out starting gear in campaigns using rarity, as well as for knowing when a party has too little (or too much) treasure for its level.

This table shows how many magic items a newly created character of a given level should have, along with their rarity: common (C), uncommon (U), or rare (R). Assign item levels in the following way: the highest level item can have up to the character’s level +1. The next item can have a level equal to the character’s. For each subsequent item, the maximum level is one less than the previous one. For example, a 15th level character could have items of levels 16,15,14,13,12,11,10,9. A player can assign item rarities to each item level as he prefers. For a given level slot, a player can choose to have a lower level item instead, though no compensation is given. Any item slot can be traded by the sell value of the item in gold pieces (usually 20% for common items), though selling uncommon or rare items is extremely discouraged, since there is no way to regain these slots.

Variant Rule: Catching Up

An interesting alternate rule I have been experimenting with consists in having high level characters start out with little or no gear (barring plain magic weapons/armor/amulets of the appropriate enhancement bonus), but hand out treasure at an accelerated rate until they catch up with the expected wealth. I like doing this because higher level PCs, particularly those at paragon tier or above, can be quite complex, requiring players several sessions in order to grow accustomed to their abilities. Since magic gear is yet another layer of complexity, I find that delaying the access to magic items for a while provides players with a smoother learning curve, rather than an overwhelming set of options right from the start.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Broken Bits: Life Singer

Broken Paragon Paths, Part Ten
Previous - Index - Next

The bard paragon path Life Singer is based on a cool and original concept: a pacifist character that tries to solve conflicts without resorting to violence. It is an unfortunate event that, because of an overpowered feature, the path ends up as a very tempting option for bloodthirsty killers...

The controversial path feature is called Serene Will, and it allows rerolling attacks against will. There is a small bonus thrown in if the attacks in question don’t deal damage, but otherwise nothing prevents you from going to town with Will attacks, violent or not. I have already discussed how absurd a reroll-granting feature is, so I’ll just say that it is really absurd, and in need of fixing.

A fix

It is not impossible to balance the ability to reroll most of your attacks, but it does require adding severe restrictions or some kind of drawback to compensate. Limiting the effect to attacks against will is hardly enough. A natural and flavorful solution would be to have it work only on non-damaging attacks but, alas, these are pretty scarce for the bard class, so we would be rendering the path unplayable, outside of weird multiclass builds. Still, the idea had potential, so I came up with this:

Serene Will (16th level): Before you use an attack power, you can choose to have it deal no damage. If you do, you can reroll missed attack rolls targeting Will made as part of that attack, and must use the second results.

There might be an uninteded interaction that breaks this rule in half, but I think this could work just fine. The rerolling is now tied to behaving like a proper pacifist, which is manageable but hugely restricting. On the other hand, it also grants the ability of using any power for non-damaging purposes, opening up a whole lot of combinations. Note that any area attack will lose its damage against all targets this way, so there should be no obvious way to exploit this to prevent hurting allies in the middle of a fireball.

A fix for a different issue

Though not a critical problem, the level 20 daily, soothing song, is worded so that the enemies you knock unconscious can’t be coup de grace’d by your allies - but nothing prevents YOU from slaying them, which is wrong on so many levels. I’d change the Hit line for the following:

Hit: The target falls unconscious (save ends). Each ally in the burst can spend a healing surge. If you or ally attacks an affected target, the target immediately awakens. The attacking character does not have combat advantage against the target for that attack and cannot make a coup de grace attack against it.

Previous - Index - Next

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Monsters of the Trollhaunt VII: Encounter W5, W6

Monsters of the Trollhaunt: Index – Previous - Next

These articles update monsters in adventure P1: King of the Trollhaunt Warrens – reading them may spoil encounters in the module!

There’s one of these in every dungeon…

Adult Black Dragon (Level 11 Solo Lurker)

The template for fun, challenging dragons has been laid out in the Monster Vault, so the following stat block won’t be much of a surprise to anyone. Still, not all levels of dragons appear in that book, so I’ve had to scale the Young version all the way to level 11. For the most part, I left the original design untouched, except for one significant exception.

If you are interested in further discussion on dragon redesign, I recommend my previous articles on black dragons (now obsoleted by more recent books) and white dragons.

1. Issues identified

  • Acidic Blood is a beating. Seriously, I’m all for tough solos, but acidic blood can wreck any party moderately reliant on melee attacks, unless they are loaded with acid resistance potions. Shroud of Gloom aggravates this to ridiculous proportions.

2. Changes introduced

  • Level up: I used the Young Black Dragon from Monster Vault as baseline, and increased its stats.
  • Acidic Blood nerfed: I simply changed the damage to ongoing damage. This prevents multiple triggers from stacking, but is still painful enough for PCs to try and find a workaround, particularly if Shroud of Gloom is active (which it will).

3. Errata

  • Breath Weapon is enemies only. I missed this from my stat block (didn’t realize it had changed!), but it was not an intended change on my part. Note that I haven’t simply fixed the stat block due to the way the Monster Builder works (it doesn’t) – once I have saved as an image, I’m pretty much done with the monster, unless I want to start again from scratch. Incidentally, this is why I have switched to Word for stat blocks of later monsters.


Option for Encounter W5: one Water Elemental (Level 11 Controller)

I felt like the dragon encounter could use some spicing up, so I decided to add a Water Elemental lying in the pool. In this case, I merely took the monster from Monster Manual 3 and used it as written – I love when I can do that!

Warren Troll (Level 11 Brute)

See Encounter W1.

Boulder Troll (Level 9 Artillery)

One of the trolls is supposed to stand back throwing stones, so I switched it for a more appropriate artillery version. The Boulder Troll is described in Encounter 1

Nothic Gazer (Level 11 Artillery)

1. Issues identified

  • Lack of variety. Rotting gaze is not a bad attack, but it’s the only one. I usually like some encounter or rechargeable attack, to make a monster more interesting.

2. Changes introduced.

  • New power: Rot Burst. This is a strong area attack that requires rotting gaze to be active on a target. Typically, it will take a nothic gazer several turns before rot burst can be active, since an enemy can save against the rot before the nothic’s next turn. However, when you have multiple nothics in an encounter, they can focus fire on a target so that the second nothic will be able to use rot burst if the first one hit. Then again, a significant portion of the damage from rot burst is non-stacking ongoing damage, so a third nothic might prefer to use rotting gaze against a different target. At any rate, the mechanics encourage players to keep away from rotting allies, which is a flavorful and fun effect.

11-Nothic Gazer

All images are (C) 2010 Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. These statistics blocks were generated using the D&D Adventure Tools, despite the tons of bugs.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Magic Item Reset (XVIII): Item Reference Tables

Magic Item Reset: Index

This has taken a while but, finally, I have finished the Item Reference Tables, which compile all items in this collection, organized by rarity and level. The primary purpose of these tables is as a resource to quickly check which items are available at any given level/rarity slot. That said, I have added a random roll entry for those players and DMs interested in the optional random item generation rules introduced here – for all purposes, these tables count as the table T5 mentioned in that article.

Common Items

Uncommon Items

Rare Items

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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Skill Math: A look behind the new Skill DC tables

Skills. It’s not an issue I cover much on this blog, mostly because I like to focus on combat-related rules topics, and because I tend to consider the skill system a poorly implemented mess: not broken beyond hope, but in need of a good overhaul. That said, It’s fair to point out that the skill framework did receive a significant improvement last year with the release of the new skill DC tables with revised math that actually matches skill bonus progression. Unfortunately, this update somehow didn’t make it to the errata compilations, and players who didn’t buy the Essentials books haven’t had the chance to use it.

Rather than reproducing the whole tables (which have entries for each level, and three degrees of difficulty), I have worked out some relatively simple formulas that give a good approximation of the DCs per level. Though not trivial, they are relatively easy to memorize so as not to need to consult any reference book while you play - I know I’m tired of looking for my copies of Heroes of the Fallen Lands or Forgotten Kingdoms in the middle of a game.

They are the following:

Easy DC:                7 + 0.55*Level
Moderate DC:   11 + 0.7*Level
Hard DC:              18 + 0.8*Level

Unlike most calculations in 4E, you should round these values to the nearest integer - so, as an example, the level 1 DCs will be 8, 12, and 19, respectively. These DCs have been chosen so that an incompetent PC using an untrained skill based on a tertiary ability will succeed on Easy checks roughly 60% of the time, whereas an expert PC with training on a skill and a primary ability score on it should pass 60% of Hard DC checks. Moderate DC is adjusted for PCs with either skill training or primary abilities on a skill, and they should succeed 60% of the time. The drawback of this approach is that the difference between Easy, Moderate and Hard is not constant across levels, and gets to be quite high at level 30 - DCs of 25, 33, and 42, respectively - meaning that, eventually, a character capable of succeeding on a Hard DC will never fail an easy DC, and vice versa.

It’s still possible to break these DC values by stacking skill bonuses, which can get pretty ridiculous when combining feats, backgrounds, and magic items. However, as long as you don’t put much effort into breaking it, the system will work fine. This is not the solution I would have chosen for skill progression (I may talk about that at some point in the future), but it is the only one that makes skills playable without having to adjust dozens of game elements.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Broken Bits: War Chanter

Broken Paragon Paths, Part Nine
Previous - Index - Next

Most Paragon Paths in the game follow a very predictable pattern, with three class features and a bunch of powers. Of these features, one (gained at level 11) is always related to action point spending, with effects ranging from worthless to moderately interesting - but it is typically the other two that carry the weight, and make players choose a path over the rest. Enter War Chanter.

War Chanter, a Bard paragon path, has what is possibly the strongest action point related feature of the game in Inspire by Example. And, I’m sorry to say, it is too much. Inspire by Example provides a huge (typically between +4 and +8, depending on level), Con-based bonus to all attack and damage rolls of the bard’s allies for a full round after the bard spends an action point. With a moderate investment in constitution (a must-have for valorous bards, anyway), this usually means that the party will be automatically hitting with its attacks that round, and dealing much more damage than usual. Consider that these allies can spend their own action points during that turn, and that the bard (who isn’t affected by the bonus) has several ways to grant attacks to them, and madness ensues.

I opened a thread to discuss this paragon path on the official errata forums a while ago. You can find it here.

A fix

I toyed around with the idea of halving the bonuses provided by Inspire by Example, but this merely delayed the problem, rather than fixing it - bonuses of +4 were still possible at epic levels, and that was still problematic. Instead, I considered that the paragon path was already rewarding high constitution scores with Inspire by Word (an amazing temporary HP granting feature which more than justifies taking the path, by itself), so I could eschew reliance on Con to use flat modifiers with the values I considered fair:

Inspire by Example (11th level): When you spend an action point to take an extra action, each ally within 5 squares of you gains a +2 bonus to attack rolls and damage rolls until the end of your next turn.

A small bonus, but when you apply it to most attacks from your party over a whole round, it adds up to quite a bit.

Previous - Index - Next
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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

My Minion rules

One of my favourite things about combat in D&D 4E is the existence of minion monsters. These little guys add a new dimension to encounter composition: we are no longer constrained to skirmishes between roughly equivalent groups, or straightforward boss fights. Rather, we can have the PCs face dozens of foes at a time, in battles of epic (though not necessarily Epic) scale. However, as much as I like the basic concept of minions, I can’t help but notice that their implementation doesn’t get everything right.

The point of minions is to be fragile. That is the tradeoff they present: lots of monsters which don’t hit quite as hard, and die like flies. In principle, having PCs slaughtering them with ease should be a feature, not a bug. However, the way this is handled in 4E can only be classified as, well... overkill. Area attacks are bad enough, but at least they take some commitment, and are not 100% reliable.What is really troubling is the interaction of minions with sources of automatic damage (mostly daily attacks like Rain of Steel or Wall of Fire, but also present in class features like Flurry of Blows), which most parties have in enough numbers to guarantee that, in any encounter featuring lots of minions, it is extremely rare to have any of them survive past turn 2.

The bottom line is that minions are not threatening, as monsters. It’s not just a matter of XP cost: more often than not, adding more of them to a fight only causes them to die in droves after managing to make just one attack (if any), unless you are fighting in huge open spaces, and the minions in question have ranged attacks. Recent monster design technology tries to mitigate this with tricks like death triggers, which are nice enough, but ultimately, the only reliable way to have minions impacting a fight past turn three is to have them enter the fight past turn three. In fact, I have found relative success with staged groups of minions in my encounters. Also, you can just add one or two minions to an otherwise normal fight in the hopes that they escape PC attention long enough to survive the dreaded first rounds - I have found that this often works. Nevertheless, the problem remains that you can’t just have a group of minions make up a significant part of an encounter, and expect it to work. This needs to change.

After a lot of trial and error, I came up with the following house rule, which has addressed most problems with minions in my games:

Whenever a minion takes damage that is not the result of a hitting attack, if it is not prone, it can make a saving throw. If the saving throw succeeds, the minion is knocked prone and the damage is negated.

What does this do? The rule is intended to tone down the most egregious minion-wiping methods, without rendering them completely useless, while leaving fair minion-killing powers intact. That is to say, it gives a minion a chance to survive a Rain of Steel, Flurry of Blows, or pre-errata Flaming Sphere, to name some of the most common examples, but doesn’t stop tamer stuff like Cleave. Autodamage remains a very useful tool against minions, since it still provides a 45% chance of killing, and 55% of proning - and multiple instances should kill just fine, as prone minions can’t benefit from the save. Missed attacks are unaffected, since they still deal no damage to minions.

Applying this rule in my Trollhaunt campaign took some time to get used to (particularly for the monk player), but I can say that it had quite a positive effect in many minion-heavy encounters. Attacks that would have single-handedly destroyed the enemy hordes now left a few survivors to counterattack. A few heroic minions were even able to survive until the later stages of an encounter, more of an annoyance than a threat, but one that contributed to make the fight more exciting - we even joked about promoting a particularly persistent troglodyte minion soldier to standard status, after its prolonged combat experience.

As far as I can tell, this rule only negatively affects attacks that were on the abusive side against minions, with one remarkable exception: the Wizard’s Magic Missile. This power has already suffered enough from errata, and is the perfect attack to allow guaranteed minion slaying, so I would add the following line to it:

“Special: Any minion targeted by this attack is automatically reduced to 0 hit points”.

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