Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Playtest: Warlock Updates

The long awaited overhaul to the Warlock class (similar to, but not actually in, the Class Compendium series) has come out in playtest form, and there are quite a few interesting changes - but, unfortunately, one cannot help noticing the important issues they missed. Here is a summary of the changes, along with my thoughts on the matter.

The update: An unprecedented trap-removal exercise

It’s not easy to build a decent warlock. Or, to put it the other way, it’s too easy to build a terrible warlock. More than most 4E classes, the warlock is plagued by an excess of thoroughly underwhelming powers, which sit in the power list as a trap to the unwary player, often disguised under pretty names and shiny flavor. On the other hand, as more and more options have been published (and few classes can match the sheer amount of stuff that warlocks get), it is now quite possible to build a decent, if not spectacular, warlock character - provided that you know where to look, and that you are proficient enough to avoid the traps. Like it or not, this is the way things develop in 4E - you never get rid of bad stuff, but this is hopefully compensated by the abundance of newer options. The last update to the warlock puts an end to this.

There is a well known rule in the 4E errata cycle, that only overpowered options tend to be revised, whereas the weak stuff is left alone. After all, overpowered game elements tend to be much more disruptive to the game, and there are a LOT more weak options than strong ones. Still, players have often wondered what the game would be like if R&D took the time and effort to purge the underwhelming feats and powers. Now we know.

Not counting paragon paths, 27 warlock powers have been revised, from a total of 75 in the Player’s Handbook. Most of them have been improved in some manner, except for three that have been toned down, and one that just received clarification. The slot receiving the most changes is the daily attack, with 19 out of 27 dailies receiving some kind of revision. The changes range from small increases in a power’s damage dice, to cleaning up of mechanics (particularly for those pesky powers with “save ends” effects that you had to sustain), but also include adding a damage roll to powers that lacked it (typically turning them from useless into legitimate options) and one complete redesign, for Thief of the Five Fates.

Overall, this update achieves a much more coherent power level across most attack options for the warlock. Now we can find a viable power for each build at each encounter and daily slot using just the PHB, which is no mean feat, considering that there are three builds to support, with two different attack abilities. Not only that, but at most levels there are two useful options, though in-build powers will typically be preferred. Though some attacks are still better than others, the difference has been reduced greatly, and I wouldn’t point to any single one of them as being completely without merit (which is a HUGE improvement from the original version!). This is also helped by the controversial decision to weaken some of the most spectacular daily attacks in the Warlock’s repertoire (such as Hunger of Hadar, Tendrils of Thuban, and Hurl through Hell), which are still extremely competitive, if not the best at their respective slots, though no longer to the point that you should altogether ignore the alternatives.

What they missed

I believe that most of the changes were well implemented and in the right direction - but that doesn’t mean that they got everything right. Specifically, there is one glaring hole in the update, affecting the Star Pact Warlock. As anyone who has tried to build such a character will agree, the Starlock is a messy character build whose ability score requirements are all over the place: Your build-specific powers are split in half between Constitution and Charisma, but also ask for Intelligence as a secondary score for their additional effects (never mind AC!). This is complicated enouch, but what really kills the build is the fact that one of your fixed at-wills, Dire Radiance, will only work for Constitution-based characters. Unless you are willing to ignore that power, you won’t be able to build a Cha-focused starlock, and all Charisma-based powers for the build are unplayable except for characters boosting both Con and Cha, in detriment of Int (which is usually considered a very bad idea). At the very least, they should have offered the option to use Charisma with Dire Radiance.

The problems with at-will attacks (which are untouched by this update) do not end here. Eldritch Blast remains a frustratingly boring and weak mandatory power, the equivalent of a longbow basic attack that does nothing special but takes up an attack slot. It should be changed to have some additional effect. Anything would work, here, though my personal favourite would be the ability to deal curse damage on a miss.

And there is yet another broken at-will in Hellish Rebuke, which suffers from horribly ambiguous wording, and an extremely exploitable trigger. The power as written doesn’t clarify if the extra damage can trigger once or multiple times per turn, which is bad enough, but there are also some doubts as to whether this damage trigger is affected by modifiers such as feats or enhancement bonuses. In addition, the fact that a character can hurt himself in order to trigger the extra damage makes this one of the most absurd damage sources in the game, rivalling even the mighty Twin Strike. I’d like to see this as a 1/round trigger that only works off damage dealt by your enemies.

Finally, there are some concerns about the overall ability of the class to perform as a striker (i.e. damage monsters), which the update doesn’t really address. I personally think that warlocks are in decent shape now, after hundreds of released feats and powers, but they could still see a minor damage bump. Their at-wills in particular (barring Hellish brokenness) don’t hit all that hard, getting routinely outclassed by basic attacks from non-striker classes with two-handed weapons, even after accounting for curse damage. A dice size increase for most of them (including those outside PHB) would be welcome: Eyebite, Dire Radiance and Hellish Rebuke could deal 1d8 (or even 1d10), and Eldritch Blast could remain as is or improve to 1d12, depending on what extra effect it got. I wouldn’t mind seeing curse damage boosted to 1d8 per tier, too.


  1. As I specified earlier in my blog, Hellish Rebuke does not trigger enhancement bonuses or the like because it's extra damage, rather than a unique damage instance. The fact that this extra damage is temporally separate from the damage instance that it is appended to is indeed a unique circumstance (though if I REALLY did my homework, I'm sure we could find other examples).

    I'm still not sure what the best non-ridiculously wordy way of describing Hellish Rebuke would be that would clear up this particular problem.

  2. The closest similarity that immediately comes to mind would be Assassin's Shroud damage.