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.


  1. I find that hybrid psionic characters play better. They have less power points, and the only way to get more PP is to actually take those higher level options. It's still possible to, say, use Dishearten five times an encounter, but much more difficult, usually requiring the expenditure of your paragon path on Paragon Hybrid.

  2. Yes, linking the power point pool to the augment cost of your chosen at-wills (as hybrids do) goes a long way towards fixing the psionic problem, though the problem remains that high level powers are awfully overcosted. Without touching augment costs, you end up reducing the number of, say, augmented dishearten uses per encounter, but you do little to encourage characters to augment a level 13 attack.

  3. This is an excellent idea for a series of blog posts. Considering how many other gaming blogs are out there (mine included) I’m actually surprised that no one’s done this kind of a deep-dive into At-Wills before (or if they have I haven’t seen it). I agree with everything you’ve written in this first article and really want to see where you’re going next. Good job.

  4. I just discovered your blog (at the tail end of our beloved edition!) and I am delighted to find such clear and useful analyses of what really matters in a game.