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.


  1. I'd limit Magic Weapon to the next ally to attack, but eliminate the positioning issues. Makes gameplay smoother.

  2. The thing is, the positioning restriction is my favourite part of the power, by far. I like the principle of rewarding PCs for moving around in a certain way, since it helps make fights more dynamic. It's just that in this case the potential reward was too large.

    By comparison, a positioning-related mechanic that I think has the ideal level of reward is Shadow Walk... whereas Prime Shot is too weak to be relevant, and Prime Shot + Called Shot goes the other way and becomes overpowering...

  3. Your fix to Twin Strike makes glorious sense. The damage remains awesome, and because of rolling twice it can still hit quite frequently.

    The surest endorsement of this is that the Pathfinder feat Rapid Shot does almost the same thing: it allows you to fire once more each round with -2 to all attacks in that round.

    (Without the edition war, Pathfinder and the Fourth Edition have a lot to teach each other. Of course, my beloved Fourth can teach more. )

    Your recommendations for the other Powers are equally perceptive. I shall have to try these out on the battlefield.

    Thanks also for the efficient links to Compendium pages!

  4. I have never played Pathfinder, but I have plenty of 3.5 sessions under my belt - and Rapid Shot, as well as two-weapon fighting used to have the same -2 penalty. Not that the math worked out quite the same way (since BAB granted you even more additional attacks, and the penalty applying to them was a big deal). But it sounded like a good idea to fix Twin Strike that way, and after running the numbers it more or less works.