Saturday, March 10, 2012

Anatomy of the At-Will (IV): Charging

The charge action in D&D 4E is a good idea that suffers from terrible implementation. In principle, there is nothing wrong with the idea of giving melee characters a method to close the distance, sacrificing the fancy options of their at-will and encounter powers for some added mobility attached to a basic but serviceable attack. When you look at it that way, adding a small accuracy bonus seems like a nice way to sweeten the deal. And, since we are talking about an unexciting and situational maneuver, there is no danger in providing a magic item or two to boost it when it does come up. Damage bonuses are usually typed so that they do not easily stack, but a small exception here or there is innocent enough, right? As we are on it, why not throw in a feat that adds a ton of damage on a charge, but only under rare conditions like having combat advantage, and while using crappy weapons like light blades and spears, to make it balanced? Yes, that should work just fine...

Due to a series of poor design decisions, charging has become an overpowered mess. The crux of the matter is this: what was originally conceived as a weaker attack that can be useful in specific circumstances can be easily engineered into an at-will wrecking ball that can be spammed for way more damage than your average encounter power. There are many items and feats that can be taken to improve a charge - and a lot of them are way above the power curve of conventional damage boosting options (like Weapon Focus), and easily stack with each other, to boot. This is only compounded by the interaction of charges with game elements that boost basic attacks (which are left for a future article) and the proliferation of Essentials subclasses based on melee basic attacks.

The rest of the article goes over the most offending charge options for charge enhancement, explaining what is wrong with them and attempting to rewrite them so that they are less disruptive but still playable. Of course, a DM could just look at the list and decide to ban those elements (which would be much more simple), but I’m always interested in the exercise of balancing problematic stuff.

For reference, these are the charge-related options that I found broken:

The challenge here is to bring down the power of a lot of elements that are individually strong to begin with, but also have amazing synergy when taken together - without making them worthless. This means that I need to prevent most of them from stacking together, so I have to change all that rolled extra damage into flat, typed bonuses. On the other hand, that risks making many of those effects too similar - I need to ensure that each item and feat can be differentiated from the rest.

Damage bonuses

Typically, a character can have up to 3 amazing options to improve charge damage: a head item (the almighty Horned Helm), a magic weapon (either Vanguard, Avalanche, or Thundergod), and, with the right class or multiclass, a feat (Surprising Charge). All of these provide a bunch of conveniently stackable extra dice, which you can apply to all your attacks. One possible approach to balance these is to convert the damage dice into a +1 untyped bonus (+2 at paragon, and +3 at epic), in line with the bonuses provided by feats like Spear Expertise (and Weapon Focus, of course). The downside of this approach is that it leaves little space for variation, and would leave us with a lot of very redundant options that are only interesting for characters that are always charging and want to take as many such boosts as possible.

For these reasons, I decided to try out something a little more radical: converting most of the continuous damage bonuses into one-shot boosts, and limiting the way they stack. With this change, the overall power level is decreased, and non-optimized characters that only charge on occasion are now able to make full use of one of these items. Getting and using multiples of these is still possible - though not trivial- so charge specialist can still get an edge this way.

These items and feats would change as follows:

Surprising Charge - Heroic feat
Change Benefit to: Once per encounter, when you hit with a charge attack with combat advantage using a light blade or a spear, you can gain a +4 power bonus to the damage roll. This bonus increases to +8 at 11th level, and to +12 at 21st level.

Horned Helm - Level 6/16/26 Uncommon item (Head)
Remove Property.
Add Power (Encounter). Free Action. Trigger: You hit with a charge attack. Effect: gain a +4 power bonus to the damage roll. Level 16: +8 power bonus. Level 26: +12 power bonus.

Vanguard Weapon - Level 3/8/13/18/23/28 Uncommon item (Weapon)
Change property to: You gain a +4 power bonus to damage rolls of charge attacks made with this weapon during the first round of an encounter. Level 13: +8 power bonus. Level 23: +12 power bonus.

Avalanche Hammer - Level 4/9/14/19/24/29 Uncommon item (Weapon)
hange property to: You gain a +1 power bonus to damage rolls of charge attacks made with this weapon. Level 14: +2 power bonus. Level 24: +3 power bonus.

Thundergod Weapon - Level 13/18/23/28 Uncommon item (Weapon)
Change property to: Damage dealt by this weapon on charge attacks is thunder damage. The first time you hit with a charge attack with this weapon each encounter, you gain a +8 power bonus to the damage roll. Level 23: +12 power bonus.

Note that most of them are still strong options. Notably, casual chargers should find them more potent than before, provided they only charge about once per encounter and were not trying to stack these.

Accuracy bonuses

In 4E, any reliable bonus to hit (outside of Expertise) is a highly valuable and rare boon. Charge spamming characters had access to multiple of these, which could be combined with ease. My goal is to make them work less often (though still often enough to be legitimate options), and cut stacking altogether.

Reckless Charge - Heroic Feat
In Benefit line, replace “a +1 bonus to the attack rolls” with “a +1 power bonus to the attack rolls”.

Charger’s Headdress -  Level 12 Uncommon item (Head)
Change Property to : “When you make a charge attack, if you moved 5 or more squares as part of the charge, you gain a +1 power bonus to the attack roll.”

Aspect of the Ram - Item set, benefit for 2 pieces
Change Benefit to: “When you make a charge attack, if you moved 4 or less squares as part of the charge, you gain a +1 power bonus to the attack roll.”

Notice how the combination of Charger’s Headdress and Aspect of the Ram provides the same effect as any single one of them, in their original verson.

Defensive bonuses

Though charging is mostly an offensive option, there are also some nice defense and mobility benefits attached to it. The cheap  Badge of the Berserker let chargers completely ignore opportunity attacks, and a Marauder’s Armor provides some very serious defensive boost. I wanted to lower these to more reasonable levels, too.

Badge of the berserker - Level 2/7/12/17/22/17 Uncommon item (Neck)
Change Property to: “When you charge, you gain a +4 bonus to all defenses and resist 5 against opportunity attacks provoked by the charge’s movement. Level 12: Resist 10. Level 22: Resist 15”

Marauder’s Armor - Level 7/12/17/22/27 Uncommon item (Armor)
Change Property line to: “When you charge, you gain a +1 item bonus to AC until the end of your next turn.”
Remove Level 12/17/22/27 updates in property line.

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