Saturday, April 14, 2012

Anatomy of the At-Will (V): Basic

Once upon a time, basic attacks were the simplest, weakest form of attack in D&D 4E. One step below proper at-will powers, basics were there for specific scenarios, rather than something characters were expected to spend actual standard actions for. Yet, as is too often the case, later books attempted to spice up these options with potent feats and magic items... and ended up overcompensating. Even without accounting for any charge silliness, basic attacks with appropriate support were already well above average at-wills by the time Martial Power 2 was released - thanks to a cycle of weapon-specific feats that obsoleted such reasonable and iconic powers as Piercing Strike. And then the Essentials line came out, along with a bunch of new subclasses designed to make basic attacks turn after turn...

In today’s article, I’ll go over the game elements that break basic attacks, discussing why they are bad for the game and how they could be improved. They are summarized in the following table:

So, what is wrong with them? I see the following issues:

  • Obsoleting good at-wills - I have mentioned before the death of rogue stape Piercing Strike at level 11. To expand a bit on the topic, I strongly believe that allowing your basic attack to become your best at-will makes the game worse. The total increase in raw power for the character in question may not be all that bad, but the fact that you are replacing two at-will options with one clearly superior one definitely is. Given all the random advantages of being basic, your basic attack should always be slightly below a regular at-will when used as a standard action in order to be fair - or, even better, do cool stuff but only when NOT used as a standard action.
  • Aggravate charge brokenness - Remember charges? It turns out that, if they weren’t bad enough, you can also make them extremely accurate for a mere feat (or two, if your class is not martial).
  • Essential taxes - One of the most common complaints about 4E is the existence of “feat taxes”, bland feats providing simple yet extremely powerful stat bonuses, which make a huge difference between characters who take them and those who don’t. Expertise feats are classic examples of such taxes... and several of the feats in the above list provide an accuracy boost equivalent to (and stackable with) expertise, for basic-attack using classes.
  • Obsoleting weapon types - Another downside of having an overwhelmingly good cycle of feats for certain classes is the fact that they are weapon-specific... and fail to cover all weapon types. This is particularly troubling because the excluded types cover some of the most iconic adventurer weapons, like swords and axes - so if you just want to play a level 11+ knight with a bastard sword, or slayer with an executioner’s axe, you are taking a huge penalty for the privilege.

I could name a few more problems, but the ones above are the ones I find the most pressing. With that in mind, how should we proceed to improve the state of basic attacks? I have opted for two main approaches:

  • Keep the cool stuff, but not for standard actions. I don’t want these effects for the character’s main attack, but they are fine as a boost to opportunity attacks and the occasional interrupt. Note that I explicitly leave free attacks out of the deal because the basic-attack granting leader powers are a bit over the top and don’t really need the boost.
  • Pay damage/accuracy for the cool stuff. AKA the Power Attack mechanic (sometimes in reverse) - you have the option to take a penalty to gain a bonus. If I have got them right, you won’t want to activate these abilities all the time, but they will be quite handy once in a while. The accuracy increases in particular will no longer be a straight increase in average damage (often the opposite will be true), but something you bring out against highly armored enemies, or ones that are close to death.

When all else fails, I’ll settle with a good old nerf. As usual, my target for power level is to keep everything playable, though not necessarily optimal.

Can no longer be used as a standard

Deft Blade – Paragon Feat, Martial  (MP2)
Fix: Replace “to make a basic attack” with “to make a basic attack as part of an immediate or opportunity action”.

Hammer Shock  – Paragon Feat, Martial (MP2)
Piercing Pick – Paragon Feat, Martial (MP2)
Fix: Replace “to make a melee basic attack” with “to make a melee basic attack as part of an immediate or opportunity action”.

Pinning Challenge – Paragon Feat, Fighter (Dra379)
Fix: Replace with “Whenever you make a basic attack with a two-handed weapon as part of an immediate or opportunity action, if the target is marked by you, on a hit it is also immobilized until the start of your next turn”.

Require sacrifices to activate

Impaling Spear – Paragon Feat, Martial (MP2)
Fix: Replace with “Before you make a melee basic attack with a spear, you can choose to take a -3 penalty to the damage roll for each [W] of the attack. If you do, the attack can target AC or Reflex”

Grazing Shot - Paragon Feat (PHB3)
Fix: Replace with “Before you make a ranged basic attack, you can choose to take a -2 penalty to the damage roll. If you do, and the attack deals no damage on a miss, the target takes damage equal to your Dexterity modifier. The penalty increases to -4 at 21st level.”

Deft Aim – Epic Feat (PHB3)
Fix: Replace with “Before you make a ranged basic attack with a bow or crossbow, you can choose to take a -3 penalty to the damage roll for each [W] of the attack. If you do, the attack can target AC or Reflex”

Lashing Flail – Paragon Feat, Martial (MP2)
Fix: Replace with when you make a melee basic attack with a flail, you can take a -2 penalty to the attack roll. If the attack hits, you can slide the target 1 square.

Other fixes

Primal Eye - Paragon Seeker Feat (PHB3)
Fix: Add to the prerequisite line “Seeker’s Bond class feature”.
Comment: This should really have been a seeker class feature. The damage boost it provides to Essentials ranged classes is far from reasonable.

Eagle Eye Goggles – Level 2 Uncommon Head Item (AV)
Fix: Change property to “Gain a +1 item bonus to your the attack roll for your first ranged basic attack in an encounter”.



  1. If you're worried about MBAs supplanting at-wills, hybrids are interestingly built to resist that-after all, hybrid strikers have their striker bonus linked explicitly to their at-wills (likewise, barbarians do as well). Fighters can only mark with fighter powers.

    If you check out my rewrite of the hybrid swordmage, I took the same approach-after all, as is, the hybrid swordmage is basically a better class than the swordmage! And of course, Battleminds' at-wills are already pretty intense (Brutal Barrage anyone?)

    As for leaders and controllers, well, a lot of them already have really good at-wills. Direct the Strike comes to mind, and controller at-wills tend to be multi-target, which is one thing that RBAs virtually never are.

  2. I didn't get to mention it, but the issue with MBAs replacing at-wills is mostly limited to strikers and defenders. And it's true that a series of patches like those of the hybrid classes would go a long way towards keeping that in check. On the other hand, I like basic attacks not being completely useless - the fighter marking on a javeling RBA or the rogue sneak attacking off an opportunity attack are good for the game, in my opinion. I think there is a narrow sweet spot that has basics as slightly sub-optimal standard action attacks, but still handy in specific scenarios... and that's what I've been looking for.

    It's also worth pointing out that, though leaders do not usually risk replacing their own at-wills with THEIR basic attacks, the same cannot be said about their allies' basics. Case in point: Commander's Strike, and similar powers that grant a BA to an ally, were quite useful when the game came out, and have only got better since. The stronger that basic attacks in a party are, the less likely that a leader at-will that isn't a clone of Commander's Strike has a chance to compete.

    Finally, you mention psionic classes, which are broken in a whole different way.Hopefully I'll get to discuss these in their own article one of these days...