Saturday, February 28, 2009

Spell Mastery feats for Wizards

A while ago, when we had a first glimpse at Player's Handbook 2 controllers, there was some discussion on the relative lack of controlling mechanics in Wizard at-will powers.4E developer Mike Mearls joined the conversation, suggesting that those at-wills (even Scorching Burst) are slightly below baseline. While I personally think that most of these powers (except the weak Ray of Frost and the pointless Magic Missile) are fine, I won't deny there is room for improvement.

Inspired by power-specific Implements (such as Master's Wands) from Adventurer's Vault, I have designed a cycle of Wizard feats that allow you to customize your at-wills. You can see them below:

A few comments on them:

These are slightly on the powerful side, and they would have been definitely playable without the damage bonus. However, I like the idea that, through these free, untyped bonuses, the energy type of a Wizard's at-wills becomes much more relevant. Such a bonus puts to shame Weapon Focus wanabee feats, like Astral Fire, but, to be honest, they deserve the shame.

I have tried to make the power bonuses different from those granted by special implements, as well as stackable with them. Nevertheless, there were great ideas, like the Magic Missile push or Scorching Burst having extra damage in the middle, that I just had to take as is. Finally, I wanted to encourage secondary abilities other than Wisdom, which was *one of the things I missed the most in the PHB Wizard.

Oh, and my improved Ray of Frost may, or may not, be a powerhouse. Single-target attacks need really good effects to be worthwhile for a Wizard, and I'd like builds without area at-wills to be decent, if not great.

May your Scorching Bursts be full with enemies.
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Friday, February 27, 2009

A less Vigorous Battlerager

The Battlerager Fighter build is absurdly powerful. Here's a suggestion to bring it on par with other weapon talents, while preserving as much of the original mechanics as possible.

Replace the Battlerager Vigor Fighter talent with the following:

When you hit an enemy, if that enemy has hit you with a melee or close attack since your last turn, you gain temporary hit points equal to your Constitution modifier. If the attack is Invigorating, and you are wielding an axe, a hammer, a mace or a pick, you gain the sum of these temporary hit points and the amount granted by Invigorating.

When wearing light armor or chainmail, you gain a +2 bonus to damage rolls against enemies that have hit you with melee or close attacks since your last turn. Increase this bonus to +3 at 11th level and +4 at 21st level

This is a refinement of an idea I proposed a while back at the forums. Essentially, by adding the requirement of hitting an enemy, the amount of THP gained is halved. Also, it no longer activates multiple times when several enemies attack at once, so Battleragers can now be overwhelmed by superior numbers. More importantly, the dreaded minion immunity is gone for good.

Given this sudden drop in power, you might think that this new version is now too weak. Far from it. Characters with good Constitution will still gain lots of THP, it's just that now they just mitigate enemy attacks rather than almost negating them. The combination with Invigorating can also be effective, as well as spectacular: it's not difficult to have Invigorating, Battleraging hits that heal for double digits. Of course, this isn't any more than what previous stacking rules allowed, but gaining the THP in single bursts should feel impressive, anyway.

Putting aside balance concerns, I like to think that the revised mechanics should be more fun in play, too. The need to hit makes character building more interesting,since the build with the best defenses is not necessarily the one with the highest Constitution. Also, there are now stronger reasons to go with the recommended weapons and armor, although other choices are definitely viable. Finally, the need to go for the guy that hit you provides the raging flavor that was sometimes missing in previous implementations.

But the best of all is that, no matter how good these battleragers turn out to be, their desperate need to hit means they will always miss the Weapon Talent they had to give up!
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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Full Charisma Paladin: Improving your divine class in two easy steps

This is a simple rules modification to fix what I view as a Paladin's greatest problem, its division in two subclasses: one with Charisma, the other with Strength, both with too few power choices. It consists on the following:
  1. Change all Strength-based Paladin powers to use Charisma instead. If there is any secondary effect that triggers off Wisdom, change it to use Strength.
  2. Change Divine Challenge so that the damage bonus depends on Strength modifier, rather than Charisma.
As an example, this is how the revised level 1 powers would look like (details ommitted for clarity):

The following features would also change:

After this change, the Paladin is still left with two builds using different attributes: the Avenging Paladin has Charisma and Strength, while the Protecting paladin uses Charisma and Wisdom. Class features will be more evenly distributed among builds, as Avenging will have the better challenge and Protecting specializes on Lay on Hands. This supposes a great improvement for the previously handicapped Avenging build, at the cost of a decrease in power for previous Charisma specs.

The most important gain, however, is in the number of available powers, as Valiant Strike and many other powers, including most dailies, can now be used in any build. The use of cross-build powers is also much easier, as the main ability score remains the same.

Is there any downside? Does this modification take away anything special from the Paladin class? In my opinion, the differentiation between builds is as good as before, if not better: with the change to Divine Challenge, there is a clear healing build and a damage build (rather than a full build and a crappy build, like before).

So, what do you think? Are we really improving the class? Have I missed anything? Let's discuss.
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Monday, February 23, 2009

D&D class overview (V): The less-than-awesome

On the final issue of these series, I'll comment on the Warlock and its huge issues, and the Ranger, which is plain terrible.

The poor warlock doesn't really deserve to be left alone with a ranger. In fact, nobody does. That's why they are given animal companions.

Disclaimer: since writing this piece, I have played a bit more with warlocks and changed slightly my opinion on them. Despite their flaws, warlocks work really well in play. Better, in fact, than some classes I haven't judged so harshly. Nevertheless, they remain the most frustrating characters in the game to build and level up, each pact build feeling like a premade character, so much of what I said below stands.

These couple are, in my opinion, the most broken classes in the game. By broken here I don't mean power level (since Rangers are right there at the top), but design. Both the Warlock and Ranger suffer multiple, serious flaws that, in my opinion, detract from a fun play experience. The Warlock annoys me the most, since it actually has a lot going for it. Its set of class features is the best one in the game, being both fun and flavorful: the pact boons provide a nice minigame of cursing as many enemies as possible and collecting their death bonuses, while shadow walk cleverly compensates the low defenses and, together with prime shot, makes movement very relevant.

If only moving other ranged characters was half as interesting as the warlock! Sadly, several important flaws spoil what would otherwise be an amazing class. To begin with, there is the absolute lack of choice concerning at-will powers. This is most aggravating because all pact powers are awesome, yet you are forced to take the completely uninteresting Eldritch Blast. But it would be an issue even if the Blast wasn't as boring. The ability to actually choose an at-will power would make Humans the most appealing race for warlocks... if it weren't for the Multiple Ability Score issue, which negates that choice.

For a class that already has a reduced range of options, the split between Charisma powers and Constitution powers is devastating. Warlocks of a given pact look more similar to one another than any other class build in the game. Only Star Pact characters achieve some degree of diversity, but that's only because they are (unsuccesfully) struggling to have a playable power selection. This, added to the lack of variety in feats and equipment inherent to non weapon-based characters, makes building and levelling Warlocks a real pain. To be fair, playing them is still pretty amusing.

The same can't be said of the Ranger, which is without a doubt the most flawed profession in the Player's Handbook. The features are terrible, and the different builds laughable. Hunter's Quarry does its striking job, and the ability to wield large off-hand weapons is rather cool, but the rest is almost worthless. Melee rangers somehow gain Prime Shot, which isn't that useful for archers to begin with. And fighting styles are a joke: the only reason for an archer to ever pick Archery Style is to gain access to paragon paths.

I really, really hate ranger at-wills. It boils down to this: you have Twin Strike, and filler for the rare cases where TS isn't the best possible attack, such as having only one arrow left or losing your off-hand weapon. The problem is not that TS makes rangers overpowered (which it probably does, in some cases), but that it greatly reduces design space for at-wills, as it's almost impossible to make a damage-focused attack that is competitive with TS but not really overpowered. Come on, Careful Attack, the power that sacrifices strength for precision, is less accurate than TS, and would still be if its bonus was raised to +4. It doesn't help that all non-TS powers except sometimes Nimble Strike are useless.

The gameplay is as repetitive as it gets: spend encounter powers, use Twin Strike over and over. Positioning is more or less pointless, since getting a quarry is easy, and requires no upkeep. Archers could make an effort to use Prime Shot, but most of the time the best idea is to lock on a Quarry, then run away as far as possible, since bow range is virtually infinite on.

Still, there are some good things, such as the Beast Mastery build from Martial Power, which adds some very needed coolness without increasing power even more. I think the pet is a great idea, even if the implementation is a bit too complex for my tastes. At first sight, beast powers look slightly weak, but I'd have to see them in play to be certain. Another interesting contribution is the concept of hybrid powers that work on different ability scores depending on the build. While they have clunky wordings, they might be used to fix other classes that have different abilities for each build.

Next: The fixes start!
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D&D class overview (IV): The not-so-awesome

The second tier of classes, which I'll talk about today, are mostly fine except for a few significant issues. While they can certainly be played, and enjoyed, I believe they would vastly improve if these issues were addressed. Let's take a look at the Fighter and its balance problems, the featureless Wizard, and both Clerics and Paladins with their crippling multiple main ability scores.

I find identifying classes in pictures rather difficult, and not just because of resolutions as tiny as above.

I should start by admitting I'm a Fighter kind of guy. Shield Fighter, to be more specific. The first archetype I try in most games is the highly defensive melee guy. However, don't think that I'm blinded by favoritism when I state that the Player's Handbook Fighter is a brilliant design. I particularly like how it offers not just 2 different builds, but 2 x N: two fighter weapon talents and N different types of weapon (including three very viable choices in heavy blades, axes and hammers, as well as a smattering of lesser varieties). These multiple levels of choice are a great idea, and something that I'd really like to see generalized.

While the Player's Handbook material alone would have the fighter as an almost flawless class, this changes, for worse, with Martial Power. Don't get me wrong, I think MP is quite a decent supplement, and it adds lots of goodies for all martial classes, fighters included. It's just that it has a few important blunders regarding balance, and they are all fighter related.

The most obvious offender is the Battlerager Vigor class feature. For builds with low to average constitution it's merely a better choice than Weapon Talent. On more optimized characters, however, it is a powerhouse that grants near immunity to melee attacks. Slightly less problematic, but still dangerous, is the Tempest Fighter build. This build, coupled with double weapons from Adventurer's Vault and a careful feat selection, is capable of damage outputs that rival those of most strikers, being second only to optimized Rangers. I do believe that most of the blame lies in the double weapons, but the at-will power Dual Strike should also be closely examined.

Another Fighter 'gem' from MP is the paragon feat Marked Scourge, which is almost unreachable for other classes through multiclassing, boosts Fighter damage even more, and becomes just insane when dual wielding. Finally, no discussion on Fighter balance would be complete without mentioning the 3rd level encounter power from PHB, Rain of Blows. Official interpretations on this poorly formatted power (which I disagree with) state that it can deal between 2 and 4 attacks, which translates in an absurd amount of damage, rivalling most daily powers, even at Epic levels.

Wizards, more than any other class, are entirely defined by their powers. It's not just that they have an amazing selection of them, with excellent choices available both for the at-will, encounter and daily categories. Rather, it's because what they lack: class features.

Cantrips and Spellbooks, while cool and flavorful, are virtually useless in combat. Implement Mastery, on the other hand, is quite useful, and would make a great secondary feature. What is missing here is a core, combat related feature. Any other class would fill this spot with some role-related feature, but there is no such thing for controllers. As a result, the class feels slightly lacking in efficiency and uniqueness, even if the awesome powers sometimes make up for it. There are also worrying implications with multiclassing, as other classes with actual features can gain access to those wizard powers.

To make things worse, even the humble Implement Mastery isn't fully taken advantage of. No power in the wizard's repertoire references neither the wielded implement nor the chosen mastery, making this build choice largely irrelevant. Furthermore, secondary ability scores are worthless, with the exception of Wisdom being used for two at-will powers. Other than that, and the Implement Mastery power, we find that Wisdom, Constitution and Dexterity mean nothing to the Wizard.

Despite these problems, added to their blatant lack of feats, wizards work fairly well. But they definitely can be improved upon.

We are left with Clerics and Paladins, which to me present the same concern: they offer two options for a main ability score, and have that as the only variable to differentiate builds. As I explained previously, multiple main ability scores just don't work. But even if they did, the build options in these divine classes would still be very, very wrong.

It's bad enough that class features stay the same from one build to the other. What is completely un acceptable, though, is that one build's abilities affect these features while the other one's don't. Wisdom Clerics have Healer's Lore, but Strength Clerics get nothing. Likewise, Charisma Paladins gain a bonus to Divine Challenge, and Strength Paladins cry (though both have Wisdom-powered Lay on Hands). You could argue that Strength provides better basic attacks, or whatever. The fact is, in order to use one of your class builds, you have to give up features without getting anything in return!

Oh, and there is no 9nth level daily power for Strength Paladins. The designers must really dislike strong divine characters.

Next: The less-than-awesome!
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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

D&D class overview (III): The awesome classes

Having determined what is good and bad in a D&D class, we are ready to start applying all this theory. Starting today, I will briefly go over the nine currently complete classes (the ones in the first Player's Handbook and the Swordmage from the Forgotten Realms Player's Guide) and point out where I think they fail, and where they offer something unique that hasn't been exploited.

I have ordered the classes in three tiers, from the ones less in need of changes to those that need them most. The first category is composed by the rogue, swordmage and warlord.

Maybe I should have put today's classes on top.

These three classes are, in my opinion, the most polished ones, and I consider them a good reference for how I'd like other classes to be. They fulfill their function, offer plenty of options and use original and interesting mechanics.

Rogues work amazingly well for a class designed around a single mechanic such as Combat Advantage. With a reward as huge as Sneak Attack, gaining CA becomes the focus of the rogue's game, encouraging movement and use of skills, and conditioning target selection. It's a very interactive process. I have some concerns about the playability of ranged, stealthy rogues, as I find the Stealth skill a bit daunting even after the errata, though I admit I haven't seen it in play yet.

Another success in rogue design is the requirement of light blades to enable powers and features. I am often wary of such practices, as they tend to feel arbitrary and pointless - like clerics of old editions being forbidden the use of sharp weapons, or druids that could only wield wooden armament and, for some reason, scimitars. But, in this case, the technique works together with flavor and mechanics, turning rogues into masters of weapons that less nimble hands would find weak.

While there are many good things to say about the Swordmage design, it is the class features, and Swordmage Aegis in particular, that stand out. I have previously stated that having less than three combat related features is a bad proposition - yet Swordmages show how to get away with just two. Of course, it helps that Aegis is a class-defining feature that just has it all: it varies with build, powers off secondary attributes, interacts with many powers and is plain awesome. My only is a slight imbalance between the two kinds of Aegis: Assault is cool, but Shielding is sickeningly effective.

Although the leader role derives from the clerics in early editions of D&D, it is the Warlord who best defines what leading means. We are talking of a class whose only special power is commanding others, here. I love how the warlord channels his powers through other characters' actions, involving himself (having to get into melee range, or hit someone) and increasing the sensation of teamwork and camaraderie.

The most important warlord contributions to the game are exploring the vast potential of tactical movement in powers, and defining basic attacks. While melee basic attacks, as defined in the core rules, serve only for charges and opportunity attacks, the warlord gives them a new purpose by being an essential part in many of his own powers. Sadly, not all characters have decent basic attacks, and the end result is strongly dependent on party composition. Ranged basic attacks are a different animal, and I think they could have been given more support, as warlords have few ways of interacting with them and, aside from a few very powerful magic items, they seem to lack a clear purpose in the game.

NEXT: The not-so-awesome classes!
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Friday, February 13, 2009

D&D class overview (II): What's wrong with current classes?

In the first installment of this series I gave a list of good attributes to look for in a class. Today we'll explore the opposite end of the spectrum, as I go over the most important, common problems I have found in Player's Handbook classes (plus Swordmage).
As I will prove below, the ranger stands for all that is evil

The following patterns stood out to me:

- At-will attack powers are more sensitive to lack of variety than any other area. Most of a character's adventuring life will be spent using these powers. A pool of four at-wills is the bare minimum to allow for any character customization at all. When one of those fails to do its duty (careful attack/sure strike, I'm looking at you), characters of that class start to look the same. When they split the four in two halves, usually by using different main ability scores, members of each build will actually be the same, barring some clever ability engineering. And don't get me started on the Warlock.

The release of power books, and the subsequent increase in available at-wills, should definitely help in this regard. Unfortunately, Martial Power was very inconsistent in the number of at-wills featured for each class. I hope future books in this series err more towards the four powers given to the fighter than the couple that other classes had. Rangers in particular were a blatant failure, since they had a dire need of new options, yet both new at-wills can only be picked by the Beast Master build.

- Having two main ability scores is terrible. When both builds of a class use different key abilities, there is a sharp divide between them, to the point that they can be considered mini-classes that happen to share a common name and a few features. But there is no overlap in power selection, no common denominator. As much as I have advocated variety, there must be some degree of similarity among class builds, or you'd be better off turning them into different classes altogether. Besides, each half-class is, in itself, terribly monotonous, rare allowing for more than two powers at each level.

As with the previous point, with more published supplements the playability of these classes will improve. Still, they will remain at a disadvantage compared to more focused classes, limiting the freedom for character customization to a fraction of what it could be.

- Implement users don't have as many choices as weapon wielders. This is true at many levels. The most basic one is that weapons have stats that directly affect powers. Implement selection becomes relevant only through magic item powers and some class features. But those factors apply for weapons, too. Worse still, implement feats, or energy type ones, for that matter, are few and far between, and the ones available in Heroic Tier are utterly disappointing. The cycle of damage enhancing energy feats with annoying prerequisites is particularly depressing, when a character with a sword can just take Weapon Focus.

- No class should have less than three combat-related features. This is the average number, and it works fairly well: one feature defined by the role, and a couple others that set the class apart from its analogues. It gets even better if some of them vary depending of a build, or are powered off a secondary ability. But when you don't reach that minimum, it shows.

The two current cases of featurelessness are the wizard and the ranger. The wizard, at first sight, doesn't actually look bad, having several nice, flavorful features. However, only one of them, implement mastery, has any relevance in combat, and neither one has any relationship with the controler function. The class is only defined by its powers, which feels like a waste, and has unfortunate implications with power theft through multiclass.

The ranger, on the other hand, lacks even the cool yet useless features. Other than hunter's quarry and the ability to wield normal weapons in the off-hand, the offer is disappointing: feats disguised as features, and a prime shot that is useless to the melee build and merely marginal for the archer.This, at least, is somewhat solved in Martial Power with the Beast Master. I may still doubt the efectiveness of the pet, but you can't deny its coolness.

Next: An actual (gasp) class overview!
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Saturday, February 7, 2009

D&D class overview (I): How should classes be?

As I stated in my opening post, the long-term mission of this site will be to fix and improve D&D 4e rules. Of course, an important part of this process should be to decide which areas of the game can be improved upon, and which ones should be preserved as key to the game's success. I will start by analyzing currently released classes, i.e. those in the Player's Handbook, plus the Swordmage.

The wizard is, hands down, the best controller published to date

Today I will discuss which characteristics make a great class, and in the following posts I'll talk about the classes published up to date: the problems I have observed and my opinions on the state of each one. As a disclaimer, my views are probably skewed towards Heroic Tier game issues, since my campaign hasn't reached paragon levels yet.

What should a well-rounded class have? Generally speaking, we want classes, and in fact any other game element, to be fun to play. More specifically, I think classes contribute to fun by providing characters with variety and personality. Balance, while harder to notice (its importance only being evident when it's absent), should also be taken in consideration.

Variety is necessary both while generating and levelling a character, and in actual play. Classes in 4e usually present the player the choice of two main builds, and up to four possible powers to pick when levelling up. The number of available feats varies a lot depending on the type of character, from up to a dozen good options in the best scenario, to virtually none, in the worst. Being forced to pick Skill Training is far from amusing.

In my experience, these base numbers are good starting points: two distinct builds, four choices for powers, and at least half a dozen feats. Less than that, and characters start to feel premade or, even worse, unmakeable, like the sad example of the level 9 Strength Paladin, who can only pick Charisma-based daily prayers.

When gameplay diversity is at its best, players can make significant strategic decisions every round of an encounter. In addition, there should be variance from one encounter to the next, so that there is not a single sequence of actions that a character does every battle. Achieving this depends mostly on the selection of powers that the class provides. No power should always be the right choice. Likewise, powers should be different enough from one another that choosing between them isn't irrelevant.

Another, often undervalued source of in-game variety is character movement. Class features that reward good positioning and allow movement of the characters, their allies and their enemies literally add new dimensions to the game.

While the number of available options is often a good measure of game variety, it can also be misleading. Option relevance must be taken into account, as well. When some of the choices are much weaker than the rest, they might as well not exist, since they will more often than not get ignored. In extreme cases, they could tend a trap for inexperienced players, leading to severely underpowered characters. Options that are much stronger than their counterparts, on the other hand, are even worse. Even if they don't 'break' the class, they can become mandatory for their slot, obsoleting the alternatives.

Related to variety is class personality, which I'll consider here in its most mechanic meaning. It's not enough that a fighter and a wizard have different features and powers - rather, each one's advantages and disadvantages should follow a certain theme, defining a distinct style. A player should be able to figure out, when looking at a brand new power, whether it belongs to a wizard or a fighter. The real challenge, of course, would be doing the same when the classes share power sources, like a wizard and a warlock, or roles, like a fighter and a paladin.

Personality can also be achieved through common elements. Class roles and power sources are an example of this, by grouping characters with similar functions or backgrounds. Even reused mechanics can feel unique, if small but crucial details change, as with Hunter's Quarry and a Warlock's Curse, which differ only in their application on targets beyond the first, and their interaction with other class features. Repetition in different contexts also works here, as is the case of a Paladin's Bolstering Strike and the Barbarian power with the same effect. The same effect,an attack that grants temporary hit points, is completely changed when used by a low-defense melee striker rather than a defender.

Game balance is not always appreciated, but it's nevertheless essential. It is not, intrinsically, a fun concept, but lack of balance can make a game monotonous, frustrating, or unfair. Balance in roles means that every role is required in a party, and none is clearly better than others. This is not completely true under the current rules - I don't think controllers, while useful, are essential right now. As I see it, the problem lies in the wizard's lack of defining class features: Defenders mark, Leaders heal, Strikers hurt, but the guys in the pointy hats don't have such a clear function.

The rest of roles are at a similar level, though. The first Leader or Defender is perhaps more important, but Strikers are the most tolerant to redundancy in a party. Once you have someone to tank and heal, you can't have too much raw damage.

In order to measure balance of individual classes, we should compare within each role, taking into account how well each one fulfills its function, the presence of secondary roles, and general utility. I find that most classes are pretty close, although rangers (and sometimes fighters) strike a bit too well. Warlock's damage, on the other hand, can be a bit disappointing, though their self-defense and controlling capabilities almost make up for it.

Next: What's wrong with current classes?
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