Monday, March 30, 2009

Fixing Beast Mastery (I): Beast Training

In my previous post, I stated that one of the problems with Ranger pets was that their attacks' damage didn't increase at the same rate as weapon attacks, quickly falling behind in damage. Since beast powers work under the assumption that a [B] attack is equivalent to a [W] attack, this causes them to be deceivingly weak, and almost always worse than non-beast powers. Here is a simple fix to reduce the gap between beast attacks and weapon attacks: a new ritual to give beasts an enhancenment bonus to damage. Beastmaster rangers automatically learn this ritual, and can use it even if they are otherwise unable to perform rituals.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

The numbers of the Beast

UPDATE (09/05/2010) - Added comparative charts for beast damage.

In previous posts, when talking about rangers, I deliberately skipped Beast Master builds. This doesn't mean that they are flawless (they aren't) or that I dislike (I love them), but their mechanics are a bit more complex than average, and I didn't quite know how to explain what I found was wrong with them. Today I'll give it a shot.

Beastmaster Rangers didn't hit the mark
The Beast Master fighting style is the best thing that's happened to rangers in 4E. Not in terms of damage, certainly, but in variety and uniqueness. Of course, previous editions already had pets for rangers and other classes, but they suffered from a series of flaws. Pets, along with summoned creatures and similar mechanics, allowed players to multiply the number of actions (i.e. attacks) available to them, violating what is now known as economy of actions. This had implications beyond game balance, as it slowed down fights, and made some players' turns take significantly longer than the rest's.
On the other hand, pet stat generation was usually overcomplicated, involving the selection of some Monster Manual creature and its levelling up, adding several bonuses, and even magic items and feats. Since the Monster Manual itself was a bit anarchic concerning monster balance, it became possible, with just a few hours of research and optimization, to come up with character builds where the 'pet' was overwhelmingly superior to its alleged 'master'. The system's 'flexibility' also allowed for truly pathetic pets, if the players weren't so careful with their builds.

Fast forward to the 4E. The new game system promises to fix most of these issues in a clean, balanced way. Character creation has become straightforward, and there are well defined numbers for a character's expected stats and number of powers at any given level. Also, characters now have a fixed pool of actions (minor, move, standard) each turn regardless of their pets, mounts, continuous effects and the like. The game now has all the ingredients for the perfect pet experience. And yet, for their first attempt (the Beast Master Ranger), they didn't get it completely right.

I want to like the Beast Master. The basic idea is simple, but interesting enough: the beast is a bag of hit points that doesn't directly increase your damage, but flanks, makes a few opportunity attacks (at the non-insignificant cost of an immediate action for the master) and allows the master to channel beast-specific powers. Some of those powers grant a bonus to the ranger's attack, others have the beast make the attack, and several of them combine attacks from both, which in practice doesn't differ much from multiattacks from dual wielding or rapid firing. Reading these powers, it makes sense to think that the basic beast attack is roughly equivalent to a standard basic attack. That assumption, however, is utterly wrong.

At first level, beast attacks are only slightly below a basic weapon attack. It doesn't last long, however, as their damage improves very, very slowly. Only increasing ability scores and extra damage dice from epic tier affect it. Beasts gain no damage benefit from feats, enhancenment bonuses or paragon paths, so at mid Paragon tier their attacks deal only half the damage of a basic attack.

And this is the real issue: not that pets are weak (which they are, sometimes), but that power, relative to the ranger's, has a strong variation with level. This is confusing, and means that you can't easily evaluate a Beast Power. Intuition says that an attack dealing 2[B] should be comparable to another dealing 2[W], but this is only true within a certain range of levels. This disparity also means that most beast powers should be broken, at least at certain levels.

Pet attack bonuses and defenses, in contrast, scale perfectly with level, preventing further disaster. The beast powers themselves are rather good, and I believe they would work nicely if beast attacks were more like standard attacks. So I'm going to try just that. In a following post, I will provide alternate rules that treat pets in a much more efficient and simple way.

Beast damage charts

What follows is the comparison of basic attacks between a PC with no optimization whatsoever (i.e. the minimum progression) and a beast companion. The following assumptions are made:
- The PC has a starting ability score of 18, and increases it as normal
- The PC's basic attack has a +2 proficiency bonus and a [W] of 1d10. Damage at level 1 would then be 1d10 + 4
- Weapon enhancenment bonuses are gained at levels 2,6,11,16,21,26. Crit damage is 1d8 per bonus.
- Expertise bonuses to hit are gained at levels 5,15,25
- Crit range increases to 10% at level 21.
- The beast companion used for reference is a lizard. The companion is not affected by magic items or feats.
- Damage increases by 1(w) at level 21 (this shouldn't really apply for a beast companion basic attack, though it does for Predator strike)
- Hit chances are calculated as if attacking a Skirmisher monster of the same level.

For reference, I show numbers for the current spirit companion, as well as a modified version adding enhancenment bonuses to damage and extra damage on crits.

This is the progression for damage dealt on a hit.


And this is the actual Damage-Per-Round progression:

The whole spreadsheet is available here. Also, there's a thread for discussing possible erratas on the subject in the official forums.
Read More......

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Building characters with(out) Player's Handbook 2

I've just had my first contact with Player's Handbook 2. Not actual, physical contact with the book, as it will still take a few more days for amazon to deliver my copy. But I have been able to browse through the races and classes, carefully choose some powers and feats, and give form to some characters for my next campaign. Such is the magic of Character Builder, the killer application from D&D Insider, and the greatest (some would say first) digital success in Wizards of the Coast's history.

Some classes just scream 'win'.

I'm not going to write a review of Character Builder today (other than this: try it! It's worth it), and I don't want to talk in depth about PHB2 until I've had it in my hands. So I'll settle for showing the couple of character concepts that have fascinated me so far. In a book full of amazing new options, these stood out to me as the best: the Bard, and the chaotic Sorcerer.

Why do I like these so much? Bards may now have a well defined (and much needed) role as party leaders, but they are also insanely versatile. Aside from being able to switch without effort from melee warriors to ranged spellcasters, their ability to multiclass as much as they want offers many unique combinations. In addition, their power selection is full of fun, not-so-harmless tricks such as marking on behalf of your allies ("the fighter did it!"), dominating, or transferring conditions between party members. Bards have always been rather cool, but now they are also competent!

On the other hand, we have Chaos Sorcerers. The sorcerer class is an interesting hybrid, a mixture of striker and controller that allows to multiply high damage and large numbers of enemies within areas of effect. Yet it still feels balanced compared to wizards, because of the very short-range effects and relative lack of ongoing zones. On top of this, we have the awesome Chaos Magic build, which manages to introduce random side effects in _just the right amount_. Keeping track of odd and even rolls, 1s and 20s, all the while ensuring that you get a basic effect, and keeping you excited about the possible bonuses... And with no drawback other than the unpredictability. Just brilliant.

These statblocks will have little meaning if you don't have access to a PHB2 or a Character Builder, but you really should have both, so I'll copy them anyway. (For those unfamiliar with the Builder, I have just pasted them using the very useful 'summary' feature).

====== Created Using Wizards of the Coast D&DI Character Builder ======
Jack Ovall, level 1
Half-Elf, Bard
Bardic Virtue: Virtue of Valor

Str 13, Con 18, Dex 10, Int 11, Wis 8, Cha 18.

AC: 17 Fort: 14 Reflex: 12 Will: 15
HP: 30 Surges: 11 Surge Value: 7

Arcana, Heal, Acrobatics, Perception, Diplomacy, Endurance.

1: Ritual Caster
1: Soldier of the Faith

1, At-Will: Vicious Mockery
1, At-Will: War Song Strike
1, Encounter: Burning Spray
1, Encounter: Shout of Triumph
1, Daily: Stirring Shout

Ritual Book, Longsword, Chainmail, Light Shield

Fastidiousness, Glib Limerick

====== Created Using Wizards of the Coast D&DI Character Builder ======
Prok, level 1
Halfling, Sorcerer
Build: Chaos Sorcerer
Spell Source: Wild Magic

Str 11, Con 13, Dex 18, Int 10, Wis 8, Cha 18.

AC: 14 Fort: 11 Reflex: 14 Will: 16
HP: 25 Surges: 7 Surge Value: 6

Arcana, Dungeoneering, Nature, Bluff.

1: Melee Training (Charisma)

1, At-Will: Burning Spray
1, At-Will: Chaos Bolt
1, Encounter: Bedeviling Burst
1, Daily: Dazzling Ray

Cloth Armor (Basic Clothing), Implement, Wand

Read More......

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Redeeming the zombie minion

As you approach the hall, you are overwhelmed by a nauseating stench. Something moves in the darkness, aware of your presence. The corpses on the floor start to rise, moved by an unnatural hunger. You are surrounded by dozens of zombies! You ready your weapons and quickly consider your options as the enemy approaches, ready to devour your - PLEASE STOP LAUGHING, THEY ARE VERY THREATENING!

Zombie minions are not, to say it politely, very threatening. The minion rules about dying on one hit do not synergyze well with a type of monster with lousy defenses that are usually compensated with tons of hit points. The result is a monster that is almost automatically killed with any attack you point at it, while also having terrible mobility and no special abilities whatsoever. Admittedly, they get a tiny offensive advantage, even if they rarely live long enough to use it.

This is not right. If there is a monster that deserves a good minion version, it's the zombie! Everyone likes plowing through hordes of rotten undead. Or running away from them, when their numbers get out of proportion. Today, I'll show a few variations on the zombie rotter that should add a bit of variety, and some challenge, to your undead encounters.

The following monster stats are based on the Zombie Rotter from the Monster Manual. For anything not listed here, you should use the values in that entry.

The basic minion, with its level corrected.

A tougher version

Great for parties

An odd controller/leader zombie

He will die often

An interesting note: The first thing I wanted to change was to turn Zombie Rotters from terrible Level 3 minions into poor Level 1 minions. Oddly, when I looked at the D&D Compendium for reference on other minions, Rotters where listed as Level 1. Curious, I searched the most recent errata (dated 1/20/2009) for a zombie update I had missed, but found nothing. It's nice that they fix these things in the Compendium, but they really should update official errata, too!
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Monday, March 16, 2009

Go, go, ranger powers!

UPDATE: As of December, 2009, Careful Attack has been errataed to add Dexterity or Strength to the damage roll, so my suggested fix for that power is no longer necessary (though I like it more than the official version).

I'll do the usual trick: show modified powers now, then have some discussion after the cut. I'm leaving Beast Mastery for other day, as I think it's a whole different animal (heh). Also, no changes for Nimble Strike -we like you as you are, NS!

This will hurt a little now, but you'll feel much better afterwards...

Careful, now.

Ok, we're ready to go!

When it comes to at-will powers, Rangers find themselves in an awkward position. On the one hand, they have Twin Strike, the best at-will in the game (though it's a really close call between that and the cleric's Righteous Brand). On the other hand, and intimately related to the first issue, they hardly ever get to use whatever power they have chosen as a second at-wil. And it's not just Twin Strike to blame, here, as some of the worst at-wills in the game -Careful attack, I'm looking at you- are also sported by rangers. Nevertheless, I think that even without those crappy powers, it would be almost impossible to have a somewhat balanced selection that didn't involve changing Twin Strike.

The way 4E rules are made, powers allowing multiple attacks beat almost anythin, damage-wise. Not only that, but they are more accurate than the so-called "accurate attacks" (poor, poor Careful Attack!), since you're more likely to land an attack when rolling twice than when getting a +2 bonus. Or a +4, for that matter.

The changes shown above try to address the issue, bringing down TS to a more mundane level while improving the subpar choices so that they are actually interesting to use. Note that they imply a significant reduction (between 10% and 20%, from my calculations) to a Ranger's damage at-will damage output. Since Rangers were usually well above most other classes in terms of damage, you could probably just apply these modifications and call it a day. I suggest using them with the feature changes I proposed previously, which increase the damage potential at the cost of making it more rogue-like (and I mean being Sneak Attack-ish, not looking like an '@').

Since I have probably bored you to death with Twin Strike (I'd argue that TS usually has that effect), I should comment on the other two powers. I felt Careful Attack needed some sort of side effect, since hitting often is something that TS was already great at. I settled with a bonus to hit for the following turn, because, if the numbers are right, it could allow for a power rotation: open one turn with Careful Attack, have an enconunter power, or Twin Strike, or whatever the following turn, and repeat. While it may not seem terribly varied, it should be more fun than just using a single attack. Since it was still a bit too weak, extra damage was added. I could have used Wisdom modifier here, but I found that at higher levels it would be almost equivalent to just using the main ability, so I went the halved main ability route.

Regarding Hit and Run, I always considered that it failed on the 'run' part. The added movement should interact nicely with the other effect, and improve the ranger's emphasis on mobility, which is usually one of the most fun aspects of playing a striker. Of course, this really shines with the improved Fighting Style I proposed, but it should work either way. Again, I could have linked the bonus to Wisdom modifier, but I think it plays better when it gives 3-4 squares of movement.

Bonus home rule: Global multiattack adjustment for Rangers

A mere -2 penalty to hit, by itself, isn't really enough to balance multiattack powerhouses like Twin Strike, but it sure helps. If you really feel that your rangers' damage is excessive, or that single attack powers are way below multiattacks, the following modification may be for you:

Whenever a ranger power allows you to make more than one attack on any single target, apply a -2 penalty to hit to that power's attack rolls.

This wouldn't apply to burst powers, or powers that forced you to make all attacks on different targets. Powers that give you the option to hit either a single target or several (such as Twin Strike) would always have the penalty, regardless of how the attacks are assigned. Below, I provide a table with all ranger powers that would take the penalty. (Paragon path powers not included)

It may be hard to believe, but there are a few multiattack powers that could be considered more or less balanced, or even weak. The table below lists what I consider fair powers. It's probably safe to keep these without a penalty:

Read More......

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Featuring: the Ranger

After a few skirmishes with lesser foes, I feel ready to face my arch-nemesis class. Today, I will take a first step towards turning Rangers into enjoyable, balanced characters. There is much work to do, so expect several posts on the subject until I'm satisfied with the result.

An iconic ranger

On this entry, I will address Ranger class features. As I explained in my class overview posts, these are terrible overall. I'm convinced that better features would make the class more enjoyable to play but there is little room to improve them from a balance point of view, as the Ranger's power level is somewhere around the stratosphere. In order to keep a semblance of balance, consider the following revision to Twin Strike (which I will comas a requirement to the feature changes proposed:

I propose the following modifications for Ranger class features:

Hunter's Quarry - damage reduced to 1d4 (heroic), 2d4 (Paragon), 3d4 (Epic)

(The feat Lethal Hunter now increases the dice to d6 instead of d8)

Skirmish (new feature) - On your turn, if you move at least 3 squares away from where you started your turn, you gain a +1 bonus to melee attack rolls until the end of your next turn.


Replace Archer Fighting Style and Two-blade Fighting Style with the following:

Archer Fighting Style: Gain a +2 bonus to AC against Opportunity Attacks. Your Prime Shot increases damage done by your Hunter's Quarry by your Wisdom modifier, in addition to its normal effect.

Two-Blade Fighting Style: Because of your focus on two-weapon melee attacks, you can wield a one-handed weapon in your off hand as if it were an off-hand weapon . (Make sure to designate on you character sheet which weapon is main and which is off hand). Your Skirmish feature increases damage done by your Hunter's Quarry by your Wisdom modifier, in addition to its normal effect, as long as you are wielding two melee weapons.

What is the reasoning behind these feature changes? I pursued the following objectives:

- More build differentiation. Previously, the archer build didn't have any feature that actually improved your archery. Now, although any build can do a decent job at either range or melee, there will be one clearly favoured option.
- Get rid of unwanted, "free" feats. They are poor, uninteresting choices for class features, unless the feats in question have strict requisites, like Two-Weapon Defense or Armor Proficiency. Which wasn't the case.
- More fun. In this case, I tried to accomplish this by increasing the importance of movement and positioning. Prime Shot was a good idea, but it often wasn't worth the effort for Archer Rangers, so I improved the bonus. Likewise, I gave melee builds a similar tool. In order to balance for the added damage, I reduced Hunter's Quarry damage.

Note that there was a published alternative for the new Skirmish feature, in the Prime Strike feat from Martial Power. I could have used that instead, but I disliked the lack of control that a Ranger (with few pushing powers) had over the effect. Skirmish works well, from my experience with monsters and the Warlock's Shadow Walk.
Read More......

Friday, March 6, 2009

Eldritch Mysteries

Eldritch Blast annoys me. The Warlock description lists it as a class feature, but that only means that you are forced to take it. It's not as if you get it for free, or have any other kind of bonus, as one would expect from a feature. And it does nothing special whatsoever. It counts as a ranged basic attack, which is mostly irrelevant except for a couple encounter or daily powers from other classes, but otherwise it has no ability. Or drawback, for that matter.

Because of this, among other reasons, Warlocks are in dire need of options for at-will powers. The feats I present today should give that, by changing EB, effectively turning it into different powers. The idea goes back to the first warlock appearance in D&D 3.5, though in that occasion the system was modular and very detailed, allowing for lots of combinations and changing from a turn to the next. My proposal isn't as ambitious, as a player can only choose a single modification for EB, and it is applied permanently.

We will define a new type of feat, the Eldritch Mystery. The following rules apply:

Eldritch Mystery feats.
These feats modify the effect of a Warlock's Eldritch Blast under certain conditions. They are denoted by "Eldritch Mystery" in brackets after the name of the feat. You can't take more than one Eldritch Mystery feat.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Rule updates in PHB 2

As part of the March previews article, Wizards has shown the table of contents in Player's Handbook II. Among other useful information (such as the number of pages, 223, which I didn't know) there is an interesting tidbit: a chapter dedicated to rule updates. These updates focus on two major issues, Reading a Power and Stealth. I wonder if they will have new material, or just be a compilation of published errata, though. This are the sections of the chapter:

Reading a Power218
The Power Format
The Power Description218
The Marked Condition218
Movement Effects
Extra Damage
New Stealth Rules
Bluff 222
Stealth 222
Perception 222
Targeting What You Can’t See223

It's just 6 pages, and it looks like it will consist on errata-like updates. On the other hand, Stealth rules in PHB were poorly written, to say the least, so this should prove useful. Read More......

Monster Numbers

If there is something I like from the new DMG it is, without a doubt, how it explains the math behind monster stats. The 'monster statistics by role' table in page 184, and the 'damage by attack type' table in the following table provide invaluable insight about 4E's core mechanics. It is in these tables that we can see, among other things, that both attacks and defenses are expected to increase at the very predictable rate of +1/level.

However, even if this section provides formulas or values for every relevant monster stat, not all of them are easy to read, or use. In particular, Hit Point values depend on monster Constitution, something is a bit out of place in such straightforward tables, in my opinion. Also, damage values are given as dice rolls plus modifiers, which is good for actual monster creation, but hides the real numbers behind. It's not always easy to see just how much better than 3d6+X is 2d10+Y.

Today I'll try to help DMs who like to customize monsters, by providing additional tables with quick stats: three for monster Hit Points, including entries for Elites and Solos, and two with average damages from monster attacks, both normal and limited.
The tables below will help you make new, fearsome monsters

These are reasonable values for monster Hit Points, using average Constitution scores:

Solos are slightly different, since they use different formulas for heroic and higher tiers:

The following tables show average damage values derived from the tables in DMG:

The numbers behind it

HP tables assume the following Constitution scores:
- Standard and Elite monsters, all roles but Brute - Con 12
- Standard and Elite Brutes - Con 15
- Heroic Solos - Con 18
- Paragon Solos - Con 20

There should be slight deviations in higher levels, as ability scores increase, but not large enough to be significant.

Damage tables are pretty straightforward, as I just replaced dice by their average value.
Read More......