Sunday, October 31, 2010

A better formula for minion damage.

Ever since the monster creation guidelines received errata to cover the new math from Monster Manual 3, I had wondered what had happened with minion damage. The new tables covered other types of monsters, but not minions, so we could only guess what was expected from a modern minion - was the table in Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 still valid, or were new monsters following a different, unknown math? Minions are far less common than normal monsters (particularly at higher levels), so sample monsters in rule books tend to be scarce, complicating the task of verifying the creation guidelines. Still, I found that MM3 had just enough such monsters to prove that the previous formulas were slightly off. Even better, it was possible to come up with a new formula that was a better match for the new monsters, but also for those in Monster Manual 2! Not only that, but it was pretty straightforward, and could be related to that of standard monsters. It was the following:

Minion Damage (normal) = 4+ Level/2

Extending it for brutes and areas

Under Monster Manual 3 rules, brute and limited damage expressions are a 25% higher than normal, whereas low and area damage is 25% lower. This leaves us with the following formulas:

Minion Damage
  • Low = 3+ 0.4*Level
  • Normal = 4+ 0.5*Level
  • High = 5+ 0.6*Level

I have done a bit of rounding for clarity, which shouldn’t add a significant error. As usual in 4E, the formula results should be rounded down. At lower levels, this should be pretty close to the previous table, but for paragon and epic monsters it brings an increase of a couple points of damage.

Interestingly, these formulas are roughly half the damage you’d get from a standard, non-minion monster, which should provide some insight on a minion’s relative value. Compared to a single monster, four minions deal twice as much damage, but get weaker with each hit they take. This suggests that the damage contribution of a group of minions would match that of a normal monster if both took 4-5 turns to kill - though this is rarely the case, as minions’ pitiful survivability means that all are usually dead by the second round of combat.

Some pretty diagrams

I came up with the current formula by analyzing the chart below, which shows the damage values for all non-brute minions in monster manuals 2 and 3, ordered by level. For most levels, there is only a single minion in each book (MM2-1 and MM3-1), but sometimes there were additional ones, which I have displayed as MM2-2 and MM3-2.

As we can see, even though there are a few monsters that show moderate deviations from the norm, most follow a trend of linear increment. Including the formula (4+ 0.5*Level) as blue dots, we get that most values fall over it, or very close to it.

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Essentials ranger preview: Redeeming Twin Strike

D&D Essentials class previews

Update (11/11/10): Ok, I ran some numbers about Twin Strike, and it looks like it's not as bad as I thought, unless you go out of your way to optimize damage. When making a ranger, a multiattack power will still beat most alternatives, but the comparison with other strikers isn't as terrible as I suggested. So take everything below with two grains of salt.

Edit (03/11/10): Toned down Twin Strike hate.

I have long considered the ranger the most flawed class in 4E, mostly because of its notoriously overpowered at-will, Twin Strike. It is frequent for a ranger to spam Twin Strike in detriment of anything else, on account of its outdamaging most encounter powers, and downright obliterating at-will alternatives a LOT. In this context, it comes off as a surprise that when Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms brings us a Essentialized ranger subclass called the Scout, which consists on a melee dual-wielding striker stripped of daily powers and based on attacking all turns in a very Twin-Striking way, the final result might be something I’d enjoy playing with.

Given that the book included both drows and dual-wielding rangers, it must have been difficult to use any other races for the sample character. I appreciate the effort.

Exploring the class

Much like its cousin the Hunter, a Scout is a hybrid of martial and primal power, though the martial component is by far the most prominent, from the heroic tier preview we have been shown. The core gameplay of this striker consists on the use of Dexterity-based melee basic attacks modified by at-will primal stances called Aspects of the Wild (which take the place of other classes’ at-will attacks) and occasionally boosted by pseudo-encounter attack Power Strike (a feature previously seen in the Essentials Fighter). The class has no other attack powers (notably lacking dailies), but has utilities as usual. True to tradition, the Scout fighting style is based on dual wielding; the striker extra damage feature is called Dual Weapon Attack, and it allows for an additional off-hand attack after hitting an enemy, once per turn. It’s as brutal as it sounds.

The parallels with Twin Strike are obvious as well as alarming, but thankfully the developers seem to have done their homework this time. The worst sin of the original was, by far, the repetitive gameplay it generated, since it rewarded players for spending every single standard action in the overpowered at-will, while dismissing any encounter attack that couldn’t be used with a minor or immediate action doing nothing but bland double attacks, turn after turn. In this regard, although it is true that all Scout turns will include some combination of basic attack and dual attack, the fact that these are modified by a number of wildly different stances effectively turns them into multiple twin-strike-flavored powers (2 at first level, plus additional ones at 7th and 17th). Like other Essential martial builds, this is a drop in complexity and variety from most regular 4E classes - but I’d take it over a Player’s Handbook ranger any day.

Only a few of them have been revealed so far, but each ranger stance seems to beat knight and slayer stances in both number and variety of effects. They tend to offer a mix of mobility and attack boosts, adding an interesting layer of depth to the class since you may want to switch stances both before and after attacking. Of the known stances, two are shared with the Hunter build, and a third is brand new. Aspect of the Cunning Fox is perhaps the least impressive of the pack, though it definitely has interesting applications - it provides free shifts after each attack (whether or not it was successful), triggering multiple times if you get to attack with the off-hand, and generally allowing you to race through the battlefield, switching targets or just escaping enemies. It also reduces significantly any damage taken from opportunity attacks, but that should hardly come up outside of desperate situations.

Aspect of the Dancing Serpent has more of an incentive for offense-oriented characters, as it improves attack and damage rolls against enemies as long as they aren’t close to their allies. It only applies to your main basic attack, though any hit rate improvement will affect Dual Weapon Attack indirectly, by increasing its chances of triggering. It also grants a free shift at the end of turn, which makes it the main contender for a post-attack stance switch. Both of the stances described above can work either in melee or at range, which is a nice added bonus, should a scout ever need to resort to his longbow. Nevertheless, the most striking (pun intended) Aspect is that of the Charging Ram, which only works on charges but makes them truly devastating. It combines the ability to ignore opportunity attacks provoked by the charge (which is huge!) with extra damage (this is gargantuan!) and knocking prone on a hit (colossal!). The synergy of prone enemies and additional melee attacks is quite nice, as is the interaction with typically situational feats like Headsman’s Chop.

Striking a balance

So variety is more or less handled... but what about balance? In 4E, making multiple attacks is inherently superior to any other mechanic for extra damage, and this has made Twin Strike (and the few comparable attacks, like Hellish Rebuke) the best offensive strategy, barring some convolute optimizations. What is to prevent Dual Weapon Attack from similarly topping the at-will damage charts? The answer is: not much, but there are other drawbacks.

Going by my initial calculations, the scout may well be the strongest build in the game for raw at-will damage output, at least at lower levels (since there is little point in evaluating anything beyond that with so many higher level features missing). That doesn’t necessarily mean it will blow up the world, as the class has significant limitations that can make up for it. The most obvious one is lack of dailies and proper encounters, which actually demands that a class has above-average at-will performance to be able to stand to classic builds.

To understand how this balances out (or not), we should take a look at its mechanics in detail. Scouts use main hand weapons and regular-sized off-hands (unless double weapons are involved), and depending on build and off-hand weapon choice can get a +1 to hit rolls (if they use a light blade) or a +2 to damage (if they wield an axe). The initial attack is a melee basic (which can apply your Dexterity modifier if you wish) plus whatever modifiers get added by the active Aspect, and the off-hand one is non-basic, Dex-based, and only happens once per turn, after hitting with the basic. Notably, both attacks get to add an ability modifier to damage, so compared to the original Twin Strike, each individual attack hits much harder, but the off-hand has a significant chance of not triggering, that gets higher the worse your hit rate is. It should also be mentioned that scouts have no Hunter’s Quarry, which didn’t make a huge percentage of Twin Strike’s damage, but contributed nonetheless. Overall, the relationship between Twin Strike and Dual Weapon Attack is a complex one, favoring the former in scenarios with high damage bonuses or low hit rates, and the latter otherwise. That said, for low level characters fighting standard monsters, the Scout outdamages a Ranger with at-will attacks by a good margin.

More importantly, scouts also appear to beat other Essentials martial classes (also lacking dailies and sporting strong at-wills) at their game. Examining a number of heroic character samples, the scout would be the best at at-will damage, with thieves close behind and slayers lagging slightly below that. The difference is likely to increase at higher tiers, though it is quite hard to tell how much, without seeing more features. On the other hand, that only tells half the story. Both thieves and slayers will get more mileage out of their encounter attacks than a scout (even if Power Strike is the same for fighters and thieves, a slayer’s will hit harder thanks to the two-handed weapon), and a slayer’s action point is far more impressive (as neither Sneak Attack or Dual Weapon Attack can trigger more than once per turn). High reliance on hit rates also means that scouts will be worse off against higher level monsters or soldiers - and, on the other hand, they get to slaughter brutes and lesser foes. Interaction with leaders is also interesting - DWA not working in other characters’ turns means that a scout isn’t a good target for leader extra attacks (unlike slayers and thieves, which are awesome in that department). On the other hand, offensive bonuses are great for them. Looking at other factors, scouts get great AC and mobility, but their opportunity attacks are mediocre, they are only decent with ranged weapons, and they lack the HP and surges of a slayer.


At heroic tier, and from what we have seen, the scout is a very strong character, but not to the point of overshadowing other classes or breaking encounters. I would really like to see it remaining the same over the paragon and epic tiers, but the chances are slim. On the other hand, it will still be as enjoyable to play as other Essentials martial characters, which is more than can be said about the original ranger. I’ll cross my fingers and hope it turns out all right.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Analyzing the Essentials Assassin

Last month we talked about the new Assassin build (the Executioner) featured in Dragon, which exploited the increased flexibility provided by the Essentials class paradigm, introducing a number of cool, innovative ideas. Although the level of mechanical polish and balance achieved was impressive (and, honestly, quite an improvement over the original Assassin), the new build was still labeled as Beta, so that players could provide feedback before the final version was released later in November. Which is what I intend to do today: give some constructive criticism on the class, pointing out its successes and shortcomings, and eventually send it to the developers.

The class follows a top-down design, emphasizing flavor over pure mechanics.

The good things

I’d like to begin by mentioning that I think the class is based on a very solid foundation. The main features and power structure combine efficiency and fun, and I’m confident that the build as a whole should be enjoyable to play, while performing adequately at the striker role. I particularly like the unique approach to at-wills, encounters, and dailies, with weapon-specific at-wills covering narrow, but compelling niches, Assassin’s Strike condensing all encounter damage in in a devastating attack, and poisons providing a small twist on the traditional concept of daily attack. Some specific powers still may (and do) need improvement, but the overall framework is quite good, in my opinion.

I’d also like to point out the few features and powers that struck me as particularly impressive. Overall, the Executioner does a great job matching evocative flavor and cool new mechanics, but a few elements stood out the most. Death Attack, for example, is nothing short of awesome. It does something that hadn’t been tried in the game, which is no small feat, fits perfectly into the Assassin’s theme, and actually affects play strategy without providing an overwhelming advantage. Likewise, the Unseen Spearhead power, which makes your opponent helpless as an at-will, is a very bold design idea (coup de graces are a very dangerous concept) that somehow has been balanced just right. A (very) complicated maneuver that, if successful, is almost guaranteed to down an opponent is a welcome change of pace in 4E combat. Finally, I loved the Shadow Coffin utility, as it has great storytelling potential.

The inevitable flaws.

1) Red Scales: excessive reliance on hiding, lack of support for stealth.

First off, I understand that Executioner at-will powers are intended to be situational, and that melee basic attacks should fill in the gaps for those times when none of the over-specialized exploits are available. But I think that the attack selection for the Red Scales build goes too far in its narrowness, to the point that a player might feel encouraged to forget about at-wills altogether, and focus on optimizing basic attacks instead. Part of this is due to the fact that too many powers ask the Assassin to make melee attacks from hiding, which is an extremely difficult thing to do.

Both Garrote Strangle and Unseen Spearhead are very cool and balanced powers, but as melee powers that require stealth and result in a grab, there is a lot of overlap between them. Moreover, they are almost impossible to pull off for a 1st level character, and all but require higher level characters to invest heavily in stealth-related utilities in order to have a decent shot at using them. This can prove frustrating for inexperienced players, but even hardened veterans will find that unless their characters specialize in stealth, half of their at-will attacks become almost useless. This is only aggravated by the weakness of Unarmed Throw (see next section).

To be clear, my major concern isn’t that you can’t eventually optimize to make good use of Unseen Spearhead and Garrote Strangle, but the fact that they are only really usable if you do. For the powers to be acceptable in their current state, Red Scale characters should have stronger stealth support as a default - rather than being crippled if they mistakenly skipped, say, the Silent Stalker utility. However, I think that loosening the stealth requirement on at least one of the powers would be the better solution. As an example, Garrote Strangle could be changed to require only combat advantage against the target, but only impose penalties to escape checks if you were hidden from it. That would make it playable even with poor stealth, while rewarding those capable to hide.

2) Unarmed Throw is way too weak

I see the merit in the occasional non-damaging attack, even in a striker class, but the Executioner goes too far in that regard. Half of the Red Scales attacks deal no damage, but at least Unseen Spearhead contributes to bringing down an enemy (and how!). Unarmed Throw should have an impressive effect in order to justify sacrificing a turn’s worth of damage, and it just doesn’t deliver. Pushing and knocking prone would only be slightly overpowered in an at-will that dealt normal damage (since there are already precedents for knocking prone), and I think having it deal 1d6 damage (without Dex modifier) on a hit would make it worth using, but fair.

Alternately, it could remain as a non-damaging option, but have its effect improved somehow. Allowing it to be used as an opportunity attack would make it worth taking (though I still doubt anybody would waste the standard action on it), and letting it knock prone a second enemy adjacent to the target would make it all kinds of awesome.

Incidentally, the power currently suffers from a lack of proficiency bonus with the Assassin’s unarmed attack, which would need to be compensated in the final version.

3) League of Whispers lacks a offensive at-will

Individually, each of the at-wills offered to League of Whispers Assassins is fine: they provide great mobility, or great control, or amazing accuracy. But none of them is actually any better than a ranged basic attack when your purpose is to just kill an opponent. By contrast, Red Scales have a hard hitting, easy to use power in Kukri Lunge, and two complicated but very damaging maneuvers in the grab attacks.

Part of the problem lies in Close-Quarters Shot and Unerring Shuriken overlapping too much as mobility-focused powers. Oddly, I think the solution could be to have one of the powers require combat advantage or hiding (which, ironically, would be MUCH easier to achieve for members of this build than for a Red Scale), and granted some kind of damage boost in return. As an example, you could remove the extra movement effect from Unerring Shuriken and add “If you are hidden from the target, this attack scores a critical hit on a roll of 17-20” instead.

4) Precision Dart lacks synergy with higher level poisons.

Currently, the Precission Dart effect of denying poison saving throws works with the following Assassin poisons:
- Bloodroot Poison (lv1): 1 turn of daze
- Greenblood Oil Poison (lvl1): 1 turn without healing
- Nitharit Poison (lvl1): 1 turn of ongoing damage (worth 5 extra damage)
- Lich Dust (lvl 15): 1 turn of weakened.

So at heroic tier there is a fair amount of poisons that can be used with the at-will, but we only get one at paragon, and none at epic. Coupled with the fact that the lack of a damage roll is particularly painful at higher tiers, this makes the power almost obsolete at those levels. Introducing new poisons for those tiers, or adding an ongoing effect to an existing poison (Dragon Bile would be particularly tempting with its stun ending with a save) would alleviate this. Alternately, Precision Dart’s damage could be increased to 1[W]+Dexterity at level 21, though I’d prefer the other solution.

5) You get to know all existing powers

At maximum level, an assasin will know:
- 4 out of 4 at-will attacks.
- 4 out of 6 level 1 poisons.
- 2 out of 3 level 15 poisons.
- 3 out of 3 level 25 poisons.

This suggests that there are too few options to choose from, at least for certain levels. Getting to know all possible choices feels terrible, particularly at any level where you end up taking the last power in a slot (i.e. levels 17 and 27). I think that the number of known powers is about right, but the amount of options needs to be increased somehow. Adding 1 or 2 extra at-wills, perhaps shared by both builds (a thrown weapon like the dagger would be a good candidate) would probably be enough, as it would match the numbers of an Essentials fighter. As for the poisons, I think 1 extra recipe for levels 15 and 25 is the bare minimum.


So, what do you think of the points above? Are they fair complaints? Is there some fatal flaw I've been missing?
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Monday, October 18, 2010

Essentials Druid heals, brings back Animal Companion

D&D Essentials class previews

When it was revealed that the Druid build in Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms would be primal leader, we guessed that the class powers and features would be significantly altered. Today we have taken a first look at this Sentinel Druid, and it doesn't let down: Wild Shape is nowhere to be seen, the power progression has been slightly streamlined, and the character concept has changed from a shape-changing hybrid of beast and caster to melee weapon user with a faithful animal companion!

The animal companion (an inevitable throwback to druids of ancient editions) is the focus of this first preview and, in an unprecedented move for a bestial sidekick in 4E, it looks like this one will just work. The first incarnation of animal companions in this edition of the game were those of the Beastmaster Rangers from Martial Power, which had unnecesarily complicated rules as well as some serious implementation flaws, which we reported here and attempted to fix. The sentinel’s, by contrast, is... well, a different beast.

Two different animals are provided here, though I don’t doubt we’ll see more in future Dragon articles. They cover two of the most iconic pet archetypes, the Wolf and the Bear. Both have defenses and attack bonuses that scale with character level, with values that are unimpressive, but equivalent to those found in monsters. Hit points are tied to those of the character, since they equal his bloodied value, much like a summoned creature’s. And the weakest link from the previous iteration, attack damage, is nothing but solid this time.

Since I spent a good amount of time looking for solutions on the issue of ranger beast damage, I find it particularly interesting how it has been addressed this time. Although the lack of enhancement bonuses remains, this time the base damage depends on the character`s own abilities: the sum of Wisdom and Constitution modifiers. Not only that, but you get a couple of extra points at paragon tier and again at epic, so that the base damage for a beast hit slightly exceeds that of a non-optimized character’s. Lacking extra damage dice on critical hits means that the druid would still come up ahead on average damage, but it’s close enough for the beast not to be a joke.

As is often the case, the bear companion is associated with the more defensive build, whereas the wolf concentrates on offense. Both have continuous auras, one for making adjacent enemies grant combat advantage, and the other for granting defensive bonuses to close allies. Apart from that, wolves have stats similar to those of skirmisher monster, whereas the bear resembles a brute. Either of them can be healed, and even resurrected, by spending the druid’s healing surges and a minor action, and short rests conveniently restore them to full hit points without surge loss.

A major point that isn’t explained in the preview is how the companion’s actions will be managed. It is to be expected that companion and druid will share a common pool of actions, so that the druid can spend a standard action to attack through the beast, or a opportunity action to make opportunity attacks triggered by enemies adjacent to the beast. But until we get to read the whole class description, this is pure speculation. What we do know, however, is that the build will feature a fixed power called Combined Attack in place of normal encounter powers. Unsurprisingly, Combined Attack lets both druid and beast attack in melee; the fact that both can choose the same target places sentinels among the hardest-hitting leaders in the game.

The existence of Combined Attack might suggest that sentinels mirror the resource system of Essentials martial classes, but it is in fact the only concession to power simplification. Sentinels will still have at-wills and daily attacks like traditional classes, though whether they will be exchangeable with those of controller druids remains to be seen. At any rate, sentinels lack Wild Shape, which shuts down more than half of the existing druid powers, and seem to focus on attacking with melee weapons - favoring traditional druid tools like scimitars and maces, with features that boost them into playability. But implement proficiency is still there, so perhaps this can result in even-more-hybrid druids, like spellcasting sentinels, or weapon wielding beast druids.

There are a few features that haven’t been revealed, such as Healing Word (which, given its name, might be exactly the same as the cleric feature) and Wilderness Knacks (likely similar ot its hunter ranger analogue, which gave skill-related abilities). At higher levels, we get something called Hear the Voice of Nature (level 7), and Restore Life at level 8, whose effect should be evident.

With almost no class powers revealed, the druid’s is easily the most cryptic Essentials class preview to date. The framework that has been shown has potential, and all the elements detailed are a good match for the druid concept, but we will have to wait for the complete power selection to give a proper evaluation.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Broken Bits: Battle Captain

Broken Paragon Paths, Part Six
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If there is one game mechanic that has no place in D&D 4E, it is that of adding (or subtracting) ability modifiers to d20 rolls. Be it for an attack, a saving throw or an skill check, the roll of a d20 determines failure or success of an action, and is usually adjusted in tiny increments of 1 or 2 points. And with good reason - since success rates tend to be around 60%, a modifier of 4 points would have a huge impact in the chances, and one above 8 points would virtually assure success or failure.

Coincidentally, primary and secondary ability modifiers most often range between 3 and 9 points, depending on level, so applying them to a d20 roll starts as extremely effective (at heroic) and ends up downright broken (at epic). Today I’m going to talk about Battle Captain, a paragon path whose primary shtick consists in adding Intelligence to your allies’ attacks. Don’t expect that to survive until the end of the article.

As is often the case, most of the features and powers in Battle Captain are fine, or even mediocre, and it is a single crazy element that spoils the path. There are a bunch of minor and conditional ways to improve the accuracy of your friends, like Battle Action (+1 to hit for the team on your action points) and Cry Havoc (another +2, for the first round of combat) that are nevertheless quite handy, and fit nicely with the style of the Tactical Warlord. The attacks are a mixture of area damage and forced movement, also providing a ‘tactical’ feeling but merely acceptable, power-wise. The utility, Bolt of Genius, combines amazing concept (give back an encounter power to an ally!) with hideous implementation (spend a standard action and provoke opportunity attacks!), and is rarely worth spending an action on it. And you could take all that away, and 16th level feature Battle Inspiration would still be a great deal, all by itself.

Although, in theory, you can use Battle Inspiration without Tactical Presence (and the path is actually pretty decent for not-tactic warlords), that class feature improves its effect so much, that few choose to. Basically, it tacks on each of your Inspiring Words (of which you’ll have 3-4 per encounter, at that point) an Intelligence bonus to the target’s attack rolls for a whole turn. So the ally is all but guaranteed to hit with an attack (or more, if there are action points involved) and, as a nice side effect, the warlord can also enjoy autohits with Commander’s Strike for his turn and the following one. This would be a potent tool once per encounter, but in multiples it’s nothing but devastating. For reference, Tactical Presence itself usually provides half the bonus with about half the frequency (roughly 4 times every 2 encounters), and is considered an awesome feature that defines what is arguably the strongest warlord build.

A fix.
I think that the best course of action consists in neutering the dangerous element in Battle Inspiration (the egregious attack modifier), leaving it at a modest level and letting the rest of the path stand on its own (except for a small tweak that will be explained below).

Battle Inspiration 2.0 (16th level): When you use your inspiring word power, allies you heal gain a +1 power bonus to attack rolls and a +1 power bonus to speed until the end of your next turn. If you selected the Tactical Presence class feature, the bonus to speed is equal to your Intelligence modifier instead.

Did you know that Battle Inspiration also grants you a cool bonus to speed? This part was always inevitably overshadowed by the ability to blow up the world, but I think it can do a good job as a signature ability, once you take that out of the equation. Leaving the bonus to hit at a mere +1 matches the rest of the path, joining the host of small modifiers and requiring you to dirty your hands (by combining multiple bonuses and flanking) to improve party accuracy.

While not entirely necessary to have the revised Battle Captain at a playable power level, I’d also suggest the following change to the utility power to prevent it from being frustratingly weak:

Bolt of Genius - Utility 12
Minor Action - Close burst 2
Target: One ally
Effect: The target regains an encounter attack or utility power he or she has already used.

This never had any business costing you an entire standard action, and won’t break anything as a minor, anyway. Having it as a ranged power prevented the warlord from using it in his natural environment (melee), and made little sense from a flavor standpoint. Finally, I’ve reduced the range because I think it should make for more interesting gameplay, though leaving it at 5 would also be ok.

So, there you have it. No longer the one and only perfect path for all things tactical, but quite a solid choice.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fatigue: An optional rule for characters without healing surges

Edit (19/10/10): Modified fatigue to affect skill checks

In a recent article, I commented on the shortcomings of healing surges as a player resource, and how I felt existing patches to be lacking. Today I present a house rule I’ve been tinkering with that intends to allow characters to keep fighting after they run out of surges, though at a significant disadvantage.

The following house rule extends the healing section in Player’s Handbook, p.293. (and its equivalent in the Rules Compendium - can’t give a page reference since I don’t own the book).

Running out of surges

When you would be allowed to spend one or more healing surges and regain hit points, if you are out of healing surges and not fatigued, you can choose to regain that many hit points instead. If you do, you become fatigued until you take an extended rest.

When you would be allowed to spend one or more healing surges and regain hit points, if you are out of healing surges and fatigued, you can choose to regain that many hit points instead. If you do, you become weakened and grant combat advantage until the end of your next turn. You cannot do this while weakened.

  • Can’t run
  • -2 to attack rolls
  • -2 to skill checks and ability checks
  • -2 to defenses against attacks with combat advantage.


The rule above allows DMs to plan for long adventuring days without having the players accidentally forced into an untimely long rest. The intention is that fighting when out of surges is possible and somewhat effective, but not desirable. Inevitably, some characters will be affected more by fatigue than others - a Warlord, for example, could Commander’s Strike all day long regardless by it. Nevertheless, even if a character can somehow minimize the impact of the penalty to hit and the occasional weakening, the defense penalties should still prove painful enough.

I have attempted to cover as many loopholes as possible with the wording, but it is very likely that something has slipped through. As far as I know, this rule allows for fair use of healing potions (which would grant the same number of HP), and prevents exploits related to expending surges you don’t have for non-healing purposes. Any insight on possible improvements would be appreciated.
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Friday, October 8, 2010

Essentials Ranger preview: A farewell to seekers?

D&D Essentials class previews

For a long time, Wizards of the Coast has stated that they wouldn’t release a purely martial controller in 4E, to the despair of symmetry-loving fans. However, after a first peek at the Hunter, the new controlling Ranger build to be included in Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, we can tell that this stance... hasn’t changed all that much.

As it turns out, the Hunter (not to mistake with the Hunter Ranger build from Martial Power 2) not only brings a different role (controller) to the Ranger class, but it also changes the power source! Like the Essentials Assassin before it, the Hunter mixes martial exploits with a different power source - primal, in this case. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since D&D rangers have a longtime tradition of dabbling in nature magic. Anyway, from what I can see, the primal influence is a minor one, since all the attacks revealed so far lack openly supernatural effects, and the class structure closely resembles that of other Essentials martial classes: no dailies, fixed encounter attacks, and a strong focus on basic attacks for its at-wills. In fact, the only primal elements revealed so far are a series of stances that wouldn’t be that out of place as martial exploits.

Hunters are ranged specialist, being able to choose either bows or crossbows. Accuracy seems to be one of the strong points of the class, with Expertise for the weapon of choice given for free at first level, and a Weapon Talent feature that isn’t shown in the preview but can safely assumed to grant a +1 to hit, like the features with the same name for other martial Essentials classes. They wear leather armor and feature striker-level hit points, their primal heritage apparently compensating for the fragile controller role.

The attack power selection faces the remarkable challenge of performing the controller role without daily attacks, which had historically been a major selling point of controllers, to begin with. The information we currently have is incomplete, but it strongly suggests that hunters will make really fine controllers, and be quite interesting to play, as well. Rather than choosing at-wills, hunters get a fixed array of three attacks, which looks like a letdown at first, until you realize that they play like five different powers - of which at least four are of amazing quality.

The star of the show is, without a doubt, Clever Shot, which consists on a basic ranged attack with a choice of three different controlling effects on a hit. And they are nothing to sneeze at, as they include knocking prone, sliding multiple squares, and slowing the target until it saves. This is a great range of options, both in variety and power level, and the inclusion of save ends effects is unprecedented for an at-will attack, and should provide some cool combinations.

For scenarios where such subtlety isn’t required, the hunter can resort to the more straightforward Rapid Shot, which sacrifices accuracy (of which the class had plenty, anyway) to be able to make basic attacks against enemies in an area, easily making this the hardest-hitting at-will area attack in the game, thanks to the very respectable damage dice of bows and crossbows. Rounding out the package, Aimed Shot is an attack that ignores most penalties to hit, being a decent alternative when a target is invisible or under heavy cover.

A missing piece of the puzzle is the encounter attack, Disruptive Shot, which appears to be a fixed option to boost attacks several times per encounter like a Knight’s Power Attack or a rogue’s Backstab. The name suggests some kind of penalty to attack rolls for the target, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually offered multiple options, like Clever Shot.

Overall, and despite the lack of dailies and the fixed encounter power, hunters seem to offer more strategic options for their attacks than other Essentials martial classes, and actually end up pretty close in complexity, compared to traditional controllers. In fact, there is an additional layer of choice thanks to a feature called Aspects of the Wild, which provides two at-will primal stances (of which you gain more as you level up) which let you switch between different states during combat. So far we’ve been able to see the Aspect of the Cunning Fox, which makes you resistant to opportunity attacks and allows shifting after hitting with an attack, and the Aspect of the Dancing Serpent, which allows you to shift at the end of turn and deal extra damage to isolated enemies.

If anyone was still aching for character building options, there is yet another feature, called Wilderness Knacks, that offers multiple choices - in this case, two skill-related abilities at first level, with additional slots every four levels.

Apart from that, there are a few mystery features left in the heroic progression table, including ‘Close Combat Archery’, which likely allows shooting without provoking opportunity attacks, ‘Reactive Shift’, most likely involving movement during an opponent’s turn, and 'Weapon Mastery', which might boost your Disruptive Shot in different ways depending on use of bows or crossbows, like the fighter features of the same name should give you a flat +1 bonus to damage, like the Knight feature of the same name.

The verdict

I’ve been pretty hyped by the Essentials builds so far, but this one is easily my favourite. I just love the idea of having many different (and potent) at-will attacks, and the range of tricks available covers most of the needs of a controlling character. The Aspects of the Wild are a really cool idea, and mean that you will be choosing between different powers for your standard action and your minor action each turn, providing an unexpected strategic depth. The downside is that, despite Aspects and Knacks, there shouldn’t be that much variety while building the character, but I’m confident that the variety in play will more than compensate for it.

The most painful thing about the Hunter is that, by being a primal-ish controller that uses ranged weapons, focuses on basic attacks, and has a number of mobility-related features, it steps on the Seeker’s toes too much. In fact, it’s hard not to picture the Hunter killing the Seeker, and taking his stuff, and kicking him while he’s down. The fact is, Seekers where deeply flawed, with a decent set of features but lousy powers that made them a failure as controllers. By succeeding in their very same niche, Hunters raise a number of questions about the continuity of Seekers as a class. Will they be supported anymore? With no Primal Power 2 on sight, it would take a major commitment from Dragon articles to bring Seekers up to playability, including a couple of feat patches and a good number of strong powers. Unlikely as that seems, I’m not giving up hope yet. Who knows, maybe one of the drafts I’m preparing to submit could help in that regard...

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Healing Surges revisited

Healing surges are among the most game-changing innovations brought to D&D by 4E (and that is saying a lot!), and their contribution to the game has been positive overall. However, their implementation has been plagued by minor, yet significant flaws, preventing them from being completely successful as either party resources or character attributes. Today I’d like to discuss the mechanical aspects of surges, both good and bad, providing an overview of the patches that have come up (from official sources as well as this very site) and paving the ground for yet another (hopefully improved) solution in an upcoming article.

The good stuff:

The positive points of healing surges that stand out the most to me are the concept of making characters responsible for their own healing, the introduction of non-magical healing, and the reduced dependency on PC healers.

1) Healing as drawing from inner reserves.

Under the Healing Surge model, the healed character takes an active role in his recovery. Where previously all the merit went to the healer, now it becomes a joint effort - with both healer and patient spending resources and contributing to the final result. Notably, this means that tougher characters heal better, and can endure healing more times during a day.

Why is this important? There is an obvious benefit in character customization: surge value and the number of surges are new attributes that complement hit points and defenses, being weaker than them but still interesting and relevant, and providing an additional niche for defensive magic items and feats.

2) Healing not tied to magic

If I had to name the greatest single contribution of the surge mechanic to the game, I’d point to the Warlord. Linking healing to a character’s endurance and resolve means that healing effects no longer need to be strictly magical - allowing things like Warlord healing, and the Second Wind ability. These could still exist in a game without surges, but they would probably feel more forced. More importantly, though, is the fact that you could build a fully functional D&D party in a setting with no magic whatsoever - an all but impossible feat in earlier editions of the game.

3) Healing less dependant on the leader role

Before the creation of surges, the only limiting factor to a party’s daily healing was the number of leaders in it or, alternately, the amount of potions (and, more likely, Wands of Cure Light Wounds) available. Having more of these characters or items could greatly increase the number of encounters you could survive during a day. Having none of them meant you were doomed.

This cannot be emphasized too much: before 4E, you couldn’t play without healing magic. Not for long, anyways. A group might get along without melee specialists, and perhaps even without a wizard, but lacking the ability to cast Cure Light Wounds meant certain death. Coupled with some less than fortunate leader mechanics (since healers were expected to spend almost all their actions and resources in unexciting healing spells) meant that someone was often forced to take one for the team, and play a cleric even if he didn’t want to, just so that the group could advance.

Now that we have surges, and limited self-healing via Second Wind, and hit point recovery during short rests, playing without a leader is a real option, if not an optimal one. Not that leading is such a sacrifice anymore, as they can be real fun to play, but the added flexibility is definitely welcome.

The bad stuff

The main flaws in the implementation of surges are related to their application as a character and party resource. Lack of healing surges ending a player’s adventuring day is a major issue here, and leads to strong fluctuations on their value as character stat depending on who is the most fragile member of a party. Finally, a non-critical problem that is nevertheless annoying is the lack of support for encounters against worn down parties.

1) You can’t fight without surges.

This is the root of the problem. The character who runs out of healing surges is down for the day at the moment he’s dropped to 0 HP. At this point, the only alternatives are either forcing a long rest, or have the party leave the unconscious PC behind, and keep fighting without a member. Both interact poorly with adventures on unsafe locations (where it wouldn’t be credible to either sleep, or leave a fallen comrade), and the first one can lead to unusually short adventuring days. As for fighting without a party member, it may be more acceptable from a narrative point of view, but it isn’t a lot of fun for the guy who gets to sit without playing! So more often than not, the compromise is to rest regardless of location or time constraints, so as not to screw the fallen players.

2) Fragile PCs are a party bottleneck.

Because one fallen PC is often enough to bring a party to sleep, the role of surges as a character resource tends to be very uneven. Simply put, most of the times you don’t care about who will be the second character in a party to run out of surges - because you won’t get to that point. It’s only the most fragile member that matters, so everyone else’s surges tend to become irrelevant. Investing feats or items to gain additional surges thus ranges from a vital strategy (if you are the softest PC) to a mostly pointless exercise (if you are anyone else).

3) Tough PCs don’t shine

As a corollary of the previous point, it doesn’t pay to go out of your way to build the toughest character on earth. More Hit Points are always welcome, but extra healing surges are usually worthless once you are more resilient than the guy next to you. Or, as the joke goes, you don’t need to run faster than the dragon - outrunning your friend should do the trick. This is particularly aggravating because it makes surges a survivability stat that players who want to specialize in defense should ignore. It completely misses its target.

4) Exhausted parties don’t fight

Right now, it’s difficult to tell certain stories in a D&D campaign due to the fact that adventuring parties don’t grow weak or tired as they fight more encounters - they become unconscious. So if, for example, a DM wants to present a race against time (“rescue the princess in 3 days”), there is not much that PCs can do to delay long rests, other than losing people along the way. Likewise, it’s usually not practical to have a villain ambush the players when they have spent most of their resources and about to rest - because he won’t be fighting vulnerable heroes, but unconscious ones.

Overall, I get the impression that a model where surgeless characters became crippled but still capable of contributing to the party (and enjoying the game) would play much better than the current one.

The patches

A solution of sorts has been provided for healing surge woes in the form of Comrades’ Succor, a level 1 ritual that allows for surge transfer among teammates. Leaving aside the fact that releasing a game-changing ritual through an obscure Dragon article hardly seems like the most intelligent strategy, we have to admit that this works. More or less.

Healing surges as a shared party resource (which is what this ritual achieves) certainly mitigates the problem of fragile characters forcing early rests, allowing for longer adventuring sessions. But it also takes away some good things. The ritual itself is an obviously magical solution (so fully martial parties are out of the question), and having a party-wide pool of surges makes each individual surge even less valuable - so feats like Durable and powers like Cure Light Wounds become downright terrible.

I think the houserule I suggested in a previous article was slightly better, in that it didn’t allow free trade of surges, but use of other characters’ surges for off-combat healing. This meant that PCs still could run out of their own surges - they’d be able to fight, but lose access to on-combat healing, becoming extremely fragile. This way, each character’s surges remain important, though less so than under the original system.

Having played with this houserule for a year now, I can say it’s an improvement but it still doesn’t convince me. Among other things, the sharing of resources doesn’t mesh well with the dynamics of our campaign, where the player lineup shows great variance from one session to the other. In a following article, I’ll talk about a different idea for surge management that I’ve been toying with lately.
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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

October errata: Spirit Companions, Cunning Sneaks, and little else

The days of world-changing errata seem to be coming to an end. When the Essentials line was announced, we were told that we'd have a few months of drastic rules updates to clean up the game for the new books, and a much lower rate of changes, afterwards. Having read the September advance, I was hoping that this month would bring us one last glorious round of fixes, addressing major stuff like the psionic power point system.

Well, I was wrong. The latest document only includes a handful of changes of note, plus a bunch of typos, and I'm inclined to think that this is the kind of revisions we should expect in the future. That is, apart from the stuff that is directly being rewritten on the Essentials books.

Anyways, here are the two relevant fixes:
- Shaman spirit companions can no longer be dismissed and conjured again with a single minor action. Placing spirits on the battlefield isn't completely trivial anymore, and should be a bit more interesting from now on.
- The rogue Cunning Sneak class feature now works with any kind of movement, not just move actions. Move-related attacks should now be much more useful for stealthy rogues.

And that's it. I'd still like to see an official document with the changes to classic monster stats, but they may be waiting for the release of Monster Vault, for that.
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