Monday, January 30, 2012

My impressions on D&D Next

Well, it’s been an intense weekend! These days I’ve been too busy absorbing all that information about D&D Next and posting about it, with little time to stop and think how these changes will affect the game. Until now. In today’s post, I’m sharing my initial impressions on the new game – from my personal perspective as a 4E fan considering whether or not to switch editions when Next comes out.

4E features I need

To begin with, I originally had a list of must-have features that were key to my enjoyment of 4E, and I expected the new edition to keep. Given how much the designers like to emphasize the old school flavor and mechanics in D&D Next, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of modern concepts introduced in this last edition are making the cut – including most of my favorite ones!

Here is the feature list, with comments on how they are getting implemented:

  • Tactical gameplay – A battle map and lots of mechanics that care about movement and positioning. It seemed difficult to actually have this in a game that was also aimed at folks who hate minis and squares, but they are including it as an option – the so-called “tactical rules module”. So far, it looks good to me.
  • At-Will attacks – Variety of at-will attacks will be available to both casters and non-casters. It’s unclear whether you will have them by default, or you’ll need to spend feats for them, but that’s fair game. Also, martial at-wills seem to be stronger than those of casters, which seems like a good mechanical niche for these classes.
  • Complex non-magical characters – The ‘dumb fighter’ archetype will exist in the game, but will not be the only way to play that class. The devs have promised more complex martial maneuvers will be available for those interested.
  • Non-magical healing – Little is known about this issue at this point, but it looks like at least some warlord builds will be able to heal without resorting to wands, gods, or other sorts of magic. I’d also like to see a second wind rule and something like healing surges in 4E, but that is more dubious.
  • Easy DM preparation – From what we have been told, the new game will be as easy to prepare for the DM as 4E, if not more! Monsters don’t follow the same detailed rules as PCs, and can be created in 5 minutes.
  • All classes are viable – This is the weakest point of the new edition, in my opinion. Obviously it’s too early to tell, and I haven’t even read a single character sheet, but some of the stated design principles will make it very difficult to have all character classes remain at as close a power level as I’d like. With the use of Vancian magic and, more generally, the eschewing of a common class framework, class balance should be hard to implement but still not impossible. What worries me more is the notion that non-combat class abilities can compensate for combat deficiencies (and vice versa) – I’d be willing to accept small deviations (say, classes that are 20% more or less efficient at combat/non-combat encounters), but I’m afraid that we will end up seeing something far more exaggerated.

    New features I like

    Though keeping the cool parts of the previous edition is a great thing, I wouldn’t bother trying out a new game unless it brought something new to the table. So far, it looks like there are a few nice ideas there, but nothing that moves me to immediately pre-order the books:

  • Lower bonus scaling – Attacks and defenses will grow at a slower pace in the new edition. I think this will improve the game, as it will let me play with wider ranges of levels for players and monsters - previously it was pretty hard to have parties of different-level adventurers, or encounters where the monsters had more than 3 levels of difference with the party.
  • Monster longevity – Thanks to the previous point, monsters will have a much longer useful life than the ~5 levels they had in 4E. If we are to believe the initial hype, a humble orc will still be a relevant threat to high level adventurers (though you will need lots of them to fill an encounter!). Conversely, we can assume that a single high level monster can be dropped on a low level party without the game breaking. I think this should make encounter design even easier and more fun. We can also expect minions, elite monsters and solos to be partially or completely replaced by monsters of very high or very low levels, in this model.
  • Skill system – I am moderately optimistic about the skill system, from what we have seen so far. Relying more heavily on ability scores and having many simple checks succeed automatically sound like great ideas, to me. The open-ended skill list might end up too fiddly and full of highly specific bonuses, but the fact that you can ignore that module reduces the risk.
  • Flexible multiclass – Not that we know much about the actual multiclass rules, but the stated goals of making them easy and flexible are something I fully agree with.
  • Emphasis on exploration – You won’t often hear me criticizing 4E, but if there is one thing that game was terrible at, it was exploration. Since this happened outside of combat encounters, the risk was usually reduced to losing a healing surge or two, and there was little excitement or fun. I have been toying around with some house rules to address this, but I’m glad that having proper exploration mechanics is going to be a priority for D&D Next
  • Faster mechanics – This is not a stated goal, but a consequence of streamlining the game for fans of earlier editions. Many of the changes point towards a faster-paced game, which is something I approve of. The option to resolve less important fights quickly without resorting to a map is also an interesting one, as much as I enjoy the full-fledged tactical combat.
  • Priest class – This may be a minor detail, but there were comments about splitting the cleric into two divine spellcasting classes: the classic D&D armored cleric, and the priest, a divine caster and healer wearing robes and with less emphasis on weapon use. Oddly enough, the priest archetype, though barely supported on previous D&D editions, is the more iconic fantasy character, even on D&D fiction like the Dragonlance series – and one I personally prefer.

    Stuff I’m wary of

    Though my opinion of D&D Next is mostly favorable at this point, there are a few things that might spoil the game for me, depending on how they are implemented. They are the following:

  • Ability-boosting items I don’t like them, and I don’t think they contribute anything good for the game. I hope they kill them, or severely limit their effectiveness.
  • 3 Pillar balance : The three pillars of the game will be combat, roleplaying and exploration. A class may be more focused on one of these over the others. I think this is an error, and prefer to clearly separate combat and non-combat features.
  • Vancian magic balance : Having Vancian magic that is well balanced with other resource management systems is not impossible, but will require a lot of effort.
  • Rollling abilities by default : I shouldn’t be bothered by this, since the option to use point buy still exists. Nevertheless, I’m afraid that this as a default may make for a poor game experience for starting players.
  • Saving throws instead of attacking vs defenses : I loved attacking vs Fortitude, Reflex and Will in 4E, and don’t particularly enjoy the move back to saving throws. I’ll probably houserule this in my games to have attacker roll against static values.
  • Roleplaying to use different saving throws: This sounds like a good idea in theory, but can get old very soon. Unless there are heavy limitations on this, you’ll end up with bard players trying to justify using their Charisma based for every attack.
  • Return to the old cosmology : Again, I shouldn’t mind something that is easy to ignore in my games, but I really liked some aspects of 4E cosmology (like the feywild and other new planes), and I’d wish they were still supported.
  • Are combat roles dead? : This is speculation, but we have heard nothing about combat roles in the new edition. Knowing it is a very delicate issue with old school fans, chances are we won’t be seeing them, at least in an explicit way.


    I’m not sold yet, but I’m moderately interested. Let’s see how the playtest turns out.

    So, what do you think? Did you like the previews, or have you decided the new game is not for you?
  • Read More......

    D&D Experience: Reimagining Skills and Ability Scores

    The final D&D Experience seminar previewing game mechanics for D&D Next is called “Reimagining Skills and Ability Scores”. Along with the major changes to ability scores and the brand-new, open-ended skill system, there is talk about other topics, including equipment, themes, and the use of battle maps.

    Ability Scores

    • When characters reach certain ability scores, they can automatically succeed at some checks without need to roll. This can vary depending on being in or out of combat or stressful situation.
    • Races change ability scores (both with bonuses and penalties!). Likely a +1 bonus to a single stat.
    • Classes give ability bonuses. Also looks like they will use a +1 to a single stat.
    • By default, abilities are generated by rolling! Roll 4d6, choose 3 highest.
    • Point buy generation will also be included as an option.
    • They want to have ability-boosting magic items (like Gauntlets of Ogre Power). There is talk of capping how much they can increase ability scores, though.
    • Ability scores will not increase as much [as in 4E] as you level up.

    Saving throws

    • Saving throws are now directly associated with ability scores - the game now has six types of saving throws, rather than three defenses (Fortitude, Reflex, Will).
    • These six saving throws plus AC should make up all of a character’s defensive stats.
    • As an example, Charisma saves vs fear and charm.
    • If you justify it and provide a good description, you can use a different ability for a save.


    • The main means of interaction is the ability roll.
    • Skills are basically modifiers to ability rolls.
    • You may still be trained in a skill, and gain specific bonuses (e.g. moving faster while using stealth).
    • Since skills are now secondary, they can afford to include niche skills. Skills as flavorful options, rather than something with a lot of mechanical importance.
    • Skills are a module that can be ignored (in favor of just using ability scores).
    • There is mention of “open-ended” skills. This likely means that the game doesn’t actually have a closed skill list. Classes, themes and other options can add as many new skills as the designers feel like.
    • There is a bonus called “advantage” that a DM can provide for players giving good descriptions. This should be the non-combat equivalent for “combat advantage”, in 4E.
    • Skill challenges were considered a failure. They are not coming back.


    • The standard coin will be silver, rather than gold.
    • Some mundane gear will be out of reach for lower level characters. No plate mail at first level.
    • Implements are still in the game, including non-magical ones.
    • Weapons can have different damage and accuracy. Weapon damage types (slashing, piercing, bludgeoning) are being considered.


    • In addition to race and class, characters can pick a theme, representing their background before they go adventuring. The same basic concept as 4E themes.
    • Theme examples they mentioned include potion-maker, blacksmith, commoner, noble, knight, apprentice, planetouched.
    • Themes can also be used to replace niche classes from previous editions. For example, Avenger will be a theme.
    • They are also considering themes for certain races, like deva.
    • No theme is restricted to specific classes.
    • Themes are an optional module.

    Battle map

    • The use of a battle map is included as an optional module in the initial book: the “tactical rules module”.
    • Character options specifically useful with a battle map (such as abilities that push enemies) will be flagged for convenience. They will still be usable even without that module.


    • Adventure preparation time will be quick, 4E style. Monsters use different rules as PCs, can be built in 5 minutes.
    • They seem to be looking for a middle point for lethality - not as much as earlier editions, but more than 4E.
    Read More......

    Sunday, January 29, 2012

    D&D Experience: Class design, from Assassins to Wizards

    Yesterday we had the second D&D Experience seminar about the future of the game. With the title “Class design: From Assassins to Wizards”, this one covered a very important aspect of D&D we had yet heard very little about. What exactly were the designers planning to borrow from each edition of the game? As it turns out, it appears that they really want to follow the aesthetics and presentation of 3.5 and older games, while borrowing some great ideas introduced by 4E, including at-will powers, a well defined mathematical framework, and an interest in balance.

    On complexity:

    • Different levels of complexity for classes: There will be some clear choices for beginners, and more sophisticated stuff.
    • There was talk of labeling each class as common, uncommon or rare. This will be a function of how iconic a D&D class is (Fighters and Wizards are commons, Assassins are rare), and may also be tied to complexity (with higher rarities getting more difficult stuff).
    • Different levels of complexity within each class. Once again, the example of the fighter was given: A very easy to run fighter build will exist, but adding options and complexity to it will still be possible. The wizard is also explicitly mentioned as a not so complex starting build.
    • Buying complexity. By default, classes can get simple yet effective stuff when leveling up, like more damage or bonuses to hit. Players would have the option of trading these bonuses for new powers or features.

    On balance:

    • Balance is  on their radar, and they seem to have put a lot of thought into it. They have a framework with estimates of average length of adventuring days and encounters, and at several times they mention figures for damage expectations of different classes.
    • That said, their approach to balance will be quite different from 4E. Whereas that edition had a common resource management system for all classes, this will no longer be the case for D&D Next. Expect wide differences in how each class handles its powers. Old school vancian magic for wizards and clerics has been mentioned as a prime example.
    • Another big change: It is no longer expected that all classes have to be equally effective in combat. Some classes may be weaker in combat but stronger in exploration or role play. More than anything else mentioned in these seminars, this seems to me to be the most dramatic change from the previous edition - though it remains to be seen how they will finally implement it.

    What to include:

    • Initial goal is to have “Everything that has been in a Player’s Handbook I” from the start.
      Regarding classes, this means: fighter, rogue, cleric, and wizard (of course), but also assassin, ranger, druid, paladin and bard, as well as barbarian, monk and sorcerer (from 3E) and the more recent warlords and warlocks. That’s a lot of stuff!
      Psions are explicitly mentioned as being left for later.

    On Magic

    • Vancian magic (the daily spell system used in all editions before 4E) is returning, and confirmed as the resource system for wizards and clerics.
    • No details have been provided, but I strongly believe that the system will mimic the classics in that there will be 9 levels of arcane spells and 7 levels of divine spells, and spell progression should look very much like this.
    • The main challenge for Vancian magic is preventing the “linear fighters, quadratic wizards” syndrome. The designers are aware of this, and are trying to deal with it.
    • One of the solutions implemented consists in removing spell scaling. As an example, Fireball (a 3rd level spell) will deal 5d6 damage regardless of caster level (when previous versions dealt 1d6/caster level, up to 10d6). The only way to gain stronger effects will be to use higher level spells.
    • For high level casters, instead of having dozens of lower level spells as in older systems, these slots will be replaced with higher level stuff. It is not clear if this will be the default behavior, or just an option, though.
    • Also, they are looking at average duration of encounters and adventuring day, and balancing around that.
    • Another crucial point: despite the Vancian system, casters will have access to at-will spells (so no more crossbow-wielding wizards!). However, these at-will attacks will be significantly weaker than their martial counterparts. Spells available per encounter also appear to be in the plans.
    • Ritual magic (useful but non-combat spells, like crafting, scrying or teleporting) is back. It looks like it will be open-ended and not as strongly tied to the wizard class as before.

    On Aesthetics

    • The designers are carefully avoiding many 4E specific terms and definitions, in favor of older style wording.
    • Notably, there is no mention of “powers” for classes.
    • For the wizard class, at-will attacks are being called “magical feats”.
    • Power sources will no longer be explicitly mentioned.
    • Explicit class roles are very likely also gone (though this is speculation!)


    • Clerics are (finally!) getting split into two archetypes: the classic D&D holy warrior with heavy armor, mace and shield, which will be called cleric, and an unarmored divine character more focused on spellcasting, called the priest.
    • Magic items will be more rare, and no longer expected to be a part of character progression.
    • For multiclassing, they want it to be very easy and flexible, 3E style.
    Read More......

    Thursday, January 26, 2012

    D&D Experience: Charting the course (for D&D Next)

    This weekend we have the Dungeons & Dragons Experience, where WoTC is expected to reveal some interesting information about the next edition of the game (also known as D&D Next, for now). As usual, I haven’t been able to attend, but that doesn’t mean I can’t provide some coverage! The transcript for the first seminar, titled “Charting the Course” is available at, and I have taken some notes of the highlights.

    On leveling up:

    • For all editions, the game suffers important changes at a certain level
    • They consider 4E highlights this high level change the best [through explicit paragon and Epic tiers and mechanics]
    • They are looking at options that characters unlock at certain level. They mention castles and followers as examples.
    On power increase as you level up:
    • They are discussing how power and number of options should be affected by level.
    • They want monsters to be relevant for a wider level range. The way to do this is to slow the rate at which attacks and defenses advance!
    • Ideally, you should be able to drop a random orc at a high level party and have it be relevant. Building encounters by taking any iconic monsters from the manual should be easy.
    • Your characters are still becoming badass heroes. At high levels, you’d be killing lots of those orcs in an encounter...

    On the modular system:
    • They acknowledge the variety of tastes, including contradictory positions. They intend to take all of these into account - but no specifics as to how, yet.
    • A player suggests going for a freeform classless system. That doesn’t seem to be in the plans - They are commited to the class system, and consider the feeling of D&D classes very important. Wizards and Rangers are mentioned as examples.

    On multiclassing:

    • They want it to be simple
    • Iconic class features are important
    • Packages to grant certain features or qualities

    On randomness:
    • Some DMs like random generation of stuff. There will random tables for those who want them.

    On switching modules:

    • The goal is that switching can be done very easily, from one encounter to the next. Turning on and off stuff like minis/grid is mentioned.
    • Players can add (and presumably remove) modules to adjust complexity of their characters as they level up.
    • An example is provided for two fighters at the same table with very different complexity levels: a classic “hit with my sword” basic fighter, and an advanced one focusing on “combat maneuver options”.
    Read More......

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012

    Game Math: Attack of the average adventurers

    How hard does an adventurer hit? The underlying math behind monster stats in D&D 4E is well known by this point, but working out the numbers for player characters is a much trickier proposition, due to the insane amount of customizability that the game offers. Indeed, if one looks to the most extreme build options and loopholes available out there, we come up with characters that can one-shot standard monsters of their level, and it’s even possible to engineer wizards capable of dealing hundreds of damage in a single turn... while charging with a melee weapon.

    Since the optimized scenarios present so much variability, I want to focus on the most basic builds. What kind of numbers should you expect from characters of a certain level, provided they have the essential options and gear, but nothing else to boost their attacks? The answer is in the table below:

    Note that this builds on some previous articles, like my study on basic attacks, and on character survivability. Damage Per Round, or DPR, is defined here.

    I will devote the rest of the article to analyze these numbers, and explain how I came up with them. For now, keep in mind that although it is possible to have characters with attack stats slightly below these, it won’t be a common scenario - in most games, you can expect PC attacks to deal at least as much damage as shown in the table, if not considerably more.

    Building our baseline adventurer

    My philosophy for building the reference character was to give it all the offensive resources that can be considered essential - and nothing more. Any character built without particular attention to damage dealing should have attack stats very similar to those of the reference character, whereas damage-focused PCs (even if not particularly optimized) should easily outperform it. For reference, I also added damage numbers for a baseline striker (adding just the striker extra damage class feature), though in practice you will very rarely see a striker character which doesn’t devote feats, powers and equipment to improve his attacks.

    Following these ideas, the character was build under these assumptions:

    • For simplicity, we only examine the character at certain critical levels: 1, 6, 11, 16, 21, 26, 30.
    • Starting 18 on primary ability score, with the usual boosts for levelling up. At epic, the PC gains a +2 to his ability score from an epic destiny .
    • At-will attacks are implement vs For/Ref/Will or weapon (with +2 proficiency) vs AC (same hit rate), and on a hit deal 2d4 + primary ability modifier damage (4d4+mod at level 21).
    • Encounter attacks are like at-will, but on a hit they deal 4d4+mod damage (levels 1,3,7), 6d4+mod (levels 11, 13,17) or 8d4+mod (levels 23,27).
    • Magic weapons/implements by level: Level 6 (+2), Level 11 (+3), Level 16 (+4), Level 21 (+5), Level 26 (+6). Extra crit damage is 4 per plus (rounded for convenience).
    • Only two feats are considered: Weapon/Implement expertise, and Weapon/Implement focus. Both are gain at level 6.
    • Magic items granting item bonus to damage (like Iron Armbands of Power or Rod of Ruin) are assumed. Item bonus to damage by level is: Level 6 (+2), Level 16 (+4), Level 26 (+6).
    • For the striker damage numbers, a class damage bonus of +4/tier is added.
    • Character themes are not considered.

    Most of these points represent very common choices. The use of 2d4 for attack damage is unusual, but I chose it because the most common damage dice are d8s and d10s, so this is an intermediate point between those, with the advantage of averaging an integer value ( 5), allowing for much cleaner results. The starting 18 ability score is more or less standard (though 20s are also common). Likewise, the magic weapon/implement progression and use of expertise feats are pretty much universal. The most controversial points are probably the addition of weapon/implement focus and item bonuses to damage. Focus feats are often ignored at lower levels (though usually because players take superior weapons instead, wich are roughly equivalent), but tend to become too tempting to pass on by paragon tier. As for item bonuses to damage, virtually every character who can take them does so, though certain builds (i.e. implement PCs not using staves) have a hard time acquiring them. I have come to accept that game math works better with them, to the point of giving them for free as a house rule.

    Note that attack powers (both at-will and encounter) have been greatly simplified. Non-damaging effects of the attacks are ignored, and we assume that the attacks themselves don’t provide extra damage, above that of a basic attack (for at-wills) or a basic attack plus extra damage dice (for encounters). Power damage shows great variance, though a very common implementation for attacks with extra damage consists on adding a secondary ability modifier to the damage roll, which can be roughly approximated as an extra 3 damage per tier (or about 25% more damage than the attacks in the table).

    A look at the numbers

    A spreadsheet with the calculations used for the stat table can be found here.

    Some quick facts that can be derived from the table and spreadsheet:

    • Hit rate against same level monsters averages 65%.
    • Base damage of strikers is about 30% more than that of non-strikers.
    • Average base damage actually decreases a bit between level levels 26 and 30.
    • Interestingly, crit damage is almost exactly twice the normal damage for most levels.

    One very interesting parameter that can be calculated from these attack stats is the average time it takes for a PC to kill a monster, which allows us to estimate how many turns combat encounters usually last:

    And for striker PCs:

    These tables show the number of turns that the reference character would need, on average, to kill a skirmisher monster. The PC first uses all his encounter powers, and then attacks with his at-wills. Daily attacks were not considered because they are hard to characterize and not always available. Action point usage is also ignored - for the purposes of this table, using an action point is equivalent to taking an extra turn.

    In the tables and spreadsheet, we see that:

    • Non-strikers take 4-6 turns to kill a monster at heroic, 7-8 at paragon, and 8-10 at epic.
    • Strikers take 25% less turns.
    • Very challenging encounters can take almost twice as long.
    • The contribution of encounter attacks amounts to about 1 turn of saved time.

    An important point about these numbers is that they suggest that combat at paragon and epic tiers takes too long. In my opinion, easy encounters (between level and level +1) should last about 4 turns at heroic and 5-6 turns at paragon and epic, to allow characters to use all their attacks without requiring them to spend a long time spamming at-wills. However, it should be noted that the deviation between the stats of our base character and actual damage-focused PCs increases with level - in my experience, it is perfectly possible to build a party of characters that end fights in reasonable times with little or no optimization effort.

    Read More......

    Monday, January 9, 2012


    So. D&D Fifth Edition is announced. Now what?

    At this point, we know nothing about the actual game – it’s way too early in development – but its design process sure looks interesting. They want feedback from the community, and will start an open playtest sometime this spring. I definitely intend to participate, and post my opinions on the process on this blog. That said… I don’t really know if I’ll make the switch to the new game.

    As you may have guessed by now, I’m in love with D&D 4E. It is by no means a perfect game (I wouldn’t be able to write as much about how to fix it, if it were!), but it is the closest thing I’ve found. It has an amazing tactical combat system, a solid rules framework, and requires an extremely low amount of effort from the DM. It has been a live game with regular updates, fixing most of the broken stuff, and overall polishing the engine. It is quite easy to generate house rules and new content for it. And it’s FUN.

    On the other hand, it can’t be said that 4E has been a rousing success, from a business perspective. I wouldn’t call it a straight failure, either, but it’s clear that it has not lived up to the high standards that should be expected from a brand as strong as Dungeons & Dragons. The strong reaction against 4E from a significant portion of the D&D community, which eventually led to the huge success of Pathfinder RPG (an independent D&D 3.5 spinoff which has reportedly overtaken D&D in sales over the last year) was a big hit against it. Also, the controversial semi-reset of the edition brought by the D&D Essentials line by the end of 2010 (barely 2 years after the game had come out) was a sign that something was off – and an attempt to turn the tables which didn’t work out all that well.

    In light of this, it’s not surprising that one of the primary goals of D&D 5E will be to regroup this fragmented fanbase. The open playtest (an idea borrowed from Pathfinder’s book, by the way) is a step in this direction, as are most of the ideas and discussion presented on the Legends and Lore column, over at the official D&D site. They want “a game that rises above differences of play styles, campaign settings, and editions, one that takes the fundamental essence of D&D and brings it to the forefront of the game” – but is such a thing really possible? Right now we have three very different kinds of players, between the players of D&D 4E, those of D&D3E/Pathfinder, and the ones that enjoy older editions of D&D or retro-clones. Those groups share in common the love for exploring Dungeons and slaying Dragons, but other than that, their games of choice are quite different from each other. I honestly can’t imagine how a single game could please all of them.

    I have a lot of faith in Wizards of the Coast as a company, and in the ability of designers like Mike Mearls to produce great games, and I fully understand the reasoning behind their current design priorities. That said, while I believe that however D&D 5E turns out it will likely be an enjoyable game for me… I suspect I won’t enjoy it as much as 4E.

    If I could make the wish, the best possible fifth edition for me would be a light revision of 4E, cleaning up all of the minor problems with the system (feat taxes, masterwork armor, multi-attacks, skill scaling, defense scaling, minion design…) and presenting a clean slate for classes, feats, and magic items… while remaining mostly backwards compatible with existing 4E material. This is something I would greatly enjoy, and gladly spend money on. It’s also NOT what D&D 5E is likely to be – rather, in order to appeal to the majority of the fanbase, the new edition will need to take elements from 4E, but also from 3E, older editions, and something brand new. So chances are that this new game will have less of what I currently enjoy, rather than more.

    Of course, they might still surprise me – and I keep my fingers crossed. For now, I expect to spend the following months trying to make D&D5E as great a game as possible… and maybe, when all this is over, I’ll go back to my good old Fourth Edition – and keep playing it and slowly changing it to be my own Perfect Game.

    Read More......

    Monday, January 2, 2012

    Anatomy of the At-Will (III): Weak broken options

    We continue our journey through the most poorly balanced powers available for the at-will slot. After discussing the overpowered stuff in the last article, today we examine something much less exciting - the unplayable and boring. They are the following powers:

    Plain basic attacks

    Problem: The first batch of powers is likely the most bland and unimpressive in the game. Simply put, they are simple basic attacks with no special mechanic whatsoever. What any weapon-based character can achieve by simply equipping a longbow, these arcane classes can get for the cost of an at-will slot. To make things worse, two of these attacks are mandatory for their builds, so we cannot even pretend they don’t exist...

    On the upside, I can make up whatever I like as a solution for these powers, since they are a blank slate. I’ll tend to err towards simple effects that are nevertheless more compelling than “hit for standard damage”.

    Acid OrbSorcerer At-Will (PHB2)

    Suggested Fix: One of the mechanics I associate with acid attacks is hurting enemies even on a missed attack (due to acid corroding armor, or something like that). This looks like a good fit here.

    Change Hit line, add Effect line.
    Hit: 1d10 acid damage.
    Level 21 : 2d10 acid damage.
    Effect: Charisma modifier acid damage.

    Note that this wording allows some unusual tricks, like auto-killing minions or triggering vulnerabilities twice.

    Eldritch BlastWarlock At-Will (PHB)

    Suggested Fix: This power, too, seemed like a good candidate to give miss damage. In this case, I thought using the warlock’s curse would allow interesting interactions (including making good use of feat support for curses)

    Add Miss line.
    Miss: You can deal your warlock’s curse damage against the target. This damage does not benefit from any bonuses to damage rolls.

    Eldritch Bolt - Warlock At-Will (HotFK)

    Suggested Fix: Though the notion of using damage on a miss here was tempting (just kidding, I promise!), I felt I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to fix a hole in the Hexblade design. See, something I always found annoying on Hexblades is the fact that your pact boon works much worse when you are stuck attacking from a distance. Enter the new and improved Eldritch Bolt:

    Change Hit line, add Effect line.
    Hit: 1d10+Charisma modifier force damage. If this attack bloodies the target, you can use your pact boon.
    Effect: Until the start of your next turn, when the target is reduced to 0 hit points, you can use your pact boon.

    This way, using Eldritch Bolt doesn’t guarantee a pact boon trigger, but comes pretty close.

    Basic attacks with drawback

    The following powers are among the worst attacks in the game, since they work, in practice, like plain basic attacks with a drawback. Their common feature consists in giving the enemy choices that include negating whatever upside the attack could have, or even turning against you. This way, Brash Assault (of which I’ve talked at length) lets the monster trigger an attack exchange only when it thinks it’s to its advantage (or when the DM feels charitable). Erupting Flare lets the target move towards you and your allies to punish them if they don’t flee from it, and directly hurts any allies that may want to charge it or stay next to it. Elemental Spirits is highly dependent on order of initiative, but typically allows the enemy to move so that it no longer hurts its allies, but damages you and your companions.

    Brash Assault -  Warlord At-Will (MP)

    Suggested Fix: Though in my *previous article* I did my best to balance the original mechanic of lots of extra attacks everywhere, I have since come to the conclusion that it’s not a very good mechanic to begin with - too swingy and gimmicky. What follows is an attempt to preserve the spirit of the power while going for a more conventional approach.

    Change Hit line, remove Level 21 line, change Effect line:
    Hit: Strength modifier damage.
    Effect: The target may choose to be marked by you until the end of your next turn. You grant combat advantage until the end of your next turn. An ally within 5 squares of you may make a basic attack against the target as a free action.

    As in the original version of the power, you open your guard to let an ally attack the target. This does not match the raw power of Commander’s Strike, but it comes close enough, while providing much greater flexibility and having looser ability requirements. The new drawbacks (granting CA and potentially screwing ally marks) force you to be careful, but are far from a dealbreaker.

    Erupting FlareWizard At-Will (Dra388)

    Suggested Fix: The most urgent change for the power is to make it ally-friendly - but even with that, this at-will is still sorely lacking in power for a controller attack.

    Change the Hit line and add an Effect line:
    Hit: 1d10 + Intelligence modifier fire damage.
    Level 21: 2d10 + Intelligence modifier fire damage.
    Effect: Until the end of your next turn, any other enemy that ends its turn adjacent to the target or willingly enters a square adjacent to it takes fire damage equal to 2 + your Intelligence modifier.
    Level 21: 5+ your Intelligence modifier fire damage.

    To recap: the punishing effect becomes reliable, no longer hurts allies, hits harder, and now also triggers for moving around the target. This remains mostly a damaging attack for mindless pyromancers, but the fire aura can be a major annoyance for your foes.

    Elemental SpiritsSeeker At-Will (PHB3)
    Suggested Fix: Again, the effect needs to become friendly to your allies, but that merely turns the attack into a realy weak proxy of an area burst that relies on initiative order to work.

    Change Hit line.
    Hit: 1[W] + Wisdom modifier damage of the chosen type. Each enemy adjacent to the target takes damage of the chosen type equal to 1d6 +  your Dexterity modifier.

    This removes the timing issues and adds a ton of damage to make the power into a weird area burst attack which is ally friendly, a bit harder to set up than usual, and provides a choice of damage types. Much closer to what I expect from a controller attack.

    Basic attacks with irrelevant bonuses

    Problems: Our next group of at-wills consists in powers that are nominally better than a basic attack, but have a benefit so situational or minuscule as to be irrelevant, if not insulting. Focused Fury is an avenger power which only does something when your main class feature isn’t working (due to the requirement of an additional adjacent enemy). Savage Reach and Foe to Foe are barbarian powers (which are supposed to have a built-in striker damage bonus of 1d6/tier on top of something else) that either lose all extra damage for no apparent reason, or give it with unreasonable restrictions with no real upside to compensate. Finally, Hunter’s Teamwork is a ranger power that requires a lot of work to provide an effect that is strictly worse than the current version of Careful Attack.

    Focused FuryAvenger At-Will (PHH2)

    Suggested Fix: In order to be a useful attack, Focused Fury needs to work in scenarios where you get your Oath of Enmity bonus - or, even better, let you get the reroll when you normally wouldn’t. We can have that by making the push automatic, and happening before the attack.

    Before the Attack line, add Effect line; change Hit line.
    Effect:Choose an adjacent enemy other than the target. You push that enemy 2 squares.
    Hit: 1[W] + Wisdom modifier damage.

    Foe to Foe - Barbarian At-Will (PHH1)

    Suggested Fix: One problem that comes up when rewriting barbarian at-wills is that you don’t just need to balance them - you also have to pay attention to its templating and level of complexity. In this case, we have a power whose damage needs to scale per tier, and which in the original implementation has three different damage values depending on context. If we were to take the original design and have it scale properly, we’d end up with a messy, unreadable wall of text. And we’re not doing anything particularly interesting or flavorful to begin with! I opted for a fairly radical redesign.

    Add Effect line, change Attack line and Hit line:
    Effect: Before or after the attack, you can shift a number of squares equal to 1 plus the number of non-minion enemies you have reduced to 0 hit points this encounter. If you are raging, you can shift before and after the attack.
    Attack: Strength vs AC. You gain a bonus to the attack roll equal to the number of non-minion enemies you have reduced to 0 hit points this encounter.
    Hit: 1[W] + 1d6 + Strength modifier damage.
    Level 11: 1[W] + 2d6 + Strength modifier damage.
    Level 21: 2[W] + 3d6 + Strength modifier damage.

    The base damage now includes the striker bonus (which is a must to make the power playable, unless we have a really awesome effect). I took the additional damage for killing foes and turned it into an accuracy bonus, since that takes just a single line, rather than a bunch of text per tier. Finally, I added a mobility component that is heavily implied by the power name and flavor, and tied it to monster killing and raging. Overall the damage/accuracy alone still won’t beat more straightforward options like Howling Strike, but it is comparable - and the mobility should make it fun and useful in its own way.

    Savage Reach - Barbarian At-Will (Dra384)

    Suggested Fix: Sliding is a nice effect, but this attack is really missing the barbarian damage bonus. I found a flavorful yet effective way to link this extra damage to the slide:

    Add to the Hit line: If the target ends this slide adjacent to an enemy or a solid obstacle, the target and all enemies adjacent to it take extra damage equal to your Strength modifier.

    Hunter’s TeamworkRanger At-Will (PHH1)

    Suggested Fix: I consider post-errata Careful Atack to be a good baseline for at-will power level. Granting combat advantage is worse than a straight +2 to hit, so I wanted the power to do something on top of that, and have an easy to meet condition. A leader effect was a natural fit, given the power’s flavor.

    Change the Target and Attack lines, and add an Effect line:
    Target: One creature adjacent to one or more allies.
    Effect: Until the start of your next turn, the target grants combat advantage to you any allies adjacent to it.
    Attack: Dexterity vs AC.

    Weak non-conventional attacks

    Problems: The final set of powers deviates more from the typical scheme of “basic attack with additional effects”, following more unusual structure. Sure Strike is a classic of at-will suckiness, providing extra accuracy but sacrificing way too much damage in the process, so that it ends up, on average, less damaging than a basic attack. Preparatory Shot also loses a ton of damage compared to a basic attack for too little in return - in this case, one turn’s worth of combat advantage. Call of the Beast is flawed at many levels, with a poor conditional damage mechanic that is easy to ignore and doesn’t work as intended (since an enemy can just move closer to the target of its choice to prevent it). Feinting Trick attempts to compensate thieves for attacking without combat advantage, but that is a moot point for a class that is almost assured to have combat advantage every turn (and highly encouraged to do so). Finally, Predator Strike and Circling Strike suffer from depending on a broken class mechanic, the ranger beast companion.

    Sure StrikeFighter At-Will (PHB)

    Suggested Fix: Simply put, this attack needs to hit harder to be worthwhile. As Careful Attack and similar powers have proven, this would hardly be broken with the full Strength modifier as a damage bonus. However, I like the notion of sacrificing damage for accuracy, so I have tried to keep that aspect of the power and give it an additional mechanic: a bonus to compensate the fighter for missed attacks.

    Change the Attack and Hit lines:
    Attack: Strength +2 vs AC. If you have  missed the target since the beginning of your last turn, gain a +2 power bonus to the attack roll.
    Hit: 1[W] + one half your Strength modifier.
    Level 21: 2[W] + one half your strength modifier.

    Preparatory Shot - Rogue At-Will (MP2)

    Suggested Fix: The basic concept of a weak shot that sets up a devastating attack later on is an interesting one, but you need to make sure it’s worth the effort and the wait. I changed damage numbers all around to ensure that preparatory shot resulted in a net damage increase (rather than a loss, as the original version), and made the preparation effect reliable

    Change the Hit line, add an Effect line:
    Hit: 1[W] damage.
    Level 21: 2[W] damage.
    Effect: The target grants combat advantage to you until the end of your next turn, and you gain a power bonus to your next damage roll against the target equal to your Dexterity modifier + your Intelligence modifier.

    Call of the Beast - Druid At-Will (PHB3)

    Suggested Fix: I like the idea behind this power, but the original implementation didn’t really work, and even if it did, it would need a significant boost to be worthwhile. I fixed the timing issues of the enrage effect, to ensure that targets would be adequately taunted by close enemies, and added a small damage to the initial attack.

    Change the Hit line:
    Hit: 1d6 psychic damage, and the target can't gain combat advantage until the end of your next turn. At the begining of the target's next turn, it chooses one of its enemies nearest to it or marking it. The target takes extra psychic damage equal to 5 + your Wisdom modifier when it makes any attack that doesn't include the chosen creature that turn.
    Level 21: 2d6 psychic damage, and the extra damage is increased to 10+ Wisdom modifier psychic damage.

    This is now a damaging burst with friendly targeting and a strong controlling effect, comparing favorably with controller favourites like Winged Horde - though it should be noted that the wizard equivalent becomes even more attractive once we factor in wizard-exclusive options like Enlarge Spell.

    Feinting Trick - Rogue At-Will (HotFL)

    Suggested Fix: Though I like to preserve the spirit of a power whenever possible, the problem with Feinting Trick was in the premise - thieves should almost never make an attack without combat advantage. Therefore, we need a major redesign. I want to keep the dependency on Charisma modifier (making it more useful), and some kind of compensation when you lack combat advantage, as a secondary mechanic.

    Change the Effect line:
    Effect: You move up to your speed. Until the end the end of turn, you do not need combat advantage to use sneak attack with basic attacks. After you make a basic attack this turn, you gain a power bonus equal to your Charisma modifier to the next damage roll against the target of the attack before the end of your next turn.

    A straight Cha bonus to damage seemed excessive, so I opted for the delayed damage solution - this is now potentially the most damaging thief trick, but it requires a bit of set up effort and patience.

    Predator Strike - Ranger At-Will (MP)
    Circling Strike - Ranger At-Will (MP)

    Suggested Fix: These powers can’t really be fixed as long as the ranger beast companion remains broken. Long ago, I devoted a series of articles to that topic, which can be read here.

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