Thursday, October 15, 2009

New feats for the Seeker class

Following the tradition I started with the monk and psion reviews, here are some homebrew feats for your brand new Seeker characters. As usual, I provide a couple of straightforward yet useful multiclass feats, as well as a few more creative ideas. Enjoy!

Expansive Shot
Prerequisite: Seeker, Inevitable Shot class feature
Benefit: When making a ranged attack, you can take a –2 penalty to the attack roll. If the attack hits, you treat creatures within 2 squares of the target as if they were adjacent to the target, for the purposes of any effect caused by the attack.

Familiar Terrain
Prerequisite: Seeker
Benefit: When you create a zone with a Seeker power, enemies gain vulnerable 2 against your attacks and damaging effects while within the zone. Increase the vulnerability to 3 at 11th level, and 4 at 21st level.

Hunter's Focus
Prerequisite: Seeker, Inevitable Shot class feature
Benefit: When you hit an enemy with a ranged basic attack, you gain a +1 bonus to attack rolls with non-basic ranged attacks against that enemy until the end of your next turn.

Guidance of the Earth Spirits
Prerequisite: Any primal class
Benefit: When you make a ranged attack against a prone enemy, that enemy grants combat advantage to you and doesn't get a defense bonus from being prone.

Archery Training [multiclass Seeker]
Prerequisite: Dex 13
Benefit: You gain training in the Nature skill.
Choose a 1st-level seeker at-will power. You can use that power once per encounter.

Initiate of the Bow [multiclass Seeker]
Prerequisite: Dex 13
Benefit: You gain training in one skill from the seeker’s class skill list.
Once per day, you can use the Seeker's Inevitable Shot power.
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Toning down resistances, vulnerabilities and immunities

Last weekend I DM'ed the fifth level of Dungeon Delve,Tomb of the Tiefling Empress, which features a selection of monsters with more different resistances and vulnerabilities than any other adventure I've seen to date. In addition to the usual damage types related to Undead creatures (radiant, necrotic, poison), my players had to think hard on how to use their fire and cold attacks. We also had the ideal party to show off these mechanics, as there were both a Seeker (who got frustrated by the uselessness of his poison attacks) and an Invoker (who ruled the day with Hand of Radiance and Invocation of Ice and Fire). There was a very satisfying moment, when the players managed to position their enemies so that they were devastated by their own damaging auras.

After the Delve was over (with most of the party knocked out, and the Elf Seeker puttign to good use his amazing mobility), I started thinking about resistances and vulnerabilities, and their effect on the game. The session had proved that these mechanics could serve to create fun challenges. However, it also confirmed my previous impressions about their effects being too extreme. It's not that you deal less damage against certain enemies and more against others - even the most humble of resistances (typically 5, at heroic tier) make attacks of the chosen element almost worthless. On the other hand, some attacks can deal more than double the usual amount because of vulnerabilities. And things only get worse when the damage comes in small packets, such as ongoing damage or auras.

I think resistances and vulnerabilities could be more interesting, without becoming irrelevant, if their effect was slightly subtler. I want a character to be able to use a power (say, one of their cool encounters or dailies) against a resistant enemy without completely wasting an action. Conversely, an at-will exploiting a vulnerability shouldn't be so good as to render encounters or dailies with different damage types pointless. So I've come up with a houserule, consisting on setting a cap for both resisted and vulnerated damage. It reads as follows:

Resist - Add: "The damage resisted from an enemy attack or an effect caused by an enemy can't be greater than half the original amount of damage dealt".

Vulnerable - Add: "The extra damage taken due to a vulnerability can't be greater than half the original amount of damage dealt. If multiple vulnerabilities apply, each one can cause damage up to this limit."

Although this ruling meets my objectives for most cases, we could go even further. Some damage types, and poison in particular, are really undesirable for players due to the fact that a huge number of monsters are Immune to them. Now, it's likely that you weren't familiar with the rules for Immunity (I wasn't). To put it bluntly, they are a mess. Against conditions, it more or less works as expected, preventing you from being affected by them. But then there's the Immunity to damage types, which prevents the damage but nothing else, and immunity to a series of keywords, which stops non-damaging effects without protecting against the actual damage. Finally, in case things weren't confusing enough, immunity to gaze (and gaze only) completely negates attacks with the keyword.

Since these Immunity rules are so lackluster, I changed my original idea of tweaking them a bit and have thought of a new, clearer definition. It may not be too rigorous, but I wanted attacks against immune creatures to deal some damage - again, half damage is a convenient amount. The protection against non-damaging effects can stay and, in fact, I like the idea of extending it to all kinds of immunity. So changing some functionality and adding some consistency, we are left with this:

Immune - A creature that is immune to a condition (such as dazed or petrified) or another specific effect (such as disease or forced movement) is not affected by it. A creature that is immune to a keyword is not affected by the nondamaging effects of a power that has that keyword, and only takes half damage from such a power.
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Monday, October 12, 2009

Calculating hit chances using attack and defense normalization.

D&D 4E' s combat rules are set up so that attack and defense values of both player characters and monsters increase at a regular rate of 1 point per level. As a consequence of this, a character's chances of hitting (and being hit by) an opponent of his level remains mostly constant throughout levels. In today's post, I'll define two character statistics, normalized attack bonus and normalized defenses, that express, respectively, how good the character's attacks and defenses are, compared to other characters of the same level. Then, I'll show how these magnitudes can be used to easily calculate hit chances.


Although monster statistics are subject to variation from one creature to the other, their average values are usually close to those shown in Dungeon Master's Guide, p.184. According to the table in that page, attack and defense modifiers for monsters are the sum of a constant (that depends on the monster's role) and the creature's level. Player characters also follow this principle, but with less regularity: even though over the course of 30 levels a PC's attacks and defenses will have increased by roughly 29 points, this progression often has spikes, with one level granting two points and the following none. Nevertheless, translating PC statistics to a constant value plus the character's level would be a valid aproximation.

Following this principle, we define two magnitudes:

Normalized attack

Normalized attack bonus= attack bonus - character level

Normalized defense

Normalized defense (AC/For/Ref/Wil)= defense - character level

Notation: As an abbreviation, when referrring to a normalized stat, I'll use the notation nXX (the stat value preceded by 'n').

Example: A level 1 human paladin has an AC of 20, or n19 (his normal AC is 20, and the normalized value is 19). His bonus to hit with a longsword will be +7, or +n6 (his normal bonus to hit is 7, and the normalized value is 6).

Normalized attacks and defenses have the following properties:
- A character with a normalized attack bonus N always has the same base chance to hit a Skirmisher monster of his same level, regardless of the actual level. The same applies to other monster roles.
- A character with a normalized defense N always has the same base chance of being hit by a skirmisher of his same level on an attack against that defense, regardless of the actual level. The same applies to other monster roles.


Once we have these statistics, we can compare them to those in the monster statistics table to find the hit chances for each value. The results are shown in the following tables. The 'mid' column has average PC stats (i.e, those equivalent to a Skirmisher monster), the 'poor' column shows numbers for a PC with weak attacks or defenses, and the 'good' column has attack values that correspond to particularly accurate PCs, and defenses that are good enough for a Defender character. Probably the most important information that can be concluded from these tables is that an average character's chance to hit (or be hit) is usually 60%.

These values always consider that the opponent is a Skirmisher monster. Depending of monster role, they can be 10% better (when fighting Brutes) or 10% worse (when the opponent is a Soldier)

Table 1: Normalized attack bonus and chance to hit

Table 2: Normalized defense and chance to hit

This doesn't cover the full range of possible values, though lower stats should be rare. To calculate hit chances for these values, use an entry from the table: for defenses, the hit chance decreases by 5% per additional point of defense; for attacks, the chance increases by 5% per additional point. If the values are lower than those in the table, do the inverse operation.

Example: A Level 1 halfling rogue has an AC of 17, or n16. Looking at table 2, this translates to a 50% chance of being hit by a monster of his level. The party's level 1 Paladin has an AC of 20 (n19), which goes beyond the values in the table; since it's 3 point higher than the 'good' entry (n16), the chance to be hit will be 35%. Finally, a particularly clumsy level 1 sorcerer has an AC of 12 (n11), which is 1 point below 'poor', in the table. The chance to be hit for that character will be 5% higher than that of the table entry, for a total of 75%.

On rare ocassions, a character's attacks bonus will be high enough so as to have the maximum hit chance (95%, as a roll of '1' always misses) against monsters of his level. Likewise, it's possible, though unusual, to have defenses good enough to be hit only with rolls of 20, or bad enough to be hit 95% of the time. When that happens, we say the stat is capped. The tables below show stat caps for attacks and defenses. The low-caps will usually only appear on the worst non-AC defenses (For, Ref or Wil) of epic level characters, or the melee basic attacks of non-melee high level characters. High-caps aren't easy to reach, but some weapon users can reach them for certain attacks. A character reaching a high-cap for a defense, and particularly for AC, is usually a sign of some degenerate game mechanic, and has an adverse effect on the game, as he will be immune to a majority of monster attacks.

As a side note, increasing a stat above the natural cap is not completely worthless, as characters frequently face monsters of higher level, or soldiers. Nevertheless, attack bonuses beyond that point have a reduced value for a PC. On the other hand, reaching a defense cap is extremely strong, and adding a couple of points beyond that would serve to negate even enemies with Combat Advantage from hitting with anything other than a 20.

Table 3: Attack bonus cap

Table 4: Defense cap

Table generation

In order to generate the tables shown above, we took the Monster Statistics by Role table (DMG, p.184), and use level 0 monster stats as reference for normalized PC stats: Skirmishers for the 'medium' column, Soldiers for the 'good' column, and Brutes for the 'Poor' column. These are arbitrary numbers, but after some quick comparisons with actual character sheets, they seem to match pretty well. Finally, we calculate the hit chances of each value against a level 0 (normalized) Skirmisher monster, and add them to the table. We choose Skirmisher as reference because they are the 'average' monsters, statistics-wise.

Values for defenses other than AC use a slightly different method, as according to the DMG table these are the same for all monster roles. Instead, we have used monster defenses for the 'medium' column, increased them by 2 points for the 'good' column and decreased by 2 for the 'poor' column.

Hit formulas

If you are frequently calculating character hit chances (say, for optimization purposes), the tables above are a slightly cumbersome tool. In that case, you might be better off using the following formulas. 'Hac' and 'Hdef' are the attack bonuses to hit AC or other defense, respectively, and 'nHac' and 'nHdef' are their normalized values.

Chance to be hit
% to be Hit (AC) = (26-nAC)/20
% to be Hit (Def) = (24-nDef)/20

Chance to hit
% to hit (AC) = (7+nHac)/20
% to hit (Def) = (9 + nHdef)/20

Or, without the normalization:

Chance to be hit
% to be Hit (AC) = (26+lvl-AC)/20
% to be Hit (Def) = (24+lvl-Def)/20

Chance to hit
% to hit (AC) = (7+Hac-lvl)/20
% to hit (Def) = (9 +Hdef-lvl)/20

Note that the formulas break at the attack and defense caps - when capped, you should use 95% or 5% (depending on the case) instead of the values provided here.
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Friday, October 9, 2009

Class Review: The Seeker

This month's debut content from Player's Handbook 3 on DDI consists, again, on a new class: the Seeker. These days, it looks like we are getting some new class almost every month, which would eventually become hard to justify, if not for the fact that the designs look better each time. If last month's Assassin quickly became one of my all-time favourites, today's Seeker doesn't let me down, either.

Rather than a completely novel idea, Seekers consist on an interesting variant for a relatively untapped archetype: the Archer. This class' twist comes in the form of primal spirits that imbue your missiles with energy, granting special effects. If Archer Rangers were like Robin Hood or Legolas, Seekers play more like a Green Arrow or Hawkeye, almost every arrow coming with some kind of trick or surprise. Though this niche had partialy been covered by Artificers, as well as Prescient Bards, the emphasis on archery is greater here - while these other classes had the ranged weapon as one of many options for channeling attacks, the Seeker is one with his bow (or crossbow, or whatever). When you think of it, not even Rangers can claim such a devotion to archery, as only one of that class' builds is really focused in ranged combat.

None of the powers shown so far feature this kind of arrow trick, but there's still hope.

Rules-wise, the Seeker is a controller of the Primal power source, though its secondary roles seem to be way more predominant than in most classes. The one build that has been released, the Bloodbond Seeker, is suppossed to dabble as a Striker, but that hardly makes him justice. The class features of that build give them a level of maneuverability that most pure Strikers only dream of, and only the lack of a single-damage boost keeps you from wondering if we should actually think of them as strikers with a touch of controllers, instead of the other way around. I'm really intrigued for the Spiritbond build, which we won't see until PHB3 is released, as it is said to have a Defender splash. Defender archetypes don't mixed well with ranged attacks, so that won't be easy to pull off.

The class features are few, but very relevant. If there is one that will make players of most other classes green with envy, it's the ability of the Bloodbond build to shift as a minor action, every turn. We finally get to play kobolds! I'm really, really excited by this, and it's an ideal fit for an archer, as your greater concern is usually to get surrounded by enemies, unable to attack without taking opportunity attacks. This will never, ever happen to Seekers, though. If that wasn't enough, the build comes with Encaging Spirits, an encounter power that pushes and slows all enemies around you -no roll to hit required- useful for not only running away, but locking down opponents as well. Finally, the class-defining feature that will be available regardless of the build is called Inevitable Shot, and it allows you redirect missing arrows to attack elsewhere, once per encounter.

Seeker powers are notaby short on bursts and blasts, for a controller class. Instead, the most common method for damaging groups of enemies is the single target attack with splash damage around it. There is also plenty of zones and hindering conditions, typically originated from the target of a ranged attack. As the attacks deal weapon damage and Seekers are proficient with bows and crossbows, they are all but guaranteed to have the highest single-target damage of all controllers, which along with their extraordinary mobility and moderate area damage makes for a distinct combat style. However, this damage won't grow at the same rate as other weapon users, as encounter and daily powers tend to roll a few weapon damage die plus some other fixed amount of dice. That is, where a Fighter or Ranger would get 3[W] damage, the Seeker rolls [W]+2d6, or something like that. This reduces both their overall damage and the degree to which they depend on superior weapons, but also allows for greater variety in attack powers' damage and effects.

Regarding the power selection, I think that the reduced power list released as Debut Content (3 at-wills and a mere 2 options per level for the rest of slots) isn't very tolerant to the presence of mediocre options. For some slots, it seems you'd do better taking a lower level power than one of the available options: Levels 9 and 29 in particular come to mind. Not that I will be playing epic level Seekers anytime soon, but it is a letdown looking at the supposedly most powerful attacks available to the class, and find them bland and unexciting. Fortunately, the at-will selection is solid, and provides enough variation on the theme of single attacks with a splash effect. The default attack of choice is likely to be the amazing Stinging Swarm (a ranged attack that inflicts an attack penalty on the target and close enemies), but the other ones will be good alternatives whenever you want to clear minions or just deal area damage.

To conclude, I'll comment on a few powers that called my attention:

- Hunter's Instinct (level 2 Utility) Is a Stance that increases your crit range, but only when you shoot from 2 squares from the enemy. It's a risky strategy, but the reward is great, the class has enough mobility to pull it off, and it should be a blast to play. I wouldn't mind seeing more effects of this kind for the class, on PHB3.
- Escaping Shot (level 3 Encounter) honors its name. A ranged attack that doesn't provoke, dazes the target, and lets you shift a billion squares, it is probably overkill for a class with such a great mobility, but it's nevertheless cool.
- Blurring Stride (Utility 6) grants you the Warlock's Shadow Walk ability for one encounter per day. I always loved that feature.
- Wave of Sleep (Daily 15) is the Wizard's Sleep spell on steroids. Increased accuracy, no friendly fire, and a guaranteed daze, this improves on a classic.
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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Basic Ki Focus enchantments on DDI

EDIT: Though I missed it on the first read, this Character Builder update also includes the assassin multiclass feat. It's called Shadow Initiate.

One of the few flaws I found on the Assassin class (released exclusively for DDI last month, and commented here) was the lack of actual enchantments for the new type of magic item they presented for the class: the Ki Focus.

The problem was not unsurmountable, as it was easy to assume how a basic, 'Magic Ki Focus' would work. In addition, Mike Mearls (the designer of the class) made a post in a non-official forum suggesting to allow any enchant that was available to all weapons to be applied to Ki Focuses, as a temporary house rule. That was good enough for me, but many people was concerned by the lack of official rulings, and the question remained of how we would handle this on Character Builder, when the class was finally released there.

The class has been finally released on CB, and there's good news on the matter: 'Ki Focus' appears as a new magic item type, and the most basic enchantments (plain vanilla 'Magic Ki Focus' +N) are available to take. They also appear in the Compendium, as you can see here.
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Running out of surges

Edit: I almost missed it, but Dragon magazine has recently published a very similar ritual to what I propose in this post. It's in the third Playing Vistany article, and it's called Comrades' Succor (no Compendium link yet, though). So, if you liked my idea, you can use it officially now. The ritual in Dragon actually allows to transfer surges instead of spending them, so I prefer my rule, but it's close enough.

Very often, my group has been forced to take an early rest due to one member or the other getting beaten hard, and unable to return to full HP (or even to consciousness). This usually leads to some awkward situations, and more than once our DM has resorted to handwaving the recovery of some surges to keep the game going, when having a long rest wouln't be feasible. Even if our characters might be able to beat more encounters without a full group, we find unacceptable to have a player out of the game until we can find a place to camp. What could we do to prevent this?

It is certainly possible to mitigate the problem through better tactics and character customization (in fact, some of our characters have picked the Durable feat with this in mind). However, you can't help having some PC's that are less resilient than the rest, and sometimes the fight just goes wrong, and someone gets knocked down. So I have been thinking of possible house rules that specifically address the problem of a character running out of surges.

Now, when messing with this kind of things, you run the risk of obsoleting the use of healing surges as a resource in the game. I don't want to do anything like that, even if there are already some powers, like Unicorn's Touch (which I have strongly criticized) that break this model (EDIT: No more! Unicorn's Touch has been errata-ed into a daily). What I wanted was a solution where surges would still be relevant, but a character without them could remain in the game, even if at a disadvantage. An additional restriction was that it should be easily accessible to any party, regardless of composition.

The idea I came up with meets these requirements, and has the unusual advantage of being implementable in an official book, without any need for errata. It's a low level ritual, with a game-changing impact not unlike that of Raise Dead:

Shared Vitality
You temporarily link the life energies of your allies, so that they can share their strength with an exhausted comrade.

Level: 1 Component Cost: 50 gp
Category: Restoration Market Price: 50 gp
Time: 10 minutes Key Skill: Heal (no check)
Duration: Instantaneous

Perform this ritual during a short rest, and choose a target character with no remaining healing surges. At the end of the rest, you or any character assisting in the ritual can choose to spend any number of healing surges without gaining any hit points. The target regains hit points as if he had spent that many healing surges.

The raw lifeforce of paragon and epic characters is much harder to manipulate; increase the component cost to 1,000 gp for paragon tier characters, and 25,000 for epic tier characters.

The most important feature of this solution is that, by working only on surgeless characters, it prevents a character benefitting from it from using most common forms of in-combat healing until the group takes a long rest. This is a severe drawback, but a vulnerable character is a definite improvement over an unconscious one. This way, we not only ensure that surges remain relevant, but we also protect the Artificer's niche, as the healing mechanic of that class is very similar to this ritual's effect - with the crucial difference that the targets of an Artificer's infusion can still heal during encounters.
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Friday, October 2, 2009

Primal Power preview: The Swarm Druid

With the release of Primal Power not so far off, the first previews of the book are coming out, with some very promising material. Today I'll talk one of the most innovative concepts I've seen in a while - the Swarm Druid.

Swarm Druids are one of the two new builds for Druid PCs featured in Primal Power (the other being Summoner Druids, shown in a playtest article long ago), and they are based on a bizarre idea that, somehow, fits the flavor of the class perfectly. When most druids can shapeshift into a beast form, resembling some kind of ferocius animal, the Swarm guys turn into dozens, or hundreds, of tiny creatures. The picture below should give you an idea of what it looks like.

The swarm in action.

This, to me, is one of the most awesome character concepts I've ever seen. Perhaps the most obvious use is to become a bug swarm (flies, roaches, worms), but it's far from the only possibility. Upgrading to vertebrates, we can find several other horror classics: rats, snakes and even bats. But why stop there? Particularly cruel druids could explore the 'adorable' route - imagine their enemies being swallowed by a horde of kittens, puppies, and the like.

Regarding the mechanics, the swarmers come with an interesting twist, both in their defenses and offensively. These druids have Constitution as their secondary stat, but instead of adding this modifier to their AC (as their Guardian Druid counterparts), they use it to gain resistance to damage. This comes with several limitations (it doesn't work against area attacks, nor if you're wearing heavy armor, and you have to be in beast form), but it is undoubtedly a very strong mechanic. At lower levels, the Swarm will be able to almost ignore minions, and stand toe to toe with many types of monsters - as long as they keep away from brutes. The combination of abysmal Druid AC and huge brute damage means these monsters are a natural counter to the Swarm.

Though I haven't seen it in play yet, I'm liking this way of defending, at least at lower levels. However, I'm concerned that it won't work that well at Paragon Tier and beyond, when the loss of AC becomes more pronounced, and the damage resisted is a much lower percentage of what your enemies will be dealing. I expect some feat enhancing the feature for characters above 11th level will fix this problem. At any rate, it will be interesting to see a Druid type that is very resilient in beast form, but quite vulnerable as a humanoid.

The article shows four new attack powers associated with the new build. All of them are either close burst or blast, so we can expect close attacks to be a major theme for swarms, which isn't surprising. There also seems to be an emphasis in attacks that temporarily boost the Druid's defenses, also a natural fit from a flavor point of view. The new at-will is called Swarming Locusts, and will easily become a favourite among Druids of all kinds. It is a close blast attack that works in beast form and creates a zone of insects that distract your enemies for a turn, and it fills a very needed niche - beast form attacks with areas or controller effects. I always liked the original array of beast attacks, but all of them targeted a single melee enemy, feeling more like a defender's powers to me. With this new power, you can now build druids with both close and ranged area attacks, plus a strong melee basic attack, all of them at-will.
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