Thursday, December 30, 2010

Monsters of the Trollhaunt I: Trolls


This is a series of articles dedicated to redesigning the monsters for the adventure P1: King of the Trollhaunt Warrens. As such, they will reveal which monsters you’ll encounter in that module, so you may want to stop reading, if you intend to play it anytime soon. Apart from that, there will be no plot spoilers.

Troll (race)

It shouldn’t come off as a surprise that King of the Trollhaunt Warrens has an abundance of troll monsters. I mean, they turn up in the title, there’s one in the cover, the frakking adventuring zone is named after them... yeah, expect to kill a lot of these fat, smelly, regenerating, flammable buggers. So we’d better get the race template right, the first time around. As could be expected, I am taking the most recent Monster Vault versions as a reference. Monster Vault brought some interesting changes to the troll race and its main traits, Troll Regeneration, and Troll Healing.

Troll regeneration has been rebalanced so that the monster doesn’t depend so heavily on it - previously, trolls had relatively low starting HP, and made up for them by regenerating an impressive 10 points per turn. This sounds good in theory, but it led to trolls swinging wildly in effectiveness depending on player optimization and coordination. For efficient groups of PC that hit hard and were good at focusing fire (or were well equipped to deal with troll vulnerabilities), they could be significantly easier than a regular monster. On the other hand, a more casual party that didn’t happen to bring enough fire or acid attacks could find encounters dragging on forever. By reducing the regeneration but increasing the troll HP to that of a normal creature of its role, their average power level remains more or less intact, but these extreme scenarios are smoothed. This is a good design philosophy, and I believe it makes the monsters far more enjoyable.

In addition, Troll Healing got a minor boost by bringing back the dead monster with 15 HP rather than 10, making it slightly more difficult to knock the monster down again with a single blow - particularly if it is left one or two turns to regenerate. This brings me to the most significant revision I introduced in our campaign, for trolls as a race. Interestingly, it came up by an error on my part: I misread the new rules text for Troll Healing in Monster Vault, interpreting that any kind of damage (not just fire or acid) on an unconscious troll would kill it for good... and thought it was an awesome idea. No, it doesn’t really work like that, but bear with me for a moment.

As originally written, Troll Healing meant that these creatures would always keep rising again, unless you put them to fire (or acid). Which, once again, wasn’t that much of a problem for a well prepared group, but could randomly screw you the first time a troll came up in the campaign! There was still some room for improvisation to save the day (did the PCs carry flint and steel? Were they familiar with the Coup de Grace rule, and how it applied to this scenario?), but it was a messy deal in general.

I decided to use the following rule text, instead:

Troll Healing: Whenever an attack that doesn't deal acid or fire damage reduces the troll to 0 hit points, the troll does not die and instead falls unconscious until the start of its next turn, when it returns to life with 15 hit points. If an attack hits the troll and deals any damage while the troll is unconscious, it does not return to life in this way.

This is basically the same text as the Monster Vault version, with one crucial difference: any kind of damage to the unconscious troll will kill it for good. With this, fire and acid are no longer mandatory to defeat a troll, just extremely helpful. I’d say that spending an additional attack to make sure the monster is dead (and most of the times that will imply using a standard action, since auras and other sources of damage that don’t involve a hit, like Flurry of Blows, won’t work here) is a harsh enough penalty to unprepared adventurers, particularly when you have a limited timeframe for it. Having encounters that become more challenging when you lack the right tools is fine - making them unwinnable is just mean, and while it may have been fashionable for older versions of the game, in 4E it feels completely out of place.

As we are on it, I’ll give some DM advice on the use of Troll Healing: whether you use my version or the original, read the trait carefully. Twice. And use some kind of reminder to remember triggering it in-game. I am a rather meticulous player, and even more as a DM, and still I managed to forget about this rule the first time my group dropped a troll. Sure, I realized the following turn, but at that point bringing it back would have felt unfair. Not only that, but I also misread how it interacted with stuff like Flurry of Blows (basically I allowed FoB to kill unconscious trolls, which isn’t really allowed by the rules and mostly trivializes the trait), up until the point I started to write this article.

Finally, you should have a clear information policy between DM and PCs. Stuff like Troll Healing is fairly complex, and having your players not understand exactly how it works can lead to frustrating battles. Sure, take them by surprise the first time a troll gets back on its feet, and maybe let them experiment once or twice with ways to slay the creatures. I am highly in favor of letting players know the exact rule text of this kind of monster traits after one try or two - if you think it breaks immersion, offer the information through some ancient tome, or a sage, or knowledge checks.

Next: Encounters 1 and T2
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Monsters of the Trollhaunt: Introduction

After enjoying my brave human fighter for a whopping 7 levels, I’ve found myself once again at the DM seat, in time to introduce our group to the wonders of Paragon Tier. The module of choice is the King of the Trollhaunt Warrens, the fourth one in the official adventure path, and easily one of the best I’ve read so far. It still boils down to a huge collection of combat encounters, of course, but the simple backstory is interesting enough, the use of the main enemy makes a lot more sense than in previous adventures, and there is a good variety of environments. It also helps that the transition to Paragon is well portrayed through the abundance of large enemies (i.e. trolls), but also with the way that the fate of an entire city is put in your hands (which, in theory, also happened in Keep on the Shadowfell, except that now it feels more real, rather than a mere excuse to enter a dungeon and slay a baddie) and the use of exotic settings.

Anyway. Trollhaunt is great, but it suffers from the fact that it was written two years ago. In that time, the game has evolved quite a bit, particularly regarding monster design, which has benefited from a change in general philosophy, followed by amazing books such as Monster Manual 3, Dark Sun Creature Catalog, and Monster Vault. I knew from the beginning that, in order to enjoy the module, I’d need to take a long, hard look at every monster stat block, updating them to the new standards. This would take a good deal of effort, but I thought that I could find it enjoyable (I did), and maybe turn it into an interesting article series. Of which you are reading the first entry.

It goes as follows: in the following weeks, I will be sharing with you the redesigned monsters I use in the campaign, along with the reasoning behind the changes, and comments on how they play out. I will present them in chronological order, as they come up in the adventure encounters. Inevitably, I will spoil the composition of all encounters in the module, so non-DMs may prefer to keep away from the series, if they expect to play in the Trollhaunt anytime soon.

Before I start with the monsters, here’s a summary of my design goals:
- Use Monster Manual 3 guidelines. I’ve talked about these at length; they include significant revisions for Solos and Elites, rebalancing of Brutes and Soldiers, and an overhaul in damage progressions.
- Use ideas from Monster Vault, such as redesigned classic monsters (most notably, trolls and dragons), a more creative approach to resistances and vulnerabilities, and lurkers that hit hard, but only every other turn.
- Redeem Fortitude. Too many monsters have absurdly high fortitude defenses, particularly in earlier books, making powers that target fortitude a poor proposition. I’ll try to mitigate this effect, by making sure no monster has a fortitude higher than its level + 14 (or Reflex and Will lower than level+10, for that matter), and by making each monster’s best defense depend on role - controllers will tend towards high will, skirmishers and lurkers will have high reflex, and artillery will go for either will (for magic-based monsters) or reflex (for the rest). Soldiers and brutes would still favour fortitude.
- Keep it fair. Some monsters end up with abusive abilities or, more rarely, with pathetically weak ones. I’ll try to address both cases.
- Make them fun. As the DM, I like monsters that are interesting to play, with some variety of tactical options and reasons to move around the battlefield.

Next: Trolls
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Friday, December 24, 2010

Executioner Assassin: Ultimate final edition.

For those who have got lost with the different versions and updates for the DDI-exclusive new build for the Assassin class, this is the story so far. The Executioner, an essential-styled assassin variant mixing martial exploits and minor shadow features, was released three months ago, as a work in progress, so that the community could playtest it and provide feedback. Which the community did (here is what we had to say about the class), and apparently it got put to good use: after a confusing false final release, where an intermediate build of questionable quality(many saw it as a step back from the original) got to the public by mistake, causing considerable uproar, we have finally seen the real, complete version of the class. And it’s a killer.

The basic framework of the class is mostly intact from the earlier versions: many situational at-will attacks for specific situations, basic attacks as a default option, a single concentrated encounter attack (Assassin´s Strike) taking the place of all encounter slots, and special poisons in the place of daily attacks. That was a solid foundation, and I’m glad they have chosen to keep it.

That said, many details about the class have changed, almost unanimously for the better. Most notably, the selection of at-will attacks has suffered a deep revision. Previously, too many at-wills were excessively situational, to the point that the temptation to just forget about them and stick to the simple yet reliable basic attacks became too strong. In fact, going back to my *critique of the playtest build*, we can see that most of my complaints were related to at-will implementation - and they have all been addressed.

Both the melee and ranged builds of the class (Red Scales and League of whispers, respectively) get three at-will powers at first level, with each covering some specific niche (mobility, control, poison application) but also having potential for more general use - some of them sacrifice damage or have special requirements, but you don’t have to look to hard for a power that deals any damage and can be used without being hidden in melee (!), as before. Also, they are pretty cool.Quick Lunge replaces the power known as Unarmed Throw in earlier builds, and allows you to shift, damage a target and knock it down, and shift back. Ranged executioners now have exceptional accuracy, with both Bola Takedown (a ranged proning attack) and Precision Dart (a power for delivering poisons) targeting Reflex instead of AC.

The greatest loss in the at-will department is the jaw-dropping Unseen Spearhead, which was a highly complicated, yet awesomely rewarded, maneuver. The ability to make a coup de grace every two turns if everything turned out right (which didn’t happen all that often, even in dedicated builds) was considered too strong by the developers, so it got removed. It is a shame, but probably a good decision nevertheless. While I don’t agree that it was overpowered (all things considered, too many things had to fall in place to pull it off), it can’t be argued that it was an excessively swingy mechanic, which could result in trivializing some encounters or just wasting actions, depending on too few dice rolls. Fortunately, every other thing that made the class special is still in place.

As for performance, various numbers have been adjusted all around in order to make the Executioner a pretty decent striker. Damage won’t be spectacular, but it won’t feel lackluster either, and there are a few niches (such as concentrated damage or finishing off wounded enemies) where the class will definitely shine. It’s also fitting that, while basic attacks will still be your main offensive tool, using them with unsubtle two-handed weapons is no longer the superior choice - your striker damage now depends on wielding appropriate, assassin-y weapons. Moreover, proficiency with the light shield, which was always a bit unwieldy and off-flavor for the class, is now optional, and a choice to use dual wielding for an equivalent bonus is provided.

My final verdict is extremely favorable. This is one of the most original classes in the game, yet it manages to include both at-will, encounter, and daily powers, have a well defined personality both in flavor and mechanics, and be potent and interesting. Also, it is one of the best examples of the design potential opened up by the Essentials philosophy of classes that don’t necessarily adhere to the rigid 4E power structure. This one has certainly taken it’s time, but it’s been well worth the wait: it is a must-have.
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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Domination and forced attacks.

The stunned condition is generally regarded as a bit too effective in D&D 4E, as completely skipping a turn is too harsh a penalty (as well as a potential source of boredom), particularly when applied multiple times, or when it comes as an ongoing effect. However, that pales next to the dominated condition, which is basically an improved version of the stun (that is, about as good as anything can be in this game) which, to make matters worse, is open to a number of exploits that raise it to the status of genuinely game-breaking. Today I’ll talk about these loopholes, and see how they can be fixed so that domination becomes just a stun with a freebie attack.

The problem

Basically, one turn of domination amounts to having an enemy skip a turn and getting a free attack against a target of your choice. This is absurdly strong, particularly when applied on an elite or solo monster, but it’s actually the most fair use of the condition, and the one I’ll try to enforce through houserules (with a small caveat, which I’ll explain later). What are the less fair uses of the condition, then? The ones that worry me the most are the opportunity attack exploit, and the mark exploit.

The opportunity attack exploit is as straightforward as devastating, as it consists in forcing the dominated character to move or make ranged attacks so as to provoke as many opportunity attacks as possible from the opposing team. Since the baseline encounter in 4E has about five characters on each side, this can net you up to a whopping 5 attacks, though 2-3 is usually a more realistic expectation, after discounting enemies that are dazed, out of reach, or just have miserable opportunity attacks. Nevertheless, this is a LOT of damage, and can be well worth sacrificing the dominated creature’s attack in order to run adjacent to as many foes as possible. On the other hand, sometimes you’ll be able to get the best of both worlds, by making ranged attacks with a surrounded dominated character, or charge attacks through a corridor of enemies.

The mark exploit is not without drawbacks, but is a way to squeeze even more damage out of a domination - have the defender mark a dominated monster, and punish it when it is forced to attack not the defender, but one of its own allies. The downside is that the dominated creature’s attack will be less likely to hit because of the defender’s mark, and that marks and mark punishment are limited resources, so you may have to stop defending from other enemies in order to perform this trick. On the other hand, you are assured an extra attack’s worth of damage this way.

Both exploits can be combined, so the most abusive scenario where everything goes according to plan results in the dominated character taking 5 opportunity attacks, getting hurt by a defender’s punishment, and making its own attack against a target of the dominator’s choice. Which, if the unfortunate creature is still alive at this point, can mean itself. But even if we are only getting a fraction of that, we are talking about an insane amount of damage for a condition that provides the ultimate form of control (negating a whole enemy turn) to begin with!

To put things into perspective, the problem is not entirely one of encounter balance, since both exploits are available to either PCs or monsters (though few encounters will actually have a soldier with punishment powers to use the mark exploit). Even if both sides of a fight had equivalent access to dominating attacks, the fact remains that, when abused, domination has far too much of an impact in the battlefield, leading to extremely swingy encounters that are decided by the side who dominates the most (or the first).

A fix

My solution consists in adding the following lines to the Dominated condition:
  • Any movement made while dominated is considered forced movement.
  • Any attack made while dominated is considered a forced attack (see below).

The concept of forced attack is new, and it is defined as follows:

  • Granted by Enemy: Any attack granted by an enemy power or effect is considered a forced attack.
  • Can’t Target Self. A forced attack can not target the character making the attack.
  • Includes Charges. If an enemy power or effect allows a character to charge, the attack made as part of the charge is considered a forced attack, and any movement made as part of the charge is considered forced movement.
  • No Opportunity Attacks. A forced attack does not provoke opportunity attacks or other opportunity actions.
  • No marks. A forced attack ignores the marked condition and enemy defender auras. A power or effect that normally triggers when a character attacks while affected by a mark or defender aura does not work against a forced attack.

Consequences of this houserule

By applying my ruling, neither the opportunity attack exploit nor the mark exploit will be possible, since a dominated creature doesn’t provoke any opportunity attacks whatsoever, and marks are ignored as long as a character is dominated. But there are actually a few additional side-effects that go beyond these exploits and are also worth mentioning.

Dominated creatures can no longer attack themselves. Under the official rules, nothing prevents the dominated targets from attacking themselves, and too often this will be the right choice. I have decided to go against it not because it is all that abusive, but because it is uninteresting. I don’t mind dominated creatures getting a single forced attack, but I think it makes for more compelling gameplay when getting this attack isn’t automatic. With my version, sometimes there won’t be targets within reach, or the attack has to go to a suboptimal target.

This change makes the dominated condition slightly weaker even when not abusing it, but it will still be way ahead of a regular stun, and I think it becomes considerably more fun to use.

The forced attack rule doesn’t only apply to dominated characters. There are a number of powers in the game (mostly, but not limited to, the psionic power source) that force an enemy to make an attack. Significantly, several of them are at-will, and thus more prone to abuse. Although they don’t really dominate an enemy, this kind of attacks usually allows for the mark exploit, meaning that, with a bit of coordination with the party defender, you can use them as very strong multiattacks. This may not completely shatter encounter balance (though it should bend in interesting ways), but it warps the use of these powers - since their effectiveness doubles with the mark exploit, the purpose of the attack shifts from having your enemies attack one another to triggering a multiple attack with the defender’s help.

Examples of forced attack powers affected by this change would be Hypnotism (Wizard at-will 1), Betrayal (Psion at-will 1), Unhinging Strike (Ardent at-will 7) and an old friend of ours, Brash Assault (Warlord at-will 1).

Note that the revision would also prevent some of these powers from forcing a creature to attack itself. Again, this is a downgrade, and unlike the dominated condition these powers aren’t so strong that they can easily afford the loss in strength. Regardless, I don’t think any of them is really crippled by the change - they just become a bit more difficult, and hopefully interesting, to use.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

DDI Virtual Table goes Beta!

The last months haven' looked good for D&D Insider, what with the delayed updates for Dark Sun and the Essentials books, the release of the controversial new version of Character Builder, the Essential Assassin screwup, and a general feeling of decay in the quality of Dragon magazine content. In this context, it's only natural for fans to be skeptic when the developers promise new online features for an indefinite, but near future. Simply put, there was little faith that the software team had the resources required to put out a meaningful new tool when even routine upkeep was in a deficient state. Therefore, we were pretty surprised when the Virtual Table came out of the shadows and sneak attacked us to death!

This Virtual Table is clearly a Lurker, but of what level?

Yes, there will be a Virtual Gaming Table for DDI! And, from the look of it, it will not be mere vaporware this time (unlike the infamous tool promised for the initial DDI lineup, which never came to be). In fact, it is entering closed beta (meaning we won't get to play it for the time, just to read the impressions of people who do) as soon as this week! Clearly, the final version (perhaps even the open beta) is still months away, but just seeing that it is in such a functional state is an impressive feat.

What do we know about it?

A FAQ page has been provided with basic, but useful information about this new product. This is what called my attention:

  • Editable Map (using Dungeon Tiles)
  • Movable tokens (using graphics from the ones in Essentials boxed sets)
  • Dice Roller
  • Character and monster information (NOT integrated with Character Builder or Monster Builder).
  • Initiative and condition Tracking
  • Text chat
  • Voice chat!
Missing Features
  • Rules enforcement
  • Integration with existing tools
  • (presumably) Support for line of sight, lightning conditions
  • 3D Graphics

Supported platforms: Windows PC and Mac. The application is web-based, uses Java (not Silverlight, like Character Builder!), and will require a constant internet connection.

Unanswered questions:
  • What will it take for me to access the closed beta? (Update: I still don't know, but it seems to involve filling this form)
  • Nothing has been said about pricing plans. Even if it doesn't increase the cost of a DDI subscription, it won't be of much use to players unless they allow multiple users per account.
  • No final release dates are known as of yet.
  • The initial version isn't integrated with the current DDI tools, but it really, really wants to. Nothing is said about future plans in this regard.
  • Will it support custom (i.e. non-Dungeon Tile) map elements?
  • No option for map export/sharing is mentioned. Having something like that, and perhaps preloaded maps for official adventures would be extremely cool.
  • No, really, can I join the beta now? Please?

After a number of failures in a row, this has the potential to be a big hit for digital D&D. I'll be keeping a close watch on this one, and post any news I find about it. One thing is for sure: the policy of not announcing things 'until it's done' has really worked, here. The Virtual Table gets the Surprise Round now - let's see what it can do with it.
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Essentials Assassin WTF?

I was halfway writing a post about the final version of the Essentials Assassin, and how it was a very odd mix of clever answers to player concerns (to the point that all my complaints about the class had actually been fixed!) and blatant screwup in very basic stuff (i.e. breaking the math so that the class no longer really works as an effective striker). The forums were raging all over the update, given how it neutered a class that had shown so much potential in its first draft. It was a strange story, but we have seen worse things come off DDI. Until now, that is.

A few hours ago, Steve Winter (editor for Dragon and Dungeon magazines) explained in the forums how the 'final version' released was, in fact, halfway through development due to a screwup in coordination between the magazine and R&D.

Yeah, it's D&D's version of 'my worg ate my homework'. It is silly and unprofessional. And it's also a remarkable display of sincerity (not that they had many other options at that point, but whatever). Now, I'm pretty sure that in no time we'll have plenty of conspirancy theorists speculating about WoTC inventing stories, or trying to fix the mess after seeing the forum reactions, or something like that. Honestly, I don't care.

The fact is, we had a great class in playtest that, for some obscure motive (likely involving sheer incompetence) was released in a broken form but, rather than staying that way, is going to get fixed in december. Sure, the designers and editors have lost a good deal of credit, but what I really care about at this point is that we'll get a properly implemented Executioner, eventually. And, all things considered, I'm confident that they'll get it right because they were so close this time. Honestly, as much as I liked the original, I really admired the many elegant solutions in this revision - up to the point where the math broke, that is.

Anyway, for those interested in playing the class as soon as possible (and one of the players in my campaing was considering the option), I had come up with a houserule that mostly filled the damage gap that was preventing this version of the Executioner to, um, Execute properly. It goes as follows.

At level 1, add the following feature:

Culling the weak: Your attacks against bloodied targets deal extra damage equal to your Charisma modifier.

This is a significant damage boost, but also a highly situational one, that happens to mesh well with the class theme and mechanics. If you play an executioner with this adjustment, be aware that your attacks against healthy enemies will be subpar - but if you coordinate with your party so that they leave wounded monsters to you, you should be bringing them down as well as could be expected from someone calling himself an Executioner.

Anyway, I'll be eagerly awaiting the December release. Let's hope it survives the editing goblins.
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Monday, November 8, 2010

Essentials Warlock: Conjured swords, simple mechanics, amazing flavor

D&D Essentials class previews

The original Warlock from Player’s Handbook was a flawed class that nevertheless grew on meover time. And the same could be said about the Hexblade, the Essentials take on the class that is included in Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms. Despite the many changes introduced, Hexblades still share some of the Warlock’s strong points (best flavor in the game, soul-collection minigames) as well as its weak points (restricted power selection, aggravated by a wasted at-will slot). However, two year of 4E design experience haven’t been in vain, because the legendary difficulty for building a competent warlock character (at least until later supplements filled in the many gaps) has been replaced with extremely straightforward builds that are playable out of the box. This is a huge improvement, even if the sacrifices in character customization have gone a bit too far.

Starry Transformation is a devastating daily spell unlocked by paragon Hexblades of the Star Pact. It totally looks like this.

Like its predecessor, the Hexblade is a striker of the arcane power source. But, with the addition of their namesake magic swords, they are no longer purely ranged characters, but hybrids that can switch seamlessly between flinging spells from afar, and slashing at their foes in the front lines. The confusing and rarely welcome dual attack attributes have been eschewed in favor of Charisma, which now powers all spells, and is complemented by Constitution, Intelligence or Dexterity, depending on build. And the builds themselves retain much of the flavor and ideas from those of the original warlock: they are called Pacts, are defined by the choice of patron providing the character’s arcane magic, determine first level at-wills, and have a Pact Boon that rewards you when foes are slain. The three hexblade pacts revealed so far match the warlock pacts offered in Player’s Handbook: Infernal, Fey, and Star.

One point about the hexblade that cannot be overemphasized is the quality of its flavor. All Essential classes care about backstory, and have rich descriptions for every game element, but hexblades, like other warlocks before them, take this one step further. You are not some random magic guy throwing colored rays at goblins, but a reckless individual struggling with sinister entities to borrow (or steal!) their unnatural powers. Your sword has names like Blade of Annihilation or Starshadow Blade, and is made up of the essence of dead devils, or by folding molten nightmares in the forge of a star. Where other characters hack away with Adjective Strikes, you have spells like Soul Eater and Blazing Doom of the Void. Humility is not a trained skill for Hexblades, but after reading a couple of pages, one can’t help but think that playing one of these crazy types must be the coolest thing in the multiverse.

It is an unfortunate turn of events, then, that the class mechanics are not up to the awesome expectations generated by their description. For all their pretentious titles and fancy background, hexblade features and powers tend to be rather bland, particularly when compared to warlocks of old. Warlock Curses are gone, replaced with flat damage bonuses. Instead of the excellent Shadow Walk we get improved armor proficiencies. Your pact at-wills feel more mundane than ever, and the encounter slots are usurped by a single attack that you can use multiple times. One of your precious at-will slots is still wasted in the hideously boring Eldritch Blast, now renamed Eldritch Bolt. At times, you feel like little more than a glorified Slayer with a colorful sword.

And yet, it mostly works out. The simplifications may feel excessive (and build customization takes a serious hit), but it all results in a class that is still enjoyable, and can be played safely without fear of the character spontaneously imploding (which happened all too often with the original warlock). There is still fun stuff going on, like collecting corpses for Pact Boons (now working off adjacent enemies, since there is no curse), and some new, brilliant ideas: summoning representatives of your patron, or dual wielding swords and implements (with powers that share weapon and implement keywords, opening a world of optimization potential). And daily spells are still around, so the difference with a classic power stricture isn’t that large.

Ultimately, hexblade players will probably tolerate the unneeded restrictions and enjoy the Fey out of the class, because the character concepts are that cool. As much as the limited options hurt, it would have been difficult to sustain the level of awesomeness (and trust me, it’s pretty high) for an additional couple dozen powers. I still think it would have been more enjoyable for me, had they left a greater number of options for the encounter slot, never mind the at-wills. But that would also brought back the inevitable filler, and might have diluted the good ideas. One thing is for sure: those novice players that Essentials is aimed at should really, REALLY love this one.

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Essentials Paladin: Defender’s aura, shift prevention, less choices.

D&D Essentials class previews

The preview for the Essentials paladin, or Cavalier has been out for some time now, but I hardly found enough newsworthy material to justify posting about... until now. Some lucky player has got hold of an early copy of Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, and there’s a thread at Enworld with him answering questions about the book, including stuff about the latest iteration of the Divine Defender. We can now make reasonable assumptions on how it will play out, and though I must say I’m not terribly impressed, it still looks like it will be a solid package overall.

The new paladin is simple enough for a half-orc to grasp

The best way to describe the Cavalier is as a hybrid between an Essentials Knight (from which it borrows most of its defender mechanics), and a classic Paladin. The power structure is very close to the traditional at-will/encounter/daily, but certain slots (such as the level 1 daily, and the level 2 utility) have been replaced by class features, and there are too many fixed choices to my taste (including at-will and encounter attacks). On the other hand, all this streamlining has a very clear advantage, in that Cavaliers just work. All too often, when building a pre-Essentials paladin, one was left with the impression that the class was pulling in too many directions at once, making it impossible to end up with an entirely satisfying character. This is no longer the case.

Originally, paladins suffered from a lack of definition regarding ability score requirements. In order to be fully functional, you needed Charisma for your defender punishment, Wisdom to power Lay on Hands and similar features, and Strength to have a decent opportunity attack. Never mind that, as a defender, some Constitution was also advisable. But attempts to support more than two scores usually ended in disaster. Divine Power mostly solved the issue through new feats and powers, but the fact remained that you had to sacrifice some valuable slots in order to achieve basic functionality. Not only that, but any novice player who forgot to take Melee Training or Virtuous Strike for the Charisma build, or Mighty Challenge for the Strength one, was still likely to end up with a poor defender. Cavaliers solve this problem by dropping Wisdom altogether, and requiring just Strength (for attack powers and opportunity attacks) and Charisma (for defender punishment, and extra effects in most attacks).

Two Cavalier builds are provided, named after two paladin virtues: Sacrifice (focused on healing) and Valor (apparently . Each virtue determines one of the character’s at-wills (the other being fixed) and a level 1 feature called Spirit of Virtue. Judging by the progression table, no other powers or features appear to be linked to virtues at heroic tier. However, we know that each virtue’s description takes about 3 pages, so we can expect at least some paragon path elements tied to them, and maybe some heroic elements that are not evident by looking at the table. At any rate, level 1 Cavaliers of Sacrifice will be getting a very nifty Lay on Hands proxy, with a power that lets them trade their Second Wind for a ranged heal, whereas Cavaliers of Valor are stuck with a flat bonus to initiative and surge value.

The defender features will be familiar to anybody who has seen the Knight class. Defender Aura makes a comeback here, a word by word copy of the Knight feature, clearly meant to replace the marked condition for Essentials builds. And complementing it we have Righteous Radiance, a mixture of the knight’s Battle Guardian, and the old Divine Challenge. As a paladin, the cavalier will still punish offending enemies with Cha-based, autohitting rays of divine light, but they will now have no problem handling crowds (since the ray triggers as an opportunity action whenever any enemy within the aura ignores you), as well as enjoying an unprecedented stickiness: shifting enemies will also get hurt.

Oddly, despite being an almost strict upgrade over regular paladin marks (sacrificing a bit of range, but becoming much easier to apply in return), the whole package can’t help but feel like a cheap version of the knight’s feature, having pretty much the same functionality with lower damage output. In fact, the flat radiant damage barely beats what any knight can achieve on a miss. It does have a niche application in making minions miserable (since they get killed instantly if they try to ignore you), but it’s not like they were much of a threat anyways. To make things worse, cavaliers are notoriously lacking in the forced movement department, so they rely on their allies for repositioning enemies, and collecting them inside the aura (which should be a basic strategy for essentials defenders).

That is not to say that cavaliers are not capable defenders - even if their toys are individually weaker than those of a knight, they do get more. Specifically, they have a feature called Righteous Shield which triggers on an ally taking damage, and lets the cavalier absorb the damage instead (true to the Paladin style) while gaining a bonus for the counterattack. Working once per encounter, this is clearly a tool for emergencies that can’t replace a real defender mechanic - but it complements it well. In addition, it gets better at higher levels (there is a Level 7 feature called Improved Righteous Shield), adding a small, build-dependent effect.

In the power department, having fixed at-wills for each build is a step backwards, in my opinion. At least they managed to get an interesting attack selection... for one of the virtues, anyway. The common, staple attack will be Valiant Strike, a power included in the original PHB that never got the chance to really shine. This time, however, the added stickiness of the cavalier’s defender aura should ensure that groups of enemies stay close to the paladin long enough for Valiant Strike to reach a respectable (about 2-3 points) bonus to accuracy - that’s some cool synergy. As for the virtue-specific ones, Cavaliers of Sacrifice got lucky with Strike of Hope, a healing attack for nearby allies that only gets better in presence of bloodied friends. Its effect doesn’t beat the best equivalent leader powers (i.e. Sacred Flame and Energizing Strike) at the highest levels, but is otherwise very attractive. The same cannot be said about Virtue of Valor’s Vengeful Strike, a respectable damage dealing attack that unfortunately is only useful with nearby bloodied allies. I’m all for conditional bonuses, when well implemented, but turning off one of your two at-will attacks when the condition isn’t available is far from satisfactory.

As for the rest of the powers, the encounter slot is condensed in Holy Smite, a divine version of Power Strike which adds some radiant damage on top of another attack, as well as dazing the target. I can’t say I’m thrilled by the lack of options, but this one is at least solid enough, and actually looks like a significant improvement over Power Strike, which should make up for the class’ shortcomings in other areas. An additional use of the power is gained at level 3, and likely again at 13, like Power Strike. Thankfully, paladins get to choose their daily powers as normal, even though the level 1 slot is missing from the table (perhaps sacrificed in behalf of the Righteous Shield feature?). Apart from that, utilities are mostly unchanged, but the level 2 one has been replaced by something called Restore vitality, which sound very much like a heal-focused utility of some sort.

There’s not much left to say. A mount-related feature at level 4 called Pace of the Virtuous Charger does not actually provide you with a horse, but it improves your riding speed when you do have one. More interestingly, the level 8 feature Spirit of the Virtuous Charger doesn’t really have anything to do with mounts, but provides a significant damage and speed bonus to charge attacks. Paladins lack the mobility to base their tactics on frequent charges, but this is still a very useful tool, for whenever they need to close a distance.


This is not my favourite Essentials class by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not a bad one, either. Although one of the builds (virtue of Sacrifice) looks compelling enough, the other one strikes me as terribly bland. And the lack of options is almost unprecedented, even when compared to an Essentials martial class: the only build choice a level 1 character is presented is the Cavalier’s Virtue! On the other hand, the core gameplay looks is well thought out: the class will be able to defend all right, with a style that sets it apart from other clases. I really like the Defender Aura concept, even if Knights seem to squeeze more out of it, and just that could be enough to make this worth trying over a regular paladin.

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Character Builder goes online!

Not everybody loves Dungeons&Dragons Insider, but it’s hard to deny that its Character Builder has been a roaring success. I know I have become an addict to quick, automated character generation, and I shudder at the thought of playing with hand-made sheets for anything other than level 1 games. With this in mind, the latest official announcement about the future of DDI tools will have far-reaching consequences for many fans: the days of Character Builder as a desktop application are over because, starting November 16th, it will receive a major facelift and become completely web-based.

The hard truth.

Regardless of other advantages of going online, I can think of a single real reason for this change: money. The business model of DDI had so far been extremely friendly (some could say exploitable) for consumers, as it was a theoretically subscription-based product that nevertheless left most of its components working even after you stopped playing. As an ex-subscriber, you kept access to all old Dungeon and Dragon magazines (provided you had saved the pdfs), and had a fully functional character editor. Only the Rules Compendium went away, but that is far from the most appealing element. Sure, you wouldn’t be getting the latest updates... but you’d always be able to get a 1-month subscription every 3 to 6 months (or even once a year, if you didn’t mind waiting) and keep mostly up to date for a fraction of the regular cost.

I am not arguing whether this was right or wrong - clearly, it was very convenient for players, but not so much for Wizards of the Coast. And it’s gone now.

What’s it like?

You can find the official announcement here, along with a bunch of screenshots and links to the FAQ. In essence, the Character Builder as we know it (and Monster Builder at a later date) will disappear, and in its place there will be a web application with pretty much the same functionality (minus the ability to work without an internet connection and a DDI subscription). The GUI has received an overhaul for the occasion, and it looks pretty good, so I’m hopeful that the user experience will improve. All character data will now be stored on the server, which will be a boon for those who, like me, have to keep track of characters generated in different places.

The technology it will be based on is Microsoft Silverlight, so you’ll be able to access it from Macs as well as Windows PCs. No details have been given about mobile phone compatibility, which might be possible on certain devices - but not on iPhones. There is no Linux support, either, though I’d be surprised if some kind of workaround didn’t exist for that.

The catch.

With what I have explained so far, there is plenty of material to keep flamewars all over the Internet busy for a good while. But there is one more detail that is likely to infuriate the skeptics, and it’s related with the content updates. The new Builder will go live on November 16th, and it will include material from all books released until October, including Heroes of the Fallen Lands and the much awaited Dark Sun Campaign Setting. Where is the deal, then? Simultaneously, support for the current, offline Character Builder will cease, so the desktop application will never get Essentials or Dark Sun. The only way to build characters from those books, other than by hand, will be by being a subscriber when the new service comes out. So forgetting about DDI and sticking to the old builder won’t be completely possible - I know of many people who won’t miss the Essential books, but Dark Sun has been extremely popular, and its absence will definitely be painful.

What now?

It will be interesting to see how the issue develops in the following months. DDI has now become an all-or-nothing proposition, as there is little point in doing short-term subscriptions anymore - either you intend to be a subscriber for as long as you play 4E, or DDI will hold little value for you. Clearly, there will be a lot of very angry people who will consider this as an act of war and won’t ever touch DDI again, but also a number of occasional subscribers who will choose to go full-time in order to enjoy the full package. I am not sure these numbers will favor Wizards of the Coast, but we also have to take into account whatever new players are brought to the game by the Essentials line. To them, there won’t be an aggravating precedent of an offline Builder, so perhaps they will be more receptive to the new tools.

As for myself, I have to say I renewed my subscription (for a full year) when it ran out last week, so I can’t say the change will affect my economy in the short term. I generally like the idea, as I think the new interface should be an improvement, and I see value in storing all my characters online. But we’ll see.

One last advice, though. Even if you are downright furious for this turn of events, and consider that Wizards of the Coast has somehow betrayed you, I think you should think hard about it, and see if you have the latest version of the good old, offline Character Builder. Because if you don’t, it will only be available for download until the 16th, and even if it lacks the very latest books, it’s still a damn good tool, and well worth a month’s subscription rate and bit of wounded pride.

An intriguing side-effect
As an aside, there is a very intriguing consequence of the shift to online tools, in that developers have commented on the potential use of data mining to identify problematic game elements. So, if too many or too few players choose a certain option, R&D will take notice and take it into account when releasing new content, presumably improving balance overall, and likely using it for marketing purposes. This shouldn't raise privacy concerns, though - according to them, they only get access to the raw data, but not the identity of the users generating it.
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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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