Monday, March 29, 2010

Broken Bits: Black Dragons

A Black Dragon was responsible for the first TPK (Total Party Kill) I saw in D&D 4E. Granted, it was a 4th level solo encounter against 5 pregenerated PCs of level 1 - the players were expected to die. This was in the days before Player's Handbook had been released, and our knowledge of the game was very limited - a few pages worth of rules overview, a couple of character sheets, and a bunch of monster stat blocks from convention delves, or from miniature cards. And yet, even though we had no idea of how characters above level 1 looked like, this monster felt wrong. Fast forward a couple of years to the present time, and we can confirm, after many solo battles and a with couple of monster manuals in hand, that the Black Dragon is, indeed, broken.


If you have never faced one or DM'd it, here is how it goes: the dragon has a rechargable power, called Cloud of Darkness, whose Effect line reads "until the end of the encounter, make everyone miserable". No, really:

Cloud of Darkness (standard; sustain minor, recharge ) Zone

Close burst 2; this power creates a zone of darkness that remains in place until the end of the dragon’s next turn. The zone blocks line of sight for all creatures except the dragon. Any creature entirely within the area (except the dragon) is blinded.

In practice, these dragons lose their first standard action to become nigh unkillable for as long as they want. PCs are as good as blinded, for the whole encounter. Anything other than area attacks will have hideous accuracy because of the total concealment, and keep in mind that, since this is an old-school (i.e. pre MM2) dragon, its defenses and HP are pretty high to begin with. And, since the monster doesn't hit particularly hard, you're in for a looong fight. At this point, the best tactic for PCs is probably to retreat away from the cloud (and from the dragon's reach), wearing it down with (blind) ranged attacks and readying actions in case it gets out. If the dragon plays along, it will eventually go after the PCs, take a round of non-concealed attacks, and summon the cloud again. Or it could get bored and return to the lair, where it's warm and safe. Yawn. Definitely not what I would call an engaging Dragon encounter.

Driving the darkness away

Something has to change in the Cloud of Darkness power. Several things, in fact... I have found each of the following points problematic:
- Automatic blinding: leaves no option but to get out.
- Area too large: it just covers too much of an standard encounter map.
- Blocking Line of Sight: annoying because of the previous point, and particularly when used in the middle of a room.
- Takes up a standard action: your Big Bad Dragon 'does nothing' for a turn.

Quite a long list. The last point is appropiate to balance out all the previous ones, but it only adds to the boredom. So, to look at it from a different perspective, which features of the power should we keep? I think it should be a sustainable area, that can be moved every couple of turns, protects the dragon through some sort of concealment, and hinders PCs who stay in it. With that in mind, I would make the following revision:

Cloud of Darkness (minor; sustain minor, recharge ) Zone

Close burst 1; this power creates a zone of darkness that remains in place until the end of the dragon’s next turn. The zone grants concealment to the dragon. Any creature entirely within the area at the end of his turn (except the dragon) is blinded until the end of his next turn. If the dragon is inside the zone, the power can not be sustained.

This version of the power provides a much needed effect in any Solo battle: a reason (and means) for tactical movement. Ever seen a huge boss pinned down by a fighter, forced to remain in place turn after turn? It's good for the fighter, but makes for lousy game sessions. Likewise, once a party has managed to flank and position themselves in appropiate places, they tend to remain static when fighting single enemies. With this Cloud of Darkness, a DM can force a party to retreat - but the dragon then faces the dilemma of remaining in place, or sustaining the zone. Generally, having such a zone of PC-hostile terrain is so useful that the dragon will find it worthwhile to sustain it and move elsewhere - maybe to return to it every other turn.

The key here is bothering PCs without crippling them. There are enough workarounds against the effect of this cloud that I can have it activate as a minor action without destroying the balance of an encounter, but it remains powerful enough that the dragon will change its tactics just to be able to sustain it. Note that I reduced the chance of recharging to minimize the possibility of a dragon activating the power several turns in a row instead of sustaining it, without needing to move.

So far, I have playtested this once, and been very satisfied with the results: the encounter was varied and full of movement, with the battlefield suffering drastic changes every couple of turns.

Cleaning up the stats

Once we have started tweaking our dragon, why stop there? Black Dragons, like all chromatic dragons from the first Monster Manual, suffer from the early (and now obsolete) desing philosophy of Solo monsters with high defenses and relatively low damage output. More recent material, like Monster Manual 2 has a different mentality: bosses hit harder, and don't last as long. So I think changing the Black Dragon's stats into something like the Iron Dragon from MM2 (also a lurker Solo), we'll end up with something more appropiate for play. Roughly, these are the changes from a MM dragon to a MM2 one:

Heroic monsters
- Reduce AC by 2 points. Sometimes reduce the next highest defense by 2 points, too. As a rule of thumb, if a defense is higher than the reduced AC, reduce that, too.
- Increase damage by 10-15%

Paragon monsters and beyond
- Reduce HP by 20%
- Reduce AC by 2 points. Sometimes reduce the next highest defense by 2 points, too. As a rule of thumb, if a defense is higher than the reduced AC, reduce that, too.
- Increase damage by 20-30%

With this in mind, I ended up with the following stats for a level 11 Black Dragon:

Adult Black Dragon - Level 11 Solo Lurker (XP 3000)

Initiative +15 Senses Perception +13; darkvision

HP 448; Bloodied 224
AC 26; Fortitude 24, Reflex 24, Will 23
Resist 20 acid
Saving Throws +5
Speed 8, fly 8 (hover), overland flight 10, swim 8
Action Points 2

Bite (standard, at-will) Acid

Reach 2; +16 vs AC; 2d6+6 damage, and ongoing 5 acid damage (save ends).

Claw (standard, at-will)

Reach 2; +16 vs AC; 1d10+5 damage.

Double Attack (standard, at-will)

Nightshade makes two claw attacks..

Tail Slash (immediate reaction 1/round, the first time a melee attack misses the dragon, at-will)

Nightshade attacks the enemy that missed her; reach 2; +16 vs AC; 1d10+7 damage, and the target is pushed 1 square.

Breath Weapon (standard, recharge ) Acid

Close blast 5; +13 vs Reflex; 2d8+5 acid damage, and the target takes ongoing 5 acid damage and takes a -4 penalty to AC (save ends both).

Bloodied Breath (free, when first bloodied, encounter) Acid

Nightshade’s breath weapon recharges, and the dragon uses it immediately..

Cloud of Darkness (standard; sustain minor, recharge ) Zone

Close burst 1; this power creates a zone of darkness that remains in place until the end of Nightshade’s next turn. The zone grants concealment to the dragon. Any creature entirely within the area at the end of his turn (except the dragon) is blinded until the end of his next turn. If the dragon is inside the zone, the power can not be sustained

Frightful Presence (standard, encounter) Fear

Close burst 5; targets enemies; +13 vs Will; the target is stunned until the end of Nightshade's next turn. Aftereffect: The target takes a -2 penalty to attack rolls (save ends)

Read More......

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

All about Shields: A Fighter Class Acts article

Continuing with the ongoing trend of goodness in march DDI content, today's feature is a very niche article that happens to fit MY personal niche: that of Fighters with shields. The article, signed by Daniel Jones (who is getting D&D material published for the first, and hopefully not the last time), fills 5 pages with a wide assortment of options for the defensive-oriented warrior. This is good stuff, with many fresh ideas supported by solid mechanics. Here is an overview of what you'll find:

- Shield powers for each slot up to level 16, including a new at-will, so you can now realistically make a Paragon Fighter fully committed to shield attacks. And a moderately effective one at that, thanks to the next point...

- Proper attack bonus scaling on shield powers! Yep, these have +3 at heroic, +6 at paragon, and +9 at epic (rather than the +2/+4/+6 of previous iterations), to account for the loss of Weapon Expertise (since they lack the weapon keyword). Powers on the later half of a tier even have an extra point thrown in there to ease the progression. I may still miss the extra point from Fighter Weapon Talent, but this is a very positive progress, nonetheless. Now, if only shield powers from other sources could be updated to work like this...

- A strong, shield-based at-will attack that is even offensively oriented! I had been missing something like this for a while. I loved the original shield at-will, Tide of Iron, as much as anyone (aside from its mechanic usefulness, it still has one of the best power names in the game), but the more recent addition, Resolute Shield, had turned out to be a poor man's version of Crushing Surge. The one presented here, called Shield Feint, has the intriguing effect of Righteous Brand'ing (post-errata) yourself. Most useful in sustained assaults, this can also serve to set up potent encounter or daily powers. Interestingly, the attack bonus can be applied (and spent) if you make opportunity or combat challenge attacks, making you even more sticky, but also being a potential waste if you are already auto-hitting with Combat Superiority.

- A Paragon Path with an amazing concept. Called Snapping Testudo (in honor of the famous Roman defensive formation, and Latin turtles in general), it rewards players for wearing two shields at once! Needless to say, this turns you into a defensive powerhouse, apart from being downright cool.

- New magic shields that can be used as off-hand weapons, opening up many cool options. These make a very solid alternative to Spiked Shields because they don't take up a feat, tend to have better stats, and can be heavy shields. Apart from being very useful for those whishing to enter the Testudo path from the previous point, these open up Dual Strike for shield fighters. So now my character is retraining not one but two at-will attacks (goodbye, Cleave!). And, of course, adding shiny new loot to my wishlist!

- Finally, there are a few new feats to further customize your shield user, including one that I consider a must-have: Hindering Shield (for Paragon fighters) makes all your forced movement slow enemies! I wonder if this couldn't have been written in a more restricted way - as is, it allows a wizard multiclassing into fighter to turn Thunderwave into a real powerhouse. On the other hand, I'd like it to work with melee basic attacks, and fighter and paragon path powers with or without the weapon keyword - which is not easy to template.
Read More......

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Broken Bits: Harpies

Last week we fough an encounter in Pyramid of Shadows that featured a couple of harpies. It was the first time I saw this level 6 controller monster in play: I had read their entry in the Monster Manual, and had a pretty good idea of what they did - but I was not prepared for what came after. It's not that we suffered a brutal defeat. In fact, we eventually beat the encounter without significant loss of healing surges or daily powers. However, it took long. Harpies don't have a particularly high damage output, but they more than make up for it with tremendously efficient control. A single harpy can keep a whole party immobilized for most of an encounter, and if you're facing multiples like we did... well, you'll be lucky if you get to move at all. I don't think that is anywhere near reasonable performance, for a non-elite controller - so let's take a look at its stat block, and try to change it into something more appropiate.

She loves to be in control.

Before I start tearing the Harpy apart, I should make a confession: we didn't use the monster as written in the book, but a house ruled version. There is a pretty good reason for this, though: harpies are utterly unplayable, out of the box. Consider the following power, which is a harpy's main attack:

Alluring Song (standard; sustain minor, at-will) Charm

Close burst 10; deafened creatures are immune; +12 vs Will; the target is pulled 3 squares and immobilized (save ends). When the harpy sustains the power, any target that has not yet saved against the effect is pulled 3 squares and immobilized (save ends).

There are many things that are so wrong about the power, but for now, we'll just discuss the one that forced us to houserule it:

Close burst 10

This is an attack that affects everything in a 10 square radius. Yes, including allies. You could conceivably prepare an encounter where all the creatures were deaf, or could teleport at-will, or otherwise ignore the immobilization. Maybe you could make a team of purely ranged creatures where this wasn't such an annoyance for yourself, but most of the time, this cripples your team as much as the opposing one. Since the fight in our game was primarily composed of melee monsters, we agreed to treat the attack as "enemies only", for sanity's sake.

For reference, this is how powers in huge bursts are usually templated in order not to affect alies (taken from a White Dragon):

Frightful Presence (standard, encounter) Fear

Close burst 5; targets enemies; +4 vs Will; the target is stunned until the end of the dragon’s next turn. Aftereffect: The target takes a -2 penalty to attack rolls (save ends).

Once we have addressed the friendly fire issue, we are left with a power with a ridiculously large area that all but guarantees that the PCs will be immobilized for the whole encounter. On top of that, we find that the hit bonuses are way too high, 3 points above the average value of (3+lvl.) for attacks vs. NADs, which only exacerbates the problem. The free pulling, handy for the classic Harpy+Cliff combo, is just gravy. And, in case you are wondering, yes, the power is as devastating in play as it reads.
Declawing the Harpy

There are several things that need to be changed before we have a monster fit for balanced and fun play. First and foremost, the area needs to be removed. Not reduced, nor tweaked, but just done away with. Immobilization (save ends) is a strong enough effect when applied to a single target. Another important point would be to reduce the attack bonus to a level appropiate +9 vs Will. Likewise, the bonus for the harpy's third power, Deadly Screech, should be lowered to +9 vs Fortitude. This would be, for me, the bare minimum.

There are other, lesser concerns, such as the sustain effect having a slightly strange wording (it doesn't make any sense to reapply the immobilization), and the fact that harpies have a really hard time dealing damage. Other than the Deadly Screech rechargable power, their only offensive ability is their puny claw - but it makes little sense for the monster to have to engage their enemies to deal pitiful damage, after taking so much effort in getting them immobilized. Even in their original, absurdly overpowered version, an encounter composed of 5 harpies would take forever to bring down an adventurer.

With that in mind, this is how I'd rewrite the Harpy's Song and Screech powers:

Alluring Song (standard, at-will) Charm

Close burst 10; targets one enemy; deafened creatures are immune; +9 vs Will; The target takes ongoing 5 psychic damage and is immobilized (save ends both). All immobilized enemies in burst are pulled 3 squares.

Deadly Screech (standard, recharge ) Thunder

Close burst 4; targets enemies; +9 vs Fortitude; 1d6+4 thunder damage, and the target is dazed (save ends)

This leaves the harpy as a well rounded controller, capable of locking down one or two enemies at once, and with a potent, limited use area attack. It also gets a decent damage output, so it now gets a credible shot at killing a PC without the help of a convenient pit. Finally, its abilities shouldn't be so redundant when in multiples, so an encounter made up entirely of harpies could actually be playable, if not fun.
Read More......

Friday, March 19, 2010

Dragon 385, Class Acts: Sorcerer

As I commented the other day, this month is bringing some outstanding articles in DDI. Today I'll talk a bit about the Class Acts devoted to the Wild Sorcerer. These chaotic sorcerers are among my favourite builds in the game, because of their brilliant, wacky mechanics. Somehow, they manage to squeeze crazy amounts of fun and excitement from every die roll - you are no longer merely concerned about whether you succeed or fail, but also if it is even or odd, 1 or 20, or a prime number, or... well, let's just say it's an awesome approach to the game. This new article brings even more of that.

Do you feel lucky today?

There are articles that drastically change the way characters are built and played, or otherwise shore up defficiencies with a particular class. Don't expect any such thing here, though - Sorcerers have always managed just fine, and the new options presented here tend to be on the weaker side of the spectrum. That is not the point. What this article does bring in spades, is raw chaos: now you can have random effects triggering on almost every conceivable action in the game, and can wager on the outcome of your own or your allies' actions, as well as reroll and manipulate your way through unlucky rolls.

There are eight feats, six utility powers, and one paragon path. The feats grant benefits such as sometimes boosting your initiative, occasionally getting extra damage on your dailies, maybe earning extra successes in skill challenges or perhaps improving your chances with untrained skills. As you could guess, consistency isn't a priority, here. There are also ways to gain unreliable but significant boosts to class features such as Unfettered Power, Wild soul, or Chaos Burst.

As for the utilities, all of them trigger on specific die rolls, allowing you to bet on their result (being rewarded if you get lucky, and punished if you don't) or somehow alter it. This kind of mechanics is also present in the paragon path, which is appropiately called Luckbender, and also grants you an extended crit range to boot.

Finally, there is a section describing four superior implements of the dagger type, which were notably absent from the lists in Player's Handbook 3. Though undoubtedly useful for sorcerer players of any kind, this doesn't look all that related to the rest of the article. My guess is that the designers weren't sure about allowing superior daggers by the time PHB3 went to print, and made up their minds afterwards. It is a risky maneuver, since daggers can benefit from weapon feats and enchantments, and might outperform other implement types. On the other hand, staves already allowed for that, so this may be a moot point, after all.

Anyway, this is a nice article aimed at a very specific public - those playing chaotic sorcerers should love it, whereas anyone else (even other sorcerers!) may have a good time reading it, but otherwise find nothing useful.
Read More......

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dragon 385, Class Acts: Wizard.

This march is turning out a month of awesome content in DDI. As a consequence of this, I haven't really been able to keep up with the rhythm in the blog - I like to write a review post for each outstanding article, but they kept piling up. So, a bit late, here is my first DDI review for the month... expect more in the following days!

Class Acts: Wizard is a brilliant article signed by Daniel Marthaler that manages the impossible: to make summoning attractive for wizard players. The formula? Some clever mechanical innovations that allow your summons to provide more tangible benefits (at a cost), and an extremelly compelling selection of summoned minions.

First, the new mechanics. The wizard summons originally introduced in Arcane Power were usually limited to more or less bland attacks that cost an standard action, and opportunity attacks that added a semblance of control. Not only were they rather weak, compared to the typical wizard daily (which is, by definition, excellent), but they also turned out pretty boring to play. To counter this, the new spells in this article eschew opportunity attacks for two new abilities: Symbiosis and Intrinsic Nature.

Symbiosis grants the wizard a continuous effect for as long as the summoned creature is present in the battlefield, meaning that even if a minion that stands back without making an attack, you get some bang for your buck. Symbiosis effects usually confer the wizard some of the qualities of the summoned monster, either improving is defenses, movement, or at-will attacks.

Then again, if your plan was to just let your minions stand back, you're up for a surprise. Intrinsic Nature is the wizard's answer to the Instinctive Effect of druidic summons - with a dangerous edge. A druid's pets would just attack their enemies while unattended. These arcane summons do this, too, but adding some nasty backlash for their careless master, who will take damage or suffer negative conditions each turn he forgets to give them some commands. This creates a very interesting tension, in that making your own attacks while letting the minion loose is the strongest offensive option, but takes a toll on the mage.

But all this might be for nothing, if the catalogue of extraplanar creatures was as bland as the one in Arcane Power. Forget about Fire Warriors and similarly bland creatures, though - this is the real deal. The new powers bring iconic and downright cool monsters, including Imps, Hell Hounds, Succubi, Marilith, and even a freaking Balor! Talk about spectacular...

The article has some balance issues, since a few spells (and the Succubus in particular) are probably too strong. But the designers have a good track record of fixing this kind of things at the monthly compilation, lately, so I have confidence that they will be addressed. Otherwise, this is a must read, and an excellent addition if your party includes a wizard, or someone who intends to multiclass into one.
Read More......

Friday, March 5, 2010

March Errata: Orb of Imposition, Righteous Brand, Hide Armor Expertise...

The errata document for D&D 4E has been updated again, with many well-deserved fixes, including material from recent books such as Primal Power, as well as long-standing problems from the first Player's Handbook. Several popular character builds will be affected by this, though, with a few exceptions, all are moving from an overpowered position to a reasonably playable one. You can see a selection of the most relevant points below, but you definitely want to take a look at the whole thing!

1- Wizards

Wizard characters are taking a major hit, since both a class build and their strongest at-will are toned down. First, the Orb of Imposition class feature is changed to what it should have been from the beginning - a one-shot penalty to a single save. As originally written, OoI was too easily abusable for locking down enemies during whole encounters, with stunning ongoing effects that they had no chance to save for. This tactic has become almost impossible to achieve, since most of the magic items that were used to penalize saving throws in combination with the Orb have been taken down, as well.

The other great loss for wizards is the spectacularly effective at-will power Winged Horde. Capable of almost everything a controller could wish for, this friendly-fire area damage spell with a great controlling effect overshadowed other choices. With its damage significantly reduced, it still does lots of awesome things, but you'll want a backup power when you need to hit harder. I personally would have preferred to see the obsoleted powers brought up to this new standard, but I guess it was not to be. The good news are that the rumors about Scorching Burst's death were greatly exaggerated.

2- Cleric

The change to clerics was understandable. Up until now, a strength-focused cleric was about one thing: Righteous Brand. The attack-boosting melee power was ridiculously good, virtually guaranteeing auto-hits for one of your allies' attacks each turn. It was hard to justify skipping Brand for a turn to use an encounter power, never mind another at-will. Now, to be fair, Divine Power introduced a decent alternative in Recovery Strike, allowing you to shift into healing mode when needed - but Brand was still the default choice, by a mile.

No more. With its bonus brought down from somewhere between +4 and +9 to a very generous +3, the Brand is a very solid option that I can use without feeling dirty. Oh, and the dozen domains that boost it in Divine Power feel less like a cruel joke, now.

Other than that, epic-tier clerics will find out that their one-hit solo-slaying power, Seal of Binding, has lost its enemy-damaging capabilities. Now it is merely a way of temporarily removing both cleric and monster from the battle, if you have some means to gain regeneration.

3- Hide Armor Expertise

A change with severe implications for Barbarians and Druids is the downgrading of the primal feat Hide Armor Expertise, which now only grants a minor defensive bonus for characters with null Dexterity and Intelligence. From a Barbarian's point of view, the feat provides Chain-equivalent defenses at very low levels, but becomes inferior to heavy armor as soon as a character gains access to masterwork armor with +2 enhancenment bonuses, so it is unlikely to see much use beyond that point. The other build that is affected is the Swarm Druid, who has no real alternative if he chooses to ignore Dexterity. These characters will find that their AC is more or less acceptable at heroic tier, but really falls behind at paragon and heroic, bordering the auto-hit territory at level 30.

Of all the changes in this rules update, this one is by far the most controversial. Although most agree that the previous iteration of the feat provided excessive AC in combination with Barbarian Agility, and the way swarm druids outperformed guardian druids was less than ideal, it is hard to give up such great defenses. In my opinion, low-dexterity barbarians will be able to manage just fine and don't really deserve any more help from a single feat, but swarms will have a harder time. Maybe the feat should have increase by one or two points at higher levels.

Finally, it should be noted that this fix doesn't completely remove the problem with a Barbarians' excessive AC. Whirling Barbarians can still go beyond the AC of any shielded defender, and other builds can choose to give up their secondary abilities in order to max dexterity, so some kind of errata on Barbarian Agility is needed.

4- Paragon Paths

The Blood Mage paragon path has seen its Blood Pulse power, infamous for its ability to deal ridiculous damage through forced movement, reduced to sane levels. In what is probably overkill, the power's effect has been limited to voluntary movement and its damage has been reduced to a fixed amount in order to prevent damage roll bonus stacking.

Also, the Student of Caiphon path, which was commonly taken for its ability to grant an expanded critical range to divine characters (and anyone with a Radiant Weapon, for that matter) now only provides this bonus for Warlock powers. One overpowered Path down, but there's almost a dozen left.

5- Epic Destinies

The Demigod epic destiny loses its infinite encounter powers at level 30, merely getting one encounter reload. That ability should have never existed in the first place - I can't agree with the abolition of at-will powers when you reach a certain level. Maybe this will encourage more players to try different destinies, since Demigod is, without a doubt, the most popular in the game.

6- General rule changes

The various Expertise feats are now typed as feat bonuses, so that new ones can be released without the awkward rules text stating that they don't stack. As part of this change, all expertise-like feats that granted +1/+2/+3 bonuses to attack are also typed so that you can't benefit from one of these and one expertise to boost your hit rate to the stratosphere. These previously broken feats will now only be useful for strongly thematic characters, who might use them to gain the benefit of two feats (they also grant a Weapon Focus-like damage bonus) for the price of one. As part of this change, feats that used to grant a feat bonus to attack become untyped - so Hellfire Blood, among others, is now more interesting.

The update also includes clarification on how weapons used as implements (and viceversa) work, as well as damage type-changing effects. These now replace previous types, and explicitly allow the use of energy-dependant feats or powers. The most popular application of this rule, Frost Weapons with Lasting Frost, sees a minor adjustment which doesn't prevent it from being extremely potent. Finally, untyped bonuses from sources with the same name (say, a certain feat or power) no longer stack, which addresses issues with feats like Echoes of Thunder.

7- Items

Several very exploitable items have been fixed. Salves of Power, which granted extra uses of daily powers, now only affect encounters. Solitaires granted very strong powers on the first crit of each encounter, and are now limited to daily activations. Potions of Clarity, which could provide reliable and inexpensive boosts to any attack, now are restricted to encounter or daily attacks of certain levels. Finally, Diamond Cincture loses the ability to heal without expending healing surges.
Read More......