Friday, August 6, 2010

Essential preview: a striker fighter!

D&D Essentials class previews

Ever since the release of the first Player’s Handbook, Fighters have been one of the most damaging classes in 4E. Forget about roles and that stuff for a moment: these defenders have the right combination of class features, paragon paths and feats to give them a realistic shot at beating many strikers at their own game, when properly built. If you think that is frightening (and it is!), imagine a fighter build that was even more focused towards bringing pain, to the point of eschewing defender marks in favor of striker-like extra damage features. Heroes of the Fallen Lands brings us exactly that - it’s called the Slayer, and it looks brutally straightforward - and terribly effective.

More than any mechanical innovation (though there are a few), the most surprising thing about the Slayer is the Role line. It’s a Martial Striker, with a touch of defender - not the other way around. This marks (heh) a major shift in class design in D&D 4E, since there was precedent of builds of a class with different secondary roles, but never before had we seen a change in the main role. And there is no reason why it shouldn’t happen again, so the class lineup for the second D&D Essentials player book, Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms becomes more intriguing than ever: which classes will be given new roles? It’s easy to imagine Druids as defenders or leaders, Paladins as leaders, and Rangers or Warlocks as controllers. However, there will likely be at least one build for each of these classes that keeps the current role, so I doubt we’ll see more than a couple of these changes. Still, it’s an exciting prospect.

As for the rules details there’s little new about the Slayer - it shares the same basic core as the Knight, with basic attacks and stances replacing at-will attacks, Power Strike replacing encounter powers, no daily powers, and several new features at higher levels. The major differences lie in the defender features (which are missing: forget about Defender Aura and Battle Guardian), and the brand new striker feature. That one is called Heroic Slayer, and it lets you add your Dexterity bonus (Slayers use Strength as main ability, and Dexterity as secondary) to all weapon damage.

Apart from that, we get to know about the Weapon Talent feature which, as expected, grants a +1 to hit on all weapon attacks. Also, we can see a couple of the at-will stances, including Berserker’s Charge (which boosts movement and accuracy in charges, and would be the enfy of any Barbarian) and Unfettered Fury (which looks like a stronger version of Power Attack). It remains to be seen whether Knight and Slayer stances will be interchangeable or not, as they have no built-in requirement, like requiring a shield or a two-handed weapon. This is rounded up with the same HP, surges and proficiencies as ordinary fighters (though there is no shield proficiency), making for an extremely sturdy striker.


Unlike with other classes in D&D Essentials, we actually get to know every Slayer class feature available at level 1 so, apart from a couple missing at-will stances, we have everything that is needed to build a first level character. I haven’t experimented too much yet, but it’s safe to say that they will be very capable strikers. Not only that, but they are clearly the easiest class to play in the game. Just pointing at an enemy and attacking will work, with perhaps a change of stance every other turn. All martial characters in Essentials already had pretty straightforward mechanics, but the Slayer goes a step further, and also removes many of the strategic nuances. After all, rogues need some effort and finesse to keep Combat Advantage every turn (and are relatively fragile), whereas knights have to perform the more subtle defender role. A Slayer is very much like a barbarian without encounter powers or rages, which is to say, a well oiled killing machine with few concerns apart from getting close to an enemy and smashing it to a pulp. I can’t say I’m personally thrilled to play one, but it’s a great option to have in a product aimed at introducing new players.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the Slayer also presents yet another nod to old school D&D players, in that many primitive fighters were purely focused in damage, with little of what we currently associate with a defender, apart from the heavy armor and high HP pool. Not only that, but bow-wielding fighters (or, at least fighters capable of performing decently at range) are now possible, if not actively suported, since some class features (and crucially the striker damage) also work with such weapons - a controversial decision that is sure to bring some wacky builds.

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Essentials spoilers: At-Wills, racial powers and... a solution for Expertise?

As I mentioned yesterday, some bits of preview information about D&D Essentials have been leaked by the community manager at wizards’ site. We have a couple of at-will attacks (or rather, their equivalent for Essential fighters and rogues), a new racial power, and a humble feat that may be a sign of deep changes in design - not many things, but definitely solid stuff. Here’s my opinion on them.

To continue with yesterday’s topic, we’ll start with the Fighter material. There’s a new at-will stance called Defend the Line that is, perhaps, the strongest one revealed to date. It slows enemies hit in melee, providing some crucial movement denial to make up for the loss of Combat Superiority, as well as having amazing synergy with your opportunity attacks and Battle Guardian feature. In fact, I think this stance works better outside of your turn than for your regular attacks, so there should be some fun tension and stance switching games. I can’t imagine skipping this one while building a knight.

Moving on to the Essential Rogue, we have a very nice Rogue Trick called Unbalancing Trick. It features a useful movement effect, and a devastating attack modifier - a 2 square shift and knocking prone on melee hits, respectively. Both parts of the power turn it into an instant classic, even though it isn’t as absurdly strong as it might seem at first glance. This is because the most effective application of melee proning, shifting 1 square so that you are outside of enemy reach but just short of charge range, is not possible this way! As good as Rogue Tricks are, they require you to move before attacking, so your target will be able to stand up and attack you back unless you have reach - which is a possibility, with certain Spiked Chain feats, or perhaps a polearm, if you have the strength and the proficiency to attack with it, and don’t mind giving up on Sneak Attack. Finally, shifting 2 squares is very conveniently the exact distance required to charge an enemy, even if you start off adjacent to it, so this could enable some cool charging builds.

The new racial power shown is interesting in that it belong to humans - a race previously notorious for its lack of racial powers. Since Essential races will present alternate rules rather than replacing the Player’s Handbook versions, this probably means replacing a racial feature - such as the human’s third at-will attack. It wasn’t very clear how this extra at-will would interact with fighter stances or rogue tricks, and this might be our answer - it won’t. Anyway, the power in question is called Heroic Effort, and it provides a moderate bonus to an attack or save, once per encounter. It’s usually an improvement over Elven Accuracy, and that is to say a lot - for many classes, it’s hard to think of a reason for giving up on the extra at-will, but Heroic Effort could be that good. It also fits the existing mechanics for human characters, since one-shot attack bonuses and enhanced defenses were a recurring theme. I like this one, though I personally find the third at-will even cooler.

And finally, we have the feat that might change the game as we know it. Or maybe not, but I suspect that it is the sign that one of the most annoying (and houseruled) game elements in 4E is getting fixed, at last. Let me explain. This is the feat in question:

Bludgeon Expertise: +1 feat bonus to attack rolls with hammers and maces. In addition, any time you push with a weapon attack using a mace or hammer, you gain a +1 feat bonus to that push.

The cool, and potentially game-changing thing about Bludgeon Expertise is that it’s stronger than Weapon Expertise and similar feats, it has an interesting effect, and it provides a meaningful choice. I have explained in length why I think that current Expertise feats are bad for the game, in that they are boring, but virtually mandatory: you will spend a valuable feat slot to gain a +1 to hit (make it +2 or +3 at higher levels) sometime during your career, because it is so effective, even if it is utterly bland and involves no decision whatsoever.

Enter Bludgeon Expertise. I think it is safe to assume that this is just one among a series of feats that provide the bonuses to hit usually associated with Expertise (heck, it even shares the name!) in addition to some other kind of effect that would usually be worth a feat by itself - in this case, extra pushing. I bet there’s one to cover most (if not all) weapon categories, and probably implements too. Admittedly, we also have to imagine that this feat text is incomplete, so that it actually gains the additional bonuses at paragon and epic tier - otherwise it would all fall apart, as people would retrain to the generic feats at those levels. But take all those assumptions, and think about the result: Expertise could work.

Having a single feat that you need to take, no questions asked, is a terrible think. But make it into a full category of different feats that grant the required effect for free, on top of something unique and worth a feat by itself, and it all clicks. It may not be complete freedom, but it’s a kind of freedom I can live with. I think it would be better if the feats were not as strongly tied to your weapon or implement choice as they seem, and the game could actually afford some kind of overlap, with more general Expertise feats as well as weapon-specific ones - the really strong benefit is the bonus to hit, which doesn’t stack, so there would be no real harm in taking two such feats. We’ll have to see the whole range of feats to know how well this solution works in practice, but I must say, this looks great.
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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Essentials Fighter spoiler: Battle Guardian revealed!

A couple of weeks ago we talked about the previews for the new fighter builds to be included in Heroes of the Fallen Lands. As could be expected, the preview teased us with a handful of class features and powers, from the many that the final text will have, which was all the more frustrating since there was one missing piece in the puzzle that was, well, essential. We had an innovative mark-like mechanic in Defender's Aura, but lacked the all-important class feature focused on punishing enemies for attacking your allies - the very core of any defender class. Thankfully, this feature (alongside other interesting information, which I may comment in a later post) was leaked in D&D Community Manager Trevor Kidd's site at Let's talk about it.

Battle Guardian is a class feature that takes the place of Combat Challenge. Though it shares many points in common with CC, it also introduces a few twists. In game terms, it:
  • Works against all adjacent enemies not marked by your allies (i.e. enemies within your Defender Aura, see the Essential Fighter preview for details)
  • Triggers whenever an adjacent enemy shifts or attacks an ally.
  • Allows you to make a melee basic attack as an opportunity action.
  • Deals Strength damage on a miss.

Rules-wise, there are a couple of interesting details about how the feature is implemented:
  • It works properly with other marks or defender auras: you can’t trap an enemy between multiple defenders due to poor wording.
  • It does nothing against enemies attacking other enemies, so it’s the first defender mark that doesn’t make the dominated condition even more brutal. I wonder if the marked condition will receive some errata to match this?
  • It removes one of the most confusing rules issues for unexperienced players with the fighter: the fact that some enemy actions were punished as an interrupt, and other as opportunity actions, and that the Combat Superiority effects weren’t shared by Combat Challenge. Now everything uses the same type of action, and although the miss damage is specific to Battle Guardian attacks, it’s nowhere as critical as occasionally stopping movement.

So, what does this all mean towards the Knight's power level, and the way Essentials Fighters are likely to be built?
  • Knights (and probably other Essentials Fighters) will be the best defenders in the game to lock multiple enemies. Not only does their mark (ok , defender aura) apply automatically on all adjacent foes, but they can make their punishment attack once to each one of them (since it is an opportunity action). Note that daily powers can boost other characters’ ability to punish groups beyond this level, though only temporarily. Also, awesome encounters such as Come and Get It are another advantage for traditional PCs.
  • Knights are incredibly sticky, but less so than conventional fighters. Any kind of movement around them triggers a melee basic attack, which should be as good as other classes’ at-wills, thanks to their Stances. Known stance effects include extra damage, cleave, and even slowing (more on this in the following section!). Nevertheless, the almost assured lack of an equivalent to Combat Superiority (at least at level 1) means that their opportunity attacks, though still great, aren’t as awesome.
  • It looks like it will be possible to have Knights with primary abilities other than Strength, thanks to the Melee Training feat. However, the strength-dependent rider in Battle guardian (damage on a miss) is good enough to keep that ability as a secondary at the very least and, along with the saved feat, a decent incentive to play as intended and have it as the primary ability.


In my previous article about the Essentials Fighter, I commented the following:

“The not-quite-a-mark could be as good as Combat Challenge (which is to say, really good), or almost useless, for all we know (again, I doubt that will be the case)”

Amazingly enough, the combination of Defender Aura, Battle Guardian and stances has turned out to be downright better than Combat Challenge, which is no small feat. The original fighter will still have an edge when it comes to opportunity attacks thanks to Combat Superiority, but I’d say that Essential Fighters have better overall defender capabilities than their predecessors (and other pre-Essential defenders, for that matter), before accounting for encounter and daily effects. Other defenders will be stronger when such powers are available, though just how much will be hard to tell, before knowing everything about the knight.

Nevertheless, even if we still lack information on many class features, the Essential Fighter with just the previewed material is quite playable, and definitely competent at its role.
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