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.


  1. Honestly think that this is a solution without a problem. Solos and elites - even after errata, are such huge-mongous piles of AC and HP that unless your party is straight out of the optimization boards, all you are doing is lopping 2 rounds off of a 10 round encounter.

    Keep in mind that these strategies are two way streets - a dominated character could be forced to run through a group of enemies as well.

    Could be we just disagree though, it IS the internet after all :)

  2. I acknowledged that the exploits work both ways, but the swinginess of the mechanic is excessive, nevertheless. The best case scenario of 5-6 extra basic attacks is enough to knock most non-defender PCs from full HP to 0 (regardless of level), and amounts to 60-80% of a normal monster's HP, depending on tier.

    A more typical scenario that results in 2-3 extra attacks still means that a PC will be dealing 1-2 rounds' worth of extra damage, and the monster 2-3 rounds of extra damage - just as a side effect of a condition that already stuns and grants an extra attack.

    Granted, it still doesn't one-shot a solo or elite... but that's about the only positive thing I can say about it :)

  3. A very elegant solution. Well done!

  4. My fix would have been something like making the dominated creature a group ally until the effect ends, but this seems a good solution also.

    The only minor bug I find is that forced movement ignores difficult terrain, and in this case it shouldn't, but it can easily be fixed.

  5. I like the change, although I feel like it should still be allowed to attack itself; after all, if you remove the other two exploits, this is not that bad (and monsters have more HP than PCs so if a PC can take that hit so can the monster).