Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Level Thirty

I am a huge fan of epic play. To quote one of my own quotes (as vain as that may be), "I thrive on needless complexity." And nothing is quite so complex as an epic level build.

But somewhere along the way, the developers seem to have decided that "Epic" means "Outside of the domain of balance." It's true that 4th Edition is far more balanced than third edition ever was at epic, but I'm often left wondering "what were they thinking?" when I see a class feature or power that's above 23rd level. Though honestly, with some classes, it's not even limited to that high level, but I digress.

There is an inherent thinking in most people's minds, in my experience, towards wanting to start campaigns at lower levels-namely, level one. The reduced complexity means it's easy to get into the game and play from scratch, and it allows for more room to grow. But campaigns are finite entities, and advancement is relatively linear. In short, the higher level something is, the less often you're likely to see it in real play. Which means the less playtesting it gets. So when something at epic is nerfed, you can pretty much bet it's because it was just flat-out broken.

By far the worst offender in this department is the aforementioned level thirty. After all, when you're 30th level, why are you still playing? You've maxed your XP, and have only one level's worth of treasure to gather. Perhaps you wish to beat the crap out of Tiamat. Which shouldn't be hard, considering you're laden with the features I'm about to describe! A lot of destinies also have overpowered 26th level utilities, but that's a bit different of an issue, and almost universally is limited to 1/day (which because it's "Only a Daily" means it doesn't count, am I right?)

It's the Top X of Y overpowered Epic Destiny 30th level features list! You'll notice that a lot of these destinies are of the "WTF that's worthless" variety if you were to ignore these features. Go figure-I guess that constitutes "Balance."

Glorious Spirit (Bearer of Doom): Reading over this, I was really blindsided. On the one hand, you'd think it'd be relatively useless-after all, who wants to miss with a power, right? But it's actually really quite insidious. Bearer of Doom works in junction with any single target power-including daily attacks. Here we have a good way to get unlimited rages, unlimited heals, unlimited who knows what! All you have to do is attack unarmed and you're fighting at -9 to hit. Throw in Power Attack for good measure and you're at -11. If you can figure out any other way of crippling your attack bonus, that goes a long way. Also useful for when you want to hit-Storm of Blades comes to mind

Arcane Sword (Spellsword Perfection): Holy Frack on a Frackertonbox. Whatever that means. Arcane Sword is the quintessential "Playing for 30" Epic destiny. Level 21 is mediocre (roughly equivalent to an average epic feat), 26th level is utterly useless, and I've no idea how to interpret 24th level-does your sword automatically win the battle, since it can't be attacked? But the Coup De Grace is At-Will Lightning Bolt Charge. And let's be frank-there's maybe one or two other powers that are even remotely as useful, but under virtually all circumstances? Lightning Bolt Charge is where it's at. Deal more damage per round than a ranger! Unless said ranger managed to find one of these epic destinies. What's great is that this one feature can take a build that has no viable at-will attacks-because it has no Intelligence based attacks and only multiclassed Swordmage-and give it a viable at-will option. It's absurd.

Archlich (Essence of Undeath): You know, to be honest, I don't even know if this is overpowered. It feels overpowered to me, but that's a bad barometer. It doesn't really belong on this list-at least not as long as I'm keeping Archmage, Archspell, and Lorekeeper off the list. Still, with the Archlich's autoplinkage of minions, a bard lich can have a crapton of heals per encounter. Fair warning: due to the unique dynamic they incur, Rules As Written disallows an artificer from actually being able to use this feature to regain Curative Admixture uses. Go figure.

Avangion (Avangion Rising): Who needs leaders anymore, am I right? With a Ring of Tenacious Will or, hell, just playing a shielding swordmage, you can always get up to twenty surges per day. Not that that much matters, seeing as how you can just use a ritual to trade surges back and forth between encounters. Avangion Rising wouldn't be even remotely overpowered if it weren't for the fact that, unlike Invincible Mind and War Master (the latter of which is actually a leader destiny), it does not require an immediate action to trigger.

Ceaseless Guardian (Never Again): This has a similar problem to Avangion but probably shouldn't make the list for two reasons. One, unlike Avangion, the healing is flat surge value, not Surge value +Ability Modifier. Secondly, it doesn't help you unless you're preventing death. I know that seems like it's small but really, if the entire party falls unconscious, as long as no one actually dies, they'll remain unconscious. You can't use Never Again to really keep your DPR up most of the time. Ceaseless Guardian deserves honorable mention for having the same issues as Avangion, but honestly it probably doesn't deserve being on this list.

Cosmic Soul? (Cosmic Connection): You know, I look at Cosmic Soul and don't really see (snark snark) it as an overpowered destiny. But honestly, all attacks are Range Sight? Imagine using a telescope to blast away with magic missile. This one is definitely a widget technique, so it gets an honorable mention. In practical play, the feature and rest of the path are mechanically next to useless.

Dead God Avatar (Sacrifice): I really hate to have all these borderline issues. With Dead God Avatar, it's not overpowered at will, but for at least three encounters per day, you can basically have unlimited encounter attacks. Imagine using Tumbling Strike every single round. Or more practically, Sever the Source. The surge cost makes it only useful for limited builds though, so don't expect this destiny to be ruining too many games.

Elf High Mage (Empowered By Life): Another widget build. This time, it involves having someone willing to trade surges to you after the end of every encounter, again seriously reducing the practicality of the power. But being to automatically get yourself a critical hit can't be ignored. After all, imagine a Basilisk Soul monk automatically critically hitting and petrifying enemies left and right. If nothing else, using the feature to trigger a healing daily power means that the end cost is virtually nill.

Magister (Magic's Master): Did you know that there's a ritual that gives you the effect of an extended rest? Meaning, once per day, you can gain the benefits as if it's tomorrow. I'm reminded of how a 21st level Wu Jen in 3.5 could use Persistent Time Stop. Aside from the blatant exceptions though, it's not a big issue.

Perfect Slayer (Perfect Killer): This is probably one of the most absurd features on this list. You take a multiclass feat that gives, at best, 2d6+12 damage per encounter (well, maybe not at best) and turn it into a class that lets you deal 4d6+24 damage per attack. If you have brutal barrage, Bam-your damage per round just got upped by 16d6+96. Yes, that's 152 on average. This is almost exclusively useful against solo monsters mind you, since you'll only be able to place your shroud twice, and only one of those will max that to four shrouds. In addition, if your DM is using the Cleanser rules for solo bosses, don't expect your shrouds to last even that long. Though, it's time to invest in a way to regain an encounter utility power (if you can find one).

Planeshaper (Shape Reality): This power is only "Totally awesome" on its own, but when you consider the possibility to "Box in" enemies without any attack roll, saving throw, etc-that's when the sheer brokenness kicks in. Not as effective against huge or larger enemies though.

Punisher of the Gods (Bringer of Dooms): How does this interact with Vorpal Weaponry?! In any event, maximum damage is a whole lot like getting an automatic critical hit. Just imagine the synergy with Rage Strike. Though a more practical approach is for an Executioner to try it out-your encounter attack now deals +90 damage. Cool story bro.

Saint (Golden Halo): As if divine healers weren't already insane enough, now you have the ability to heal an additional 25 HP. Unlike every other source, this isn't surge specific. Meaning that Astral Seal does, in fact, still heal about 35 or more HP.

The sad thing is that, most of the paths that didn't make this list, really do kind of suck. Oh, there's a few exceptions-Archspell, Archmage, Demiurge, just to name a few. But it just seems like someone decided somewhere down the line that 30th level is for suckers. Go figure.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Now you're thinking with instances!

There's a term that I tend to use when describing mechanics in Dungeons and Dragons, and near as I'm aware, it's not used anywhere in the game rules. That word is "instance."

Damage comes in many forms, but a lot of these aren't even officially reconized. You have the "Base damage" that a power deals, ala the [W] damage and dX damage of weapon and implement powers, respectively. You have the ability damage many powers give. You have "Extra damage," which comes from a number of sources.

The significance of a damage instance is that, whenever you gain a bonus to damage, or a bonus to damage rolls, theoretically, it would apply once per damage instance-rather than once per "attack." The significance here is that you'll often have situations like Draconic Arrogance, where pushing or knocking an enemy prone deals damage-not in addition to existing damage (Extra damage), but rather, in and of itself. Any Extra Damage that applies to damage instances (rather than attacks) would apply to Draconic Arrogance's damage.

In short, a Runepriest is a monk's best friend. Pelor's Sun Blessing can be really useful for a Radiant Fist. And don't get me started on the Morninglord paragon path.

But what is most interesting is that sometimes, extra damage occurs when you least expect it, and other times, what you would expect to be extra damage isn't. For instance: Hellish Rebuke appears at first glance to deal damage that is then effectively doubled (sans Warlock's Curse) if you're damaged. But this isn't correct. Hellish Rebuke deals extra damage if you're damaged, meaning it doesn't create a seperate damage instance. But what's utterly freakish is that this non-seperate damage instance occurs at a different time than the power initially deals damage-so a creature effectively retroactively takes more damage, which can create the rather confusing paradox where a creature attacks the warlock, thus meaning that it had effectively suffered more damage than originally anticipated, and drops dead because of it! In practice, the Extra Damage nature of Hellish Rebuke just means that it doesn't benefit from Implement Focus or other bonuses to damage rolls-no matter what, the only damage the target will suffer above and beyond the original damage of the attack will be 1d6+Constitution modifier (or 2d6+Constitution modifier if you're epic).

For the flip side, sometimes you expect damage to be extra damage but it isn't. For instance, a Firestorm Arrow deals 1d6 fire damage per enhancement bonus to the target-which you would expect to be extra damage. But since it also deals fire damage to adjacent enemies, in reality, it's actually a separate damage instance. If you're using a fire damage attack with firestorm arrows, the target's resistance (or vulnerability!) to fire is going to apply not once, but twice! Likewise, a Lightning Weapon's daily item power deals lightning damage to the targets-not extra damage.

Perhaps the most bizarre example I've found is the Tempest Whetstone-dealing extra damage to a target that wasn't damaged in the first place. Theoretically, this would mean that vulnerability and resistance don't trigger-or maybe that the original target's resistance and vulnerability trigger for them! But that's absurd; a more reasonable assumption would be "This doesn't trigger bonuses to damage" (such as Headsman's Chop).

Hybrids: Admitting that you have a problem

It is time for an admission. I am addicted to hybrids.

Rather, it's probably more fair to say that I am addicted to complexity. Building characters with a large amount of interlocking parts is simply more fun-for myself-than building characters that don't have a large amount of interlocking parts. So much for "Elegance in Simplicity."

As thus, it pains me to say this but, "Hybrids are fundamentally broken."

Fundamentally, the game was not designed with hybrids in mind-feat requirements have assumed you're one class, possibly two, not three. But it's worse than that-the root underlying concept of hybrids doesn't hold up.

Here's the idea: When you're a hybrid, the obvious intention is that, in order to get the benefit of your hybrid, you have to be doing something that covers that half of the hybrid. Ranger quarry? Gotta use a ranger power. Sneak Attack? Rogue. Combat Challenge? Have to use a fighter power.

Except that, in practice, there's just way too many ways of getting around this restriction. Minor action attacks, MORE minor action attacks, marking an enemy through a means other than Combat Challenge-hybrids aren't "Two different characters as one" so much as "My class And More!"

Is there a solution? Probably. Have I determined what it is just yet? Not really. Is the mere existence of hybrids a threat to the very solidity of 4th edition? Not really. But when the root is rotten, you can expect to get some twisted results. As they say: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"It's Only a Daily" my foot

I tend to find that a lot of players have this strange notion that as long as a power is only usable once a day, it should be allowed to do anything and everything.

Take Platinum Scales, for instance. By the level a character can take platinum scales, the power grants a +8 or higher power bonus to all defenses for the entire duration of an encounter. Depending on your defenses relative to your opponent's attacks, this can be the equivalence of half damage to one fifth as much damage. Of course, it's only for one's person-so the enemy will just focus on someone else, right?

Well, not if you're a defender. And not if the entire party has similar mechanisms. The thing about daily powers is that, everyone has them. Everyone has three attacks, and as much as seven daily utilities by 26th level. That's a most severe case scenario obviously, but ultimately, even if in order for an encounter to be "fundamentally changed" every PC has to burn one daily power, that's still three encounters per day that are totally dominated by the presence of dailies, and many more if a party has access to a number of daily utility powers. Fortunately, there's a psychological impact in taking a daily utility compared to an encounter utility, which in my experience leads to daily utilities being less frequent, but the point stands.

Of course, as long as daily powers are not in and of themselves broken, there's no issue. The point is to demonstrate that, even as something only being usable once per day, that doesn't mean it won't fundamentally change the game-because there are a large number of them. In the same way I "only" use an at-will attack power twenty times per day.