Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dungeons and Dragons: Nonsensical Title Before Series Subtitle- Defender Marks Part 2

Next on my laundry list of series I started in 2010 and need to complete, I'm going to wrap up talking about the non-Essentials DnD defenders and their marks. I may come back and hit up Essentials defenders at a later date, though that's probably worth no more than a supplemental mini-post.* I already covered the Fighter, Swordmage, and Battlemind in my previous post, and made a case for viewing the Fighter as the core defender chassis. Even with Essentials material available, I still stand by that claim; Essentials defender auras mostly trade targeting for choice. This makes them a deviation from the core defender concept, where selecting your marked targets is a major tactical consideration.

Without further ado, let's delve into the remaining two defenders.

High Marks: Paladins

Talk about a tremendous change in the way a class plays! Prior to Divine Power, Paladins had the unsexiest, most demanding mark available. It had incredible range---especially when there was no Swordmage to compare it to---but that was almost a liability, since you had to end your turn next to your marked target or lose the mark and the power. The creation of Divine Sanction changed that, and suddenly I was looking at rolling a Pally for the first time...well, ever.

  • Two Ways to Play: As mentioned above, Paladins originally played out in a fairly restrictive fashion. Divine Challenge took a minor action to use, and had range, but you had to engage---either by moving adjacent or attacking---your marked target every round. If you failed to, the mark ended and you lost the ability to use the power for a round.

    Divine Power introduced Divine Sanction, a status applied by certain Paladin attacks. In basically every way, Divine Sanction is identical to Divine Challenge; deals the same damage, applies a mark, etc. The primary difference is that Sanction's duration is limited by the power that applied it (usually to the end of your next turn). Properly maintained, Divine Challenge can last as long as the target does. There are also some feats which boost the effect of Divine Challenge, in an attempt to keep you paying attention to your minor action each round.
  • Target Acquired: It is worth noting that the Paladin's Divine Challenge is one target within Close Burst 5. Being able to grab the attention of a foe that far away is great...but, again, unless you end your turn next to them the mark ends with your turn. There are some corner cases where it's handy: have party members ready an action to flee a threatening foe as soon as you mark it, for instance. Overall, though, I see this quality of the Paladin mark as something of a wash. Since you need to end up adjacent, you'd be about as well off just charging the target with an attack that marks it; in fact, Ardent Strike is an at-will Paladin power that does just that.
  • Immediate Results: The sexiest element of both types of Paladin mark (Sanction and Challenge) is probably the actionless, automatic damage they deal.
    However, being actionless sets the Paladin up to defend in a markedly different way from other classes, since he's capable of punishing any and all marked opponents who don't include him in their attacks.
  • Buuurn! Originally I had this folded into another point, but upon reflection decided that it deserved its own mention. The Paladin mark deals Radiant damage, which makes it unusual amongst base mark consequences: it's capable of triggering vulnerabilities. Not just that, but Radiant is a weakness thrown onto a tremendous percentage of traditional adventuring baddies, though your own campaign may vary (There are no undead in Tinderbox thus far, for instance). While Radiant resistance is not unheard of, it's most prevalent with things that are not only at the higher end of the spectrum, but ostensibly unlikely to be foes of Paladins in the first place. Certainly, a Paladin of the Raven Queen might bump up against Angels in Kord's service, and crazy Deva could be getting crazy in any situation. But the mere act of choosing a paladin is likely to give many players a certain buffer against battling radiant-resistant foes.
  • Bold Class Support: For players who are really into the damage and marking aspect of the Paladin (as opposed to playing it for off-heals or status removal), there is Ardent Vow. Ardent Vow is one of the class features whose implementation is unique to the Paladin: a "daily" power with a number of uses based on the character's Wisdom modifier. Virtue's Touch and Lay on Hands are the other two options, though they still present the latter as a green power with limited daily uses, for whatever reason. A player who takes Ardent Vow, though, gains the ability to deal boosted damage with the triggering attack, followed by Divine Sanctioning the target with every attack you make against it until the end of the encounter. For a player really interested in focusing on the defender role, this option lets a character play like a Fighter in terms of marks, but with the armor, radiant damage, and aforementioned no-action mark consequences of a Paladin.

It's difficult to discuss what the Paladin was meant to be, because the addition of Divine Sanction so drastically reworked how the class was capable of playing. However, prior to Divine Power it seems that the Paladin was intended to be a single-target tank; planting herself in front of the biggest asshole in the room and hammering at it until it fell down. Some fights, such as those with solos or elites, benefit significantly more from this type of character. As well, the auto-hit radiant damage mark has some of the benefits that the Battlemind's Mind Spike also enjoys. It's more dangerous for a powerful, high-defense monster to ignore a Paladin than a Fighter, because it will suffer for it. Paladins also have that corner-case situation of being Divine characters, and thus ostensibly designed to wreck shop on undead even if it costs them some efficacy against breathing foes.

Again, though, the existence of Divine Sanction changes things. One could certainly play an original, duel-style Paladin; or even use Divine Power to build a character much more heavily oriented towards buffs and status effects. However, with the right suite of powers a Paladin can become a significant multi-target Defender, in which case the actionless auto-damage really shines. Because of the way timing for the Sanction/Challenge damage works, a Paladin is great for clearing out minions; they'll actually burn up before their attack is even rolled.

(It's at this moment I realized how awesome a Paladin and Enchanter combo could be, and was briefly distracted. Tiefling to try and make the stats line up and you could possibly fit it all into one character...)

Even discounting the Utility and Encounter powers that let a Paladin apply his Sanction to all creatures within an area, if you get yourself surrounded, or swing with Ardent Strike before moving, you can mark at least two creatures a turn thanks to Divine Challenge. Obviously the right Fighter build can do that too, but a Paladin does it without giving up the resilience that a TWF-specced fighter loses. There are two Fighter At-Wills that offer you the chance to mark additional foes, but your mark is generally not as enforceable on those extra enemies. Of course, Paladins do nothing to deter the mobility of their marked foes, so that concern remains. They're also at risk of the enemy just attacking them directly, but as I speculated above, that sort of slugfest seems to be right in the Pally wheelhouse.

High Marks: Warden

I love Wardens, whose free start-of-turn save achieves the same sort of stun/daze resilience that many solo monster rewrites have sought to create. Warden DPS is an interesting case, because I tend to think of it as low primarily due to the class being associated with maces and hammers. But on the subject of Warden marks themselves:

  • Everyone's Included: I've already expressed the value I place on multi-target marking; with proper positioning, a Warden could mark as many as eight foes with a single free action. And then probably die before his next turn!

    Outside of that fairly improbable scenario, though, the Warden still has a very flexible and powerful mark option. At the very least it's possible to play it like a Fighter, marking whatever target you're swinging at each turn. Depending on how many foes are in your vicinity, though, using Nature's Wrath could prove equivalent to a Fighter's use of Vicious Offensive or even Threatening Rush...but, like a Paladin using Ardent Vow, the Warden can achieve this effect without losing the other riders on whatever attack she chooses to employ. Effortlessly getting the attention of multiple foes increases the Warden's impact on the battlefield, moving her from foiling the plans of one enemy to potentially disrupting the tactics of the entire opposing force.
  • Get Over Here! When it comes to enforcing their mark, Wardens have two tools at their disposal. I always like choices in my characters, so I found the pair of options appealing back when the PHB2 first dropped; in fact, I ended up playing the Warden in a pre-PHB2 play by post playtest some friends set up. The Warden can use Warden's Fury to accomplish roughly what a Fighter would do with Combat Challenge. It's slightly better in that A) It's a full weapon attack against a non-AC defense (Even though Fort is generally pretty decent on a frontliner) and B) It debuffs the target to grant CA until the end of the Warden's next turn. That power alone would be quite appealing, since marking multiple foes increases the chances that the Warden will get to pop off the attack against at least one of them.

    However, the Warden also has a Burst 5 reaction option, which I find more exciting in many ways. Granted, Warden's Grasp fires after your enemy has already popped one of your friends. However, since it slides, slows, and stops shifts from the target it's great for locking down mobile and ranged attackers; traditionally two groups Defenders struggle with. Whether you're using Grasp to deprive a skirmisher of mobile melee attack, or setting up a flank with a striker on the enemy controller, Warden's Grasp provides a different kind of battlefield control. As a Close Burst 5, it's also an option that reduces the necessity of adjacency for your character.

    Of course, you can just use Grasp to help bring an enemy adjacent, setting up refreshing your mark with another application of Wrath.
  • Whiplash When it comes to in-class support, some Warden builds have more than others. Wildblood and Stormheart are explicitly designed to mark and combat multiple foes, and their second-wind abilities help reinforce this. The Earthstrength build has more survivability, which also fits with how Wardens play in that it means you can mark eight dudes and make it to your next count in initiative.

    Wardens also have access to some useful at-wills (in some cases, further supported by feats) to ensure that they can set up multiple-mark turns. Weight of Earth slows, which is a status effect I've frankly never devoted much time to pursuing. However, Wardens can pick up Crippling Crush, which adds their Con to the damage of weapon attacks which slow a target (and is inflicted with the right weapons). Being able to boost one's damage and keep a target within 4 squares of me is very appealing as a defender.

    And then there's Thorn Strike. I recall being blown away by this power when it premiered; the ability to net a foe who would normally be outside your reach and yank them closer is huge. Granted, anyone who wants to make melee attacks out to range 2 can just wield a reach weapon---and for a Warden, the to-hit and damage considerations are likely equivalent, though you lose out on a shield. But Thorn Strike doesn't require you to make those sacrifices, meaning you can wield either hammer and board or the most brutal two-handers. Plus, pulling the target adjacent sets up more valuable Nature's Wraths, where you stand next to one foe and drag another adjacent in order to get your marks set up, then let them try and scatter only to drag them back with Grasp and more Thorn Strikes on subsequent turns.

Wardens are flexible, and capable of respectable armor classes due to the various build options that replace Dex/Int with Wis or Con for the purpose of AC. They excel at grabbing up the attention of multiple foes, then enduring that attention through a combination of raw health and various debuffs. I think the challenge Wardens present is seeming like their sole purpose is to be the stolid AoE defender, who stands in front of one enemy and keeps him, plus a few buddies, marked. I tend to play them with a focus on mobility instead; marking foes then leaving and finding more enemies to directly engage. Like Swordmages, Wardens can get away with not standing directly on their marked foe. Warden's Lunge actually makes it possible to mark some enemies, shift away, then charge and mark another foe. The second-wind powers of Wardens also suggest that this type of mobile combat is actively encouraged, since you can apply effects to any number of marked foes regardless of where you're standing. They're better suited to punishing a foe who tries moving away, since their MBAs are good for opportunity attacks, and their toolset is well suited to frustrating and crippling foes who try to make do with shifts.

I realize that my discussion of these last two classes devolves somewhat into "Hey, here's some cool stuff that this class can do!" but that's a consequence of feeling as though I answered the original question---do Battleminds have a shitty mark---fairly exhaustively in the first post. By the time I sat down to write this one, it was more about exploring how each class's approach to the defender role differs. With the interesting exception of the Swordmage, every Defender has access to at least one At-Will that marks a target, plus other ways of doing so. This seems to suggest that Defenders are being pushed towards (or at least invited to consider) builds that try to keep foes clustered and marked. Whether this is a reaction to DMs simply refusing to bunch their NPCs together or something in the design of the classes that was underperforming before, the possibility to craft a multi-target Defender is very much there in every class.

Except, again, Swordmage. That's interesting since Swordmages are going to have the absolute worst opportunity attacks, barring the corner case of a Cha-only Paladin. That means that, while a swordmage can mark one foe and then get up in the face of another, he's at a distinct disadvantage if that latter foe cuts and runs. Being marked at least provides some disincentive to flight; the NPC is risking an AoO to get away, but possibly facing the Swordmage again the second he swings at a buddy. I'd be interested in seeing a new At-Will that addresses this lack; perhaps a Close Blast or Burst that does Int damage and marks all targets? As I suggested before, Swordmages already suffer a heavy tax on immediate-actions, so trying to enforce multiple marks is something they'd struggle with anyway. However, giving them more targets for those powers which trigger in conjunction with their Aegis significantly increases the value and appeal of those powers.

It would be nice to close this out with some definitive statement about the premiere defender, but I don't play that way. For me, the decision of what class to play is almost always secondary to the character I'm envisioning. Even when that's not the case, and I'm actively sitting down to fill a particular role slot---either because it's what a game/party needs, or because (and this is more likely) I realize I'm not currently playing something in any of my games---I tend to go by taste and curiosity more than anything else. Of the pbp games I was in a week or so ago, I had two Controllers (One dwarven wizard, one paragon mul invoker MC psion with Thrallherd PrC), two strikers (Beastmaster ranger, hybrid sorcerer/warlock), and one leader (Defiant runepriest); with the exception of the Mul, all of my characters are heroic. When a friend mentioned that the defender had just bailed on his Epic game, I decided to try my hand...and ended up putting together a Battlerager Fighter. As for why...honestly, it's mostly because I never play fighters (and have only run two or three defenders in 4e, period). I think the Battlerager concept is engaging, and had an old chestnut of a character concept that fit the sheet that took shape. It will be interesting to see how he plays at Epic, a tier I have absolutely 0 experience with. If I'd written this article first---reviewing my previous one in the process---I think I would still have gone with the Battlerager. However, I'm now thoroughly itching to toy around with a mindbending Paladin and some sort of Warden.

*I'm not ragging on Essentials. I've had the opportunity to spend some time reading them, and I like essentials. Especially Hexblades; I'm in love with Hexblades in a dank, nasty way. But while their defenders might represent a purified manner of defending, I don't feel that it's tremendously complex or choice-driven.

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