Sunday, April 24, 2011

A-Z: E is for Enmity

I play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. It's all online via message board these days, though, and that's a medium with a tremendous turnover and failure rate. Awesome game ideas crop up, recruit players, and then...well, not every game comes back after a three month hiatus.

This means that I roll lots of characters, and that works out for me. Melding concept to prose and mechanics is my favorite part of the game anyway, and crafting characters and monsters are two very different sources for that joy. What makes creating characters for PbP different from most tabletop groups, though, is that it's generally a competition. I do most of my gaming with some fraction of the same eight or so person pool, but most of the games we run end up being open to the entirety of Myth-Weavers. This means that characters are almost never created in a vacuum, which is to say "Oh, this would be cool to play so I'm going to play it."

The decision matrix is usually more of "Hmm, lot of Defenders in the thread, little light on Leaders, I'll roll something in that direction." Since I've been doing the DnD thing for a long time, am a capable writer, and know the system, I'm usually not avoiding a well-populated roll to increase my chances of making the cut. However, I try to be understanding of the limits on some folks' time and inspiration, so unless I'm rolling into a game with the express desire I actually embrace these limitations, because having a few walls to bounce my thoughts off of helps increase my creativity. However, as a consequence of my looking at the constellation of submitted apps before I create a character, I almost never play strikers.

It's understandable that strikers comprise a significant chunk of almost any applicant pool. There are more of them, for one thing. They often feel more unique than other classes, I imagine, since the "thing" with a striker is that they have some special way of ladling on a little extra damage. I also imagine there's an element of the same issue that WoW is currently trying to solve in its Dungeon Finder, as well: people seem to prefer playing strikers. I think they're probably less stressful, especially in a full group with competent players occupying every role.

I'm not saying that playing DPS is easy, or doesn't require talent, or is for babies, or anything of the sort. Many strikers are actually very fragile, compensating for this with decent defenses. I think it's commendable that 4e has introduces some strikers who break this mold, and manage to be pretty beefy front-liners without stepping on defendery toes---though you think they'd appreciate that sort of thing (*rimshot*). But survivability is usually a concern with a striker, particularly if you have a DM who focuses fire on the greatest threats on the board (which are usually you, Jack Johnson, and Tom O'Leary).

Still, more people are willing to sign on for some roguery or a little sorcery than the burden of healing the party, taking those hits, or...and frankly, this one surprises me...controlling.

When I do have the chance to roll up some strikage, I find myself drawn back to Avengers again and again. This is interesting to me, because if I divided strikers into categories (I will not say tiers. I won't do it), Avengers would actually be just off the ladder. I'm not an optimizer, but bear with me:
  • Category Radagory These strikers basically just get their extra damage. It's essentially free, or requires next to no effort to arrange. I think of these characters as being "above" the core Striker curve, and it's worth noting that they arrived on the scene after the PHB. It never really seems like the quality of these classes' damage is penalized for their versatility. For instance, stack up the three boosts a Sorc gets (Damage increase, Resistance bypass, High damage dice on attacks) and compare that to a Warlock.

    Note that I'm not saying these classes are overpowered; they're awesome, and fun to play. I like knowing that if I'm getting someone into the game for the first time, and know they'll enjoy having big damage rolls and a high body count, I can hand them a Barbarian or Sorc and watch them go wild. And watching Hexblades go from ridiculous in 3e to utterly dope now is very entertaining.
    Classes in this category: Barbarian, Hexblade, Monk, Sorcerer
  • Category Gladegory These strikers still get extra damage, but it tends to require more work on their end. This work usually involves some combination of using an action and/or handling their positioning. That's cool, it provides a sense of strategy, but it's much more likely that a striker in this category finds himself incapable of rocking some critical damage on a key dude. That's why the "closest target" stuff seems odd to me: if I'm the party's archer (I would never be the party's archer) and the evil wizard, on the other end of the room, gets buck-wild on some nefariousness, it's my job to shoot him. Shoot him all Legolas style where he swats at the arrow in his throat, chokes, and falls down. But both Prime Shot and Quarry demand that I whittle away on the dudes closest to me.

    Was the idea that the guys closest to me were the biggest threat to my squishyness, and I need a boost for dropping them? I really don't understand it. Ultimately, I just feel badly for Warlocks, and am excited to see them get the Essentials bump to their efficacy. Rangers suffer too, I suppose; but if I'm playing a Ranger I am probably playing a beastmaster, and therefore enjoy much more flexibility in who I get wicked on.

    Interestingly, Rogues are vacillating between this category and the first one, thanks to the bump they got in Essentials (especially dealing their boosty damage once a turn) and some of the at-wills they now have access to. A player in the Red Hand game I'm in pretty well deals Sneak every round, often keeping his target facedown the whole time. I've loved Duelist's Flurry for ages (that article was one of the best Dragon has produced) because it changes the Rogue from a dude with a relatively light weapon to a rogue with a hyper-accurate maul. My preference with Rogues, though, is to bear down on that Rattling action and get the Str boost to my damage.
    Classes in this category: Rogue, Ranger, Warlock
  • Category Avadagory This category is pretty much the Avenger. And, as I said, I love the Avenger. I enjoy the flavor, how they seem to just reek of awesome at a basic level. I can make an awesome Cleric, or a really captivating Druid. But I don't really need to make an Avenger awesome; she's a super-dedicated chick who just wants to get that vengeance on. I think rolling twice is awesome. I think it's awesome, in no small part, because of my horrible dice luck.

    Fun Aside: I'm currently playing in an Epic game, where I replaced a departed defender (well, we actually have to kill that defender now, but the pilot abandoned the helm). I'm fighting creatures that I hit on a 5 or 6, for the most part. My last three rolls have been 2, 3, and 4.
Anyway, Avengers are also a class I tell new players about, because I think that the idea of getting a double roll is viscerally and immediately appealing. If you've never played 4e, you may have a hard time understanding how valuable "+Str" to damage, or even an additional 1d6, will actually be. Perhaps you know things have more hp in this edition compared to previous ones, so that further devalues the significance of a little damage bump. But a second chance to hit, and double your base chance to crit; these are things anyone can appreciate. But do you see what I did there? What I always do? I forget that Avengers have a damage boost; in my mind, their damage boost is just being able to roll twice. This is because Avengers are the only striker (did I miss something weird in Essentials?) who can't control when they add their extra damage. It's not even a question of positioning, or "Do I have a spare minor action?" It's also not an issue where you're choosing between doing your extra damage to a sub-optimal target or wailing away on the guy you want to shoot. The only way any of the Avengers get a bump on their damage is if the DM gives it to them. There's the occasional corner-case, of course: you could have the party's Enchanter make a dude hit you, so your Isolating Avenger gets a bump against his Oath target. I don't even think Fear-style forced movement (where you're actually forcing the target to move, rather than sliding/pulling/pushing him) triggers Pursuing's power boost. That does leave Unity Avengers, who have a much easier time triggering their bonus; they'll often play like a somewhat shabby Rogue. The leaderish elements of their At-Will helps balance things out slightly, so that while I may only be dealing an extra 1 or 2 points (at heroic, which is what I'm usually thinking about), I'm also bumping a buddy by 3 or so on a hit. Unity Avengers are interesting, though, in that you end up playing them more like the original 4e Battlerager; you don't want to go first, because you want certain other things to happen before you make your attack. Am I alone in seeing Avengers as being a class apart? I do grok that they have access to a wider array of deadly weapons than most strikers. Monks can also use lots of weapons, but it doesn't generally affect their damage without certain feats/features. Barbarians, though, can---and usually should---use tremendous two-handers, to which they're adding even more damage. Plus, rogues can just wield rapiers without a feat now, and that skews the whole assumption that strikers with big damage bonuses use weaker weapons.

So, again: Avengers, while beloved by this guy, feel as though they occupy a funny position in the world of strikers. Amiright?


  1. So many of your observations are... SO WEIRD. Monks being above the Ranger damage curve, beastmaster rangers being more versatile than the other builds, etc etc etc. Just... bizarre.

    But putting all of that aside, lets talk Avengers. The only Avenger build that I feel actually PLAYS differently is the Martyr (Censure of Retribution), in that it has this perverse incentive to keep its own defenses low. Encouraging people to whack you? Often having your off-turn OA's and granted MBA's do more damage than your attacks on your own turn? Bizarre. And consequentially, not really all that playable if you aren't in a party custom built around keeping you alive and in the spotlight.

    But other than that? Sure, there's cute little shenanigans you can pull with all or some of the builds, like crit fishing, but rarely are they changing where you are on the field, or who you're attacking, or how enemies are moving around you. Avengers, like any other melee striker or defender, come in three varieties: those that want to be cuddled up next to allies(rogues, wardens), those that want to be surrounded by a ton of foes (monks, fighters), and those that want to be off one-on-one with a chosen target (most strikers, swordmages).

    I hear you that rolling twice for your attacks feels very satisfying. And I hear you that the Avenger's bonus damage is almost entirely out of their hands. But overall, satisfaction or frustration with a striker for most people comes from how much TOTAL damage they're doing, not necessarily whether that damage is coming from static bonuses, triggered class abilities, or superior power selection.

    The Avenger will be attacking the same sorts of targets that other striker attack, and will be doing similar damage (meh, a little lower really) than other strikers, and will have similar defenses to other strikers (unless they're a Martyr). The only unique thing about them is accuracy and increased crit chance, and strikers overall are already rather accurate...

    I'd put them solidly in the middle of the striker pack: they're alright to play pure, they're alright to use as hybrids or multiclass characters, and they don't suffer from any obvious debilitating flaw with their mechanics. This puts them below rangers, barbarians and rogues, but above most of the essentials options.

  2. First, Rangers. A Beastmaster Ranger determines his closest opponent based on the location of either himself or his companion, which means that I have more options for declaring my quarry, not to mention dual physical presences on the board with the concurrent ability to make double AoOs (the Beast uses my immediate, but I'm a Beastmaster Ranger...hell else am I using that for?). The current Beastmaster I'm playing doesn't even have Beast Defender yet, which will only increase his opportunities to hurt a thing.

    Should Wizards actually give Rangers 1/round Quarry damage, I think we'll see the Beastmaster blow up...even though its companion is vastly inferior to both Thrallherd Thralls and Sentinel Companions, due to how the action economy shakes out.

    Part of what prompted this article was the other character I was building for Sand's game, who was a Unity Avenger taking advantage of some of the crazy Avenger feats that now exist; one of these feats make the Martyr build you describe much more survivable in any party. With one of the feats he picked up (one of which was, I believe, Paragon) he gets as many as ten thp for using an Isolating at-will (5 for hit, 10 if you "ended your turn more than 2 squares from where you started" which is actually worded really strangely, given that the thp aren't granted at EoT). The other feat is Unity-specific, but grants 3+3/adjacent ally thp to the character any time an ally hits your Oath target. Interestingly, for being such a big proponent of Group Init for PbP, this latter feat is actually much better with a staggered initiative system; that's why I made that Battlerager comparison above.

    But again, the fact remains that Avengers aren't in control of their damage. And while a Martyr could rely on AoOs, they don't have a single at-will they can use out of the box as an MBA or AoO, so you're looking at either juggling Str (when you'd probably want Con) or taking Melee Training (which halves your damage bonus). So it's still going to come down to your turn.

    And as for Pursuing Avengers...I played a Pursuing Avenger who never got to use her damage bonus. Presumably you're supposed to target a ranged-type target, but some encounters don't have those. Some of the ones which do don't give you access to them. And, of course, you're every bit as vulnerable to a DM who won't play ball as a Defender, except of course you are balanced around doing sweet extra damage.

    But of course, it's hardly unexpected that we're seeing something in wholly different ways. When you say "below rangers, barbarians, and rogues" are you putting Rangers above Sorcs? Similar to that question, I'm not entirely clear on---when you express shock at a Monk topping a Ranger in my estimation---you're thinking of all Rangers all the time or some offensive super Ranger build.