Honestly, I don’t want to even start this discussion. This post might bruise some feelings and make some folks feel I’m unjustly picking on them. But I think I need to sort out why I feel the way I do every time I encounter a rough spot in the rules. And if these rough spots seem to source from the same players every time, well it’s a credit to those players. They are invested in the game and demonstrate their mechanical mastery on a regular bases. So here we go:
So last week, I played in a paragon-tier game and we fought a particularly nasty solo. The combat tested our abilities and in the end, it wound up claiming two PCs who fell from the tower’s top to their deaths. My character, sadly, was among the dead. Near the encounter’s end, the villain finally bloodied, a player, late to the game, dropped certain justice on a solo it had previously hit with knightly intercession. By a strict reading of the power, the villain was dazed and weakened until the end of the encounter. I wasn’t running the game, so I could only benefit from the effect. Yet it annoyed me all the same.
Why? Why on earth would that potent combination bother me? Should I not celebrate the player’s ingenuity, the careful analysis that led to what could have reshaped the entire encounter and probably saved my character’s life had the player arrived earlier and dropped it at the start? Should I not just chill the hell out and let this stuff go? Are these combinations not meant to be used?
I’m bothered because every loophole like this is a failure in game design and development. Each broken combination like this weakens the play experience. And because 4e is exceptions-based, there’s no telling how many of these combinations just wait for exploitation. The problem is not confined to what lives inside of a single class’s options. I’m sure there are troubling combinations that arise when two or more classes work together, to say nothing of feats and magic items. There are potholes all over the place and each time we fill one, another lies in wait just a few yards down the road.
So what’s the problem with certain justice and knightly intercession? Knightly intercession interrupts an enemy’s attack, pulls the enemy to a square adjacent to you, and lets you make an attack. If the attack hits, the target gains your divine sanction until the end of the encounter. On the surface, this seems fairly reasonable. However, closer analysis reveals a few small problems.
1) This interrupt will cancel an enemy’s melee attack and may cancel an enemy’s ranged attack since the trigger is hit and the effect is a pull. That alone is tasty.
2) At the end of the pull, you make a 2[W] attack against the target with no miss effect. If the attack hits, the target gains a mark that lasts until the end of the encounter.
It may be that this power is already too good. Immediate action powers deliver less damage than their level specifies. As a close power, you don’t have to see the target to use the power. As a close burst 10, the power covers most battlefields. These mechanics alone make the power worth a level 9. But add to this the roughly 55% chance that the paladin will also deal 2[W] damage and bestow an end of the encounter mark and you have something that may be suspicious. This said, I have no problems with this power. End of encounter marks are not unknown (however, the paladin didn’t have any end of encounter marks when Champion of Order was written). Lasting threat from Martial Power can put the same hurt on the bad guy, so this doesn’t bother me all that much.
Paired with the red 11 power from Champion of Order, we now have a problem. What’s frustrating is that certain justice was even revised once in ’08 and yet it still doesn’t work. See, the power is already super-accurate, being a weapon attack, Strength + 4. That plus 1[w] is just right for a level 7 encounter and a hair under a level 11 power. If, however, the target is marked, the target is dazed and weakened until it is no longer marked by you. Think about that. Oh sure, who cares if the combination hits a standard monster? It might even be acceptable for an elite target. But a solo? A pre-Monster Manual 3/Monster Vault solo? Plus, we really don’t want effects from encounter (red) powers to live longer than a round, especially dazed.
The net result from this combination is that the DM must provide key monsters with an “end daze, stun, dominate” power every time. Action Recovery works nice for this effect since they are paired effects and I’d argue dropping dazed would also drops weakened. If not, the combat is sure to drag out for ages as the solo deals 1/2 damage. Alternatively, the solo either has to flee the fight (which it probably wouldn’t be able to do since it is dazed) or surrender until 5 minutes passes and combat can resume. 3[W] damage and the fight’s over. OK. Yes, the combination does require two attack rolls to pull off, so it won’t happen every adventuring day, but I imagine an accuracy-focused character will manage this enough that it will cause problems.
Another nasty combination I’m dealing with every other Sunday is the +7 bonus all the characters have to death saving throws. The combination is legit and only requires a feat (the name escapes me) and a class feature available to the Sun domain warpriest. On the surface, this sounds awesome. The result, however, is that the warpriest is less inclined to use healing word in combat since dying characters spend a healing surge on a roll of 13 or better and only gain a skull on a roll of 1 or 2. Until the player drops the feat (which won’t happen), the characters only fear death if this PC drops.
All of this takes me back to the days when I played Magic the Gathering. In the mid-90s, we played the hell out of this game. Some of us were casual players and built decks based on themes, cool (though not always potent) effects, and so on. Others played to win and scoured the secondary market for the cards they needed to create auto-win decks. When you played these guys and lost everytime it was no longer fun. The game was no longer interesting because your opponent was just going to win, either by stealing all your monsters, firing off channel and fireball, or punishing you every time you drew a card. And when the game was no longer interesting, I stopped playing.
At some point, perceptions about Dungeons & Dragons have morphed. The game is now winnable. Mechanical selection enables players to create characters that operate well-beyond the expected boundaries and have the means to trivialize the opposition, thus forcing DMs to eliminate options and look further afield for challenges to test the player characters. For example, the first battlerage vigor rules in Martial Power turned minions into temporary hit point batteries to fuel what were, in effect, unkillable characters. Optimal character construction has almost become the equivalent to the Ur-decks of Magic, and such combinations make the game no longer fun to play or run.
So what’s the solution? Closing the loopholes is not unlike playing Whack-a-Mole. Loopholes keep popping up and smacking one down sends another jumping up. Plus, optimizers do what they do because they enjoy the challenge and live to show off their creativity and, in some cases, their mechanical genius to everyone they play with. Coming down hard on these characters is either blatant punishment or just incites these players to look for even more superior options. Nuclear escalation continues.
Aside from just walking away and finding a new group, the solution, as I see it, comes from both sides of the DM’s screen. The players need to understand that even though an optimized character can be an asset to the party, it can also make impotent the challenges the DM creates. After a dozen toothless encounters, the game grows stale and eventually dies. Rule 0, when it comes to character creation (and I’ve said this before), if it smells like poop, it probably is poop. If you find some mechanical nugget that eliminates a rather sizeable chunk of game play (such as death) or wipes out a category of monsters (solos, minions), think carefully before choosing that option. As well, reverse rolls with the DM (who is also a player). As a player, you wouldn’t enjoy a game where every session, you have to spend one encounter dazed and weakened from start to finish, right? Why would the DM?
On the other side of the screen, the DM must understand his or her players, and accept players make these mechanical choices for a reason. They do it to feel special, to contribute in a meaningful way that gives them a bit of spotlight. Rather than shatter “awesome” characters, embrace them and create situations where they can shine. In the case of the champion of order, build challenging encounters into the game where the player will want or have to use knightly intercession early and then you save the big solo, set-piece encounters for times when the PC has exhausted this power.
You might also create ways for villains to overcome crippling conditions. Give every solo the Action Recovery trait or bolt on no action triggered powers that wash the battlefield with damage on becoming dazed, weakened, stunned, or something else. For example, maybe a dazed or stunned solo loses the ability to control its magical energy and whenever it suffers a crippling condition, it gains aura 5 dealing 10/20/30 psychic damage to enemies that start their turns in the aura.
In the case of the +7 bonus to death saving throws, have some monsters attack dying characters. If a fallen PC has a high chance of spending a healing surge at the end of his or her next turn, the monsters ought to realize the only way to keep the characters down is to make sure they’re dead. It’s brutal, but doing so should drive the player to be more liberal with healing word and not rely on a feat to get fallen PCs back on their feet.
This post has gone on long enough, so I turn to you. How do you deal with game-breaking mechanics in your game? What sorts of things have you encountered? How did you solve the problem?