December 09, 2009

Two Ability Scores Better Than One?

*WARNING* This post is way too dang long!

We are closing in on 20 months from the release of 4th Edition. It's been almost two years, many source books and additions to the rules. Today, we're going to talk about a design concept that popped up in the very first book, the Player's Handbook, and which subsequently disappeared, never to return again. That design concept is something I'm going to dub the "dual-stat class." Specifically, Clerics, Paladins, Rangers, and Warlocks were given two ability scores to choose between as "primary" abilities. A player creating a character with one of these classes could select one of these ability scores to make as high as possible, reaping high attack bonuses, high damage modifiers, and at least one fairly high defense, but at the cost of being unlikely to choose some of their classes powers due to the low score in the other "primary" ability score for the class. Alternatively, a player creating one of these characters could try to split their character's focus, often making each of the primary ability scores slightly lower but allowing them to choose from all possible powers, but typically suffering in the "secondary" ability score which would often determine the effectiveness of secondary effects of powers selected. Paladins and Star Pact Warlocks were least fortunate in this regard, because prior to the release of their respective Power books, these classes (or builds, respectively) were nearly forced to split their focus, or risk choosing powers that did not fit their concept of character.

To be sure, Arcane Power, Divine Power, and Martial Power mitigated some of these problems by adding more powers from which to choose. However, they were undermined by releases of new classes in the Forgotten Realms Player's Guide, Eberron Player's Guide, and Player's Handbook 2. No other release contains a single class that has divided ability score loyalties as these four original classes did. So why did the design team go this route with these four classes?

  1. Perhaps the idea was to allow these classes to have two markedly different play styles and feels. The cleric could either be a ranged character focused on powerful heals and low-damage ranged attacks and debuffs, or a melee combatant with slightly lower-powered heals, but with the added benefits of a melee combatant (higher hit chance with proficiency bonuses from weapons, higher damage depending upon weapon selection, ability to provide and benefit from flanking).
  2. Perhaps the point was to make these classes play to strengths, so as to keep their power level in balance with other classes. A Ranger who could deal substantial damage with a bow and quickly change to melee with no decrease in damage potential would be a much bigger threat on the field than a Rogue who relies heavily on combat advantage to deal substantial damage, and who can rarely gain that damage with ranged attacks.
  3. Perhaps it was motivated by the original intent of limiting melee effectiveness to melee classes. Fighters, Warlords, Strength-based Rangers, and Strength-based Clerics were originally the only characters who had decent chances to hit with an opportunity attack or basic melee attack granted by another class' powers or abilities.

While I can articulate these ideas, I have a hard time feeling that any of these arguments hold a lot of water. Ultimately, this smacks of a bit of an oversight, or a drastic change in design philosophy after the release of the Player's Handbook. For ease of discussion, I'll number my refutations parallel to the arguments above.
  1. Wizards who focus on illusion over evocation-style attacks (to borrow some 3.5 Edition terminology) don't have to choose between maximizing Intelligence or Charisma. They max Intelligence and are done with it, and can choose nearly any powers available for their class. In short, even in the original book, there were other classes with significant flavor variations that were either reliant on the choice of "secondary ability score" or simply by the powers chosen.
  2. Sure a Ranger being able to swap between melee and ranged would be rather potent in terms of sustained damage output. But a Rogue can now take the Distant Advantagefeat from Player's Handbook 2, and instead of being limited to attacking the nearest target to them which they have designated their quarry (Ranger's striker damage class feature) they can deal their hefty damage at range with the only restriction being who is granting combat advantage that round. Sure that limitation exists, but it will fluctuate so much round to round that it is unlikely that there will be no eligible targets in a given round, and the rogue can always close to melee if necessary (since their attack powers use Dexterity regardless of melee or ranged, and at the very least, their at-will powers that can be used at range are generally also usable with melee weapons). And no one would argue that warlocks are "totally over-powered!" In short, this argument seems to fall apart when parallels start being drawn under the current rules available for the game.
  3. The reason this argument makes no sense anymore is the introduction of the Melee Training feat in Player's Handbook 2 which allows a character, at the cost of a feat to swap his best ability score for strength when determining the attack and damage bonus for basic melee attacks, including those granted during an opportunity attack. Granted, the Strength-based classes can skip this feat, and get something else to increase their melee effectiveness in other ways. But ultimately, the introduction of this feat ends up feeling like an admission of guilt: "Whoops, we wanted to introduce some strikers who didn't use Strength as a primary ability score and still want them to be able to make opportunity attacks or benefit from their Warlord companion granting them a basic melee attack!"
I've been wrestling with a possible solution to this issue, in the form of a house rule for my own games, to address this disparity as I see it. Unfortunately, it isn't as simple as just picking one of the two ability scores and just substituting it for the attack powers that don't use it. Actually, I think that would work fine for the Cleric and Warlock. I'll probably let clerics who want to play a melee character in future games use Wisdom instead of Strength for their attack powers. It'll still cost them a feat for the Melee Training, so I figure it's not free upgrades. For warlocks, I've never been totally keen on the "Constitution as a primary ability score" idea anyway, so I'll likely make all their powers use Charisma. Infernal Pact warlocks will still want a high Constitution since some of their utility powers still would rely upon it. And Star Pact Warlocks won't be as disadvantaged as they were.

For Paladins and Rangers, the fix isn't as simple. Making Paladin's Strength-based would make them feel too much like the fighter in a lot of ways. However, making them Charisma-based would make starting with plate armor proficiency a much greater boon. It would also mean the end of strong, sword and shield paladins, shattering the existing archetype. I've always been partial to the Paladin, and I don't want to damage the prevalent conception that badly.

For Rangers, they have many powers that work for either melee or ranged weapons, and use the appropriate ability score for that build. They have the power choices to support both builds, and while the Archer Ranger is at a disadvantage in melee, a Melee Ranger can still use heavy thrown weapons to achieve a ranged capability. I feel that an Archer Ranger taking Melee Training: Dexterity almost resolves this class' issues. I will probably leave Rangers alone, and might even hold them up as an example of what a "dual-stat class" should be.

Having finally started to experience Paragon Tier, attack bonuses being as high as possible seems even more important than ever. Any design element that punishes a player for building a character that fits their concept just doesn't work for me. If you want to make a Star Pact Warlock, I don't want you to spend more time doing nothing in combat but cursing targets because you can't hit the monsters I'm using because everyone else hits them easily. If you want to play a melee cleric, but don't want to lose your healing potential, I'm okay with that too. Ultimately, I'd rather my players were *slightly* over-effective, rather than frustrated to tears because being the best healer they can be means that when they are out of healing word and healing utility powers, they might as well go watch TV.

So, final review: I feel like Clerics and Warlocks got hosed. I'm going to fix them with the house rules above. Rangers, while in the same category, seem to have gotten decent treatment and will be left alone. And I'm still not sure what to do with Paladins. If anyone has an idea, let me know, I'd love to play-test it and see if we can present a workable solution.

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