Tag Archives: Temple of the Sky God

Which two D&D roles are too effective?

When designers of fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons devised the roles of controller, defender, striker and leader, they focused attention on granting characters of each role equal time to shine. At this, I think they succeeded.

Despite this success, the game would play better if the game made two roles worse at their job (and made everyone but strikers better at dealing damage).

Too hot: Strikers need to share the damage

When compared to characters in other roles, strikers deal too much damage. Striker-heavy parties perform better in combat, because dead is the best condition to impose on enemies. Sure the fighter can mark, and the wizard can daze, but dead is better, and who needs a healer when dead monsters inflict no damage? In difficult combat challenges such as the Lair Assaults, parties dominated by strikers almost always do best. Former D&D designer Rich Baker acknowledges, “4th Edition is, for better or worse, a striker’s game.

Temple of the Sky God

The 4E designers struggled to enable every class to make a damage-dealing attack on every turn, so no one feels bad about “wasting” a turn buffing, dispelling or—heaven forbid—healing. How ironic that unless you play a striker, your puny damage is hardly worth the arithmetic. I routinely see a single striker deal as much damage in a round as the rest of the party combined.

In ordinary, level-appropriate fights, a party without strikers can still grind out a victory eventually, but who has the time?

Several times a year, I act as a dungeon master at conventions. Typically, conventions strictly limit scheduled game sessions to 4½ hour time slots. As a convention dungeon master, managing time and the game’s pace becomes critical. I strive to bring every adventure to a satisfying conclusion within the time allowed. When I seat a table with a few strikers, I know that I can spare some extra time for that role playing encounter. When the table lacks any strikers, I face the delicate task of rushing the session without making the players feel rushed.

As the 4E designers worked out the game’s math, they should have pushed some of the striker’s damage potential to the other roles. Even with the adjustment, we would never see a party where no one wants to step up and play the striker.

Too cold: Defenders are too sticky

Defenders are too sticky; they make fights static and boring. I could go on, but Liam Gallagher makes this argument very well in “Make D&D Better, Remove Fighters From the Game.”

The fourth edition design tries to make combat fun by making it fast moving and dynamic, but the game undermines this asset by included defender abilities such as Combat Superiority that can stop a move. Defenders play best when they damage creatures that attack vulnerable characters, not when they lock monsters in place.

Just right: Exactly one leader works best

Fourth edition D&D seeks to make parties viable even when they lack a character to fill a role. Traditionally D&D parties required a healer/leader. The 4E design succeeded in making a leader optional, but more than one party leader limits the fun. With more than one leader, the monsters lose the ability to threaten the party, while the party reverts to a five-minute work day. And as I’ve discussed, if the extra leader replaces a striker, combat grinds to a crawl.

In fourth edition D&D, healing surges represent a character’s reserve of vitality. Logically, you might suppose that a character could expend a surge’s vitality to perform feats unrelated to healing. Players would readily trade surges for something like an extra encounter power. After all, how often do you run out of surges? By design, the game rarely, if ever, uses surges as a resource for anything but healing. If characters could spend healing surges willy-nilly, they could easily burn through a day’s allotment in a single fight. Afterwards, they need an extended rest and the five-minute work day returns with a vengeance.

In effect, characters in parties with multiple leaders can spend surges willy-nilly—more healing surges than intended by the 4E design. Monsters cannot deal enough damage to endanger characters with access to such deep reserves, but a single, tough fight ends the party’s five-minute work day.

The game would play better if characters could only spend a limited number of surges in a single encounter.

Controllers shine at objectives

Controllers are the only role that varies widely in effectiveness depending on nature of a battle. In the base 4E encounter consisting of one, roughly-equal strength enemy per PC, controllers stink. The usefulness of the role improves in a few scenarios:

  • Against lots of enemies, a controller’s area attacks can shine. But in 4E, characters only face lots of enemies when most are minions. But in practice, minions rarely last more than a round or two, even against non-controllers with access to powers like cleaves and whirlwind attacks. Even the surviving minions typically lack enough damage potential to matter.
  • Against solos and elites, a controller’s action denial can become decisive, but action denial makes encounters into boring grinds or one-sided romps. As fourth edition matured, the design of new solo and elite monsters has evolved to nullify attacks that deny them actions. Overall, this change benefits the game, but it weakens controllers.
  • When a party battles against overwhelming opposition, but has objectives to accomplish, the controller really shines. In fourth edition, I think the most enjoyable encounters pit the players against creatures they cannot hope to defeat, but which give the characters an objective that ends the encounter. In these battles, the striker’s damage hardly matters and the controller’s ability to hinder and obstruct becomes truly valuable. A party stacked with controllers works well in a goal-oriented challenge like the Temple of the Sky God Lair Assault, and I love playing a controller against overwhelming odds in the D&D championship. Alas, most D&D encounters remain battles to the death—or at least until one side gives up the fight.

Fourth edition’s mature design now locks each role in place with all its advantages and drawbacks. As a dungeon master or adventure designer, you can make the most of game by adding encounters that include more objectives than slaying the opposition. And as a player, if you want time to explore and interact, bring an extra striker.

Running and playing Lair Assult: Into the Pit of Madness

On March 17, 2013, I ran Into the Pit of Madness, the final entry in the Lair Assault program. This challenge’s outcome remained in doubt until the final die rolls—a perfect balance. The party came within a round of defeating the Essence of Evil, and the players all seemed to enjoy the session.  As with Kill the Wizard, the challenge divides the party, randomly placing individuals in smaller challenges. I liked this design in Kill the Wizard, and welcomed the encore.

More than any other Lair Assault, Into the Pit of Madness seems to demand multiple plays for the players to learn enough to succeed. At my table, one player had read the challenge in his role of backup dungeon master, so with my consent, he nudged the players toward a winning course. The knowledge helped, but the players hardly brought an optimized party. As usual for fourth edition, an optimal party would consist of four strikers and a healer. (I’m kidding, of course. The optimal healer should multiclass into a striker class.)

Essence of Evil

For Kill the Wizard, a homemade Drowslayer figure inspired me to make a Drowslayer of my ownInto the Pit of Madness features a showdown with another unique enemy called the Essence of Evil, a creature without any available miniature.  I failed to step up and make an Essence of my own, but Wendy and Curtis, the creators of that first Drowslayer, topped themselves. Check out this picture from of the Essence of Evil and an adjacent Babau.

The Essence of Evil from Lair Assault: Into the Pit of Madness

The Essence of Evil from Lair Assault: Into the Pit of Madness

They sculpted the Essence of Evil from Sculpey  oven bake clay and painted it in arterial red, malevolent black, and bruise purple.

Artifacts in the character builder

One of my tables in the last Lair Assault, Temple of the Sky God, succeeded in some measure thanks to a stockpile of multiple Sun’s Slivers,  “a powerful artifact of pure sunlight” that serves as a MacGuffin in the epic-level Winter of the Witch adventure in Dungeon.  Even when you select the Lair Assault option, the character builder offers Sun’s Silvers, and possibly other artifacts, as legal, zero-cost items. They’re free; take two!  Are the players ingenious for stocking up on Sun’s Slivers prior to the Lair Assault? Is a DM abusing authority by forbidding players from equipping their characters with artifacts? I’ve run for players who would probably answer yes to both questions.

Sun's Sliver in the character builder

In practice, I do not examine the character sheets, so I have no idea what equipment the players use.  When I ran Temple of the Sky God for a team equipped with Sun’s Slivers, the party still came close to failing, and everyone had fun, so I call it a success. I leave it for the players to decide whether the cleverly equipped characters diminish the challenge.  Still, I fault the character builder’s programmers for overlooking these shenanigans.

For DMs: Ruling the portal

When I ran Into the Pit of Madness and the characters reached the antechamber, a wizard easily made the 28-or-higher arcana check on the portal. The party included three characters well capable of hitting a 28 arcana DC. I reread the portal’s description on page 12 once again. “If a character with a check result of 28 or higher can see another creature moving through the portal, that character can choose the creature’s destination.” Does this mean that if someone in the party makes an Arcana check of 28 or higher, then everyone except the arcanist can short circuit the nodes and jump directly to the Black Cist? This interpretation seemed to invalidate so much of the challenge that I could not believe that it matched author’s intent. Did I miss something?

Incredulous and reluctant to skip the meat of the challenge, I exercised what may have been an abuse of my DM’s authority. I ran the portals as follows:

With a minor action, a character trained in arcana who sees a portal may establish control over the portal. When that character sees another character pass through the portal, then the controller may, as a free action, attempt to route the passing character to a specific destination. For this attempt, make an arcana check.

  • On a result of 28 or higher, the passing character travels to a node selected by the controller. Otherwise, roll randomly to determine the destination.
  • On a result of 23 or higher, the controller can discern the destination of the passing character.

Each time a character enters a portal, the controller must make a separate check. No more than one character may exercise control over a portal at once.

I allowed similar checks for the portals in the nodes; I’m not a monster.  With the characters at my table, this proved to be a fun and challenging approach to the portals.