Dungeons and Dragons: My Planned Posts Begin to Resemble a Matryoshka- Defender Marks Part 1

Note: This post was originally a response to a PM on Myth-Weavers, but as it grew in length I figured I’d move it here. You know, to up my post count and drive sweet sweet traffic. Plus, the questioner reads the blog, so it’s allll net gain.

So I was talking to a longtime associate and applicant player for Tinderbox today about his character concept. I was shocked when he explained that he’d traditionally avoided the Battlemind class because it was almost universally reviled on boards, and had a worthless mark. I didn’t doubt his words–I avoid boards of most any sort like a sane man avoids the plague, so I wouldn’t know what they do and don’t like today. The part about the mark being worthless, though, really caught me off-guard. One of the games I’m currently playing in has a battlemind defender, and I’ve never noticed any deficiencies. My associate went on to explain that the mark’s damaging effect seemed difficult to trigger, particularly in the following two situations: 1) When the marked target chooses to move away from the battlemind, rather than shifting (battleminds have an opportunity at-will that shifts) and 2) When the battlemind has marked 2 (or more) creatures. My associate compared Battlemind’s Demand, longingly, to Swordmage Aegis…and I found that even more interesting, since I’m markedly less bullish on the swordmage (though oh how I wish I could be).

I thought the swordmage comment was useful, though, because it highlights what I consider to be the two most important questions when considering relative mark quality: what are you consider the “base” defender, and what do you expect out of a mark? I’m only going to address the first question in this post, however.

High Marks: Fighters

For the former, I’m pretty sure the base defender class is supposed to be a fighter. The traits of a fighter’s Combat Challenge are include:

  • Ease of Application: It glides right on! A fighter’s mark is arguably the easiest to apply. That might be tied with Warden, but fighters don’t have to mark every target, and can mark on ranged attacks as well. The fighter simply declares that he’s marking one or more creatures he attacks; even if the attack is on someone else’s turn, he still applies the mark. All marks last until the end of the fighter’s next turn, as well, so there’s no penalty when comparing a creature you marked on your turn with one you marked thanks to the warlord Leading your ass.
  • Simplicity of resolution: If the marked target makes an attack that doesn’t target the fighter, or shifts, the fighter makes a melee basic attack as an immediate interrupt. Feats can improve this ability in various ways, as can class features, but even its core version is sexy. An accurate fighter can use this ability as a minion-killer, for instance. It plays well with item effects too; hit a shifting foe with something that knocks them prone and they aren’t going anywhere.
  • In-Class support: Specifically here, I’m talking about Combat Superiority/Agility. Fighters select one of these two powers, and both enhance their Attacks of Opportunity in different ways. Superiority boosts all AoOs attack rolls by Wis and halts movement (Like the World Speaker shaman’s opportunity spirit attack). Agility is more complex, but basically it lets the marked foe complete his action, then chases him down and hits him. Either way, the value of these class features is to discourage enemies from straight running away from the fighter without a shift. I suppose that they also discourage it from making ranged or area attacks while adjacent to the fighter, but a mob doing that could still take the immediate interrupt hit as well, so I don’t see a lot of archers and wizards taking that option.

This is a sexy mark, and I can recall being awed by its existence when 4e premiered. It turns your fighter into the centerpiece of the battle, rather than the guy who swings at things ineffectually while the wizard debates whether or not he wants to use a lvl 4 spell, or just plink away at the creature with wands and magic missiles. However, this cornerstone defender ability also suffers both of the problems attributed to Demanding battleminds.. A character you mark can just move away from you to avoid being hit by the mark…though he’s provoking an AoO to do so, and risking that AoO (with a fighter who takes that feature) being boosted and halting the movement. A fighter built with Combat Agility doesn’t halt the AoO-provoking action (which means a character who moves gets his full movement on) but then he can follow the target with a shift…if that shift takes him adjacent to the target (or 1 square away with melee weapon) he then makes an attack that has the chance to knock the target prone. Note that in many cases, the moving creature will still end up adjacent to the fighter after his movement, especially if we’re assuming it was a melee mob who was marked and they must remain near the other enemies in order to be effective. That means he’s back to provoking the mark attack. In the majority of cases it’s in the creature’s best interests to stay where he is and provoke the free swing which is not benefitting from any special bonuses, rather than take the attendant risks associated with an AoO, which from a fighter is very likely–with Combat Superiority or Combat Agility–to result in being both hit and still adjacent to the fighter. A player marking more than one creature still suffers from having only one immediate action per round, as well; so he’s no more capable of punishing a second creature than a battlemind. That’s actually a larger issue than the question of marked creature positioning; most defenders can’t punish more than one marked creature in a round because they lack the actions to do it. It’s what the Paladins have going for them, really, but they didn’t have it until Divine Power gave them the babymark of Divine Sanction.

High Marks: Swordmages

Let’s compare this to the Swordmage. Now, the major advantages a swordmage’s Aegis has (barring feats and powers, natch) are:

  • Targeting: The swordmage picks one target in a close burst 2. There’s no attack necessary, and no other requirements (like a paladin’s responsibility to engage his challenged opponent). A swordmage is also capable of using this mark even if she is immobile or has her actions limited by conditions like daze. That latter option might seem like an odd choice, but if it’s an until end of turn daze, she’ll still be able to fire off her response to anything the creature might do.
  • Range of effect: I was helping someone optimize a swordmage (inasmuch as I ever “optimize”) and mentioned that the swordmage is an unusual defender because he doesn’t need to care very much about where his marked target is. In fact, to get the best use out of the character I feel you’re often trying to mark one opponent, then shift or run off to engage a wholly different one. If your marked opponent begins to cause a ruckus with your buddies, you have the same capacity to discourage him as an adjacent fighter…but from ten squares away.
  • Duration: People don’t talk about this one much, but it’s pretty significant in my opinion. A swordmage who marks a creature leaves that creature marked until such time as she decides to mark someone else. This makes the ability more similar to an Avenger’s Oath, except that the swordmage can move her mark around whenever she wants–rather than just at the death of the target. Unlike a Paladin mark, there’s no maintenance required to keep the mark up. It’s just there, until it needs to be moved.
  • Versatility of effect: This is what my associate missed the most, I think. The swordmage is uniquely customizable in how he applies the consequences for violating his mark. The class builds themselves provide the choice between positioning and dealing damage (Assault), damage mitigation (Shielding), or positioning and control (Ensnaring). Furthermore, all three builds have access to additional powers which can be triggered as part of applying their aegis. Assault swordmages would expect to do this, since they’re striker-ish; teleporting next to the enemy just sets them up to be even more strikerish on their actual turn. But it’s particularly exciting to play a Shielding swordmage and still smite your opponent from afar…especially since you’re still usually in a melee on the other side of the map. Finally, an Ensnaring swordmage just bring the threat to her, setting it up to be dogpiled in the process.

These powers are unquestionably cool, and an additional appeal of the swordmage is the elemental damage that you apply with most of your attacks. Swordmages also excel at addressing the first complaint, about moving away from the defender…at least, inasmuch as marked creatures choosing to move away from a defender rather than taking the hit is something likely to occur.* They can’t punish a creature for shifting, granted, but they don’t really need to. So long as the character is within the 10 squares, he’ll be able to do…stuff. In fact, many swordmage powers have their ranges increased, often from melee to 10, if used in conjunction with this reaction. This does put a lot of primacy on the swordmage’s immediate action slot- if you’re using it for anything other than your mark you’re arguably blowing a significant chunk of your character in comparison to how the other defenders fight. A fighter is trying to be right there next to the target, so even if he lacks the immediate action on a turn there’s still the chance that he does something with his opportunity. A swordmage may be somewhere else entirely, and thus incapable of dissuading his marked target from making ranged attacks or moving around. As for marking multiple characters, swordmages can’t do this with the same ease as a fighter; a fighter with Dual Strike is marking two targets a round, and one with an action-granting Leader is probably getting in a free mark every cycle of actions as well. Swordmages rely on powers and higher-tier feats to get a second creature marked. Again though, they only have the one immediate action so it’s difficult for them to interact meaningfully with multiple marked targets. In fact, the immediate action economy for swordmages is more punishing (I think) than for any other defender, because so many of their powers are reactive. It’s cool when you get to use your encounter power to do 2[W] to a marked creature, but it’s easy to accidentally build a swordmage who’s stuck if the DM says “Okay, everyone just hits you.” Shielding swordmages suffer this the most, but they’re also the set up with the best redundancy in that many of their immediate powers are providing some form of damage mitigation–which is what they’d be doing with that action anyway. Still, swordmages feel much more neutered in situations where enemies are focusing their attention directly on the swordmage. Note that I don’t just mean marked enemies; many swordmage powers can trigger off of any enemy. It’s easy (and probably somewhat correct) to argue that if the defender disappears under a pile of bodies, the majority of which he never marked, then he’s doing his job. But swordmages have a level of fragility that makes this tactic much more effective from a DM’s perspective than hammering away at the paladin for twelve rounds.

High Marks: Battleminds

Finally, the Battlemind. I could see coming back later and talking about Wardens and Paladins as well, but I wanted to make this somewhat succinct. Well, succinct for me. The traits of Battlemind’s Demand:

  • A lot like a swordmage! Battleminds have the at-will ability to mark a single target within a close burst. It’s burst 3 instead of 2, however, which is a significant increase in total targetable squares. It’s still a smaller area than the paladin’s mark, but battleminds also posses the capability to augment their mark and hit a second character. The battlemind can be doing this as early as level 1, though it would leave him without an encounter power for that fight. Like the swordmage, the battlemind’s mark stays on its targets until the power is re-used.
  • Ample in-class support: In this case, the support is both for punishing the marked creature and applying marks in the first place. Battleminds have an opportunity shift that is triggered by an opponent’s shift, which helps them keep adjacent to their target or force a full move (and thus AoO). Being an augmentation class, they can also expect to wield three at-wills, making it a far easier decision to pick up at least one which applies EoT marks to targets. I haven’t had the chance to look closely at the battlemind in Psionic Power, but I had the impression he’s intended to further focus on getting adjacent to marked foes, perhaps to the extent that he plays akin to a swordmage.
  • Possibly the simplest mark consequence in the game: Fighters are easy- I swing first. Paladins are possibly easier- You burn first. But what I find impressive about the battlemind is that there are no rolls or modifiers to keep track of. When an adjacent enemy damages one of your allies with an attack that doesn’t target you, the enemy takes equal force and psychic damage. Not only is this ability incredibly simple to remember and adjudicate, I think it scales extremely well with both player levels and threat levels. A fighter’s melee basic starts to look a little tired around early paragon tier, when so much of combat is starting to be handled with encounter powers and dailies. A paladin’s auto damage levels with the character. But a battlemind’s damage levels with the enemies. Now, obviously this is bad in the case of minions, where the ability might feel wasted only plinking them for 5 or 6 damage after they’ve gotten their hit in. But consider the Solo. Most solos are able to disdain the efforts of defenders, because the -2 penalty from the mark isn’t a huge inconvenience and being dinged for 1[W]+Str isn’t terrifying. But hitting that same Solo for however much its bite, or eye lasers, or lobeshredder just dealt to the party’s cleric…that’s impressive.

    The mixed elemental damage is just a nice addition; there aren’t a ton of creatures I can envision having those two resistances. Demons, maybe, but only after burning two uses of variable resistance…at which point the storm sorcerer or wizard can strip them but good.

The mark’s not perfect, of course. The fact that the Mindspike is a reaction and triggers off of damage dealt is obviously not as good as if it somehow checked rolled damage before the damage landed. I think it’s more useful in small fights (as most defenders are) and against particularly hard-hitting creatures like brutes and artillery; and any elite or solo. And yes, Mindspike does fail to mean anything to a creature that takes the opportunity attack. Battleminds also lack ways to punish enemies for provoking AoOs, at least at base–many of their at-wills can be augmented to serve as AoOs however. As for the multi target problem, which comes up more often for battleminds since they can augment their mark to hit two guys, that is a problem. But it’s a pretty universal problem, right? Hard for a defender to be in two places at once… Except that battleminds totally can. Psionic Power introduced an at-will that forges a duplicate of the character who counts as the character for positioning, targeting, and the like. The main goal of this power seems to be letting you flank with yourself–and who am I to argue with that?–but as you augment it you gain more options. Used as an encounter, I believe the body double can be placed up to 5 squares away. This means that a battlemind actually is better suited to manhandling multiple marked malefactors…or at least a build willing to take that particular 7th level at-will. — I am bullish on the battlemind. And I haven’t had the chance to play one, pbp or tabletop, so I could be missing ugly truths in their gameplay. It’s also very likely that its the kind of defender that appeals to my playstyle…I certainly haven’t had many memorable experiences with paladins, say. Ultimately I think that the Battleminds are supposed to be the “techy” defenders; which is a surprise since I would have expected that role to go to swordmages. Instead though, swordmages feel more like the reactive defenders, which is why they’re so thoroughly penalized by using their immediate actions relative to the other classes. Even without augmentation, battleminds are built around buffs and debuffs. This is why I’m actually grateful they have such a relatively simple way of enforcing their mark. The real challenge of playing a battlemind, particularly a mobile one, seems to be in deciding how many targets you want to mark. By level 7, battleminds can have an at-will ability which hits 3 targets without augmentation and marks all three; with augmentation you can actually be shifting between these attacks. This is great for spreading the damage around and adding the mark portion of the debuff to lots of enemies, but the player is left hoping that the DM dogpiles him rather than having the marked foes scatter. *Note that I imagine it will become a much more significant problem for some of the new Essentials defenders, if they’re all going to be built along the lines of the paladin that’s been previewed. Having a constant marking aura is nice, but tying it to the character instead of the mark makes positioning a much more viable means of avoiding the actual Mark consequence, even if they take an AoO in the process.

7 thoughts on “Dungeons and Dragons: My Planned Posts Begin to Resemble a Matryoshka- Defender Marks Part 1

  1. >Ha, fine, fine, Battleminds are awesome and I don't know how to play D&D. Fair enough.I guess one hole in my earlier assumptions was the AoO thing. I never really read into them enough to find that they have powers that substitute for AoO when augmented. I'd simply noticed before that their expected stat arrays leave them miserable at AoO's, and left it at that. Everything I've read focused on taking Melee Training (Con)… which really goes to show that I should hit the books and do more of my own analysis rather than trusting what others have said. Sigh.

  2. >See now, I was trying to avoid any intimation that not loving battleminds was in no way a sign of poor DnD play. In looking into the various defenders, and thinking about defenders, I really do think it has a lot to do with preference what you want to get out of your defender. I mean really, 3 of the five classes are terrible at AoOs depending on how you build them…Cha pallies, swordmages without intelligent blademaster (which is better than melee training now), and battleminds with the wrong powers.And you can always trust what I say. I think that's a good policy for everyone to adopt.

  3. >The thing about those three though is that of them, only the battlemind actually NEEDS AoOs, right? And after looking at it more, I'm less convinced that the battlemind DOES have the power selection to shore up its AoOs. Being required to spend augment points on powers to use them as an AoO is a pretty steep cost… and with how limited a psionic characters power selection is, it seems pretty steep a price to both burn your augment pool AND take otherwise-lackluster abilities solely so that you have a chance at putting a band aid on the fact that your mark is otherwise an empty threat. BITTERNESS.

  4. >I still feel that we're looking at how DMs handle defenders from different perspectives; I don't know if this is a product of playing in games with vastly different styles, or what. Generally though, the DMs I've played under do not hand out the free hits that AoOs offer. They're usually on the shift away plan, or possibly the "Make an ineffectual melee attack because I'm artillery" plan. And this, of course, makes a lot of sense if you're playing a game from the perspective that it represents a world without knowledge of the game rules.A monster always has knowledge of the negative conditions on it, so a troll you've marked knows that he's marked. He knows that you're really, really irritating him (whether through taunts, or radiant sparklies, or glowy runes, or mental static, or pulsing vines). His difficult in attacking other creatures (which I'll address in part two of this discussion) can be flavored however you like, but it tells him in no uncertain terms that you're someone to pay attention to.But does he know what'll happen if he doesn't? I'm not sure that I'm inclined to think he does…though I think I tend to run my own mobs as bowing to the mark when they're marked. Maybe a given DM decides that, yes, this troll has a pretty good idea that something bad will happen to him if he's standing next to you when he swings. Or maybe he decides you're just creeping him out, staring at him all bug-eyed, and he wants to get some distance.Here, though, we run into another rub. The troll probably understands AoOs– they just make sense. He knows that if he lopes across the battlefield you're going to cut him with your incredible buzzsaw arm. He probably doesn't want this…so he sidles away and What?! you're still right there. So maybe he takes a few desultory swings at you before he finally, finally runs.But by that point, even if you whiff your AoO he probably dies from a DoT or another attack.What I'm saying is, battleminds being "bad" at AoOs is going to be weighted according ot how many AoOs they actually roll and how likely a particular mob is going to be take the bet that "Oh yeah, that guy…he mindspiked me so I'm sure his Str is pretty low." I don't tend to run my games that way, or think that way…I'm sure DMs do and players in those situations face a difficult choice with the battlemind.Then again, most players don't have more than 2 at-wills, so picking up an additional at-will that can be AoO'd (and usually has a status effect attached as well) doesn't strike me as that brutal. I think most battlemind/arden/psion powers are built to have a slight edge on other classes' at-wills because they handle the resource system a bit differently.-NESS + SWEET CHOCOLATE!

  5. >I suppose we are indeed approaching the question from two different perspectives, if we're talking about a game in which the DM makes the conscious decision to make sub-optimal combat decisions for bad guys, simply because the complicated numbers and rules of 4E don't have a direct in-character logic to them… Any number of powers for a variety of classes and builds might become more or less important or powerful in strange and unpredictable ways in such a game. Do monsters that Daze understand why its more valuable to Daze the fighter than the paladin? If a fighter and an avenger are both smacking it in the face with swords, will a monster with the option to target Will not understand that that attack will likely be far more effective against one than the other? Will my wizard be able to stand on the front lines with impunity by playing tank-dress-up, wearing realistic looking plate mail made of paper and hiding behind a cardboard shield while waving a big non-proficient bastard sword?I'm not saying that your approach is wrong (it certainly isn't that), but it does become a bit of a wild card when the conversation is about what classes are effective in combat. Which I suppose means the moral of the story is… make a character that's a character for games that you run, and quit worrying so much about trying to build an airtight stat block? I can live with that!

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