Monday, February 13, 2017

No, That Class Isn't "Broken" (You're Just Throwing The Wrong Challenge At Them)

If you scroll through any online RPG group, I guarantee you will come across a thread where someone is complaining about how a certain class, or feat, or ability is so broken. Whether it's the summoner, Vital Strike feats, or just the existence of firearms, there is always someone complaining about how this or that rule, class ability, or feature, breaks the game.

However, 9 times out of 10, this simply isn't true. It's just someone whinging about something they don't like, or which they don't understand.

Goddammit Jeff! I knew I shouldn't have let you bring a shotgun!

It Isn't Broken (You're Facing The Wrong Challenge)

I'd like to share a story with you. I once had a DM who felt he had to throw enemies at us which were at least 5-7 CR above what our party was supposed to face. This became a problem after a while, and I pulled him aside to ask him why he felt the need to jack up the CR so high. We weren't a terribly cracked-out group, with at least a few folks at the table playing straightforward, in-the-box PCs. The DM demanded what I thought he should do, because the paladin and the cleric kept shredding everything he threw at us with minimal effort and resource expenditure.

I asked him if he'd contemplated using enemies besides devils, demons, and undead. You know, things that smite and good-aligned spells wouldn't totally destroy in short order. Lawful neutral mercenaries, perhaps? Maybe a chaotic wizard? Maybe a ranger who fought with animals and traps instead of standing in the middle of an open field where we could take all the pot shots we wanted at him?

That... actually never occurred to me.
The point of this story is that every class, and every ability, is going to have a situation it's considered powerful in. It will also have a situation it isn't suited for. If you only ever see that class, or ability, in an environment where it's powerful, it may look too strong. However, the fault is not with the mechanic; it lies with the DM, who always creates situations which play right into the character's strengths.

As an example, let's take the gunslinger. The class has gotten a lot of heat for being "broken" because it gives a martial class a touch attack. However, it takes several feats, and a lot of class abilities, for guns to be really deadly past low levels. And if you want to get more than one shot per gun, you need to spend colossal amounts of resources on more advanced, or enchanted, firearms. This means those resources aren't going to armor, wondrous items, or other items that could effect the game.

However, gunslingers operate under the same restrictions any other ranged class does. If you had an archer who was turning every encounter into a pincushion, what would you do? Well, the obvious solution is that you give your bad guys cover. Fight in a forest full of trees, use ruins and boulders, or have them carry tower shields. If you really want to be a dick, give your enemies Deflect Arrows, which the book states also applies to bullets. You might also grant the enemies concealment using mist, darkness, or even magical effects like blur or displacement. Now what was a Gatling gun that destroyed encounters will have a tough time actually pinning down a target before pulling the trigger.

No matter what you're dealing with, there's a countermeasure for it. The rogue keeps ambushing targets, create some enemies who can't be caught flat-footed; or worse, can't be flanked for sneak attack purposes. Knockout poison keeps bringing down your bad guys? Give them an antivenom to increase their saves by +5. Your wizard keeps buffing the party? Bring out your spellcaster who specializes in debuffs, along with his bodyguard. Your party moves around the battlefield freely to strike wherever they want? Fight them in a location that has traps in it.

Everything has a countermeasure, and that countermeasure isn't necessarily to just declare "this power doesn't work anymore" with things like absurdly high DR, energy immunity, anti-magic fields, etc.

This Applies to More Than Just Combat

Most of the time when someone claims an ability is broken, they're referring to combat capabilities. Especially since, like it or not, there's always someone who wants to solve a problem with an elbow drop. But what about all those non-combat abilities people complain about? You know, like that one guy with a Perception score so high it's impossible for him to miss the DC, or that other player who has increased their Bluff and Diplomacy to insane levels?

So, let me learn you a thing about skills.
Funny thing, despite how often we make skill checks, most of us don't actually read the fine print. For example, did you know that if someone is falling past you that you can catch them with a successful touch attack, followed by a successful Climb check? Or that, if your Perception check is high enough, that you can identify a potion simply by tasting a drop of it? Well, those are both in the description of those skills.

Something else a lot of players and DMs both overlook is that there are explicit statements for what skills can and can't do. For example, Diplomacy can only move someone two steps along the track, meaning you could make a neutral person friendly, but a hostile person could only be brought to neutral. Not only that, but you can only make that check once every 24 hours. Lastly, "friendly" doesn't mean "will do whatever you say." Even if you're best buddies with the palace guard, he's not going to sneak you into the queen's bedchamber.

As another example, Bluff has modifiers for increasingly unlikely tales, and the skill expressly says you cannot use it to make someone believe something which is obviously false. Such as that their pants are on fire, their gold is actually copper, or the sky is bright green when it is, in fact, both blue and visible. And Perception, often lamented by DMs for how easy it is to increase to an obscene level, has a gigantic chart of negatives. Environmental penalties, light penalties, increases for distance, for distractions, and for a dozen other factors. So while it's possible to hear a sniper drawing a bowstring while standing in the middle of a crowded party, only someone who has focused on that particular skill to the exclusion of nearly anything else will be able to operate on that level.

The Game Has Been Rigorously Tested

If you've bought a copy of Dungeons and Dragons, or Pathfinder, or Vampire, or even Spycraft, a lot of testing went into those games to make sure they functioned. Their engines were tweaked, and then tweaked again every time a beta tester found a way to exploit bad word choice, or to stack abilities that shouldn't function together. They are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but chances are good that if there was a way to actually break the game, someone found it, and fixed it, long before your table got their hands on it.

So, before you decry that X, Y, or Z aspect of your game is broken, follow these simple guidelines. First, actually read the book to be sure the abilities function the way a player says they do. Second, ask what the situational requirements are for an ability to actually go off (melee specialists are no good at ranged, favored enemy restricts when the bonuses work, certain fighting styles require multiple enemies in order to go off, etc.), and how commonly those things happen. Third, ask what the weakness is. Because everything, without fail, has a weakness.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully it's helped some people see the bigger picture the next time they ask whether or not a given ability is, in fact, broken. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? For as little as $1 a month you get some sweet swag, as well as my everlasting gratitude. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, then why not start today?


  1. most of the counters are highly specific and players will whine about metagaming if the counter is too obvious. for Example, you don't need to line your palaces of lead when a foot of stone is sufficient to black most forms of Detection based divinations, because Detect doesn't grant X-Ray vision.

    so that paladin using detect evil to spot baddies on the other side of the castle, you technically don't have to tell him where the evil presences are, because his eyes cannot see past a foot of stone. because detect evil does not grant X-Ray vision

    at the same time, blindsight makes sneaking up on a target a near automatic failure, but most blindsight is hearing or smell based, so you should be able to overwhelm it with loud enough sounds or a strong enough scent.

    and if you use detect magic to detect hidden traps or invisible assassins, the intense concentration of magic in an area can theoretically cause eye strain or fatigue. and detect magic isn't the same as Arcane sight, it still takes concentration that can be broken.

    and sure, most fighters can get away with dumping charisma, but that is because the fighter thinks it is the bard's job to do the talking, which is delegation, and buffing is also technically delegation.

    many players delegate tasks based on class. and while gunslingers are a martial class with a touch attack, they can only truly touch attack in the first range increment, which is usually within full attack range of most monsters, with or without a 5 foot step.

    1. Depends on what you've got on them. My Gunslinger has a Musket, which has a 40-foot range increment. Usually takes the baddies more than a few steps to get to him, plus they have to get past the melee to do that. The downside to that (at lower levels anyway) is slower reloading speed.