My Friday night War of the Burning Sky campaign has reached an exciting point – paragon tier! I had to delay the game by a week so that I had time to get everyone’s new and improved characters programmed up in MapTool, but we finally got together last night for some gaming with more power.
At this point, we have a party of seven PCs. We have the original five players who started the campaign in July 2010, plus two more players I added earlier this year when one of the original players got a job that caused a scheduling conflict and another player was only able to come about once every three weeks for a while. Lately, though, they’ve all been able to play, so it’s a big party.
One of the original five players was starting with a new character (11th level, of course) last night. This was the player who was running Fudrick, the gnome warlock who defected to the bad guys in the previous session. Fudrick’s player rolled up a new character – a human Thief. This is the Essentials rogue.
Meet the Thief
I had seen a second-level Thief in action once before, and the paragon thief is similar in a lot of ways. The Thief has fantastic accuracy with his attacks, especially since he has so many ways to get combat advantage. His damage is fantastic, too, with sneak attack being an almost every-round thing. Once the Thief was able to get into melee with the bad guys, they didn’t last long.
The Thief is a very effective striker, dealing out massive damage quite reliably. But after running a session with the Thief in the mix, it felt, well, boring.
I know that hitting despite a 2 on the attack die is what a Thief is built to do, but that takes the excitement out of the Thief’s attack roll. If you know you’ll only ever miss on a critical failure, there’s no drama with the attack roll.
The Thief in this party starts with a +20 to attack at 11th level. For comparison, an 11th-level monster should have an armor class between 23 (brute) and 27 (soldier), with 25 being typical (other defenses should be two points lower). Add in the fact that the Thief almost always has combat advantage (+2 to hit) and a feat (Nimble Blade) that gives him an extra +1 to hit when he has combat advantage (so we’re up to +23 now), and a feat that lets him choose whether he wants to attack AC or Reflex (which averages two points less than AC). And he can use Backstab twice per encounter for another +3 to hit.
Thus, the Thief is usually attacking at +23 versus Reflex, and twice per encounter he can bump this up to +26 versus Reflex. If by some chance the monster has a lower AC, he can attack that instead. Even-level opponents should have a Reflex defense of about 23. Level+3 opponents should have a Reflex defense of 26. With Backstab and Combat Advantage, the Thief will hit a typical foe three levels above his own on a zero, so the only chance to miss is on a natural 1.
To be clear, I do understand that “this is what Thieves do”. Their schtick is to be ultra-accurate, hardly ever missing. It works really well. And it’s boring. It’s like Magic Missile in a lot of ways (though the Thief at least gets to roll a bunch of dice for weapon damage plus sneak attack) – another power that works, but is boring.
This particular Thief is also a little boring in that if he can’t get into melee, he can’t do anything useful. Early in yesterday’s session, the party was facing down some soldiers mounted on flying drakes. The Thief actually spent one round taking the total defense action because he couldn’t do anything to a flying foe.
What to do?
So, what’s the solution for me as the DM? Well, I have a few options.
First, I could raise enemy defenses. This is a terrible idea, as making it so that the Thief needs to roll, say, a 6 to hit will mean that other PCs will need a 15 or better. Not fun for the rest of the party.
Second, I could give enemies ways to negate combat advantage. This isn’t a trait I’ve seen on many monsters, and using it would just feel like a “screw you” to the Thief, which isn’t what I want either.
Third, I could use monsters that punish melee strikers. They could have auras that deal damage or do other nasty things. I like this idea, as long as I give the melee PCs some ways to mitigate or entirely avoid the issue by doing something interesting.
Fourth, I could use monsters that are hard to get to in melee, such as fliers or artillery with protected positions. I’ll probably do this a little bit, but I won’t want to go overboard.
Fifth, I could raise hit points on monsters. I really have no desire to do this, as it leads to fights that drag on whenever the Thief isn’t hitting a particular bad guy. Plus, it’s still boring.
Sixth, I could have monsters that beat the crap out of the Thief, either by dealing tons of damage or by denying him the ability to get combat advantage by using something like immobilization (most of the Thief’s easy ways of getting combat advantage come from using move actions, though there are lots of cases where the Thief could use them even if he can’t leave his square).
I’m sure there are other options I haven’t thought of, and I’d love to hear more ideas in the comments. For now, I’ll try to think about using some enemies that are either hard to get to in melee or that punish PCs who get too close to them, but I don’t want to unduly punish the Fighter and Swordmage in the party, either. I definitely won’t make the bad guys shy about attacking the Thief when he starts dishing out massive damage, perhaps even breaking defender marks to do so. We shall see.