Tuesday, December 29, 2015

State of the Blog and Games / Battlerager Blues

I can't recommend the DesignsByMiranda Etsy shop enough; I got several XMAS gifts for friends from it and they were shipped promptly and high quality and now I'm wishing I'd gotten more for myself.

I did a great job keeping this blog up to date, from this last August (2015) up through November, averaging a little over 9 posts a month. Then the dreaded Holiday season descended from the (mostly) snowless skies and games were postponed and rescheduled due to illness and the holiday business and I didn't keep up my blog posts.

Here's the state of my games in the order that it occurs to me this afternoon.

  • My Shattered World 5e-ish campaign continues apace, just let the PCs hit 5th level and plan on accelerating the plot now. Managed to make use of this swank Dyson hand themed dungeon, but not this other one... (yet). Eventually I'll get back and update my campaign log.
  • Back in early November I began running Out of The Abyss. We're 2ish sessions in, in that we did a character creation session plus short "test" dungeon for the players to get a feel for their PCs, then did about an hour and a half of play in a second session before it was cut short due to illness and finally a short-ish session on 12/20 to finish up Chapter One. So most of the PCs have escaped into the Underdark (one player was only at the character creation session so far, so her PC will be somewhere in the Underdark) with weapons, armor and rope they captured from the Drow, but without food or water. Expect at least one blog post on OOTA (which is how I've decided to abbreviate Out of the Abyss) next week when I sit down and share all the game aids I've found to use and share a few of my own that I've made.
  • Our Antagonist Relations Actual Play: A Red & Pleasant Land Podcast should be returning the first week of January, as the players face off against that Pudding. Maybe someday the Ginger Giant and I will do an Antagonist Relations podcast that isn't an actual play again, but right now time constraints on the Thursday evening's we're free and the joy of the actual play makes that hard as we end up spending most of the two hours playing and then don't get to just sitting around shooting the shit.
  • Thomas' 2nd Edition Al-Qadim Church continues to be quite enjoyable to play and I really ought to write a full post on it. Someday soon I'll have a chance to get my thoughts down right after playing, but running OOTA on 1st and 3rd Sundays has made that a little tougher.
  • Speaking of Thomas, since he is back in the (semi) frozen wastes of MN, we decided that instead of our traditional New Year's D&D we'd each run a session of D&D, using the same maps and tying our two sessions together, because we are overly ambitious. So on New Year's Day, Thomas will run a group of Dwarves through the dungeon of Dortherdoreft and then on January 3rd, I'll run a group of Drow though the very same dungeon. We'll be re-using some of the same elements and we're hoping to write up the adventures once we've run them. 
  • Also due to the aforementioned over-ambition, I'm toying with a bunch of new ideas to put up on the blog for 2016, but I probably will keep that all to myself since I should be continuing all the things I've started like GM Commentaries, Campaign Summary Updates, Gussying Up 5e Monsters and such before I do wacky things like creating custom 5e campaign settings with new (sub)races, class builds and what-not. Though since Thomas has started putting up more stuff for 5th edition Planescape conversions, I know that I'll have at least a few things in that vein coming soon
Since I needed to come up with a 5th level Dwarf PC for the first session of Dortherdoreft I took a closer look at the Battlerager Path as introduced in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide (SCAG) hoping it would combine my love of Dwarves and Barbarians but instead it was... disappointing... to say the least, but instead of continuing to pepper Thomas with my problems with the build, I'm going to cover them here and then propose some fixes. Warning, I'm really harsh on the build as presented in the books, because in my opinion, it's awful. Way more awful than the Ranger or other by the book 5th edition classes/sub-classes that have gotten a lot of crap. And it hurts me, because Dwarf+Barbarian should be AWESOME and instead it is so sub-optimal that it isn't even worth playing as a joke. And I should know because I made a bunch of jokey less than optimal 5th edition PCs recently...

Kinda spiky and no axes, just like the disappointing Battlerager Path...

So... the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide (SCAG) starts with an awesome bit of flavor fluff "Known as Kuldjargh (literally "axe idiot") in Dwarvish, battleragers are dwarf followers of the gods of war and take the Path of the Battlerager" and... that's the best bit of the build. Yeah, Reckless Abandon, which gives temp HP when a Battlerager uses the barbarian Reckless Attack feature while Raging is pretty damn sweet, but that little bit of fluff is the high point.

To set up my beef, you need to know a little about the 5e action economy for PCs, which is: each round you get a standard action (usually an attack or casting a spell), a movement action (walking, climbing etc) and a bonus action (used for off-hand attacks, very quick spells and most effectively to simulate Rogues being good at doing lots of things at once). The thing is, you only get one of each, so you're only going to have one bonus action each round, period, full stop. When it's something awesome (or at least useful) like an offhand attack or Healing Word or a rogue disengaging (which usually would be a standard action, to let you know how useful the rogue Cunning Action feature is) then having to choose to use a bonus action is not that bad. Having to choose if your Rogue makes that off-hand attack after missing with the main hand, hoping to hit and get sneak attack damage or using Cunning Action to disengage and slink away to fight another day is an interesting choice. At 3rd level, when a Dwarven Barbarian chooses the Path of the Battlerager they get proficiency with Spiked Armor (equivalent to a Breastplate in AC) and the ability to use a bonus action when Raging to attack with that Spiked Armor for... 1d4 damage.

Okay, okay... I'm underselling it. They also do 3 massive points of piercing damage when they grapple an opponent. And I guess they also get to toss in their STR mod for the damage, so if they have a STR of 20 they're doing 1d4+5 damage, but...

An off the shelf 1st level Dwarf fighter can use a bonus action to do 1d6 damage with a short sword... and if that fighter takes the Two-Weapon Fighting they get to add their STR mod to the damage... In fairness to the Battlerager, Monks also start doing 1d4 damage with their bonus action with unarmed strikes... but... that's also at 1st level and they could swap in a monk weapon to do more and that damage scales with level and Monks have that whole Ki subsystem dedicated to making those unarmed strike bonus actions sweeter... Oh, also, Monks and Fighters (and every other class, for that matter) can use those bonus actions for off-hand attacks whenever, whereas our poor Battlerager gets to make this nerfed, sub-optimal bonus attack only when they're raging.  

To add insult to injury, using the Spiked Armor means that the Battlerager barbarian loses the bonus of the core Barbarian Unarmored Defense feature. So they trade a core class feature for a very lacking bonus attack that is actually not any better than if they just picked up a handaxe for their offhand to do 1d6 damage maybe (plus you can throw the handaxe when you need to...)

But wait, you say, as I did as well, maybe there's a really awesome feat that will redeem this lame Spiked Armor feature... maybe a grappling feat? Right, there's got to me something swank to make this path worth taking...?  Barbarians do get an Ability Score Improvement at 4th level, so maybe it's just a single level where you'd have to suffer through the indignity of having a worse bonus attack than a two-weapon fighter (or ranger) or monk. So let's see what we got...
  • Charger
    • Classic Barbarian, surely we can charge in and throw our Spiked Armor against that filthy orc and...shit... Charger needs a bonus action to make the attack after the dash, so take that feat and our choice is attack with Spiked Armor for 1d4 or a real weapon for 1d8, 1d10 or even 1d12 or 2d6 *sad trombone*
  • Dual Wielder
    • It's a second weapon right? Or nevermind the text of the feat specifically calls out "a separate melee weapon in each hand. *sad trombone*
  • Grappler
    • The best of the bunch, but that's not saying a lot. So, you get advantage on attack rolls against a creature you're grappling. Okay, I feel like lots of games houserule this to happen anyway, I know I do, partly because that makes sense and I hadn't read this feat recently or closely.
    • You can try and pin and restrain a creature. K, that's kinda nice.
    • Creatures that are one size larger than you don't auto escape your grapple.
    • So... altogether, this would let a Battlerager do, what? 3 points of damage a round while grappling insted of attacking with a weapon that does... 1d8, 1d10 or even 1d12 or 2d6 (plus STR mod) *sad trombone*
  • Medium Armor Master
    • Spiked armor is medium armor, maybe this will... or not... because does your Battlerager care about not having disadvantage on Dex (Stealth) checks (the only answer is NO) and is your Battlerager likely to have a Dex of 16 or better (highly unlikely). *sad trombone*
  • Tavern Brawler
    • Before I went back and read the text of this feat again, I just remembered that it let you get extra attempts to grapple and thought maybe this was the one. A dwarven Battlerager with a heavy pewter tankard in one hand, that sounds pretty damn awesome. But it was not meant to be.
    • Okay, I guess you get a STR or CON bump. You get proficiency with improvised weapons and unarmed strikes making you as good as... oh, right, a 1st level monk. And your unarmed strike does 1d4, just like your spiked armor and it doesn't scale, unlike a monk.
    • But wait, the good stuff, the grapple stuff, that will redeem this feat and the Battlerager, right? But... it's a bonus action when you hit with an unarmed strike or an improvised weapon to attempt to grapple. So... we're back to the grappler feat dilemma... 3 points of damage a round while grappling insted of attacking with a weapon that does... 1d8, 1d10 or even 1d12 or 2d6 (plus STR mod) *sad trombone*
Hey, maybe the rest of the Path Features will make up for this stinker? As I said before Reckless Abandon, which gives temp HP when a Battlerager uses the barbarian Reckless Attack feature while Raging is pretty damn sweet. That's a decent 6th level feature. How about 10th level? Battlerager Charge, huh? Wait, so while Raging you can dash as a bonus action? So... you're telling me that it's the Charger feat in reverse, kinda, except, again, only while raging? And also, it's a bonus action so you can't combine it with this crappy Spiked Armor bonus action? So... a first level human fighter who takes the bonus feat as their racial ability could be better at charging than our beleaguered 10th(!) level Dwarven Battlerager....

Okay, moving on... how about the capstone, 14th level Path Feature, that's gotta be AWESOME, right? 14th level Path of the Totem Warrior has stuff like Flying Speed while raging and the Path of the Berserker gets Retaliation which lets you use your reaction when you take damage to make a melee attack in retaliation. Our Battlerager is finally going to get another good feature... or... well, yeah... nevermind. And here good friends, here is where I lost it. Where I lost all patience or respect for whatever designer tossed off this abomination of a sub-class and all the people who playtested it or edited it, because they clearly didn't even go back and read the other barbarian paths, because what does the Battlerager get? Spiked Retribution. SPIKED RETRIBUTION. Which is basically the Berserker Path's Retaliation but worse, because everything about the Battlerager is worse. The Berserker gets their Retaliation anytime they take damage and their attack is within 5ft (subject to the one reaction between rounds, restriction, of course) and they make a melee attack, probably with a magic maul for something like 2d6+6 or something damage plus fire or whatever, because they're a 14th level barbarian, by Crom! Our much mocked Battlerager, on the other hand only gets to do Spiked Retribution while Raging... and does a whopping... 3 points of damage. THREE GORRAM POINTS OF DAMAGE. Now, to be fair, they don't have to make an attack roll and it's not subject to the one reaction between rounds restriction, so say a Dragon attacks them with the classic Claw Claw Bite. Say it's a Young Green Dragon, CR 8, just at the edge of Deadly going by the standard encounter building if our 14th level Battlerager is on their own. Up to 9 points of damage is going to feel pretty retributive when that dragon hits us with Claw Claw Bite... or... actually that dragon has 136 hit points and that claw claw bite is doing an average total of... 37 damage. Now, imagine that Battlerager going up against an Adult White Dragon, a more typical foe for a party of 14th level PCs. Now, that dragon has 200 HP and does 43 damage against our Battlerager's 9... That sure feels... like... retribut... fuck it, I just can't...

Looking with logic and dispassion, I can see that the Berserker Retaliation isn't much better, but it feels more satisfying and it's a melee weapon attack, opening up the chance for critical hits, magic weapon properties and all that nonsense. And yeah, I know at 15th level Barbarians get Persistent Rage to make it harder to lose your rage, but it's still limited to a minute long and you only have 5 a day at 15th level, so your Battlerager is kinda awesome with bonus actions to do 1d4 damage with spiked armor and 3 damage when hit in melee... FOR FIVE FUCKING MINUTES THROUGHOUT AN ADVENTURING DAY. Yeah, you're going to be drowning in temp HP too from Reckless Abandon probably, but again, that's 5 minutes out of the day. And, yeah, I guess I'm not including the extra Rage Damage that gets as high as +4! starting at 16th level. So I guess hypothetical 16th level Dwarven Battlerager with a strength maxed out at 20 is doing 1d4+9 damage with their bonus action during their Rages while a hypothetical 16th Dwarven two weapon fighter with STR 20 who uses one of their 5(!) feat slots (the barbarian gets their 5th and final feat slot at 19th level while the Fighter gets a 6th at that time) is only doing a paltry... 1d8+5... so max 13 damage too, but also, ya know, magic swords are easier to find that magic spiked armor that only dwarven barbarians can use and also, ya know, that dwarven fighter could do that 24 hours a day and our Battlerager can do it... oh, right... for 5 minutes max.

That's the biggest problem... The Battlerager is built for a 5 minute adventuring day. The Battlerager has one feature, doing 3 piercing damage during grapple, that works outside of Rages. Even the Berserker Path has two features that work outside of Raging and they are way better. But the Battlerager not only doesn't get any great features usable outside of the 6 minute max ragetime they have until they hit 20th(!) level, but the features they do have during rages don't hold up to the other barbarian paths, much less other classes. Now, I'm not one to insist that players always make optimal build choices, hell, I don't myself most of the time, but the Battlerager path as presented isn't just suboptimal, it's noticeably so, in almost every way. Also... go back to the good thing I called out at the start of this rant, that bit of fluff... "Known as Kuldjargh (literally "axe idiot") in Dwarvish..." The Battlerager build has nothing to do with axes... nothing. What's it about? Spiky Armor. Not very good Spiky Armor. As far as I can tell with the minimal interest I have in Realms lore and the flavor quote in SCAG, the Battlerager is based off a character from a Realms novel who wore... spiky armor. Such flavor. But when I think Dwarven Barbarian, I'm not thinking "oh, yeah, it's all about the spiky armor. Give me that dagger's worth of damage baby." I'm thinking giant hammers and axes. Now, not saying you couldn't have spiky armor, but hasn't the tale of Drizzt taught us all that trying to shoehorn the abilities of a single iconic Realms character into the mechanics of a class so that unimaginative fans can play their favorite character doesn't make for a great class. That's the feeling I get from the Battlerager... in a Realms novel, a battlerager was described and instead of thinking "what would make a great, interesting, iconic subclass" the designer tasked with it went "let me not look back at the other barbarian paths, let's just throw some stuff together so somebody can play this particular character the way it's described in this novel". But anyway, I've prattled on for over 2,000 words on why the Battlerager isn't a great design, what can we do to salvage it, or even... make it good?

Let's recognize that Spiky Armor as written isn't a great feature, because it's not. What would fix it?
  • Make it work outside of Raging.
    • Bare minimum, you have to do this. There's still a benefit to Raging, you get the bonus Rage damage when you hit with the armor.
  • Have the damage scale up from 1d4 to match the Monk unarmed strike damage.
    • This is a good option, and really, does it feel that broken that a Battlerager would do 1d10 damage with spiky armor at 17th level instead of 1d4?
  • Have the Spiky armor do piercing damage when the Battlerager is grappled, not just when they are doing the grappling.
    • Really, this seems like another bare minimum, no brainer.
  • Have the Spiky armor do piercing damage equal to twice the Barbarian's Rage Damage
    • Okay, so then it's 4pts instead of 3pts at 3rd. But then it's 8 points by 16th level, which feels way more level appropriate than 3pts...
  • Let the Battlerager add CON mod to armor bonus instead of DEX
    • Look, you took away the core Unarmored defense feature. The base AC of the Spiked Armor is 14, even with a maxed out CON that's an AC of 19, 21 with a shield, which is the same as a Fighter with Defense fighting style in Plate armor with a shield... If it really bothers you, say the Battlerager can't use a shield or limit it to +4 from CON so they never get a better AC than a fighter in plate with a shield and the defense fighting style. Me, I don't care, cause by the book it's junk.
  • Let the Spiky Armor count as magical for the purposes of overcoming resistance at 8th level.
    • Okay, so I'm breaking a cardinal rule of 5th Edition and giving out something in addition to an ability score improvement, but the Monk gets this at 6th level, so my alternate proposal is 6th level. Also, then the Battlerager player isn't constantly pestering the DM about when they're going to find magic spiked armor, because there's lots of higher CR monsters who can't be hit by mundane weapons and the only thing worse than not doing your pittance of 3 of 1d4 damage is not doing your pittance because the DM always forgets that you need that one piece of magical gear.
Okay, what else can we do to make this better...
  • Let Battleragers do double damage to Objects (and maybe Constructs while raging?) with Axes and Hammers.
    • This feels super Dwarven and let's them do stuff outside of Raging.
  • Get rid of the awful Battlerager Charge and let Battleragers wield two-handed Axes and Hammers in a single hand at 10th level. 
    • Bad-ass Dwarf Battlerager with a maul in one hand and a spiked shield in the other? Way better than a watered down feat at 10th and let's be brutally honest, that's what Battlerager Charge was. Or steal the Bugbear Brute feature and let Battleragers use Large size weapons to do an additional die of damage.
  • Give Battleragers the Grappler feat as a bonus feat at level 3 with Spiky Armor.
    • Seriously, then they'll actually grapple more. And if you required a free hand for Grappling they wouldn't use a shield, keeping their AC down a little.
And the completely Gonzo option that I still kinda want to see for a Dwarf Barbarian build...
  • At 10th level or so, let them get bonus HP from Poison.
    • If they make their save vs Poison damage they get an amount of Temp HP equal to the half damage they would have taken, if they fail, they still take damage. It would override their Reckless Abandon temp HP until they lost them so it wouldn't completely break things, but I love the idea of a Dwarf Barbarian swigging a vial of poison for temp HP or laughing as the Drow shoot poison bolts.
So those are my ideas for fixing the Battlerager, a subclass well worth fixing.

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