10 Rules of Party Optimization

161 posts / 0 new
Last post

FIFTH REVISION


25MAY11: So today there was a thread asking about party optimization and I thought, "What's my one and only guide, chopped liver?" Only in checking it for the first time in ages I discovered the s-blocks were all f-locked up. And in fixing that I saw things were a little dated, so ... a not quite revision today.

27OCT10: Given that langeweile was gracious enough to link to this guide in his own treatise on alpha striking, I finally feel compelled to update. The game has changed dramatically since my last update, and we’ve still yet to see the full impact of the Essentials line. (25MAY11: Still true!) Posts 4 through 133 will make very little sense given that they discuss many dead topics.

Opinions will differ strongly on what's the proper sequence of adding roles to the party. The advice here is solid and battle-tested, but certainly not writ in stone. 


RULE 1: Determine Campaign Type. How Much Can We Get Away With?

Every party design should hinge upon this point: What kind of campaign is this? The answer has a huge impact on two fundamental questions: First, what is the tipping point for alpha-striking in this campaign? And second, how important are skills and/or rituals for my party?

Though the CO board is filled with advocates of kill-them-before-they-can-blink tactics, the game designers are demonstrating with the Essentials line that they are among those who beg to differ. And alpha-striking does have two major drawbacks. First, it can make the game boring for the DM, and without the DM there is no game. Second, the more alpha-strike capacity in a party, the narrower the margin between yet another by-the-numbers 2-round slaughter of Team Monster and a TPK. Before designing a party that deals thousands of hits in the first two rounds, consider the nature of the campaign. Should it last for years with a heavy emphasis on roleplaying? Then pull way back on the alpha-striking. Is it a convention one-off? Then knock yourself out. Just keep in mind that the foremost example of real-life alpha-striking is the raid on Pearl Harbor, which was tactically brilliant but strategically foolish. The DM is at all times the sleeping giant.

Skills and rituals generally have an inverse relationship to alpha-striking. In a long-term roleplaying campaign, an optimized party will have an expert in every skill and at least one PC who can efficiently cast the more important rituals. (Assuming that the DM hasn’t abandoned rituals entirely in his campaign.) No convention one-off is going to hinge upon whether one of the PCs can overcome a nasty skill challenge featuring History and Dungeoneering …


This guide is heavily biased toward optimizing for a long-term campaign with heavy emphasis on roleplaying. Its goal is to help establish a well-rounded party that does not have fundamental weaknesses that the DM must be shrewd enough to recognize and charitable enough to avoid if a TPK isn’t his intent.


RULE 2: Consider a Keyword Theme. Speaking of How Much Can We Get Away With . . .

If every member of the party deals damage around a common keyword theme, this can have large synergistic effects. If you decide to go this route, then all of your following decisions need to be filtered through the needs of the keyword theme. As of now, only three keywords offer this sort of potential: cold, psychic, and radiant.

A cold-themed party intends to take advantage of “Frost Cheese” or “PermaFrost” via the Wintertouched and Lasting Frost feats. These builds tend to be very reliant on having the right gear, so this probably won’t work if the campaign embraces some form of the new item rarity rules. There aren’t enough top-shelf powers with the cold keyword, so building a gear-independent frost team probably will have more opportunity cost than it’s worth.


The psychic-themed party is a relatively new concept. It would be centered around an Ardent spamming 1-point Ire Strikes. Possibly only the striker would need specific gear (eg, Githyanki Silver weapons), making it less equipment-dependent and more damaging than the cold theme. Note that this party should be built around a basic attack rather than multiattack striker (see Rule 3) for two reasons. First, Ire Strike serves a big MBA best. Second, though the Ardent isn’t a premium leader, the Talaric Strategist PP allows him to fake it. As a level 16+ Strategist, he can grant three extra attacks to any teammates who take Agile Opportunist. Again, a big MBA benefits most from this.


The radiant-themed party, or “Radiant Mafia,” is the gold standard of exploding DPR via keyword synergy. Any character can take a divine MC (if necessary) and Pervasive Light and deal faux radiant damage, so gear dependence is very limited, though the two feats do represent a significant opportunity cost. The center of the party probably would be an Avenger or Chaladin with the Power of the Sun feat and/or the Morninglord PP (assuming it’s long overdue date with the nerfbat still has not arrived). The best combination probably is the Chaladin and a melee Ranger, which in turn tends to steer the leader to become a Warlord, because he needs to be able to perform both Rule 5 buffing functions on demand. (If the Chaladin hasn’t recently hit, granting him an extra MBA takes priority. If he has, buffing the Ranger becomes Job 1.)

A fourth, similar concept is the proning party, in which some members specialize in knocking down Team Monster and some specialize in doing extra damage to prone targets.


Keyword themes are a specialized approach to alpha-striking, trading some considerable straitjacketing of character designs for improved DPR. This decision goes hand in hand with that in Rule 1. If the DM isn’t fond of keyword-themed parties, it’s probably best to avoid the concept altogether.


RULE 3: Select Striker. There Shall Only Be One, But Which One?

An optimized party really does not need more than one striker per five members. Why? Because once the first striker enters play, then every leader added to the party becomes a de facto striker with extra, really useful functionality. The leaders do need that one striker, essentially to act as the weapon that they wield, but multiple leaders can share a single weapon.

This can be a difficult rule to enforce, because a lot of players really want to play a striker. Strikers get more spotlight time than any other role. But the only thing that a multiple-striker party can do better than a single-striker-backed-by-multiple-leaders party is alpha-strike. The multiple-leader party already can bring more than enough of this capacity to the table, so a striker-heavy party will tend to be much too much of a good thing. Meanwhile, it will sorely lack the extra endurance that a multiple leader party will possess.


Once you’ve sorted everyone out and determined who will have the privilege of playing the lone striker, you have to determine which sort of striker that will be. Truly optimal strikers come in two flavors: multiattackers (Rangers and various overwrought Half Elf builds) and monstrous basic attacks (Avenger, Rogue, Slayer, Thief). The Barbarian isn’t quite optimal at either approach, but is unique in being quite good at both.


Usually, the striker also must serve as the team scout. A truly optimized party has an optimized scout, built on Dexterity and Wisdom and possessing the Perception, Stealth, and Thievery skills. (The scout also needs Athletics, Acrobatics, or reliable means to emulate the functionality of those skills.) The bow Ranger, Scout, pursuit Avenger, and off-statted Thief all can fill this niche easily. The melee Ranger, Brutal Scoundrel, etc can come close enough in a pinch. While optimizing for DPR is top priority for the striker’s build, a modest investment in scouting functions is not just forgivable but advisable.


RULE 4: Select Defender. Pair Them Like a Fine Wine

An optimized party will have one defender per five members. Every defender has its staunch advocates (and with the possible exception of the Fighter, its devoted critics). Probably, the best defender is the defender that fits the striker best.

For most melee strikers, the Fighter probably is best. He’s comfortable in flank and makes it very painful to swing at the striker. Rogues and parties with controllers and leaders who specialize in forced movement may prefer the Knight, here. Another notable exception is the pursuit Avenger, who has less need for CA and pairs best with a shielding Swordmage who runs away and forces the OoE victim to either chase him and trigger the Avenger’s damage buffs or swing futilely at the Avenger through the Swordmage’s aegis. The most tricky is the melee Ranger, who from paragon on prefers to be all by his lonesome next to the target with Prime Punisher/Called Shot triggered. A purpose-built Paladin with plenty of ranged encounter powers can fit in here, while a polearm-wielding Fighter will do the job best.


Ranged strikers often fit best with a different style of defender. Battleminds work well here, because they don’t necessarily need to mark a target first to break up its attack. A good Warden build can work even better, by indefinitely tying up multiple targets for as long as the bowman needs to do his job.


If the striker just isn’t a good fit as scout, then it’s worth considering a defender build that can fill the role. A Strength-Wisdom Fighter with enough Dexterity to qualify for Armor Specialization (Scale) also can fill in as a decent scout, lacking top-notch sneakiness but making up for it with excellent mobility via Athletics. (Keep in mind that, for this purpose, a character with superb Perception and modest Stealth generally is just as sneaky as a character with superb Stealth and modest Perception. If you can locate the enemy in difficult circumstances then they must locate you under the same penalties.) The main problem is that defenders don’t tend to have the proper class skills. The DM will need to allow a good skill-swapping background, or a multiclass feat will need to be invested, probably both.


RULE 5: Select Leader. The Right Swordarm for the Right Sword

Just like the defender, the leader should be matched to the striker. Optimal leaders generally do one of three things: buff a striker’s existing attack, grant him an extra basic attack, or heal fantastically. Rangers are mostly interested in buffs---they bring their own extra attacks to the party just fine---while all other strikers usually will get more benefit from extra attacks. (Except the Barbarian, who will gladly exploit anything that a leader gives him.) The Artificer has quality buffs, with the caveat that they are missing at some levels so a hybrid Artificer often outperforms a pure build. The Shaman, Ardent, and to a much lesser extent the Bard, can grant extra attacks. The Warlord does both well.

Healing is the Cleric’s forte. The Cleric doesn’t help a striker do his job all that much, but he does help the striker stay upright and do the job longer. If your party design already leans toward more nova potential than your DM may prefer, it may be prudent to slot in a Cleric rather than a more offensively minded leader. In particular, a Pacifist Cleric vastly increases party durability.


A special consideration here is whether the DM is a strong believer in getting in multiple encounters per “workday.” The game is designed around four encounters per day, but if an early encounter goes south and the party wants to lick its wounds, many DMs will find that prudent and just move along. Others will penalize the party, or find means to compel the PCs to carry on. In the latter case, the Artificer gains a great deal of value, because he has the unique ability to trade healing surges among party members, which in turn improves endurance. To remain optimized, this party should feature a Ranger or Barbarian, and in turn a defender suited to supporting that striker.


If the party still needs a scout, this probably isn’t the place to look. Leaders generally lack the attributes and the skills. A Shaman could use a background and a multiclass feat to gather the skills, then use Speak with Spirits to pump his rolls, but it wouldn’t be reliable.


RULE 6: Select Controller. Is Zero a High Enough Number?

Controllers are generally regarded as the most expendable role. Determining whether your party needs one can be an important decision.

Obviously, the number of opponents in an encounter slides from bucketsful (minions) to roughly 1:1 (standard monsters) to just one (an antisocial solo). There’s many intermediate encounters (minions with 1 or 2 standard monsters, a solo with a bit of support), but they still fit within this scale. Both monster lethality and vulnerability tend to be highest at each end of the scale. Minions can "machine-gun" a single character through sheer numbers but fall rapidly to area attacks. Solos are fairly lethal and have debuffs that lock down one or more PCs, while they themselves can be very vulnerable to lockdown tactics.

As party size increases, minions become more dangerous and solos less so; this is because each individual party member becomes a smaller and smaller portion of the party’s overall capacity to endure damage. For instance, let’s say a level-appropriate minion encounter can reasonably reduce party HP by 15% in a surprise round, and a level-appropriate solo can reasonably stun-lock one character. For a party of three, a character death doesn’t occur until the 33% threshold, so the minions have no chance but the solo can reduce party offense by 33% with a single roll. In a party of seven, character death occurs at roughly 14% of party HP lost, so the minions have killed a character but the solo is still facing 86% of the party.

It can be a little counterintuitive, but this means that larger parties need more and more area and multiple attacks; ruthlessly dealing with minions becomes a higher priority, not a lesser one. A party of four or fewer probably should not have a controller, though the other members will need area or multiple attacks to cover the minion-clearing function. A party of five probably should have one, and a second controller probably should be added if party size ever reaches eight.


In a keyword-themed party, it’s probably best to pick the class with the best array of powers sporting the proper keyword (generally, Wizards/Mages for cold, Invokers for radiant, and Psions for psychic). In a non-themed party, an orb Wizard or Mage probably will be best; if the DM plans on using rituals pick the former, otherwise the latter.


Still seeking a scout? The Hunter is a repurposed striker and excellent at that job. The Druid also is well worth considering. The latter will still need to jump through hoops to pick up Stealth and Thievery, but Wildshape is very handy for a scout. This is a particularly good choice for a party of four whose other members lack any area or multiple attack capacity, because the Druid isn’t a premium controller but can hang in melee better than most. (This also has a very nice real-life knock-on effect. One flaw in the game’s design is that strikers get the most attention in combat, while scouts get the most attention out of it. The same player doesn’t need all that love. Giving the controller’s player a little spotlight time between encounters is only a good thing.)


RULE 7: Select the Fourth or Fifth Wheel. Filling in the Skill Gaps

So far we’ve added a striker, defender, and leader to a party of three or fewer. For most parties, a controller would be the fifth member. That leaves one slot open for the fourth member of a four- or five-PC party.

Generally speaking, a second leader will add the most in this slot. Again, with a good striker in front of him a good leader does as much (or more) damage as a striker while adding healing and durability to the party.


At this point, however, it’s also prudent to begin thinking in terms of skill selection. Obviously, we’ve been trying to find a party scout for most of this process. Ideally, this character will cover the three Dexterity skills (Acrobatics, Stealth, Thievery) and at least one Wisdom skill (Perception), preferably more. Between the leaders and controllers, most parties already will have a high Intelligence character who should take all of Arcana, History, and Religion. The defender usually covers Athletics, and often Endurance. So, most parties at this point will need either a high-Charisma party “face” (invested in Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Streetwise) or a backup high-Wisdom character (to pick up any of Dungeoneering, Heal, Insight, or Nature that the scout lacks). If your party still needs both roles, then you probably ought to go back and rejigger your lineup. Again, we’re optimizing for a campaign experience, which goes well beyond just winning fights. We need to field the right man for the right skill challenge when that time comes.


Fortunately, a leader can fill either role easily, it’s just a matter of picking the right leader. A Bard makes an excellent party face, though the Ardent or BravuraLord are stiff competition for the role. For parties needing another Wisdom-based build, a Cleric would be a natural choice assuming that wasn’t the first pick, with Artificers and Shamans giving them a run for their money.


Note that each character in the party is expected to pick up every skill for his primary (and possibly secondary) attribute, with the exception of the two Wisdom-based characters who split the five Wisdom-based skills among them. This will tend to steer skill-optimized parties toward a Dex-Wis scout, one more Wisdom-based character, a single Charisma-based build, and a single Intelligence-based build. Often, a stumbling block for five-member parties is wanting to have two or more Intelligence-based builds (the controller and at least one leader). This tends to leave either Wisdom or Charisma skills uncovered by the party as a whole.


Those builds that have skill slots left over after covering their responsibilities should invest in the obvious choices: Perception, then Heal. In a campaign with strict item rarity and grittily realistic medieval terrain, Athletics should join this elite group.


Stealth is a special case. Every party needs a single scout, because knowledge is nearly as important as mad skillz when it comes to consistently winning fights, but most parties don’t need anyone else with the skill. That said, it would be perfectly valid to build a party around a “SEAL team” concept in the right campaign. If everyone can find a way to purchase both Stealth and a modest Dexterity, then a lot of fun tactics will open up for the group. In practice, this will be pretty hard to implement. There aren’t that many leader builds that can even pretend to be a Ninja Lite.



RULE 8: Melee or Range. Be Able to Fight Wrong-handed

At this point you’ve essentially completed the first draft of the party. It’s time to proofread, and the first thing to look for is overreliance on melee or (much less commonly) ranged attacks. If no one in the party can attack an enemy 6 squares away, it’s time to start over, and ideally everyone in the party can contribute at least some form of attack up to 10 squares away. (All hail the mighty javelin.) Optimizing melee DPR is tempting, even addictive, but an alternate party that can bring 85% of the melee heat and 300% of the ranged heat will have a longer career.

Conversely, a party of ranged specialists better have someone who can stand tall in the thick of melee. Generally this isn’t an issue for any party with a defender. But it’s even better if the ranged characters have some sort of option for helping the meat shield clear a 25-by-25-foot gatehouse full of goblins. Sentinels who specialize in summoning and Shamans add a great deal of value to ranged parties, because their companions and summons can serve as shield walls.


RULE 9: Add a Third P. Select Party-benefiting Paragon Paths

A lot of builds will be centered around a particular paragon path, and that’s fine, but from the party optimization perspective the best paragon paths are those that benefit the party as a whole. Five PCs each benefiting from five powerful knock-on effects at level 16 are way ahead of five PCs each with a single slightly more powerful effect. Some of the best of the best include:

Battle Captain: The gold standard for buff-at-will optimization.

Battlefield Archer: If Battlefield Expertise applies to the whole party, this just adds win to win.

Divine Oracle: This still adds a huge party benefit (no surprise), even if it was a lot sexier on a Wizard before the Cleric=>Templar nerfs.

Flame of Hope: Adds strong leader buffs to a controller.

Guildmaster Thief: Two huge effects. AP redistribution is extremely powerful.

Hospitaler: De facto makes the entire party much tougher.

Moonstalker: Does for proning parties what Morninglord does for Radiant Mafias.

Morninglord: The straw that stirs the Radiant Mafia drink into a cheesy froth. May be considered setting and religion specific.

War Chanter:
Listening to “Carmina Burana Carl Orff-O Fortuna” over and over again is a small price to pay.


RULE 10: Tweak and Adjust. Cover All of the Bases

So what have we missed? The original version of this post described 30 party functions, broken into three tiers of 10 each. They were sorely outdated, so let’s revise then review them to see if any are particularly lacking:

TIER A


1. Nova/alpha-strikes [situational (see Rule 1), reduces need for healing, tends to synergy with multiple attacks or big basic attacks]


2. Marking/defender aura [more than one is good, inverse relationship to nova capacity]


3. Healer [more than one is good, decreases in importance as nova capacity increases]


4. Multitarget and/or AoE attacks [at least one is extremely handy to “acid test” for minions, larger parties need more and benefit more, to the extent that really large parties may be best optimized with nothing but AoE specialists]


5. Extra attacks and moves [less important for mobile ranged parties, big basic attacks add value]


6. Debuffs [more important for ranged parties, terrain-making can be a substitute]


7. Buffs


8. Ranged attacks [gain in importance with party size]


9. NAD attacks (particularly vs Reflex and Will)


10. SoloLock [nerfed heavily, but an orb Wizard remains handy, larger parties can round-robin this function with stunning attacks]


TIER B


1. Trapmaster [Thievery, ideally integrated with Sneak for a perfect scout, varies by DM fondness for traps]


2. Sneak [Stealth, ideally Perception and Thievery too]


3. Terrain-making [zones, etc, more useful in forced movement—heavy party]


4. Big basic attacks [adds value to extra attacks]


5. Single-target multiattacks [adds value to keyword themes]


6. Hawkeye [Perception, useful among all PCs]


7. Face [Diplomacy, ideally all 4 Charisma skills barring C5 being filled]


8. Synergys [spare resources dedicated to partywide benefits]


9. Uniques [detect chaotic evil, tiny shapeshift, etc]


10. Ritual caster [depends on DM, needs high Intelligence and ideally Wisdom]


TIER C


1. Wall (tanking defender) [great in dungeons fronting ranged parties]


2. Companions (animal, spirit, etc) [great for smaller and/or ranged parties]


3. Lay healers [useful among all PCs, especially thanks to skill powers]


4. Athletics expert [varies dramatically with magic item rarity]


5. Intimidate expert [not necessarily the party face in this case, given there are Str-based builds]


6. Dungeoneering expert


7. Acrobat expert


8. Sprinter [generally more useful as partywide emphasis]


9. Endurance expert


10. History expert


See anything there you missed? Time to go back and refine your party dynamics. At this point, of course, you’ll have to rob Peter to pay Paul, so don’t expect to be able to do everything with any given standard-size party. However, a well-designed five-PC party can bring a respectable (if not outlandish) nova and fill 25+ of these functions without breaking a sweat.


Comments welcome, as always.


 

ARCHIVED FOURTH REVISION


This post has gone through three major revisions. Here is the fourth (and probably final, barring small improvements) draft, which approaches the topic from a new angle based on thought prompted by the feedback in this thread. It also changes a few terms to conform (where applicable) with the Party Building article in Dragon 373.

The third draft is archived deep in the thread; I didn't think to archive the first two, but then they weren’t much. A few of the following comments won't make sense in light of the original post having been completely different.

***

RULE 1: Define Party Functions

Before you can define the most optimized party, you have to define what it is that your party ideally can do. Following are 30 party functions ranked in three tiers by (arguable) order of importance.

LEGEND
The assumption is that only one party member needs to be able to perform a given function. An (s) following the function name means that having more than one of these is ideal. An (1/all) following the function name means that you really only need one party member to have the ability, or every party member should have it. A single asterisk (*) means that the function is situational; its importance will rise or fall depending on DM and campaign style, and certain facets may be controversial and house-ruled. A double asterisk (**) means the function is highly situational, and you need to think very carefully about how far you want to exploit it based on DM/campaign dynamics.

Comments in brackets [] explain how the function interrelates with other party functions or characteristics. An arrow (^v) before the related topic means that importance rises or declines as the party increases its ability in the related topic; eg, Healing [vA3] means that the need for healing declines as a party increases its nova capacity, because a team of elite novas doesn’t expect combat to last long. An arrow (^v) after the related topic means that the related topic’s importance rises or declines as the party increases this ability; eg, Many Targets [A9v] means that the utility of MultiAttacks declines as the party’s AoE capacity increases. An exclamation point (!) indicates synergy with the related topic; eg, Black Hole [!A1] means that marking has synergy with itself, in that having two defenders often can be more than twice as good as having one.

In addition, four functions have upgrades that both wholly replace and substantially alter the nature of that function.

TIER A
1. Black Hole(s) (markers) [!A1, ^A7]
2. Healer(s) [vA3]
3. Nova(s)** (very high damage dailies) [A2v, !B3]
4. Many Targets(s) (AoEs) [^larger party]
5. SoloLock* (single-target control) [vA3, vlarger party]
6. Debuff(s) [^A7, vB2]
7. Artillery(s) (ranged builds) [^larger party]
8. Booster(s) (buffs)
9. NAD attack(s) (vs. Will, Fort, Ref)
10. Tactician(s) (extra attacks and moves) [^A7 (escape moves), B4^]

COMMENTS: Nova is highly situational because, taken to excess, it can be irritating to DMs, and keeping the DM happy has as much to do with party success as anything on this list. (We're real-world optimizing, here.) If the DM slaves over his plotlines and encounters, then you expect to snicker-snack through everything by spamming Blade Cascade like a bunch of unruly teens devouring a gourmet meal, well, you're begging for payback. SoloLock is situational because the most common method (orb wizardry) will often be house-ruled.

TIER B
1. Trapmaster* (high Thievery)
2. Terrain Maker [vA6]
3. MultiAttacks* [!A3, vA4]
4. BigMak (big basic melee attack) [^A10]
5. Hawkeye (high Perception; upgrades to Skeptic)
6. Sneak(1/all)** (high Stealth; upgrades to Scout)
7. Synergy(s)* (partywide benefits; eg, frost feats, Morninglord, etc)
8. Base face (high Diplomacy; upgrades to Ace face)
9. Unique(s) (detect chaotic evil, tiny shapeshift, etc)
10. Int ritual caster* (Arcana and Religion)

COMMENTS: Trapmaster depends on whether the DM ever bothers with traps, and how often. Some MultiAttacks (Dual Strike, Rain of Blows, etc) are considered broken by some and may be house-ruled. Sneak(all) is highly situational; if the DM is eager to run a "high fantasy SEAL team" kind of game, and will count avoided encounters as beaten encounters, it's well worth the effort to design the party. Just about every Synergy power has been dubbed broken at some time; some options may not be available in your campaign. Given the amount of tinkering that probably goes on with the economic system, any sort of routine ritual use should be discussed with the DM; half-price magic items would make this high priority of course.

TIER C
1. Wall (tanking defender) [^A7, vlarge maps]
2. Companion (animal or spirit) [^A7, vlarge party]
3. Lay healer* (skill-based, upgrades to Wis ritual caster)
4. Athletics expert(1/all)*
5. Intimidate expert(s)**
6. Dungeoneering expert*
7. Acrobat expert
8. Sprinter(1/all)**
9. Endurance expert(1/all)*
10. History expert*

COMMENTS: Just about everything in Tier 3 depends on campaign specifics. Lay healing will depend on how many powered healers are in the group. Some DMs routinely will want every party member to be able to pass a Jump/Swim/Climb check one way or another; some will never pose that kind of Athletics challenge. If the Intimidate rules are used by RAW, every good candidate should take the skill; if one of the frequent nerfs is in place it's possibly not worth it for anyone to invest in it. Fielding a party full of Sprinters is difficult, but if you're not afraid to run and fight another day it can be a lifesaver (a rare case where the players’ outlooks are the variable rather than the DM’s outlook). Endurance and History both rarely come up, but there’s always that DM who goes out of his way to challenge the rare skills ...

UPGRADED FUNCTIONS
BB5: Skeptic* (Perception and Insight; replaces Hawkeye)
BB6: Scout** (Stealth, Perception, speed; replaces Sneak)
BB8: Ace face* (Diplomacy, Bluff, Streetwise; replaces Base face)
CC3: Wis ritual caster** (Heal, Nature, Ritual Caster; replaces Lay healer)

COMMENTS: A Skeptic is an easy upgrade from the nigh essential Hawkeye, and worth it in a highly social campaign. (He basically stands at the face's elbow and nudges him every time his BS-meter beeps.) In that same sort of campaign, the Face needs to upgrade to Ace Face. In a campaign where the DM enjoys and rewards player initiative, a true Scout can be a huge monster mystery debuffer, but admittedly a lot of DMs will railroad the Scout into futility. A Wisdom ritual caster also depends on the DM's outlook on rituals; often it's simpler to hire an NPC when this rare need presents itself.


 


***

RULE 2: High Nova or Low Nova?

What is or isn't nova can differ in the (central) eye of the beholder, but generally a nova character build spends most of its resources to build up a single extraordinarily lethal power or combination of powers, then recharge that "super attack" if possible.

A certain amount of this sort of thing is not only inherent to the game, but largely the point of the game. Using complementary powers and action points to overcome the session's climactic threat is good tactics and good gaming. No reasonable DM should complain about that, and thus the default here is "low nova" rather than "no nova."

"High nova" takes things past the point that the game design probably intended. Building a Strength-based Avenger is high nova. A group of players who expect that each character will get their hands on every single daily-recharge magic item as soon as it's available is definitely thinking in high nova terms, too. A lot of other builds are judgment calls. It's important to remember that the DM's judgment is what counts here.

The point of a high nova party is that it's more efficient than a low nova party; the PCs kill the enemy too quickly to need much healing or control. Conversely, many high nova parties require DM complacency (a fact that the players tend to overlook). For instance, they often take advantage of rules that could be reasonably called broken; they often depend on being able to obtain a custom kit of magic items with little difficulty; or they often have holes in their defenses and Tier B and C functions that they expect the DM to forego exploiting.

High nova parties are best played in one-off sessions or convention scenarios (especially if these begin at later levels with player-purchased beginning gear) or in a campaign with a laissez faire DM. In a home campaign with significant DM investment, it may be rude and/or unwise to field a high nova party. It's best to discuss with the DM beforehand what he considers to be simply good tactics versus what he considers to be exploitative.


 


***

RULE 3: Determine the Number of Party Members

Usually, you’ll already know how many characters will be in play, because it’s usually one per player. (This doesn’t have to be the case. Some or all players can run two characters, or the DM can run an NPC. But it is generally the most comfortable arrangement.)

A small (3 member) party will have to pare its list of crucial functions ruthlessly. Any inconvenient Tier C functions should be discarded barring campaign requirements. The players will need to cherry-pick which Tier B functions they can plan to support.

A standard (4 or 5 member) party should manage every Tier A and B function that hasn’t been discarded because of campaign specifics. A few campaign-specific Tier C functions should be doable as well.

A larger party should reasonably expect to address every tier of functionality without sacrificing its linear (or better) growth in the Tier A essentials.

The core of any party tends to be defender, leader, controller. (Surprised? See Rules 4 and 5.) Beyond that, high nova parties should add striker, striker, striker, leader, controller in about that order. Low nova parties should add striker, leader, defender, striker, controller in about that order.

A reasonable alternative build from character four on is leader, leader, leader, leader, leader. This can be a relatively subtle way of combining low nova durability with nearly high nova lethality (ie, a DM who wouldn't approve of other high-nova approaches may not think that this is exploitative at all). The main drawback is that it’s hard to properly fill all functions from the leader class alone.


***

RULE 4: Know How Party Size Influences Combat

Obviously, the number of opponents in an encounter slides from minions (many) to standard foes (roughly 1:1 with the party) to solos (only 1). There’s intermediate encounters (minions with 1 or 2 standard monsters, a solo with a bit of support), but generally the monster scale is minions--standard--solo.

Both monster lethality and vulnerability tend to be highest at each end of the scale. Minions can "machine-gun" a single character through sheer numbers but fall rapidly to area attacks. Solos are fairly lethal and have debuffs that lock down one or more PCs, while they themselves are very vulnerable to stun-lock.

As party size increases, minions become more dangerous and solos less so; this is because each individual party member becomes a smaller and smaller portion of the party’s overall capacity to endure damage. For instance, let’s say a level-appropriate minion encounter can reasonably reduce party HP by 15% in a surprise round, and a level-appropriate solo can reasonably stun-lock one character. For a party of three, a character death doesn’t occur until the 33% threshold, so the minions have no chance but the solo can reduce party offense by 33% with a single roll. In a party of seven, character death occurs at roughly 14% of party HP lost, so the minions have killed a character but the solo is still facing 86% of the party.

It can be a little counterintuitive, but this means that larger parties need more and more area and multiple attacks; ruthlessly dealing with minions becomes a higher priority, not a lesser one. This is why a second controller is recommended as the eighth party member in both builds in Rule 3, even though it’s commonly thought that you only ever need one controller. An optimized party should only skip the second controller if it’s fielding several other characters with area effect potential (Dragonborn, swordmages, etc).

Conversely …


 


 


 


 


***

RULE 5: Determine Who Will Be the Solo-Lock

A Solo-Lock is a character who from paragon on can reliably lock down a single opponent encounter after encounter. Even though they are most hamstrung by the need to field one, small parties need a solo-lock far more than large ones. Partly this is because solos tend to be debuffers themselves, and losing one member to a stun-lock is far more hurtful to a party of three than a party of six (as explained in Rule 4).

SoloLock is not nearly as simple as it used to be. Back in the day, when the boss monster reared its ugly 500-HP head, the orb wizard would elbow his way up to the front of the party and growl, “Stand back, boys. I got this.” Orb wizards can’t hold their locks that long anymore, and good solos have tricks for avoiding stunlock anyway.

 


 


Also, in lieu of a dedicated Solo-Lock, an optimized large party might be better off turning this into a group function. Most classes have one or two daily powers that inflict stun until the end of next turn; by selecting these powers then taking turns using them, the party inflicts a round-robin of stun on the solo while killing it. This takes some pretty good coordination, but it also means that the party’s Solo-Lock functionality isn’t vulnerable to losing a single member.

For small parties, group Solo-Lock isn’t a valid option. Instead, they need to field either an orb wizard or the paladin PP Champion of Order (which works at least as well with fighters and is an interesting graft onto other classes). The orb wizard is the usual choice; at lower levels he can broom away minions with trivial ease (though admittedly this isn’t a huge priority for small parties). On the other hand, CoO also offers a Unique power (detect chaotic evil) that is great in a highly social campaign.

Of course, other varieties of SoloLock can be designed (orb wizard and CoO are simply the most straightforward), and in a very high nova party just about any stun effect until the end of the next turn might be sufficient to the task.



***

RULE 6: Find Complementary Builds

Ideally, any optimized party will include characters whose functions relate well. For instance, a Dwarven BattleRager with his hammer o' doom wants a leader who grants extra attacks (such as a cunning bard) rather than a first-rate healer, whereas a relatively fragile Tempest fighter probably would opt the other way around. The function-defining in Rule 1 is a first step toward mapping out these sorts of relationships.

In addition, an optimal party will include at least one character maximizing each of the six attributes (for skill maxing) and there will not be a preponderance of members sharing the same poor NAD (for instance, it’s easy to field a party in which only the defender has a respectable Fortitude score).

Finally, it's important at this step to ensure that your party is at least low nova rather than no nova. If your characters can't put together some pretty powerful effects to start an encounter---maybe just once daily, but at least that often---it's probably a good idea to rethink your class mix.

Usually one or more players will have some strong preconceptions about what they want to play. As long as a single character build is fairly optimized, an optimized party can be built around it. Once two or three players bring to the table builds that don't really work together, then some level of optimization will just have to be lost.

Forging these relationships can be hard enough in a large party and extremely challenging in a small one. There are a few very solid trinities to be found: You may want to consider Half-Orc tempest fighter, Half-Elf valorous bard, and Deva orb wizard; alternately, Githyanki defending swordmage, Dragonborn charisma warlord, and Elven druid.


***

RULE 7: Test for Over-reliance

Imagine everyone but character 1 fighting together, then everyone but character 2, etc. Does removing one character greatly reduce offense or survivability? This might often be the case in a single-leader party, particularly one without a paladin or other reliable backup healer. Sometimes it’s best to plan for something to go wrong, rather than to build a party that performs spectacularly but only when everything goes its way.


***

RULE 8: Plan for the Optimal Basket of Paragon Paths

Some characters will need to take a particular paragon path to fill their role (eg, Champion of Order for the party Solo-Lock, or Pit Fighter for the party’s sole striker). Any character build that doesn’t have this need should take a strong look at a paragon path that benefits the party as a whole. A few examples include:

Divine Oracle: Huge party and self buffs. Should be fitted to a character with multiple vs Will attacks.

Flame of Hope: Adds strong leader buffs to a controller.

Hospitaler: De facto makes the entire party much tougher.

Morninglord: Huge Synergy with radiant weapons. Limits party ethics.

These are PPs that impact everyone on the team. Fielding as many of them as possible will improve optimization.


***

RULE 9: Retest for Over-reliance at Paragon

By level 16, characters have changed dramatically. Reperform the Rule 7 tests, envisioning the party at this level. If anything, paragon and epic parties are more likely to lose one or two members in a single swoop than heroic ones, so it’s essential to have some redundancy and backup options for Tier A functions by this point.


***

RULE 10: Plan for Epic: But Not Too Much

Have at least a rough idea for epic progression, but not much more than that. The campaign may not last that long, and if it does umpteen new epic opportunities will have been published in the interim.


 

Ah, the S-block. I hardly need thee, forgotten and forlorn post 3. I can cram all of my maddened scribblings into a single post, now that I have mastered the Gerber's strained peas of HTML coding ...

"Much as with speed, Stealth may be the one skill where the lowest value in the party means as much as the highest value in the party. (Again, we cast an embarrassed glance at the Battlerager. As much as he would add to the party's durability, he's a heavy line unit and the real elites are commandos.)"

"Granted, the paladin will need to step down to scale armor, but the lack of armor checks and speed penalites (assuming Specialization) offsets the AC loss, and besides ... we kind of want them choosing to whack the paladin, right? That's kind of Job 1 for him."

So you would rather take a gimp paladin than a battlerager for getting hit in the face? That's some poor logic

Still I think you got it right, without the Cha Paladin this group doesn't have a face, and he only barely qualifies but as long as he has the all important diplomacy skill you will pass skill challenges more often than not. Just don't plan tactics around bluffing or streetwise and he will do ok.

However having stated that, I think your missing warchanter as a great replacement for Battlecaptain. Also after having seen some insanely difficult fights I'm gonna have to disagree with your number of healers. One great and one OK healer is gonna be required. Even if you get a Str Cleric of Tempest who thinks he's a striker as your back up, someone needs to be able to get allies to use Healing surges as a minor action or your gonna come out behind when the chips are down.

What I don't see in your group is anyone with CON a secondary stat, which means no on in your party has a significant amount of healing surges per day. I don't expect to see anyone recycling dailies with salves of power or handing healing surges to other characters with a belt of sacrifice in a group like this.

Overall, nice work though. While I don't agree with not making back row builds, I do agree that damage wise they are strictly inferior, then again you advocate a druid who I think suffers the same problem even in melee (forced dice rather than [W] based.)
So you would rather take a gimp paladin than a battlerager for getting hit in the face? That's some poor logic

Looked at purely as an exercise in taking abuse, you are of course correct. But a gimp (AC -1) paladin can talk or if cross-trained even sneak his way into---and sprint his way out of---places where a Battlerager has to stand and take it in the teeth. Which is all well and good until the DM fields a balanced force and uses ranged attacks to turn the Battlerager into a gimped fighter ...

(One assumes that the campaign is more complex than bang! encounter 1 bang! encounter 2 bang! ...)

However having stated that, I think your missing warchanter as a great replacement for Battlecaptain.

I'll have to look more closely at that, but so far nothing really packs the punch of a pure Battle Captain in my eye. They go a long way toward respecting the "dead monsters don't crit" school of thought.

Also after having seen some insanely difficult fights I'm gonna have to disagree with your number of healers. One great and one OK healer is gonna be required. Even if you get a Str Cleric of Tempest who thinks he's a striker as your back up, someone needs to be able to get allies to use Healing surges as a minor action or your gonna come out behind when the chips are down.

Admittedly the paladin isn't an optimal healer, and a strength-charisma cleric taking Morninglord is a very viable replacement. (You might argue that no party sans Righteous Brand can be called optimized.) But PHB2 makes a half elf chaladin a really potent build. I'd say six of one, half dozen of the other.

Pretty much an aside, but you mean Tempus? I would never consider that feat for a second. It requires the faithful to never back down from a fight. I know CO isn't used to taking the flavor text seriously, but in this case that's the real curb on the uberpowerful feat. Any good DM would make you accept that L+8 challenge ...

What I don't see in your group is anyone with CON a secondary stat, which means no on in your party has a significant amount of healing surges per day. I don't expect to see anyone recycling dailies with salves of power or handing healing surges to other characters with a belt of sacrifice in a group like this.

Guilty as charged. That and a relative lack of NAD attacks are the two biggest criticisms in my mind ... but five members is a balancing act, especially if you try to respect the out of combat utilities (group speed, group stealth, at least a decent face, etc). Adding that valorous bard means losing Morninglord, which gimps your DPR, then you rejuggle and shuffle and end up broken again. There's no perfect five characters.

Overall, nice work though. While I don't agree with not making back row builds, I do agree that damage wise they are strictly inferior, then again you advocate a druid who I think suffers the same problem even in melee (forced dice rather than [W] based.)

I think it really opens up the possibilities if the party can "full court press" with everyone swarming to take down multiple non-minions one by one, or scattering in the face of a powerful controller, etc, without having to worry about covering the lanes to the squishy guy with OA zones. Of course, this will largely depend on GM style; pure dungeon crawls in 20 by 20 rooms make it a lot easier to protect the back row artillery.
I'd be inclined to stand the Dwarven Battlerager on a Tenser's floating disc, so he can keep up with the others and not go clank-clank-clank in the process. Perhaps a tad expensive in the early levels though, and may not always be feasible.
How the hell does this optimization work? It's flawed at it's very core and almost completely through.

1. How can you get a Druid/Divine Oracle? Divine Oracle is a paragon path for cleric, not Druid. Divine Oracle has the prerequisite of "Cleric Class" not the broad "Divine Caster" prerequisite 3.5 used to do a lot for prestige classes.

2. How can you get a Fighter/Champion of Order? Champion of Order is a paragon path of Paladin, not Fighter. Again, open your eyes and take note of the prerequisites.

3. By Taclord/Battle Captain did you mean Warlord(Tactical)/Battle Captain? I'm not calling this on a full fledged flaw, but more of a clarification needing to be made.

It helps to be clear in what you are trying to say. Otherwise everyone else has to sift through source material looking for what the hell you're talking about. And paying attention to prerequisites is paramount. Without paying attention to requirements and rules, D&D becomes pen and paper calvinball. (Refer to "Calvin & Hobbes" comic strips for definition of calvinball.)
How the hell does this optimization work? It's flawed at it's very core. How can you get a Druid/Divine Oracle? Divine Oracle is a paragon path for cleric. Divine Oracle has the prerequisite of "Cleric Class" not the broad "Divine Caster" prerequisite 3.5 used to do a lot for prestige classes.

So have the Druid MC to Cleric.
I was under the impression that it was best to have 2 strikers, 1 defender, 1 leader, and 1 leader or controller in a 5-man party.

One of the reasons I'm a big fan of halfling 20/16 Artful Dodgers is that they have good enough Cha to serve as a face, while having enough AC to keep up in melee, as well as ridiculous OA AC to trigger CCs for the fighter.
I don't understand what's so optimized about about the Elf Druid/Cleric that another class can't do better. If I'm not mistaken you would take the Elf Druid for all the beast form subpar striker stuff right? Are you going for control or strike damage here?
I can very easily see an Invoker or a Devout Cleric being a better ranged striker and healer. But then again I don't know what I'm missing about the Elf Druid.
I don't understand what's so optimized about about the Elf Druid/Cleric that another class can't do better. If I'm not mistaken you would take the Elf Druid for all the beast form subpar striker stuff right? Are you going for control or strike damage here?
I can very easily see an Invoker or a Devout Cleric being a better ranged striker and healer. But then again I don't know what I'm missing about the Elf Druid.

I agree. . .

Considering non-optimized characters, but an optimized party. I think taclord is a far better leader than any other. As he can at-will replicate the striker´s attack ( Ranger or Avenger, for example ).

Leader-striker
How the hell does this optimization work? It's flawed at it's very core and almost completely through.

[...]

Don't be rude for the sake of being rude. Characters can multiclass; it's a basic component of the game. If you read Champion of Order's description it actually almost suits a fighter more than a paladin. And people routinely truncate Warlord (Tactical) to TacLord on this board. If mine's the first post in which you've encountered that abbreviation, then you're too new to reading these posts to be criticizing someone's execution of one.
I was under the impression that it was best to have 2 strikers, 1 defender, 1 leader, and 1 leader or controller in a 5-man party.

One of the reasons I'm a big fan of halfling 20/16 Artful Dodgers is that they have good enough Cha to serve as a face, while having enough AC to keep up in melee, as well as ridiculous OA AC to trigger CCs for the fighter.

There's some debate on that ideal composition. That's part of the point of this exercise. There are those of us who believe extra healing is really the most important fifth member function.

The Artful Dodger can't +10 everyone else's damage when they're circling a durable target and wailing away on it. Nor set up a zone of minor healing for the encounter. When suggesting a replacement character, it's nice to keep in mind what is lost in the trade.
I don't understand what's so optimized about about the Elf Druid/Cleric that another class can't do better. If I'm not mistaken you would take the Elf Druid for all the beast form subpar striker stuff right? Are you going for control or strike damage here?
I can very easily see an Invoker or a Devout Cleric being a better ranged striker and healer. But then again I don't know what I'm missing about the Elf Druid.

Druids are the best scouts, for one thing. Get right up underneath a rogue's nose and count the nostril hairs. Then laugh---which is the only way the rogue's going to realize the druid's there---before running off too quickly for anyone to do anything about it. Plus, a druid can do all of this while in the shape of a wild pig! (Seriously, they're sneaky. No one with any skill in Nature would be too surprised to turn around and see a wild boar rooting around. Who's to know it's the opposing force's lead element?)

And they have powers and stuff, too. ;) Seriously, though, the exercise here is party optimization, and having the best possible scout build in the game seems to me a pretty defensible position. The fact that it gives me a decent controller who can endure melee is very attractive, too.
Druids are the best scouts, for one thing. Get right up underneath a rogue's nose and count the nostril hairs. Then laugh---which is the only way the rogue's going to realize the druid's there---before running off too quickly for anyone to do anything about it. Plus, a druid can do all of this while in the shape of a wild pig! (Seriously, they're sneaky. No one with any skill in Nature would be too surprised to turn around and see a wild boar rooting around. Who's to know it's the opposing force's lead element?)

And they have powers and stuff, too. ;) Seriously, though, the exercise here is party optimization, and having the best possible scout build in the game seems to me a pretty defensible position. The fact that it gives me a decent controller who can endure melee is very attractive, too.

I think you're over valuing the role of a "scout". I would much rather have a rogue or archer ranger.
I like the druid, nothing against it, but I think you can get more from other classes.
I see no nova muscle behind this party; this means you have a Taclord and no one to really milk his bonuses for what they're worth. I would shuffle it up somewhat:

The Party:
1. Human Fighter MC Cleric/Warpriest (Shield Fighter)
2. Longtooth Shifter Ranger MC Fighter/Pit Fighter (TWF)
3. Dragonborn Warlord/Battlelord of Kord (Bravura)
4. Human Wizard/Wizard of the Spiral Tower (Orb/Staff)
5. Elf Ranger MC Rogue/Battlefield Archer (Archery)

Combat Role:
1. Defender, Backup Leader
2. Striker, Backup Defender
3. Leader, Backup Defender
4. Controller
5. Striker

Non-Combat Skills:
1. Athletics, Endurance, Intimidate, Religion, Streetwise - Muscle, Backup Face
2. Athletics, Endurance, Heal, Nature, Perception, Stealth - Muscle, Scout
3. Athletics, Diplomacy, Endurance, Intimidate - Face, Muscle
4. Arcana, Dungeoneering, Insight, History, Religion - Knowledge
5. Acrobatics, Heal, Nature, Perception, Stealth, Thievery - Healer, Scout

Explanations:
1. The Fighter is the strongest Defender right now IMHO; no way I'm leaving home without one. This guy is a pure Defender-type, packing high defense, solid damage, a touch of healing, a bajillion ways to mark people, and the ability to push opponents 1-5 squares back when they attack someone else (depending on his level). Works particularly well with the other party members, as he gives the Wizard space to work his blasts with little risk of hitting allies, he allows the Rangers to get in a 1-on-1, where they can kill just about anything.

2. I built this guy in my Pit Fighter thread. He deals some very devastating damage, is fairly independent in combat (has little need for flanks after Paragon), and has enough defense to hold his own as a backup Defender. Also, a Warlord in the party makes him very, very happy, because there's nothing like nova-buffing a multiattacker.

3. I built this guy in my Dragonborn Nova Bravelord thread. Extra attacks are godly, especially on hard-hitting Melee characters. As such, this Warlord is an absolute beast for nova buffing. Since Battlelord of Kord packs similar benefits to Battle Captain and has flatly superior powers, this is my vote for the Leader, and you cover the face role simultaneously.

4. I built this guy in my Orbizard thread. Take a gander at his defenses; you'll be surprised at how high they actually are. Additionally, a Warlord buff on this guy means the Solo encounter is OVER. 2 turns is all this party needs to rip anything apart (maybe less). Also, he will have the back rank all to himself.

5. I built this gal in my Battlefield Archer thread. She has some durability to stay up front (heck, she has better AC than most of the Melee people), and she has brutal Ranged potential, as well as the full scouting suite. Additionally, if she's close to you, she doesn't miss much (pretty much capped accuracy through all 30 levels).

Methodology:
As you can see, this party's motto is hit fast, hit hard, and hit 'em 'till they stop moving. Everyone can get into Melee and survive for a bit (yes, even the Archer and Wizard), so no worries about getting "caught" up front. This party's Strikers and Controller milk that Warlord for what he's worth as far as the buffs are concerned, especially attack buffs. The Warlord and Fighter have healing duties down, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a party better at taking people out quickly. Divine Oracles and running speed are all well and good, but I don't have the room for 'em, and I'm not really gonna miss 'em.
I think you're over valuing the role of a "scout".

That's probably true for a lot of games and players. Tongue mildly in cheek, they may go something like this:

DM: The village elder says, "Please help us, goblin bandits have been descending on us for weeks! They're based in the old ruins up the road."

PLAYER: We ride over to the old ruins and kick in the door.

DM: There's 7 goblin ToeGnawers, 3 goblin PooFlingers, and a goblin TaxAuditer in the room. Roll for initiative.


That's fine if that's all you want to do, but if your DM has DM'ed more than 3 times it's because he wants to build a world and have you walk in it. Take him up on his offer, using it thoroughly to your advantage:

DM: The village elder says, "Please help us, goblin bandits have been descending on us for weeks! They're based in the old ruins up the road."

PLAYER: "That's terrible! How many of these goblins are there?"

DM: "Who can say? I don't know that we've seen more than a dozen at any time."

PLAYER: "That's a lot of fanged mouths to feed. Are they stealing your food stores? How many people would you say that the stolen food would feed?"

DM: "Um, about a dozen!"

PLAYER: "Excellent. Is there a ridge or a rise from which we can observe these ruins for a few days, perhaps get an estimate of their strength?"

And so on and so forth. Inhabit the world and many DMs will gratefully hand you the initiative ... then your druid is spending half his time thoroughly debuffing the monsters' mystery via scouting expeditions.

If you don't have use for a premium scout, that's probably not the DM's fault.

-- 30 --
I see no nova muscle behind this party; this means you have a Taclord and no one to really milk his bonuses for what they're worth.

Um, I do have an elven Stormwarden who takes umbrage ...

Actually, I would suggest that TacLords need a monster basic melee attack (which I'm also guilty of not having). It's strength clerics who pair up with many novas the best, IMO. One could almost add a rule that TacLords should come paired with Battleragers. I may have to start pondering an unorthodox Battlerager build that can move and sneak a little ...

1. Defender - Human Fighter MC Cleric/Warpriest (Shield Fighter)
2. Striker - Longtooth Shifter Ranger MC Fighter/Pit Fighter (TWF)
3. Leader - Dragonborn Warlord/Battlelord of Kord (Bravura)
4. Controller - Human Wizard/Wizard of the Spiral Tower (Orb/Staff)
5. Striker - Half-Orc Ranger MC Fighter/Stormwarden (TWF)

I certainly won't argue that your nova output is very high but you've got one charisma warlord healer and a handful of fighter healing powers for the entire group. That's putting a lot of eggs into the "kill them before they kill you" basket.

Battlelord of Kord packs similar benefits to Battle Captain

Oof. Similar as in "a pale shadow thereof"? ;)

Take a gander at his defenses

It really isn't that hard to give a wizard decent defenses, this is true; the issue is the HPs behind them. I love Wizard of the Spiral Tower builds for "de-fragiling" stunlockers by giving them some escapability. (Plus, the implement cheese ...) I'm not going to argue that a WotST isn't a perfectly viable controller build.

He covers the scout role nicely with his high Dexterity

I would argue that's not enough. The perfect scout would be a Dex-Wis build ideally with buffs for both Stealth and Perception *and* a through the roof speed. (Delivering of information is just as important as gathering it.)

As you can see, this party's motto is hit fast, hit hard, and hit 'em 'till they stop moving. Everyone can get into Melee (yes, even the Wizard), so no worries about getting "caught" up front. This party's Strikers and Controller milk that Warlord for what he's worth as far as the buffs, especially attack buffs. Divine Oracles are all well and good, but I don't have the room for one, and I'm not really gonna miss him.

It's a fantastic party, no question. But hitting hard and fast eventually runs smack up against rolling low and terrible. And without a Divine Oracle your nova synergy machine is just begging an exasperated DM to drop a big whammy out of nowhere on you.

My party conceits are seduce the initiative, seize it if seduction doesn't work, if all else fails rely on the Divine Oracle to never yield the initative, then never let one (or seven consecutive) bad rolls dictate your outcome. If you have to run like hell and try again tomorrow, so be it.

Your mileage varies, of course.
Why not have a Bard/Divine Oracle?

Pro's:
1) Leader role there to augment Tactlord
2) Nice array of vs Will attacks
3) Not the only MC it can take
4) Party face
5) The helping it can do with nova's is huge

I think it would be better to have the defenders be controller hybrids than to actually have a controller.
Actually, I would suggest that TacLords need a monster basic melee attack (which I'm also guilty of not having). It's strength clerics who pair up with many novas the best, IMO. One could almost add a rule that TacLords should come paired with Battleragers. I may have to start pondering an unorthodox Battlerager build that can move and sneak a little ...

Try a Barbarian instead. He has a monster Melee basic too, and he can be sneaky while he does it (think Half-Orc, Str/Dex buffing Barb with huge AC and big damage).

Bravura Warlords are better at nova buffing than Clerics because of the simple fact that not only do they make your novas bigger by attack and damage, they make them longer, by adding basic attacks and the like. And we've all seen how one extra attack makes damage much, much better.

I certainly won't argue that your nova output is very high but you've got one charisma warlord healer and a handful of fighter healing powers for the entire group. That's putting a lot of eggs into the "kill them before they kill you" basket.

Charisma-based Warlord healing is actually pretty good.

Oof. Similar as in "a pale shadow thereof"? ;)

+Int to hit and speed v. +2 to hit, +Cha to damage? And having blatantly superior Paragon Path powers? You may want to re-evaluate your statement. The Battle Captain comes out ahead on Inspiring Word, but the nova buffing form the Battlelord of Kord is better, since these builds need little help in the hitting department. And his healing is better, because he's Charisma-based. IMHO, Tactical has been overrated of late; Bravura is about as good at offensive output (albeit riskier), and they have decent damage of their own.

It really isn't that hard to give a wizard decent defenses, this is true; the issue is the HPs behind them. I love Wizard of the Spiral Tower builds for "de-fragiling" stunlockers by giving them some escapability. (Plus, the implement cheese ...) I'm not going to argue that a WotST isn't a perfectly viable controller build.

Uh, so? He's 13 HP behind the Rangers at Paragon. That's pretty darned good for a Wizard, especially considering his AC is actually 1 point higher. I see no squish, especially with a spammable encounter power that dazes.

I would argue that's not enough. The perfect scout would be a Dex-Wis build ideally with buffs for both Stealth and Perception *and* a through the roof speed. (Delivering of information is just as important as gathering it.)

Fine, I traded it in for an Elf Archer. Fast as the wind, and he can attack while delivering that information (see Running Shot and other kiting goodies).

It's a fantastic party, no question. But hitting hard and fast eventually runs smack up against rolling low and terrible. And without a Divine Oracle your nova synergy machine is just begging and exasperated DM to drop a big whammy out of nowhere on you.

My party conceits are seduce the intiative, seize it if seduction doesn't work, if all fells rely on the Divine Oracle to never yield the initative, then never let one (or seven) bad rolls dictate your outcome. If you have to run like hell and try again tomorrow, so be it.

Your mileage varies, of course.

-- 30 --

That's why accuracy was also a priority; every one of these builds is very accurate as well as damaging (the Archer misses only on a 1 after a certain point, for crying out loud). You'd have to roll absolute garbage for statistically improbable lengths (especially with all the multi-attacking going on) to have a bad Encounter, and you'll still have a decent shot of pulling it out because once you start rolling well, you steamroller through things.
Why not have a Bard/Divine Oracle?

I've looked long and hard at that build. You're right; it brings a lot to the table.

It has two problems. As mentioned, it's hard to build a stealthy bard. If you're trying to optimize an entire party for stealth (the value of which admittedly will vary with DM style), they're in the same class with Battleragers. Oh so tempting but oh so clumsy.

Also, bards are *horribly* gimped if your DM insists on Implement/Weapon Expertise by RAW. That's going to be Implement Expertise (Songsword), Weapon Expertise (Heavy Blades), and you're still going to want Implement Expertise (Wands) and maybe even (Musical Instruments).

This, for a class that already burns feats on multimulticlasses. Bards only work if your DM handwaves the Expertise feats.

I think it would be better to have the defenders be controller hybrids than to actually have a controller.

This, after I burn all those words defending my druid?!? ;) Again, I wouldn't argue that packing the party with primary role X secondary role controller characters can just about remove any need for a real controller. (And there's a *lot* to be said for spreading a little controller power across multiple characters rather than clumping it all in the wizard.)

But I like my druid. Just do. A lot of the PHB2 characters are low nova, high flexibility concepts designed for a skilled player to maximize in less than obvious ways. I find the druid the best of the bunch, even if his DPR is admittedly meh.
That's probably true for a lot of games and players. Tongue mildly in cheek, they may go something like this:

DM: The village elder says, "Please help us, goblin bandits have been descending on us for weeks! They're based in the old ruins up the road."

PLAYER: We ride over to the old ruins and kick in the door.

DM: There's 7 goblin ToeGnawers, 3 goblin PooFlingers, and a goblin TaxAuditer in the room. Roll for initiative.


That's fine if that's all you want to do, but if your DM has DM'ed more than 3 times it's because he wants to build a world and have you walk in it. Take him up on his offer, using it thoroughly to your advantage:

DM: The village elder says, "Please help us, goblin bandits have been descending on us for weeks! They're based in the old ruins up the road."

PLAYER: "That's terrible! How many of these goblins are there?"

DM: "Who can say? I don't know that we've seen more than a dozen at any time."

PLAYER: "That's a lot of fanged mouths to feed. Are they stealing your food stores? How many people would you say that the stolen food would feed?"

DM: "Um, about a dozen!"

PLAYER: "Excellent. Is there a ridge or a rise from which we can observe these ruins for a few days, perhaps get an estimate of their strength?"

And so on and so forth. Inhabit the world and many DMs will gratefully hand you the initiative ... then your druid is spending half his time thoroughly debuffing the monsters' mystery via scouting expeditions.

If you don't have use for a premium scout, that's probably not the DM's fault.

-- 30 --

Thats a good laugh, but you've just equated the druid to a role-playing class. An archer ranger/rogue can do all that and more while still being active RPers.
I understand what you're getting at but I'm still not convinced the druid is the best class to fill this role. In the end it seems like the druid is just there to fulfill the role of a Controller in the party.
IMHO A Pure Controller is not a role the party NEEDS. There are plenty of classes that can fill the role of secondary controller and offer more. Controllers are nice and make things easier but they are not needed.
PLAYER: "That's terrible! How many of these goblins are there?"

As a DM, I love when players ask a question like this - it shows that they're thinking and it gives me the opportunity to let players predict, prepare and take the initiative. It makes the world feel more "real" when the players logically interact with it. In my experience, however, most players won't do this.

As a player, when *I* try to do this, I am generally rewarded with a blank stare from the DM. The NPC might say something like "Well, um, lots" and "Uh... no, no one has ever actually seen the goblins attack" or "Maybe you should just go kill them. I marked their location on your map" or "Go kill the goblins. We have nothing more to say."

If I try to gather more intelligence, DM's generally get uncomfortable and start *uming* and *uhing.* If it's not explicitly written into the module, most DM's don't know how to handle inventive or resourceful players.

-Unmaker
In my experience, however, most players won't do this.

Mine, too. Sadly. But if we're practicing party optimization we're on the player side of the screen so ...

As a player, when *I* try to do this, I am generally rewarded with a blank stare from the DM. The NPC might say something like "Well, um, lots" and "Uh... no, no one has ever actually seen the goblins attack" or "Maybe you should just go kill them. I marked their location on your map" or "Go kill the goblins. We have nothing more to say."

If I try to gather more intelligence, DM's generally get uncomfortable and start *uming* and *uhing.* If it's not explicitly written into the module, most DM's don't know how to handle inventive or resourceful players.

I had to laugh, having been stuck with this guy, too. I guess I've been fortunate in generally having encountered better DMs than this.

The point remains that it's not an old linear-path computer game. When the NPC huffs, "go kill the goblins," your PC responds, "Uh, no. Not until a proper reconnaissance etc." This edition of the game is a tactical thinking exercise. (That's all it is, anymore!) I find it amusing that it's almost always played:

1. Step into deep doo doo
2. Start thinking

Rather than the other way around.

But we are straying off topic ...
Also, bards are *horribly* gimped if your DM insists on Implement/Weapon Expertise by RAW. That's going to be Implement Expertise (Songsword), Weapon Expertise (Heavy Blades), and you're still going to want Implement Expertise (Wands) and maybe even (Musical Instruments).

No, you get a star of corellon and take one implement feat for all of your implement attacks. This build is probably not going to be in melee anyways; have High Int and Cha and grab some nice implment powers from your class of choice.

It will be a Leader/Controller type combined with a Defender/Controller will leave him fairly safe from being grouped up on by baddies.
No, you get a star of corellon and take one implement feat for all of your implement attacks. This build is probably not going to be in melee anyways; have High Int and Cha and grab some nice implment powers from your class of choice.

It will be a Leader/Controller type combined with a Defender/Controller will leave him fairly safe from being grouped up on by baddies.

I can't really have this guy in my optimized party.

As a tossed off benchmark, an optimized party should be able to fight twice its numbers (in appropriately lower leveled foes) in an open field. Given the diagonal=straight move rule, even with 4 defenders I can't keep Wand Waver here out of melee without forming the Dog Food of Doom formation. (Named after the Ralston Purina logo, which it mimics.)

The DFoD ensures that the enemy will maximize every ranged burst 1 in its arsenal. It also gives the opposing force initiative in isolating one of my defenders in melee. In short, we're puppy chow.

That's a high price to pay for one guy who needs a Songsword and the right feats, even if he can't afford anything but that array of Expertise feats.

-- 30 --
A couple observations:

1. The Battlecaptain/Battlelord of Kord debate is missing a few notes about the difference between taclord and inspiring warlord or bravura warlord powers. +2 vs +Int is hardly the whole story. The big battlecaptain +Int bonus is a power bonus and doesn't stack with his opening round options (thunderous fury, brutal setup, warlord's favor, etc). The battlelord may well have options that grant a similar bonus (Instant planning, and, if inspiring, great dragon war cry, and war of attrition). It is also worth pointing out that the battlelord easily qualifies for Supreme Inspiration and thus grants his bonus to two characters while the battle captain has to reduce the bonus he gives in order to qualify for supreme inspiration. (2 points of Int or Str and 3 points of con is the minimum sacrifice). There are certainly advantages to the +Int that are not erased by these factors, but not so many as the +2 vs +Int comparison would suggest.

2. I don't think Lordduskblade's party is commited to a dead monsters don't crit theory of defense.

The fighter/warpriest has several strong healing powers available to him. Additionally, the wizard of the spiral tower and the elf ranger both have cleric multiclass available to them (at least conceptually--I see the MC rogue in the ranger header, but it seems to me that that could be replaced by skill training: Thievery if you wanted more healing).

3. Your premise for principle 4 is incorrect--principle 3 does not require two leaders or a paladin. There are quite a few ways to field a second source of acceptable to strong per encounter healing that do not involve either a paladin or a second leader.

Orb wizard multiclasses very nicely with cleric but any wizard with a modicum of wisdom can take the cleric MC and bastion of health. A fighter can also quite productively multiclass with cleric or warlord. There are a number of fighter/warpriest builds that integrate the warpriest path into the core fighter concept. My battlemaster build http://forums.gleemax.com/showthread.php?p=17936617 is more focused the secondary leader role but should still be pretty effective in the core defender role as well. (He's probably not for your party since chain mail, low dex, and a heavy shield mean he's not much for stealth and being a dwarf means he's not much for speed, but he is an alternative to paladin in the defender with healing role).

That said, I think your conclusion in number 4 is spot on. Control abilities are essential. However, a character with WoTC's "Controller" stamp is not a necessity in an optimized party.
1. The Battlecaptain/Battlelord of Kord debate is missing a few notes [...] The big battlecaptain +Int bonus is a power bonus and doesn't stack with his opening round options [...] the battlelord easily qualifies for Supreme Inspiration.

The Battle Captain already can't pull out his big guns in the first few rounds because, much like a Three Stooges routine, he has to wait for someone to get dinged first. So he offers this:

Surprise Round: Sweet auto bonus and extra action power!
Round 1: Sweet auto bonus and extra action power!
Round 2: OH YOU DID NOT!!!

That said, the Battlelord of Kord can fill the face role, later in life he can nova with the best of them, and as you point out he can expand his effect more easily. If you're building a nova party, he's definitely your man.


2. I don't think Lordduskblade's party is commited to a dead monsters don't crit theory of defense. [...] The fighter/warpriest has several strong healing powers available to him.

Can't really agree. I've repeatedly suffered epic fail trying to use fighter powers alone to keep fighters upright. (Everyone at once, "Maybe it's not the fighter, maybe it's you!") Using feats to cherry-pick cleric healing is going to have quite a bit of opportunity cost. You end up with a pretty limited healer rather than the severely optimal Machine O' Death Sticky that he wants.

And using your MC feat to pick up a cleric/warlord daily healing used to be sweet. Now it means giving up Oath of Enmity for two turns per encounter. Or the almost as fantastic barbarian feat. There's a large opportunity cost here, too.

I still think his group is more fragile than he assesses it at. They'll give up surprise rounds often enough, and if you drop the chalord down a shaft and flood their formation with minions on the surprise round, they could struggle to regain their composure. But I do readily admit that he fields a Murderer's Row of daily powers.

3. Your premise for principle 4 is incorrect--principle 3 does not require two leaders or a paladin. There are quite a few ways to field a second source of acceptable to strong per encounter healing that do not involve either a paladin or a second leader.

You're quite right. Edit to come.
I actually really like Invoker/Flame of Hope. A controller with extra healing and powerful nova? Nice.

If you're worried about lordduskblade's group not having enough healing, sub out wizard for the invoker/flame of hope and you're set. Less anti-solo stuff, but, still, a great character. Could power swap for wizard dailies also if needed. Now, at least in epic, both the warpriest and invoker have a decent amount of healing (lvl 20 daily/lvl 25 daily both mass heal for invoker).
I actually really like Invoker/Flame of Hope. A controller with extra healing and powerful nova? Nice.

If you're worried about lordduskblade's group not having enough healing, sub out wizard for the invoker/flame of hope and you're set. Less anti-solo stuff, but, still, a great character. Could power swap for wizard dailies also if needed. Now, at least in epic, both the warpriest and invoker have a decent amount of healing (lvl 20 daily/lvl 25 daily both mass heal for invoker).

A preserving Invoker adds so much more to a party by being a controller/leader than a wizard ever can. Don't bother multi-classing into Wizard either. Multi-class into Cleric and just pick up an extra healing power or two.
lordduskblade, I like your party a lot. However, most of the nova talk about the builds in the other threads seem to concentrate on Epic. Would this party be recommended in Paragon too?

Also, I'm toying with putting together a party of three, starting at level 11 and probably not reaching Epic (that is, epic stuff might be important, but the characters must be fairly optimal for level 11-16). Do you think this party would be a good starting point? Maybe going dragonborn bravura warlord, TWF ranger/pitfighter, orbizard? I have a hard time choosing from all the broken stuff at paragon levels when I'm mostly used to the Heroic stuff.
lordduskblade, I like your party a lot. However, most of the nova talk about the builds in the other threads seem to concentrate on Epic. Would this party be recommended in Paragon too?

Also, I'm toying with putting together a party of three, starting at level 11 and probably not reaching Epic (that is, epic stuff might be important, but the characters must be fairly optimal for level 11-16). Do you think this party would be a good starting point? Maybe going dragonborn bravura warlord, TWF ranger/pitfighter, orbizard? I have a hard time choosing from all the broken stuff at paragon levels when I'm mostly used to the Heroic stuff.

Since you're only doing a party of 3 you're better off dropping the wizard all together. I would consider another leader or a defender or striker that can multi-class into leader.
If you still want a "controller" try the Preserving Invoker since they can slide your party members around. If the warlord and ranger each decide to get Agile Opportunist you've just added a bunch of extra attacks for the encounter. The same tactic as works with Cunning Bards (who also add some nice healing). A "Laser" Cleric will add more heals than you can shake a stick at and give some nice striker like damage.
lordduskblade, I like your party a lot. However, most of the nova talk about the builds in the other threads seem to concentrate on Epic. Would this party be recommended in Paragon too?

Not to speak for lordduskblade, but his first three characters would do just fine as a three person party. For all of them, you would want to cherry-pick controllery powers to make up for having no real controller.

(That said, my first three characters for my stealth party would be just as good. Champion of Order and Warpriest do similar jobs in different ways, locking down the biggest bad guy. Stormwarden vs ranger Pit Fighter is a flip of the coin. And you can see the Battle Captain vs Battlelord comparison in rule 2. The former adds more in combat till level 20 but the latter does give you a face.)
Right. I thought I might want the wizard as it's so defensively oriented compared to most wizards and therefore not too squishy in a three man party, but maybe there are better choices. I'm a bit worried about minions though. In Heroic, a couple of dragonborn is enough, but the to-hit of dragon breath doesn't scale very well, I think. What other paths can I take?
lordduskblade, I like your party a lot. However, most of the nova talk about the builds in the other threads seem to concentrate on Epic. Would this party be recommended in Paragon too?

Also, I'm toying with putting together a party of three, starting at level 11 and probably not reaching Epic (that is, epic stuff might be important, but the characters must be fairly optimal for level 11-16). Do you think this party would be a good starting point? Maybe going dragonborn bravura warlord, TWF ranger/pitfighter, orbizard? I have a hard time choosing from all the broken stuff at paragon levels when I'm mostly used to the Heroic stuff.

They work just fine in Paragon.

The guys here have hit the nail on the head in that if you go for three, the ones that should stay are the Fighter, Ranger, and Warlord. The Fighter can control just fine, especially considering that this party is full-on Melee.

Don't worry about minions; Twin Strike can hit two targets, after all. So you can potentially clean 5 minions a turn if your Fighter takes Cleave. That should deal with your minion issues.

@Rancid_Rogue: While it is true that the Battle Captain buffs a bit better than the Bravelord, the Bravelord heals better, and deals more damage by himself. And with Harlequin Style, he is MUCH better defended, which IMHO makes him better for a 3-man party when combined with the face role he brings.

You are right in that the Rangers are a toss-up.
Right. I thought I might want the wizard as it's so defensively oriented compared to most wizards and therefore not too squishy in a three man party, but maybe there are better choices. I'm a bit worried about minions though. In Heroic, a couple of dragonborn is enough, but the to-hit of dragon breath doesn't scale very well, I think. What other paths can I take?

The invoker can handle minions, and technically do so better than the wizard since they have quite a few AoE's that don't touch your allies. Wizards have larger AoE's but they tend to hinder your other party members more than they help. Druid has a few too but I think if you went druid you might find their melee control more manageable.

Edit: I should note that although I like Invokers enough, I am generally against the idea of a main controller to begin with. But thats just my opinion, your milage may vary.
I think 'back row' characters are worth having. They tend to get significant benefits in return for their lack of toughness and if you are playing well as a team it's not that hard to keep them in rude health in most situations. Assuming that the enemy behaves tactically and you can't mess with that is just silly.

Human Wizard in an optimised party? Where's the Deva?
Back row characters are fine! Go ahead and pick up a Warlock, Sorcerer, Archer Ranger, or Cleric!
They work just fine in Paragon.

The guys here have hit the nail on the head in that if you go for three, the ones that should stay are the Fighter, Ranger, and Warlord. The Fighter can control just fine, especially considering that this party is full-on Melee.

Don't worry about minions; Twin Strike can hit two targets, after all. So you can potentially clean 5 minions a turn if your Fighter takes Cleave. That should deal with your minion issues.

Well, ok. It's just ... the fighter feels so bland. He has none of all that broken stuff that gets discussed on this board all the time. :D But I suppose that's all right if he does what he's supposed to do.
Can I get a definition for "Nova"? I see the term pop up in a bunch of threads.
Can I get a definition for "Nova"? I see the term pop up in a bunch of threads.

*cough*Blade Cascade*cough* And that silly Encounter 13 barbarian multiattack based on CON. And various wizard dailies. Then more Blade Cascade.

To "nova" is to stack attack bonuses and the most powerful attacks (usually dailies) to obliterate the target in a single turn. It might take two turns to turn the entire opposing force into ashes.

It can't be done often, but it's spectacular, hence the name.