As usual for the showcase, these builds are intended to spur discussion and perhaps inspire a few people in the spirit of the old CO boards. They come from members of my gaming group - me, Radical Taoist, DisposableHero_, Andarious, Sionnis, and Seishi - and I'll always identify who wrote the build at the start, so do not assume I'm the guy behind all of them (because I'm not!).
Unless otherwise noted, showcase builds use 28 point-buy, and have their snapshots evaluated using fractional base attack / saves (because it simplifies the math). None of them actually rely on fractional to be built, though. The format I use showcases their progression at key levels rather than just presenting the build and showing off a few tricks at level 20; most of these are capable of being played 1-20 if you so choose.
With that out of the way, let's get started. This week, we get RadicalTaoist’s take on an under-used stunt.
ALWAYS ON EDGE
The Mortal Draw deals death.
Required Books: Races of Destiny, Expanded Psionics Handbook, Tome of Battle, Magic Item Compendium, Complete Adventurer (1 feat), Races of Eberron / Complete Psionic (1 power), Oriental Adventures (1 skill).
Unearthed Arcana used: Racial paragons. However, as written, it requires a sidebar in RoD that isn’t universal – to get around that, you may also need flaws.
Background: Okay, so, ages ago, pre-ToB, one of the hottest ways of getting melee damage up there was iaijutsu, from Oriental Adventures. This ability largely fell by the wayside due to the situational nature of its triggers (flat-footed targets only, and only for the first attack after drawing your weapon) – and, frankly, once the Tome of Battle came out, the damage wasn’t all that impressive either (being equaled by mid-level strikes that were far more reliable and not as contingent on an obscure skill).
However, oddly, the Tome also had a way of making iaijutsu trigger more or less at will. I say “oddly” because this was hardly common practice – when I pointed it out to RT, he hadn’t heard of it at all, for instance. After I hammered out a concept build, he took the idea and ran with it, making an interesting and unconventional take on melee-centric gishing along the way. It’s a deceptively good dungoneer, and has some decent mobility and sensory options as well, acting somewhere between a ranger and a technical fighter with a splash of telepathy on the side.
I’ll be frank: This isn’t as powerful as a lot of Tome builds usually are. Iaijutsu simply doesn’t scale all that well. However, that wasn’t the point: RT was trying to make the most of the iaijutsu stunt (“Sapphire Nightmare Iaijutsu” ), rather than making the biggest damage dealer. As a side effect, this build “matures” extremely early, having most of its key elements online at level three, and a steady progression up until that point.
- Race: Half-Elf. According to the Races of Destiny sidebar, these guys have both the Human and Elf subtypes, which makes this build work the way it does. If that sidebar is not in use, the build still works (due to its very early maturation!), but requires you to go Human and replace the last levels with warblade.
- Ability Scores: 15/10/13/14/8/12 to start. You can take this in a number of different directions, but one pump to Constitution and four to Strength is a good basis (and used in the snapshot).
Skill Notes: You need to max out Concentration, Iaijutsu Focus, and Spot, and you have a handful of Knowledge ranks needed as prerequisites. Other than that, it’s up to you – Survival is an interesting choice (since you need Track), and you have Trapfinding if you wish to splash a bit into those skills (though they won’t be your primary focus). Cerebral Blind is so powerful that it blocks a huge range of anti-stealth effects, so you might even be passable as a sneak. You even have a class which lets you pick a custom number of class skills, so it’s pretty flexible. You’re not an expert-type, but you’re not bad in this area either, particularly in a dungeon setting.
Basic Equipment: Pick a two-handed martial melee weapon to taste (we use a greatsword here, but most of the damage comes from other sources and doesn’t multiply, so the choice is largely stylistic. Arguably, the ideal weapon is a scythe or a guisarme, but their advantage only comes online at the high levels) and the toughest armor you can find (full plate is a good baseline, but be cautious about the speed drop; note that you aren’t proficient with heavy armor until level 6!). Any other basic equipment is based on your skills. Your weapon should be masterwork as soon as possible to accommodate the augment gem, but warriors typically get these around level 2.
Magical Gear Goals: The build’s written with a cheap Least Augment Crystal of Return in mind. This only costs 300gp and basically ‘buys’ you the Quick Draw feat for any weapon of masterwork or greater quality. Crystals of Return of higher grade work as well with a couple other benefits, but it probably isn’t worth going beyond Lessers. Since you’re using medium or heavy armor, another good, inexpensive choice is the Crystal of Alacrity (it’s in the Five Virtues set; no one ever notices it), since it provides a speed bonus to those types of armor, and the bonus type is morale (which stacks with just about every speed increase out there). Other than that, you’re basically a standard warrior with very good Intelligence synergy (due to a bit of telepath manifesting), with nothing particularly out of the ordinary on your shopping list. However, it’s worth noting that you aren’t very conductive to multiplicative damage, and at the high levels anything that adds bonus damage dice tends to pay off quite well.
Build Stub: Human Paragon 1 / Warblade 2 / Telepath 1 / Rogue 1 / Slayer 7 / Eternal Blade 8
1 – Human Paragon – (Adaptive Learning: Iaijutsu Focus) (Track)
At this level, you take a support/expert role with whichever class skills you pick. It isn’t exceptional, but it isn’t bad either. You can use Iaijutsu Focus in a very narrow range of circumstances, and only have a 75% chance of triggering it, so it’s pretty awkward, but you can try.
2 – Warblade – (Sapphire Nightmare Blade, Moment of Perfect Mind, Douse the Flames) (Leading the Charge)
At the moment, though, you probably still need a move action to draw your weapon and a standard for Sapphire Nightmare Blade, so this is mostly limited to riposte-style actions on your turn after someone moves in to strike. After delivering this strike, you need a move action to sheathe your weapon, but you can still do this as part of your recovery: Swift to start recovery, standard to either strike your target again or deliver a flashy but harmless weapon flourish, then move to sheathe. (For style points, the “weapon flourish” method can easily resemble the traditional samurai “shake the blood from the blade before sheathing it” form.)
Leading the Charge is there for lack of a better option, really – you don’t charge all that often (action restrictions), but your allies might. Once you buy the quick-draw gems, it becomes more useful (since you can draw your weapon and charge a flat-footed target in the same round to get an iaijutsu bonus and a Leading the Charge bonus on the same attack). Naturally, this has the most use on a surprise round or during the first round of combat, so you’re your senses high!
3 – Rogue – (Trapfinding, Sneak Attack +1d6) (Power Attack)
A rogue level here gives you a slight nudge to your damage (as SNB attacks a flat-footed target, Sneak Attack applies), but later on will give you a prerequisite. Power Attack is of course the mainstay of melee damage-dealing, made slightly better than usual because you bypass dodge and Dexterity bonuses with your primary attack.
4 – Telepath – (Psionic Meditation) (Detect Psionics, Psionic Grease, Skate)
Why is this here? So we can “Take 15” on the Concentration check to trigger Sapphire Nightmare Blade against well-armored targets. You won’t be using this all the time due to the inability to recover maneuvers and refocus at the same time, but having Psionic Meditation at all allows you to consider this during combat.
(Later on, competition with your swift action makes Psionic Meditation a better choice than Instant Clarity, but Instant Clarity is a good choice at lower levels. With PHB2 retraining you can switch between them as you like; they have identical prerequisites.)
As for your powers, Skate helps cover for speed reduction from armor, and Grease helps counter foe mobility (giving you an increased chance to be in the right position). Similarly, Grease has an interesting side effect: Foes without 5 ranks in Balance are considered flat-footed while balancing in the area, so you can now trigger Iaijutsu Focus without expending maneuvers. I’d keep a secondary weapon around for this – even a dagger with another augment crystal can deal respectable damage this way. (Notice that higher-grade augment crystals of return retain the quickdraw feature and also interact well with dropping your weapon, in case you want to try that as well.) Detect Psionics can be swapped out if you want, but it helps with your tracking and general utility; there are better powers to pick, but few will be useful with a low ML. (The only one that I’d suggest is Synesthete, but some of your other powers compete with that.)
5 – Warblade – (Uncanny Dodge) (Action Before Thought)
6 – Slayer – (Favored Enemy +2, Enemy Sense) (Combat Expertise)
7 – Slayer – (Brain Nausea) (Primal Fear, Mindlink)
The main reason you want Primal Fear is to drop opponent saving throws as a swift action. If a foe is vulnerable to mind-affecting fear effects, a quick blast basically augments your save DCs by 2, which also helps your allies when they’re dogpiling your target. You want Mindlink as one of the defining telepath powers, and a very, very good party support effect at that. It’s online late, but it helps.
8 – Slayer – (Lucid Buffer) (Biofeedback, Levitate)
Biofeedback is optional but scales reasonably well, and DR is always appreciated. Levitate helps alleviate some of your mobility weaknesses, especially out of combat.
9 – Slayer – (Favored Enemy +4) (Weapon Focus) (Psionic Lock, Psionic Knock)
10 – Slayer – (Time Hop, Touchsight)
11 – Slayer – (Cerebral Blind) (Psionic Darkvision, Telekinetic Thrust)
12 – Slayer – (Favored Enemy +6) (Deft Strike) (Psionic Dimension Door, Schism)
Oh, and on the side, you also get Dimension Door, which is downright amazing out of combat. This is one of the few powers that Complete Psionic actually boosted: it has negative augments which let you conserve power points if you’re using it out of combat or using it over short ranges.
13 – Eternal Blade – (Blade Guide, Eternal Training 1) (Crusader’s Strike)
You could pick up Vanguard Strike instead, but since your primary attack is Sapphire Nightmare Blade anyway, this isn’t all that critical except as a prerequisite.
14 – Eternal Blade – (Guided Strike)
15 – Eternal Blade – (Uncanny Dodge, Eternal Training 2) (Staggering Strike) (Daunting Strike)
Your feat is another amazing choice, and one that essentially completes the build. Now those high-damage Sapphire Nightmare Blades – which have been dealing Sneak Attack damage since level 3, remember – also render a target Staggered (unable to take both a move and a standard action). The DC is based on the damage you deal, and you’ve got several good ways of boosting that.
Staggering Strike also triggers whenever you flank a target, and you do not need Sapphire Nightmare Iaijutsu to keep the DC respectable (though it certainly helps if you have it ready). Keep that in mind and it’s hard to go wrong at this point.
16 – Eternal Blade – (Eternal Knowledge)
17 – Eternal Blade – (Eternal Training 3) (White Raven Tactics) (Aura of Chaos)
Aura of Chaos gives us a better alternative over Leading the Charge. It works best if you’re rolling a lot of damage dice – and here, you’ve got around +11d6 from Sneak Attack, SNB, and Iaijutsu Focus, on top of whatever your weapon is dealing (which is probably using bonus dice effects as well)). It’s not the 1d2 Crusader or anything, but it’s better than several other builds that can squeeze in Aura of Chaos.
18 – Eternal Blade – (Defensive Insight) (Adaptive Style)
Furthermore, Defensive Insight + Combat Expertise can give you a pretty substantial AC boost if you’re in over your head melee-wise.
19 – Eternal Blade – (Eternal Training 4) (Clarion Call)
20 – Eternal Blade – (Tactical Insight)
While Diamond Nightmare Blade won't work with your iaijutsu (either way: not only will it not multiply the damage dice, but unlike Sapphire, Diamond won't catch the target flat-footed), you're still using two-handed Power Attack - and you have Schism+Deft Strike, which means that you're basically always able to use that feat to the fullest. This isn't quite the same degree of insanity that we found with the Inevitable Nightmare (only due to reliability: Always On Edge has higher Strength!), but it's still a great move nonetheless.
Snapshot: Pick up the +6 items on Strength and Constitution, a +4 item on Intelligence, and the +5 tome of Strength (this is slightly less than we usually use for snapshotting). This results in a character with 202 HP, 124 skill points (although you lose a few to cross-classing Spot on Eternal Blade levels), +19 base attack (Melee +34 with Greater Magic Weapon, and you have Power Attack), saves of +19/+6/+10 (with Lucid Buffer raising the Will save to +14 against mind-affecting effects, Cerebral Blind flat-out blocking every detection effect except Metafaculty, and maneuvers to use your Concentration check for Will or Reflex as needed). You have a telepath ML of 7 with 60 power points; the majority of your powers are out-of-combat support or reasonably long-duration buff effects. The few powers that you wish to use in combat generally only need to be manifested once per battle. You have a final IL of 15, although it’s kind of oddly timed. Your maneuver selection emphasizes party support and action advantage. You also have a psionic favored enemy bonus at +6; depending on your campaign this can be downright mean.
Skill-wise, assuming just +5 items on the three key skills (total cost: 7500gp), you’re looking at Spot +27, Concentration +33 (with the ability to Take 15 if you want), and Iaijutsu Focus +29. The first two oppose enemy ACs; the latter gives a minimum of +5d6 bonus damage on your strikes as described above. (You probably want to upgrade these above the +5 item; this is just for baseline.) Maxing these skills and picking up prerequisites leaves you with 36 skill points left over for whatever else you wish; your emphasis on Spot also unlocks some pretty cool skill tricks.
A typical damage roll with a greatsword + Greater Magic Weapon and nothing else will deal, on average, over 70 damage with a minimum result on Iaijutsu Focus. (It goes up a bit faster than usual with higher IF checks, due to Aura of Chaos.) This isn’t amazing, but for a non-charger it isn’t bad by a longshot (~18% of average CR 20 HP without any real effort, when 20% is considered a decent baseline), particularly given the amount of choices made in this build to generalize it for dungeoneering rather than focusing entirely on damage output. This damage roll becomes the DC on Staggering Strike (it’s worth noting that the earliest anything with a save bonus high enough to make this on less than a natural 20 is the maximum Fortitude save at CR 36). And, if you make it all the way to 20, you can easily surpass this - Deft Strike + Schism + Eternal Training (Diamond Nightmare Blade) gives you a move that, with the same weapon, will average 260 damage with a good chance of hitting. (It doesn't use the same mechanics as your basic strike (so you won't be enhancing your weapon the same way) and it doesn't show up until 20 (while the basics of the Sapphire Nightmare Iaijutsu stunt show up at level 3), but Diamond Nightmare Blade fits right in the build like a charm.)
Overall Strengths: A very well-rounded build, Always On Edge can fit in just about any party even before you customize the skill list at level 1. It matures very early (how many other builds can say they’re basically “established” by level three?) and gathers steam steadily, making use of a variety of “bypass” effects as levels progress to simply evade most enemy defenses. Since the majority of your damage comes from a very simple maneuver, there’s room for other maneuvers that might not necessarily show up in warblade builds – which also eases up the strain on your readied maneuvers. Along the way you pick up a lot of dungeoneering abilities and party support effects, culminating in generating extra actions for your team on a reasonably regular basis. You also make a pretty decent sentry or scout, given your array of perception abilities.
Interestingly, despite the reliance on flat-footing, you can still trigger Sapphire Nightmare Iaijutsu against targets with Uncanny Dodge. That ability just prevents your attack from denying your target their dodge bonuses: targets with Uncanny Dodge are still flat-footed. You lose Sneak Attack (and thus Staggering Strike) in this circumstance, but you retain Power Attack and Deft Strike.
Finally, at the higher levels, the action-economy effects are virtually irresistible. Pretty much nothing can stop a White Raven Tactics or Clarion Call effect, and you will be hard pressed to find anything with more than a 5% chance of avoiding a DC 70+ Staggering Strike (deliverable pretty much on command, even without a flanking partner). (Of course, Fortification and Uncanny Dodge can make a target immune to this, so pick your targets carefully.)
Overall Weaknesses: There’s quite a lot of competition for your actions in this build, especially if you want to use the Schism + Deft Strike combination (Schism doesn’t activate until the round after it’s manifest); the need for Telepath manifesting prevents easy access to the usual way around this (Hustle is an Egoist/Psychic Warrior power). The build’s lack of emphasis on any one aspect means that it won’t excel in any one area, although the areas it does work in tend to be pretty desirable (especially at the later levels, as it starts generating actions and denying the enemy theirs). Your reliance on a particular augment crystal prevents you from using effects like Demolition crystals to expand what your Staggering Strike can hit, but I’d argue the ability to trigger it in a wider range of situations makes up for that.
Finally, once again, iaijutsu is not all that potent in its own regard (compared to a stock Martial Adept or Sneak Attacker). This build was designed around an iaijutsu stunt, and quite honestly, that shows through in the results.
Variants: The easiest way to customize this build (well, apart from the massive flexibility in skills) is to ditch Adaptive Style. Late-game, you'll have more or less settled into a small set of maneuvers anyway, so it's more for options than anything else. Expanded Knowledge can help out a lot here - for one, it can grab you Hustle.
A more in-depth variation involves switching to Human rather than relying on the (Human) subtype sidebar. This way, you can retain Human Paragon at level 1 (and pick up an extra feat), or switch out to OA Samurai or Factotum with Able Learner at the same level for related effects. (They play very differently: the factotum isn't too different from the Human Paragon in this context, but the samurai gives you a good combat niche at level 1, along with free masterwork weapons and the Ancestral Daisho ability, which is based on your character level instead of your class level. Plus the samurai is the original iaijutsu user, so people won't think it's unusual.) You'll need to drop Eternal Blade, which hurts (bye-bye, Diamond Nightmare Blade), but plugging in more warblade isn't all that bad. You retain the Intelligence synergy and can learn more maneuvers (via maneuver swapping); the maneuver choices will be slightly different since warblades don't have Devoted Spirit, but this lets you better emphasize the action-advantage aspect by taking more White Raven.
The basic premise behind Sapphire Nightmare Iaijutsu can be bolted on to other builds without too much of a hassle - and a lot of the components are already present on numerous builds, particularly those that employ psionics + Diamond Mind. Toss it on a War Mind build and look at what happens with Sweeping Strike, for instance.
There's a very small list of other ways of flat-footing your target on demand, but these tend to be high level and potent enough on their own so they don't benefit much from Iaijutsu Focus. Still, if you feel like adding insult to (grievous) injury with Feral Death Blow, be my guest.
I still want to see what this build could do with Psychic Renewal – multiple iaijutsu strikes without the need to do warblade recovery might be interesting. Technically speaking, you might be able to do something similar with Supernal Clarity (Diamond Mind’s legacy weapon), since it lets you use Sapphire Nightmare Blade… but it isn’t clear if doing so uses maneuver recovery mechanics, or if you can simply spam the maneuver.
There you have it. Always On Edge isn't as obscene as some of the other builds showcased, but it'll surprise you at how effective it can be in an array of circumstances. And besides, who thought iaijutsu would see any use at all nowadays?
Since I've been kind of rushed this month - and will continue to be rushed for the forseeable future, at least until the end of September - I haven't themed next week's selections. However, they are ones I haven't offered before: [AR] Feral Druid, [RT] The T3, and [AR] Evasion Tank. As usual, vote in the thread for which build you want to see! (I will warn you: Two of them have slightly misleading names.)