Big Edit - this is a substantial revsion from before with the core trick much, much cleaner. The original version was moved here.
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're showing one of RadicalTaoist's, with input from Andarious and Caker.
EDGE OF THE LIGHT
Cut, Fade to Black
Required Books: Races of Eberron, Tome Of Battle, Complete Warrior, Complete Adventurer, Complete Scoundrel, Complete Champion, PHB2, Cityscape web enhancement.
Unearthed Arcana used: None!
Background: So, you’ve seen the Inevitable Nightmare, which made offense reliable without sacrificing durability, and Captain Constitution, which made durability reliable without sacrificing offense. This walks the line between them: turning your defenses into your offenses. Unlike the Evasion Tank, Edge of the Light doesn't wait for opponent attacks to negate. Rather, it minimizes the chance of getting hit, and converts that minimization into serious offensive momentum. You'll be making strategic choices defensively, but tactical decisions offensively - it's kind of weird like that.
This build is centered around the synergy between four key feats (particularly two tactical feats), and it originally arose when RT was looking for kalashtar melee options. As such, pay attention to the feats more than the maneuvers in this build – the maneuvers are supplemental and exploit buildup effects from the feats, rather than the other way around. Oh, and I think you'll be surprised. This is a build that will use such optimal choices as Improved Combat Expertise and Run (yes, you read that right). Despite that, it can go toe-to-toe with most of the melee builds you've seen so far and drive them insane.
- Race: Kalashtar. You're performing an ethnic martial art which is as much a state of mind as the physical forms, so this is not negotiable.
- Ability Scores: 14/12/14/14/14/8 is a good spread. We assume you pump Strength at every chance, including a +5 tome.
- Alignment: Oddly for a kalashtar, non-lawful. This is optional but it really helps with damage output late-game.
Skill notes: You need to qualify for Battle Trickster, which makes this interesting. We suggest Balance 20, Concentration 17, Diplomacy 17, Intimidate 20, Jump 22, Tumble 20, Bluff 6, and six skill tricks (Never Outnumbered, Extreme Leap, Acrobatic Backstab, Back on your Feet, Up the Hill, Twisted Charge, Nimble Charge, and Nimble Stand); you need a tiny amount of Perform(Dance) but should have space with this. This means that you're acting as intimidation and, partially, party face as well as the usual acrobatic warrior.
Basic equipment: Use any weapon that can trip. The classic choice (guisarme) works just fine, but since you're not an AoO tank (look at the Dexterity) you can get by without reach if you'd rather use a heavy flail or somesuch. We're working below with a scythe - the lower damage doesn't matter, but the extra multiplication gets a bigger workout. In terms of armor, you can get by with light to medium armor: you want to keep your speed unrestricted, but don't need to emphasize the actual numbers quite as much.
Magic gear goals: Oddly, once the trick comes online, you don't need accuracy as much as you normally would for a warrior. Focus instead on multiplication-friendly flat-damage (Keen, Collision, and a +3 enhancement to allow greater augment gems are fine). Defensively, you don't need AC so much either (not even touch AC), but it might be wise to load up on movement abilities - you need to be able to close distances and still keep at least a standard action free. You have reason to invest in every ability score, so the discount on a Belt of Magnificence might come in handy.
Build stub: Warblade 14 / Fighter 2 / Battle Trickster 3 / Barbarian 1.
1 – Warblade – (Battle Clarity, Weapon Aptitude) (Combat Expertise) (Wolf Fang Strike, Moment of Perfect Mind, Steel Wind) (Punishing Stance)
2 – Warblade – (Uncanny Dodge) (Sudden Leap)
3 – Warblade – (Battle Ardor) (Path of Shadows) (Emerald Razor)
4 – Fighter – (Power Attack)
For now, combining Power Attack with Emerald Razor is a well-known way of getting your damage up there. Depending on what you fight, you can use this with Combat Expertise as well and still stand a decent shot of hitting.
5 – Fighter – (Improved Trip)
Tripping is a touch attack to start, and the followup attack is made at +4 for a prone target, so you can still afford to make use of Power Attack or Combat Expertise as necessary.
6 – Warblade – (Dancing with Shadows) (Iron Heart Surge > Steel Wind) (Absolute Steel)
At this point, you're a crazy AC engine, which builds up to an extremely powerful offense.. Dancing with Shadows gives you three tactical maneuvers based on prolonged use of Combat Expertise (with at least a -2). Sustained use of that feat will bring them online one after the other, making you deadlier all the while (at least for single attacks - read: strikes). During the first round, you're at a serious penalty, though you have ways of mitigating this: Combat Expertise for -5 (the best seed value for your Dance) can be mitigated with Emerald Razor or the touch attack to trip a target, and after that round, you start being able to recover your accuracy while keeping your defenses going.
Absolute Steel helps you close the distance to your target - if you don't attack, you can't use Expertise, and your dance stops. It also provides a small AC bonus of its own, which might be redundant at this point but it still helps since it's a dodge bonus and you've got Uncanny Dodge.
7 – Warblade – (Ironheart Aura) (Flesh Ripper)
8 – Warblade – (Improved Uncanny Dodge) (Ruby Nightmare Blade > Wolf Fang Strike)
9 – Warblade – (Battle Cunning) (Improved Combat Expertise) (Fountain of Blood)
Why is this here? It's an awful feat.
Simple. Dancing with Shadows feeds off of your Combat Expertise bonus from one round to the next, converting it gradually from a penalty to a bonus while keeping the AC up there. By uncapping Combat Expertise, you can feed even larger numbers forward, covering for the lower AB on the first round with Emerald Razor. By the time round 2 comes online, your first strike is made at a normal bonus even with full Expertise active. Round three and later? You're adding your level to both your AC and your normal attack bonus, without suffering an Expertise penalty at all, which is just screaming for better use of Power Attack on a Nightmare Blade.
And after anything falls to that? That's where Fountain of Blood comes in. You can add in Never Outnumbered if you want to scatter the mooks after this. (Fearsome armor helps here (Intimidate +5, as a move action), and is reasonably cheap, but since you're not a fear specialist, so it's not a priority.)
Side note: Honestly, while I thought that uncapping Dancing with Shadows was more important, if you want to bring Stormguard online sooner, you can do it here and delay Improved to 12. I don't think you get quite as much bang that way, but it does get you on the frontlines faster.
10 – Warblade – (Don't swap)
11 – Warblade – (Combat Reflexes) (Pouncing Charge)
12 – Battle Trickster – (Bonus Trick) (Stormguard Warrior)
Stormguard makes you complete for a number of reasons, mostly hinging on Combat Rhythm (appropriately for a dancer). During your first round, you max out Combat Expertise and close in with a Pouncing Charge - using Combat Rhythm to make sure all three attacks hit. They won't be all that lethal now - but on your next turn, you can stop using Expertise and strike with an extra +12 on your normal attack roll - perfect fuel for a Ruby Nightmare Blade, which multiplies the Combat Rhythm bonus damage. For longer fights, you can employ Ruby Nightmare Blade while using Combat Expertise (just PA for less: Combat Rhythm gives you enough bonus damage that you don't need full PA for standard damage output), and enable the full strength of your Dance with Shadows on subsequent rounds.
If someone provokes an AoO - say, standing up from when you tripped them, or (if you chose a guisarme) trying to close in with you - you can either take it normally, switch it over to build Combat Rhythm, or employ Channel the Storm as needed. Channel the Storm is particularly deadly here - once you start dancing, it won't be hard to strike almost impossible targets thanks to Graceful Lunge, Lingering Defense, and Channel the Storm raising your strike attacks to truly mind-boggling levels.
13 – Battle Trickster – (Robilar's Gambit)
14 – Battle Trickster – (Bonus trick, Tricky Fighting)
15 – Barbarian – (Ferocity 1/day, Lion totem: Pounce) (Leap Attack)
The real reason we're here (apart from IL timing) is, of course, Pounce without needing to ready or expend a maneuver to do it. Now you can Pounce between targets every round if need be - and although Dancing with Shadows only buffs your first attack roll each round, you can simply switch the subsequent (penalized) attacks over to touch attacks and build up some Combat Rhythm through shadow-boxing.
Of course, if you decide to stop using the Dance, your subsequent attacks are made at their normal attack bonus - why not switch that over to Power Attack and get some serious multipliers in through Leap Attack? We've been pumping Jump for Sudden Leap and we have the rest of the ubercharge suite already - except for Shock Trooper. ...Which we don't need, since Dancing with Shadows provides enough of an attack roll benefit most of the time and, when it doesn't, Combat Rhythm can pick up the free attacks and feed them forward for a more deadly next round.
16 – Warblade – (Avalanche of Blades > Pouncing Charge) (Dancing Blade Form)
Dancing Blade Form gives you a great alternative to Absolute Steel, particularly in tighter quarters. Not only is it a perfect thematic match, it gives you reach. The usual drawback - "just on your turn" - is moot here: you're not an AoO tank, so you don't need reach during your enemy turns, but you need to be able to strike at your target during a Graceful Lunge, so reach on your turn does matter.
17 – Warblade – (Battle Skill) (Run) (Swooping Dragon Strike)
Swooping Dragon denies the target their Dexterity bonuses, which is underrated, and provides +10d6 on a single attack (which can be boosted by Graceful Lunge after that stage of the dance starts), but the real reason you're picking it up here is for a Jump-check-based DC on a Stun effect - in a build that maxes out both Strength and Jump (and may have speed bonuses from Absolute Steel as well).
...Which, incidentally, is why Run is there. The warblade bonus feat list is normally just considered to be Combat Reflexes, Improved Initiative, Blind-Fight, and the gateway feats for discipline tactical feats. Well, Run is on there too - and since it adds +4 to Jump if you get your basic running start, you can view it as "Greater Ability Focus: Swooping Dragon Strike and Sudden Leap" and it suddenly becomes a lot less silly.
18 – Warblade – (Adaptive Style) (Diamond Nightmare Blade > Ruby Nightmare Blade)
Adaptive Style is a useful feat in any case, but this feat choice is more flexibile if you want to open things up a bit. Extra Rage for more Ferocity uses is a possibility, but that doesn't work well with Diamond Nightmare Blade.
19 – Warblade – (Improved Initiative) (Diamond Defense)
20 – Warblade – (Time Stands Still > Flesh Ripper)
Known Maneuvers / Skill Tricks
- Strikes: Diamond Nightmare Blade, Emerald Razor, Avalanche of Blades, Swooping Dragon Strike, Time Stands Still
- Boosts: Sudden Leap, Fountain of Blood
- Counters: Moment of Perfect Mind, Diamond Defense
- Other: Iron Heart Surge
- Stances: Punishing Stance, Absolute Steel, Dancing Blade Form
Skill Tricks: Never Outnumbered, Extreme Leap, Acrobatic Backstab, Back on Your Feet, Up the Hill, Twisted Charge, Nimble Charge, Nimble Stand
Snapshot: Slap the +6 items on Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution (you’d probably want boosts on the mental scores as well – almost to the point where Belts of Magnificence enter the equation – but we’ll skip it for snapshotting. Interestingly, better overall results can happen with +6 Str, +6 Con, and +4 on Int and Dex, which is actually cheaper). Similarly, Tome Strength by 5. With that, we have 230 expected HP, a base attack of 20 (melee +35 with Greater Magic Weapon, but Dancing with Shadows: Graceful Lunge can get that much higher for a critical attack), and saving throws of +22/+11/+7 (with Dancing with Shadows and Ironheart Aura to boost Will to +11, along with the Diamond Mind counters – and a naturally psionic race if that’s needed).
The real interest here is the interaction within the tactical feats. Dancing with Shadows allows you to increase your defenses without seriously paying in offense (and, if you wish, converting that defense into very powerful offense if you wish to start the Combat Expertise count again – note that continual use of Combat Expertise just negates the penalty, while switching it off can basically double your base attack bonus; you can throttle it back and mix the benefits if you wish). When you do pay for the defense - such as on attacks past the first after Graceful Lunge kicks in - you can use Stormguard Warrior to charge up for rounds where you don’t pay. When you’re attacked, your improved AC makes Robilar’s a no-brainer, and the interaction between Robilar’s and Stormguard is well-known (just pick whether it’s better to Channel the Storm or charge up Combat Rhythm based on where you are in your Dance with Shadows).
Let’s explain this in a round-by-round sense,
- Combat Expertise for 20. Your attack bonus falls to +15, your AC rises to 55. (This is a round to use Combat Rhythm.)
- Combat Expertise for 20. Dancing with Shadows: Flowing Body Still Mind / Graceful Lunge both kick in. Your attack bonus rises to +35 (inheriting the +20 AC bonus from the previous round) for your first attack this round, which is probably a single-hit martial strike. (It remains +15 for multiple hits, such as on a pounce, but again, Combat Rhythm picks up that slack and feeds extra damage forward.) Your AC rises to 55. (Graceful Lunge only cares about the AC bonus, not the penalty to attack rolls, which turns out to be important for round 3.)
- Combat Expertise for 20. Dancing with Shadows: Flowing Body Still Mind / Graceful Lunge / Lingering Defense all kick in. Your attack bonus rises to +55 (inheriting the +20 bonus from the previous round from Graceful Lunge, and with Lingering Defense removing this round's penalty outright – but again, it falls to +35 for multiple hits (which is as good as if you'd not been Dancing anyway, but can still be used to build up Combat Rhythm if you aren't using a single-hit strike)), and your AC rises to 55.
Since you used Combat Expertise continually for over three rounds, all three maneuvers within Dancing with Shadows can be maintained indefinitely – essentially re-read Round 3 for later rounds. This summary also ignores the exact numeric impact of Combat Rhythm, as well as the potentially huge increase on top of this with Channel the Storm - and it also ignores the huge range of flexibility you have (i.e. you don't need to use Expertise at max, or even the same amount from round to round.)
Observe the attack bonuses: Using Power Attack on top of full Combat Expertise in this dance is exactly as good as normal on round 2, and essentially free on round 3 - and we all know how powerful free Power Attack can be. Here, though, it comes with a massively inflated AC on top of that.
You can reach numbers like this off a little faster (two rounds) if you're willing to cycle between strong and weak. Basically, follow round 1, and when it comes to round 2, stop using Combat Expertise. You'll get round 3's numbers on round 2 (very useful for a quick Power Attack / Nightmare Blade, particularly if you charged up Combat Rhythm during round 1), but when round 3 itself comes around you'll have to start over from the beginning to build momentum again. Alternatively, you can "hedge" a bit and only use Expertise at -2: this is enough to keep the Dance with Shadows count ticking, although it doesn't feed a very large bonus forward for Lingering Defense or Graceful Lunge. Still, it's better than starting from scratch.
Practically speaking, this amounts to surprisingly augmented attack rolls (enough to offset even moderate Combat Expertise penalties, even on charge-up rounds – after one round you're back to normal as far as strikes are concerned, and after two you get attack rolls high enough to hit just about anything, and you can even switch on full Power Attack earlier at no real costs if you wish to reset your Combat Expertise count) along with a rather prodigious AC, including touch AC. The ability to switch that defense into offense when it counts – full power attack Diamond Nightmare Blade at no lost accuracy, or an Avalanche of Blades / Combat Rhythm with a +60ish base attack – can produce downright scary results when you need to go for the kill, while simply sustaining the momentum merely makes you maddeningly hard to hit.
Overall Strengths: The Dances with Shadows + Improved Combat Expertise + Stormguard Warrior combo is fierce; adding full Power Attacking Nightmare Blades on that just cranks up the own. Plus, it’s a martial adept that draws upon the number-game nature of tactical feat interplay as a combat style, rather than simply locking on and unloading maneuvers - you can just Ubercharge away during the Dance and remain perfectly dangerous without even touching your maneuvers. You can also act as a decent party face with your skill selections (Diplomacy and Intimidate with a splash of Bluff), and your array of movement-based skill tricks make you surprisingly hard to pin down. Finally, you splash a tiny bit of tripping in there as well, so if you want to muck up the enemy action economy old-school style, you can.
This revised version of the build also sports a much more respectable Will save in the middle of combat due to the new emphasis on Iron Heart stances and the reduced emphasis on Dexterity (leaving more points for Wisdom). It's not amazing but it's a great place to start, especially for a warrior.
Overall Weaknesses: You also don’t have as many readied maneuvers as you’d like, and without Adaptive Style it can be hard to get your choices right for every situation. There’s also the more general concern that defense isn’t proactive (although you try damn hard to make it such) – and in this case, the defensive round needed to start the combat momentum is similar to a buff round. Although you’re attacking during that round, it’s unlikely to have much offensive impact due to serious attack roll penalties. (After that round is done and your tactical feats kick in, you’re a lot harder to stop – and you’re hard to kill during the buildup.)
There is also another tactical weakness here: The reliance on Dancing with Shadows, which requires you to fight defensively / use Combat Expertise, or to take a total defense action, on multiple rounds, comes with its own hidden limitation. If you aren’t able to reach targets to fight in melee, you can’t fight defensively or use combat expertise (both actually require a attack roll), so you’re forced to use Total Defense instead if you want to build momentum. Total Defense is a full-round action (so you need Sudden Leap if you want to move at all) and only gives you a +6 AC bonus to feed forward into Graceful Lunge (while this is larger than you can get with normal Expertise, it’s a serious loss compared to Improved Expertise). To get around this, pack other swift-action movement effects at the very least, and pay attention to your speed and teleportation options. I'd suggest buying Acrobat Boots at the very least, quite early on, and looking into the Fleet Warrior's Array set.
Variants: If you need an even higher AC (why, I'm not sure), you can switch the stances a bit: level 6 picks up Pearl of Black Doubt, and to help cover for the lower saves (and the soon-online Stormguard Warrior), you drop Emerald Razor for Iron Heart Focus at 10th. This lowers your saves by 2 but gives you an immediate-action reroll of any of the three, using only a single maneuver to do so, long before Diamond Defense shows up. (I think the +Speed from Absolute Steel compensates for that, though.)
I’ve also been bandying around an alternative take on this – add Dancing with Shadows and Stormguard Warrior to an Idiot Crusader (Crusader / Warblade / Master of Nine with more crusader readies than crusader known maneuvers) with Power Attack. Pick Extra Granted Maneuver and the right extra Crusader maneuvers (I’d suggest Shadow Stride and the biggest Nightmare Blade we can fit; Avalanche is nice but might be difficult), and you can avoid the “just stay away” weakness pretty easily. Every round, you’d teleport, keep the Dance with Shadows going, and reply with a fully-charged Nightmare Blade at no attack penalty every single round. Since Mo9 requires Improved Unarmed Strike, we'd also probably fit in Snap Kick as well: the penalty doesn't hurt us much, and the extra hit can be used to build up Combat Rhythm quicker, even when all we do is a strike. (The strike is at our full bonus due to Graceful Lunge while Snap Kick falls to the penalized bonus - and is thus fodder for Combat Rhythm.)
There you have it. Sometimes it’s refreshing to revisit classic schools of optimization (here, tactical feat interaction) with a mindset refined by the Tome of Battle – just as the Tome breathed new life into Sun School (Shadow Hand teleports, especially on a Shadow Sun ninja; this is kind of well-known now), Combat Brute (Nightmare Blade multipliers; see the Dreamblade build), and Elusive Target (parry counters like Wall of Blades; see the Evasion Tank). (There’s even an argument for Woodland Archer here, using ToB extra-attack maneuvers; see the Heavy Weapons Elf.) Here we do the same, with Dancing with Shadows, in tandem with the interesting links within the Tome’s own offerings.
(What next, we start revitalizing the Weapon Style feats?)
Next up: For now the free-for-all will continue. I'll toss up a different build next week if there isn't a clear winner, and hopefully by then we'll have enough of a buffer assembled to make better voting options open. The current frontrunners on the Free-For-All are Deathblow and Quiet Murder.