This guide may be considered to be a work in progress. Constructive criticism is appreciated. Items on the to-do list include, but are not limited to, polishing the feat section, double-checking all the source listings, mucking around with the formatting, coming up with cleverer names for the sections, writing a hybrid section, and possibly constructing sample builds, though builds would be a low priority. Your patience and support are appreciated.
Why Be a Runepriest?
The Runepriest is one of the least well-supported classes in 4e, with only its initial book and a single Dragon article of note giving it anything to work with. Despite that, it's strong enough on its own merits to actually be worth something . . . but what?
You're the master of numerical bonuses.
You wanna throw around huge bonuses to your allies? The Runepriest is your man, your woman, or your genderless construct. Rune of Mending means that your party should have a power bonus to damage running for most of every single combat with basically no effort from you. Your rune states have you give out bonuses just for standing around. Even from the very lowest levels, you can easily be tossing an ally a +4 to hit or a +5 to all defenses on an encounter basis, and it only gets better from there. It can be a bit of a challenge to keep track of all the fiddly bonuses you're throwing around, but it's worth it—and if you think the way I do, it can be a lot of fun.
You're a tough son of a gun.
All Runepriests give enemies reasons to leave them alone, despite the leader usually being a prime focus-fire target. First, with scale armor and a light shield out of the box, you're reasonably sturdy. Second, your Runic Artistry gives enemies a disincentive to attack you: Defiant Word punishes them for missing you, Wrathful Hammer punishes them for hitting you, and Serene Blade simply makes them not hurt nearly as much. You're on the front lines, but it'll be hard to take you out of the running.
All Runepriest at-will and encounter attacks are actually two powers in one. With each attack, you get to choose whether to apply the rune state of destruction or the rune state of protection. Not only will this change your rune state (and thus the passive bonuses you're giving your allies with your mere presence), but it'll also change what the power itself does, often pretty drastically. While most powers are going to be more useful for one rune state or the other, plenty of powers are still great for both options, giving you some turn-by-turn flexibility that most 4e classes can't match.
Rating system: The color-coding system here should be familiar to pretty much everyone reading this (kudos to LDB for pioneering such a spiffy guide format), but let's throw it in there for completion.
Gold: Unbelievably good or important, this is an option that's nearly mandatory. You basically have to have an active reason to not choose an option like this, and even then, you're probably going to get some funny looks.
Sky blue: Useful, classy, and solid from the get-go, these options are pretty much the top of the line, assuming that your build as a whole at least minimally supports them.
Blue: These options are nothing to be ashamed of, but there's usually a better option available.
Black: There's something holding these options back from being truly great. They're not actively bad, and it's not like it's shameful to take one of them, but you'll probably want a pretty specific reason to do so. As a note, I rate a lot of options black if, despite being interesting, they fail to make you a better leader. That's not the only reason for such a rating, but it happens.
Purple: Niche at best, you should stay away from these options more often than not. They might have some quirky redeeming factor, but that doesn't mean that it's actually a good idea to take them.
Red: To be blunt, these are bad. If you take one, you're either doing something really weird, or you're making a mistake. Or both.
Green: These options are hard or impossible to rate in the same manner as the others, usually because they rely on external factors. Options that are primarily non-combat-oriented tend to fall here (4e is a game of combat, like it or not . . . but if you're here on the CharOp boards, you probably like it), as well as options that require specific synergies with your party (beyond obvious things like enabling powers needing allies with basic attacks).
HP: Pure baseline for a leader. Obviously, CON builds will find themselves pretty rich in surges, but that practically goes without saying. Serene Blades will have an endless fountain of THP all day every day, so they're sturdier than you might think even without much CON.
Armor proficiencies: Scale and a light shield right out of the box. Very nice.
Weapon proficiencies: I think WotC forgot that you're a weapon-using class. Simples only, and that's pretty terrible. Serene Blades get military heavy blades, at least. Wrathful Hammers get military hammers and maces, but they're kind of a trap option. Defiant Words get squat. You'll probably spend your background fixing this.
Defenses: +2 Will doesn't suck at all. WIS builds will have very respectable Will scores all around, but even CON builds will benefit from this, since it means they'll have Will scores that are merely bad, rather than shameful.
Skills: Auto-training Religion doesn't help much, since you're not supposed to be a brainiac, but the other skills aren't bad.
Rune Master: This is a little confusing. Basically, you get rune states from your powers, but it's this feature that makes the rune states do anything. (This is important if you hybrid, but not an important distinction if you're a pure Runepriest.) The Rune State of Destruction is very powerful; a typeless bonus to hit for your allies just for you standing around is a big deal. The Rune State of Protection is acceptable in Heroic, but it's not very powerful at higher levels, especially with MM3 damage expressions; there's plenty of powers with Protection riders that are very powerful, but the rune state itself is kind of lackluster. It's reasonably useful against minions, auras, or ongoing damage, at least.
Rune of Mending: This is my favorite standard-issue leader heal. It's a d6 behind the Cleric, Warlord, or Ardent, but check out what else it does. The (typeless) bonus to defenses offered by the protection rider isn't bad (especially with Mark of Warding, if that's your thing), but it's the destruction rider that really makes this shine. A meaty and scaling bonus to damage for pretty much your whole party is simply great to have around, though be aware that it is a power bonus. Do note that the target can spend a healing surge; it's risky, but if you don't think you're going to need much healing (in other words, if you think Team Hero can nova the encounter into the ground before it gets tough), it is possible to pop Rune of Mending and ignore the surge just to get the damage bonuses rolling. In other words, you don't have to wait until someone is injured to get your buffs on the field, though you'll want to be very careful about that.
Runic Artistry: This feature determines what your secondary stat will be, either WIS (for Defiant Words and Serene Blades) or CON (for Wrathful Hammers). It also provides a disincentive for enemies to attack you, which is nice. No power has a rider that is based specifically off of your Artistry feature, though many powers are more useful with one secondary than the other.
Runic Artistry Options:
Defiant Word: This WIS-based option is about punishing enemies for missing you. If you're good at boosting your defenses, if you have someone in your party who's good at throwing around attack penalties, or if your GM isn't very big on using above-level monsters, this isn't a bad option at all. It doesn't grant proficiency with anything, so you're either going to be using a dagger or burning a feat or background on a better weapon, since simple weapons aren't really a good idea for you.
Wrathful Hammer: This option is CON-based, and it punishes enemies for hitting you rather than missing you. It grants you proficiency with military hammers and military maces, but this is a trap; you're a leader who relies on hitting, so you really want to be using a +3 proficiency weapon. Either burn a feat or background on a better weapon or suck it up and use a dagger. If you don't hit, you don't matter, and every +1 counts.
Serene Blade: This option, like Defiant Word, is WIS-based, and it's more defensively-oriented, helping you survive with an endless fountain of temporary HP rather than harming enemies for attacking you. It grants you proficiency with military one-handed and two-handed heavy blades, so you have access to a decent +3 proficiency weapon without a feat or background, if you so choose. Likewise, this Artistry opens up light armor as an option, allowing you to apply your WIS to AC if you choose to do so. This requires a stricter stat spread than wearing heavy armor, but it also opens up other enchantment options and gives you a higher speed. Note that you do not have to wear light armor if you do not wish to; you still gain the other benefits even in your typical scale armor. Thanks to the abject silliness that is the Elven Chain Shirt, this Artistry has the highest AC potential of all of them, though it's pretty close to just matching the others if you don't go down that road.
In general, the fact that Serene Blade saves a feat or background relative to the other options gives it a pretty substantial leg up, though Defiant Word has a rather higher damage potential (many GMs will focus fire on the leader, so you can very consistently add your WIS to damage if your defenses are high enough). Wrathful Hammer is perfectly acceptable if you choose to go CON-based, though it's not generally a good idea to intentionally lower your defenses in order to be hit more often. Consider the bonus damage a consolation prize when you actually are hit, not a goal to actively pursue.
Naturally, WIS-based builds will have a higher Will than CON-based builds. Since STR and CON both affect Fort, CON builds will have two poor defenses rather than one, though at least they will have a high healing surge total.
STR: Your main stat. As is always the case with your attack stat in 4e, start with a minimum of 18 after racial bonuses, and bump it at every opportunity. Since you use heavy armor, you can get away with a starting score of 20 here, but be careful to be aware of what you're giving up by doing so. I have an easier time putting a post-racial 18 here than a post-racial 20, personally, but it's not a complete trap to go for broke.
CON: One of your two possible secondary scores, particularly for Wrathful Hammers. I personally prefer WIS, because I like the WIS riders better and I like having a good Will, but a CON secondary is perfectly viable, especially if you want to be using and abusing Protective Scroll. Even if you're WIS-based, having HP and surges is good, so throw a few points here if you can afford to. Certain Defiant Words want plate proficiency, so you may want to arrange your stats with an eye towards that, at least in the higher tiers. I doubt even Wrathful Hammers will want more than a starting 16 post-racial here; you do need WIS for Will and Superior Will, so going 18/18 is probably too expensive.
DEX: This isn't generally a very important stat for you unless you want it to be. That said, throwing a handful of points here opens up some options for feats, like Heavy Blade Mastery, Scale Specialization, and potentially even Heavy Blade Opportunity (which is rather interesting with Word of Binding), so it's not like no Runepriest should ever care about it. That said, most will just throw a couple leftover points here to make their Reflex less pathetic and be done. Initiative never hurts, either, though WIS builds will probably take Battlewise instead of relying on DEX.
INT: Of the two Reflex-boosting stats, I prefer tossing my extra points here, just because both Arcana and Religion are class skills, and because it boosts your Truespeak check—er, sorry, forgot myself for a moment there. Anyway, that assumes that you have Battlewise; if you don't, DEX is more deserving of your extra points, since initiative matters. Either way, INT won't be a very high priority for you.
WIS: Your other potential secondary score, specifically for Defiant Words and Serene Blades. Serene Blades who can afford a starting 18/18 split between STR and WIS will probably want to do so, since that opens up the possibility of hide armor (with the corresponding increase in speed); if you have less than a starting 18 here, though, you'll probably stick to scale armor. Either way, there are some great riders to be had from a good WIS, and your Will defense is very important. Even if you go CON-based, try to put enough points in WIS to take Superior Will by Epic (or, ideally, by Paragon). Your every action matters, so having Superior Will isn't a question of if, but when.
CHA: This is pretty much your designated dump stat. If you want to take an unusual multiclass feat, there are occasions when you can justify putting a few points here, but most Runepriests aren't going to be talkers or charmers.
Religion is mandatory for you. You're unlikely to have the INT to get much out of it, but you don't have a choice in the matter, so just accept it and move on. You get three more of the following.
Arcana: As with Religion, you're not INT-heavy, so you're not going to get too much out of this. It's got a decent skill power or two, and there's enough ways to boost it that you might make a monster knowledge check or two, but the average Runepriest won't make it a priority.
Athletics: You're STR-based. Might as well play to your, well, strengths. You can probably live without the skill powers, but I find that just basic Athletics checks come up a fair bit.
Endurance: This is GM-dependent. Some GMs never use Endurance, and some love to. Generally, you don't need it often, but when you need it, you really want to have it. The skill powers are pretty excellent, though, so that's a consideration. Naturally, CON builds will be better at this than WIS builds will.
Heal: By mid levels, it's pretty easy to autosucceed on most non-ritual-based Heal checks, but if you're WIS-heavy anyway, it's not a terrible idea to have the capability of making some nice checks. It might come up in a skill challenge, right?
History: Like with Arcana, this just isn't your strong suit . . . and it's far less likely than Arcana to come up on a regular basis, barring unusual predilections on the part of your GM.
Insight: This is a strong skill in a lot of skill challenges, and if you've got the WIS for it, it's not a bad idea to have as many party members as possible be capable of detecting something fishy. The skill powers are particularly nice, especially the much-vaunted Insightful Riposte at 16.
Thievery: I kinda think this was a mistake. You're not DEX-heavy, you're likely to have a penalty from your shield, your armor, or both, and this really shouldn't be your job. The skill powers aren't especially interesting, either, though I can sorta-kinda see a use for Fast Hands. Almost certainly not worth it.
Non-class skills (grabbed through background, MC, etc.):
Acrobatics: You're never going to be great at it, but it has a trained-only application, and that can be valuable. The skill powers are actually pretty good, especially Agile Recovery and Timely Dodge.
Bluff: Not for you, mate.
Diplomacy: Why is this purple when Bluff is red? Simple: it's easier for you to become passable at this than it is for you to do the same for Bluff. Compact of Peace counts for a hell of a lot. Still not great, though.
Dungeoneering: It's a WIS-based knowledge skill, so there can be some uses for it.
Intimidate: If you invest your waist slot in a Cincture of the Dragon Spirit, this can be an option in skill challenges. Otherwise, though, skip it.
Nature: A WIS-based knowledge skill with a far more common application than Dungeoneering sounds like a good deal to me. Don't go too far out of your way for it, but if you have the opportunity, it's worth snagging. Among the skill powers, Natural Terrain Understanding is pretty awesome.
Perception: This is as good for you as it is for every other character with moderate-or-better WIS.
Streetwise: Is this even a skill? I can't remember ever seeing this used.