Let's storm the main gate... they don't expect that ! --Dwarven battle tactic
1.1 What is Alpha-Striking ?
Alpha-striking is the goal to cripple an emeny before he can do the same to you, thereby avoiding drawn out and costy conflicts. It is an often proposed tactic on CharOp, but also a controversial topic, because the optimal degree of commitment to that goal is widely disputed. Hence the aim of this guide is not to postulate the one-true-way. It rather will rather inform you about the basic tactics involved, how to translate these into character builds, related complications and exploits and how different grades of commitment will affect your playstyle. At last you need to know the major drawback of alpha-striking. As resources are naturally limited, those commited to alpha-striking can't be commited elsewhere such as a high level ongoing performance with defense as most notable part. Thus having a solid backup plan is what differentiates good from bad alpha-strikers.
1.2 Why Alpha-Striking ?
As already mentioned the fact that you neutralise your opposition before it can reasonably retaliate can save you a lot of resources, both when building and playing your character. If executed well, alpha-striking not only saves more resources than you invest and thus makes for a better characters, but also is synergetic with itself and up to a certain point grows in power exponentially. Also... it's great fun to smoke encounters in short order and dictate how fights are played out !
1.3 Reading the Guide
Chapter #2 introduces the basic required stratagems, which are momentum, reconaissance, reliability, divide and conquer vs brute force, hammer vs scalpel and melee vs ranged. Chapter #3 takes a look at complications that may arise, tactics to improve your performance and miscellaneous tips and tricks. Chapter #4 discusses what happens when alpha-striking fails and how to enact a good backup plan. Chapter #5 aggregates that knowledge and puts it into practise, reviewing the contributions of different classes to and the effects of increasing commitment into alpha-striking. Chapter #6 then shows how alpha-striking affects actual play, ranging from in-play examples to shifts in the meta-game. Chapter #7 closes the guide as appendix by providing resources for further reading, as well as references and a few organisational and personal remarks.
We already discussed the basic premise of alpha-striking in chapter #1. To realise that strategy you must frontload your ability to bring down the pain. While that may sound simple, translating that into a good character build isn't trivial, and there are some strategical requirements to fulfill and considerations to make to ensure your alpha-striking actually works in practise.
Momentum is about dictating the flow of combat, meaning that you combine your prefered powers into a devastating series of attacks while you deny the enemy the same. Lacking other parameters that for now relies on winning initiative and using your strong and finely tuned powers early before the enemy can (re)act. In general it could mean setting a classical trap in a valley, but we'll discuss those more specific parameters in chapter #3. Optimising your particular build is beyond the purview of this guide (there are enough good builds and guides available on CharOp), and combining your group into a greater whole first and foremost requires you to communicate with your fellow players - you can find some hints for that in chapter #5. Benefits: worth at least one extra turn regardless of situation, reasonable competence achievable by everybody Problems: consistent winning requires high investment, prone to over-investment (eg: winning initiative by +1 or +20 is no different) Examples:Improved Initiative, Strategist's Epiphany, a Warlord's Combat Leader Combat SampleShow
As Mengu accurately describes it:
Momentum is something like the warlock hitting the enemy to lower their AC and grant combat advantage, followed by the Warlord easily hitting the enemy, so everyone gets +5 damage against him, followed by the Invoker who now gives that enemy and one other vulnerable 5 to all damage, while giving the warlord a bonus to his next attack, then the barbarian capitalizes on that, takes the target down, uses Howl of Triumph to lower defense for a bunch of other enemies, and back to the warlock who has the barbarian's and invoker's bonuses to open up on the next target, and after him, the Warlord has some nice bonuses. Momentum carries them forward.
Unless you have abolutely surperior force, you must concentrate your efforts on key targets, which are either low defense / high offense mobs or those that provide crucial buffs and benefits to the other mobs. The rest of the mobs has to be either ignored or at maximum debuffed until they can be dealt with. More detailed information on that topic can be found in my monster handbook. A relatively easy and consistent to get that information is monster knowledge checks using skills. Another way is usually careful attention to the descriptions of the DM, which often contains important hints. More information can be gain before combat, for example as result of skill challenges, and can also offer opportunities to gain momentum by preparation as discussed in chapter #3. At last having sufficient Perception and Insight minimises the chance of being surprised. Benefits: low investment for high benefits, can be distributed among the whole group, allows for precise dosage of resources Problems: neglect can lead to highly dangerous situations (eg: ambushes; waste of force / resources on insignificant enemies) Examples: skills, Adventurer's Scion background, Alertness
Alpha-striking in general is a high risk / high reward approach. If you succeed you walk away largely unharmed, if you fail you have less than usual resources to fall back onto. Hence you must ensure that your strategies work reliably. Again postponing specific scenarios until chapter #3, that means that you need either a high to-hit bonus, many attacks that minimise the impact of individual misses, tricks that simply work as effect or some kind of recovery mechanism. Benefits: valuable beyond alpha-striking Problems: often hard to achieve or only at the cost of raw power, neglect again leads to dangerous situations due less backup Examples: Combat Advantage, Leader buffs, Daily powers
Divide and Conquer vs Brute Force
There are two different major approaches concerning how to neutralise mobs. With limited resources you should concentrate making the one or the other work well, but they're not mutually exclusive and in fact synergise very well if responsibilities are distributed among a dedicated group.
Divide and Conquer You probably won't be able to eleminate all enemies before they can act, thus you instead hinder them using control (action denial, forced movement, debuffs, ...) to break down their force and stop them from gaining momentum on their own. Afterwards dealing with the weakened remainders becomes much easier. There are multiple ways to achieve that. The best is denying the mobs their actions completely, either by a full stun or a daze or immobilise outside melee distance / line of sight for melee / ranged mobs. If that's not possible secondary measures aim to minimise the impact of the mobs' actions, either by debuffing their attack and damage, by forcing them to suffer reprisal, usually in the form of OAs, or by arranging the battlefield such that their ability to target and such focus fire is limited. Benefits: even little investment has great impact, works well regardless of enemy composition Problems: mobs must still be eliminated in some way Examples: Controllers, Defenders Combat SampleShow
So let's instead assume a more challenging encounter setup. We choose level 16 as middle of our career, but this example works in similar combinations at about any point. As resources we assume just an AP and any encounter resources.
Enemies -- 2 Soldiers or Brutes at short range (~5 sq) as blocker -- 1 Elite Controller at medium range (~10 sq) as main adversary -- 2 Artilleries at long range (~15 sq) to focus fire
Stealth Due having a base skill modifier significantly higher than any usual mob Perception modifier, and the ability to roll twice, it's safe to assume that all our checks succeed. In case we really must move more than 2 sq and try to hide, we can rely on our Watcher's Signet to counter the penalty.
Initiative It's likely that due our high base modifier we'll be the first to act. No matter if we do or don't, because we're hidden thanks to Reactive Stealth, we won't be targeted as the mobs don't even know that we're there.
Turn 1 (standard) We attack the two Soldiers/Brutes with a 1 PP Dual Hallucination. As result they're slid 3 sq away from our group, slowed, and are at -5 Reflex. (minor) We activate Mind Shroud to gain full cover (if necessary). OR (minor) We activate our Watcher's Signet in case any suitable spot is within 3-5 sq. (move) We move closer and re-stealth. -> (free) Our Thrall moves 5 sq towards the Elite. (AP: standard) We use a 4 PP Dual Hallucination on the Elite and one Artillery close to some blocking terrain feature. They're slid 3 sq, slowed, at -2 to attack and dazed as result. -> (free due AP) The Elite is attacked by our Thrall, who thanks to being very precise and having CA will very likely hit as well, and hence slide it 4 sq adjacent to our Defender. Summary: Assuming we hit (which is likely thanks to a good attack bonus, CA and targetting Will), the two melee mobs are slowed and out of range, one Artillery is dazed and out of LoS, and the Elite savely dazed and debuffed next to our trusty Defender.
Between Turns The remaining Artillery will likely try to hit us back, which will easily be negated thanks to (full) cover and an on-demand defense bonus from Intellect Fortress. The rest of our party has fun murdering the Elite.
Turn 2 (move) Re-stealth thanks to the second round of full cover from Mind Shroud. -> (free) Our Thrall moves forward to one Artillery to corner it (see below). (minor) If necessary let our Thrall walk some more. (standard) A 2 PP Kinetic Trip basically autohits the melee mobs (remember the -5 Reflex defense and our CA), and again slides them 3 sq, slows them and knocks them prone if they move more than 1 sq. As third target we slide the dazed and already closer Artillery next to our Thrall, likely catching it unable to shift away thanks to blocking / difficult terrain. Summary: The Elite is well taken care of by the rest of our party, the two melee mobs are still unable to do anything, and one of the two Artilleries is trapped in a corner by our Thrall.
Between Turns The rest of our team finishes the Elite and starts closing in. The Artilleries, seeing that the combat is going downhill, focus fire us - we turn invisible thanks to Fade Away, and one Artillery eats a full damage OA from our Thrall, probably blooding it.
Turn 3 (move) Continue closing in and use the invisibility from Fade Away to re-stealth. (minor) If necessary heal our Thrall with Restore Thrall. (standard) We either use a normal Dual Hallucination to pull in, slow and put CA & -2 attack on the remaining two Artilleries... OR (standard) ... or we help our Defender to hold down the bunched up melee mobs with a 2 PP Dishearten for -7 to their attacks. Total Summary The Elite is off the board, both melee mobs now get their first turn against our still fresh Defender, and both Artilleries are debuffed, with one trapped and already bloodied.
Backup Tricks In case positioning isn't optimal or we miss somewhere, we can rely on Forceful Push. It also can slide the Artillery back next to our Thrall in case we're unlucky with the terrain. In case we do fluke a stealth attempt we can just use the minor shift 2 from Boots of the Fencing Master to try again. In case we roll low, Insightful Riposte can still make us hit. We maybe already have a Stone of Spirit / Wind to reroll one bad but important attack, if it's a critical encounter. If positions or terrain are really bad for us, we can still just bust out one of our Daily Attacks or transport our party with Dimensional Shortcurt to anywhere within 20 sq gain the tactical advantage.
Brute Force Anything not contributing to killing the mobs ASAP is a wasted resource by this philosophy. Hence everything is focused on dealing damage, and dealing it now! rather than later, only diverting as little as necessary to survive just long enough and being able to engage the enemy. Because if all your enemies are dead, what's left to fear ? The standard way to do that is to maximise the number of attacks you put out, using powers that grant multiple attacks, non stadard action action attcks and attacks triggered by certain foreseeable events or by your allies. You then increase the damage of each invidiual attack, usually by increasing the static modifiers and in particular exploiting strong short lived buffs and vulnerabilities. All together that creates a multiplactive increase, that can quickly skyrocket your numbers if done right. A less common but still very effective approach is to exploit damaging zones and long distance slides to again achieve multiple damage triggers. Benefits: dead is the best status condition Problems: has to reach a minimum treshold to work, more susceptible problems due specific encounter / mob setups Examples: Leaders, Strikers Combat SampleShow
I probably don't need to go into detail here, as building sky-high novas is one of the most common activities on CharOp. Still if you want to find more, read this optimised party example by Nelphine or just browse the DPR Kings thread.
Hammer vs Scalpel
Again we have two different ways to approach alpha-striking. They can work together, but don't really synergise and more pick up the slack of the other if combined.
Hammer If you apply extreme force, why not apply it to many targets at once if it can be done at only little cost ? Thereby can probably blow up an encounter in one go, and even if you might not neutralise a specific target, something will get hit hard. Benefits: devastating effect if done successfully, can deal well with numerically surperior enemies Problems: all or nothing approach, dependent on favourable encounter and mob setup (excluding a few specific tricks), little selective targetting Examples: Sorcerers, damage focused Wizards & Invokers Combat SampleShow
Now all the mobs have recieved up to five instances of damage, depending on hits. Considering all the damage bonuses (Battle Fury Stance, Sorceror Str/Dex, Int from Shaman, Int again from Shaman vs bloodied) and the fact that crits happen on 18-20, it is very likely that at least one mob is down. Any other mob is marked by the Fighter, and at -4 to attacks (-2 from Shaman, -2 from Sorcerer).
Scalpel Eliminating all enemies right away might not be feasable, but by concentrating your efforts you can take out high value and key targets and quickly decimate the enemy so it poses little threat. Benefits: reliable, flexible Problems: lower return of investment Examples: Rangers, Rogues, Avengers Combat SampleShow
-- switch to secondary and tertiary targets as the mobs die --
Considering the attack bonuses granted by the Invoker, the fact that due Daze the targets can't use triggered defenses, and the multiple attacks and bonuses from Lashing Leaves, this should easily kill an Elite or two regulars. Any still standing mob is dazed.
Melee vs Ranged
At last there's the decision between a melee and a ranged approach. For a particular character you usually have to choose either one, but as a group you can employ both with relative ease. They combine quite effortlessly, and while focussing on one can offer somewhat higher synergy, it also becomes much more vulnerable to specific counters.
Melee Getting right in the face of the mob with a nasty weapon is a classic strategy to make it go down fast or just stop anything left from gaining momentum. While there are many benefits, in particular in concert with Leaders, and it allows for an easy gradual investment, being denied melee can bring your effectiveness down to almost zero. Benefits: higher base damage, better for granted attacks, threatens with OAs Problems: requires good mobility to reach targets, more prone to reactive abilties Examples: Melee Rangers, Barbarians, Defenders
Ranged Nuking targets from range is often more connected with prolonged and tactical play. But with the right investments you can become highly efficient at alpha-striking as well while still keeping your flexibility. But when things go downhill you tend to suffer more. Benefits: more flexible targetting and focus fire, easier access to multi-target and control attacks Problems: usually less resilient, higher investment needed for good performance and against all contingencies Examples: Archer Rangers, most Warlocks, most Controllers
There are a number of circumstances outside your own control that make alpha-striking difficult. While complications are to be expected, and for other strategies might just be a nuisance, the repercussions for alpha-striking are far more severe. We already learned that alpha-striking puts many resources into overcoming the enemy before it can retaliate, so it is obvious that if these resources are neutered, the combat is going to be difficult. Hence it is prudent to both know possible complications as well as preparing measures to overcome them. While groups with low investment into alpha-striking (see chapter #5) possibly can't prepare for all these contingencies, they can on the other hand well get away with a regular fight much better due lower reliance on the alpha-strike. Groups with high investments on the hand need to prepare for as many as possible situations, because the lack of such will force them increasingly often into ever more nasty anti-encounters, which can easily wipe them. On the bright side, some of these circumstances can also be set-up by players with the right resources or just creativity, and thereby can stop mobs from alpha-striking you !
Distance and Terrain
The most obvious problem is relying on melee (or short distance) attacks and starting far away from the enemy. It becomes even worse if the terrain in between is difficult terrain, completely unpassable like a chasm or 3D with targets high above you. The opposite might be not as bad, but still can hurt you. If you use ranged attacks, but mobs have cornered you, you'll eat OAs and not be able to attack your favourite target like usual. Countermeasures: Athletics, general mobility, defense buffs
Usually mobs won't do you the favour and put the most vulnerable mob right at the front. Instead you can expect Artilleries who focus fire and Controllers who deny your actions to be well protected behind sturdy melee heavy hitters. So if you can hit key targets at all, you will usually suffer OAs. Furthermore they usually don't clump together, except when ganging up on one of your party, so AOEs will rarely hit more than one or two targets, lest they are big bursts. Countermeasures: control (forced movement, daze), mobility / range
Line of Sight / Effect
Battlefield feature more obstacles than just those restricting movement. Bad vision, cover and the like can seriously hamper your ability to use your ranged powers. Worse mobs might simply attack and then move into total cover, leaving you with no way at all to hurt them. On the bright side this is something you often can employ yourself with relative ease and smart use of the terrain, and thereby gives you the means to apply divide and conquer without any investment into it. Dedicated Controllers (like a Wizard with Firewall) are naturally even better at it. Countermeasures: area attacks, enhanced vision, penalty negators, mobility (to close in)
Traps and Hazards
Alpha-striking relies on overcoming the enemy before it can gain momentum. But traps and hazards are triggered, thus always ready, and often cannot be overcome by classic means of damage or control. But their potentially high damage and usually attached control riders can completely negate your own momentum, if they catch you unprepared or unable to get around them. Countermeasures: good skills (percieve / diffuse: Arcana, Perception, Thievery; circumvent: Athletics / Acobatics), mobility, specialised powers
Minions and Swarms
When you're all set and ready to perfectly flurry down some tough mobs, a horde of weak enemies shouldn't pose a problem to you, now should they ? But in fact they do. The problem is that many alpha-strikes rely on high damage attacks (doesn't matter against minions, as long as you hit them) and powers to flurry against one target (which is moot against many weak opponents). And Minions are very much a DM's alpha-striking weapon, because even if they die quickly, their sheer mass can easily overwhelm a character or two, particularly if they are less resilient like the usual alpha-striker. While Swarms are a single entity gamewise, they not only look similar to Minions, but they also behave such. They as well are resilient to standard single target damage, and they often generate more attacks (for example through Auras) than regular mobs, too. Countermeasures: area powers (aka the hammer approach), auto-damage effects, damage resistance
Out Of Turn Monster Powers
It's all nice and dandy to buff up, move into position and then flurry that BBEG to death with twenty attacks... just to find out it has a reactive ability to teleport, become insubstantial or stun you. Sometimes these abilities can be shut down, but even if not, being aware of them spares you from expending valuable resources for no effect. Countermeasures: daze / stun, monster knowledge
Sometimes you get served your own medicine, be it having bad luck with Initiative, being surprised or something else. This is probably the nastiest thing that can happen to you, because as alpha-strikers you're not build to outlast your enemy. Countermeasures: defense buffs, surprise negators, employing anything mentioned above yourself
We already discussed the basic requirements to make alpha-striking work, and what decisions you have to make when assembling your party. We then touched on a number of problems you might get into which are not, or only very little, in hands. Some of the following points were already mentioned as countermeasures to problems, because you naturally like to follow your primary strategy as much as possible before resorting to a backup plan. But by employing the following things you not only minimise problems, but you can enhance your alpha-strike effectiveness in a more general way. As we'll also see when discussing the backup plan, you don't need all these tricks every encounter, so having a few but potent of them available as daily powers is just fine.
This is the easiest, broadest but as seen in #3.1 complications also most necessary way to enhance your performance, so there's no excuse to not get at least some. If you're melee focused you'll need it to reach key targets instead of just blocker mobs, as ranged attacker it stops you from getting ganged up, and it allows you to get around all kinds of other problems as well. Hence as long as you can increase your mobility without significantly hurting your base alpha-strike or backup abilities, you should definately do so. Benefits: overcomes all kinds of complications, improves ability to engage key targets Problems: prone to many debuffs, catch all solutions are rare Examples: Athletics (and associated Skill Powers), Boots of the Fencing Master, Striker (for yourself) & Leader (for allys) powers
Not only you will use your most potent attacks as early as possible, but mobs will just do the same if they can. Hence anything to soften the impact of that first barrage is highly useful, particularly if you can trigger it reactively and thus doesn't rely on winning Initiative. Benefits: comparetively low investment, can serve as backup ability at the same time, useful regardless of circumstances Problems: even Minors or Immediates might be needed for the alpha-strike, many picks still rely on winning Initiative Examples:a Halfling's Second Chance, Natural Terrain Understanding, Leader & Defender powers
The epitome of a good alpha-strike is an ambush for complete surprise. Beyond its obvious benefits, it often lets you dictate the circumstances of how the combat is played out. But make sure your trusty Defender or capable Controller is within reach, before you jump headlong into combat and quickly find yourself overwhelmed. Benefits: grants an extra round, allows uninterrupted buffing, useable as fill-in for things like mobility or defense Problems: one bad roll can ruin ambushes, hard for everybody to become good, often relies on circumstances out of your control Examples: high Stealth or Bluff, abilities that grant (total) cover / concealment (like Feytouched Armor), Champion of the Vigil
3.3 Tips & Tricks
Focus Fire A common mistake is to let serverely hurt targets run off after the alpha-strike. Unless the costs to chase it down or nuke it from range are steep and you can make sure that it won't be able to participate next round, prioritise finishing off any wounded mob. Also don't mind a little overkill, for example better use both Twin Strike attacks and make sure it dies, instead of gambling one of it hitting and the other just grazing an untouched mob. Combat is most often won by action economy, and alpha-striking is the epitome of denying the enemy actions from the start - don't waste your advantage after the initial strike.
Improving APs Action Points play a crucial role for successful alpha-strikes. Beyond the simple impact of an extra standard action they allow reaping the benefits of short lived buffs again, and often carry some extra bonuses as well (usually provided by Paragon Paths, some Leaders and some items). To gain extra APs you may want to look a Symbol of Victory if you can spare the slot (possibly by MCing), Adroit Explorer or Vistani Foresight. Most notable AP improvements for your allies come from Warlords and the Symbol of Daring. At last many Tattoos like Demonskin, Fireheart or Breakchain offer benefits if you expend an AP yourself.
The Bloodied Status There are a few pieces that rely on your target being bloodied, most notably Gauntlets of Blood, Impending Victory and a Tiefling's Bloodhunt, or unbloodied like the Bleak Disciple Assassin. While theoretically those should apply about half the time, in practise it highly differs based on your role. Benefits against bloodied targets help in that order Strikers, Leaders, Controllers, Defenders due the nature of how work in party is usually shared. Defensive abilities against bloodied mobs like a Deva's Astral Majesty are usualy less useful, as any bloodied mob should be finished off quickly. Still bloodied mobs, particularly Elites and Solos, often become more dangerous, and for these occasions it's wise to save up a strong power to control or finish the mob quickly as well. At last effects active while you're bloodied, like a Dragonborn's Fury should be exploited with care, as you usually want to start healing up when you become bloodied to avoid dropping, unless you have special tricks to avoid that. The exception are abilities that boost your resilience like a Longtooth Shifter's Regeneration or a Cloak of the Walking Wounded. If want to trigger these abilities intentionally you can use a Bloodfury or Battlecrazed Weapon. Don't expect things that are only active while unbloodied to work too long either, as becoming bloodied is a common occurance after the first or second round of combat.
Pay Attention As already discussed in chapter #2, knowledge is a valuable and important resource. But you don't have to rely on just your monster knowledge checks the attain it. Pay attention to the description of the mobs by the DM, remember your experience from previous fights and the surrounding knowledge you already have gathered. Ask for details or if anything is unclear - your characters are there in person and can see, hear, feel and smell all these details plain and easy. From this information alone you often can infer important facts. The same holds true for the environment of the encounter. No matter if you thereby anticipate traps, find advantagoues spots that for example grant cover, spot lose rocks to reshape the battlefield and attack your enemies with or in general discover ways to make creative use of the environment - all is certainly going to help you to ease the combat.
The Value of Experience D&D is fairly sophisticated and complicated game. Having a good build and a theoretically good strategy alone doesn't help. It's a widely agreed fact that a medicore build played well is surperior to a good build played poorly. As alpha-striking is a more complex tactic and a high risk, high reward approach, it is important that you don't jump the gun. Instead of starting with the most twinked out alpha-striker and discovering some crucial build error in the first session, or just finding out about all the complications alpha-striking entails, start slow. Build a character that is solid even in a prolonged combat, despite his alpha-striking ability, and use as many resources that contribute towards both. Feel free to post your build, idea, DM style and group composition and ask for feedback from the community. If you really want to start with a leap, take some of the proven and well optimised builds presented in chapter #5, and make sure you have a good grasp on the particularities of the build and selected one that still employs relatively straight forward tactics. At last remember that D&D is still a group effort. Alpha-striking in particular is a tactic that the group should pull off together, even if only one or two members contribute to the actual alpha-strike. Following widely different tactical approaches is going to lead to disaster. To avoid that, make sure your friends understand the core idea behind alpha-striking - and to do that they will likely need time, insight and experience.
Sooner or later you will get into a situation where alpha-striking doesn't work. The reasons can be multifold like simple bad luck with rolls, unfavourable environment, getting ambushed yourself or just not having enough punch to neutralise important enemies - often enough it in fact are multiple of these factors at once. Now that doesn't mean all is lost, in case you have prepared a good backup plan containing the parts described below. As discussed the limitation of resources means you will have to make trade-offs, but with careful selection and balacing (also see chapter #5) you can become strong enough with both strategies, in particular if you invest into resources that help both your alpha-strike and your backup plan.
The Role of Dailys
As you hopefully shouldn't run into problems every encounter, it's fine to rely on daily powers to improve your performance or be part of the backup plan. Furthermore it's the one way for your backup plan to include adding more oomph to your actual alpha-strike. Benefits: very effective, can provide encounter long benefits or completely new capabilities, might make the actual alpha-strike work Problems: highly limited resource, hard to make a build relying on them Examples:Rain of Steel, Stand the Fallen, Attacks on the Run
When your alpha-strike fails, at least one member of your party will have taken quite some damage in return. To stop the fight from getting out of hand even further, you'll want to bring him up to solid HP quickly to continue into a regular fight without worries. Naturally that falls into the purview of Leaders, and their inherent (or MCed) abilities plus any Utilities are well equiped for it, usually recovering between 1/3 and 1/2 of the HP total. But if somebody has taken a big hit, multiple folks took one to the chin or if your main Leader in fact was target of the focus fire, that alone is not going to be enough. Benefits: quickly recovers people from an onslaught, just as useful in any grind-like fight Problems: usually Surge intensive, stacked or surgeless heals are hard to get Examples:Swift Recovery, Dwarven Armor, Reactive Surge
A second problem is that during the retaliation you will be subjected to many control effects as well. That means you lose even more momentum while the mobs gain - exactly the situation you wanted to avoid in the first place. And as you level the frequence of debuffs will become much higher. Ability to quickly overcome such conditions is crucial for performing a smooth transition into a regular fight. While Leaders can help everybody with their powers, this is where Defenders start to shine, as they usually are much harder to disrupt in this manner and thus can cover their allies until they have recovered as well. Benefits: can spare you many wasted turns, good fall back resource in general Problems: hard to get for non-Defenders, reliable success requires significant investment Examples:Grit and Spittle, powers combining attack and mobility, Circlet of Arkhosia
Now that your all your cool toys are gone and didn't decimate everything, you still have to bring down the mobs in one way or another - and in the end that means damage. Here the playing field between Strikers and other classes is somewhat more even, but focus fire on anything wounded is still prudent. Benefits: usually good synergy with nova damage optimisation, can be contributed by everybody Problems: none ! Examples: Weapon Focus, Frostcheese, Commander's Strike
At last a drawn out fight means that you will likely recieve your fair share of attacks. To avoid the common (and usually short lived) phenomenon of a glass-cannon you want to make basic investments in your resilience. Thus you don't become an unnecessary strain on your Leader or force your party to rest early, and good defenses not only make your HP last long enough but avoid nasty riders as well. Benefits: readily available to everybody, easily improved with items Problems: desirable investments quickly add up Examples: Improved Defenses, Toughness, Potion of Regeneration
By now we have discussed basics of alpha-striking, problems and enhancements as well as the outline of the necessary backup plan. But how does that translate into an actual character to play ? While there are many classes and even more builds, they're still quite well defined by their role. Hence we'll use this metric to describe the different ways you can contribute to an alpha-strike with your particular character. In this section I'll the examples, because they make more sense in the context of the following section, which deals with the different grades of commitment to such an alpha-strike.
While Controllers seldom end a fight instantenously, they can easily brake it up into smaller and more manegable pieces, that the rest their party then deals with. That obviously is divide and conquer. This usually favours hammer approach to throw out mass debuffs, so the enemy will get slowed down at multiple points, although the ability to reliably remove the most dangerous target from the fight completely is valuable as well. Good Controllers in fact have both in their arsenal by mixing powers, feats and items carefully, so they can adapt to the specific situation. A few so called Blaster builds instead strongly lean towards brute force, either in the common variant of high damage, multiple target version as hammer, or as scalpel using damage triggers from zones and high distance forced movement. In either case, even if the target survives, it usually is still left in a very bad position and thus little of danger. The most Controllers work at range, although a few melee or close distance builds exist. They often are expected to clear Minions, but that is more a conincidence than the core of their role - and can be taken care of by many characters in different ways. Benefits: best to break up encounters with just one character, good complement any party in both alpha-strike and regular fight Problems: a target cannot be "controlled to death", usually squishy
They are usually the least associated with alpha-striking, because by definition they are needed when the alpha-strike has failed, as their core competence is to stop the enemies from focus firing. While having a dedicated backup character is never a bad idea, with the correct build even Defenders don't need to watch from the sidelines while others have the fun. With the right build they can in fact develop significant competence in a secondary role, most usually as Striker or Controller with little sacrifise. Paired with their innate resilience they can have their rightful place in about any alpha-striking party. Defenders are almost exclusively melee characters. Benefits: resilient, good backup, able to provide multiple competences Problems: can hardly alpha-strike on their own
The least and yet the best role for alpha-striking, there is a reason behind the consensus that no group should go without at least one Leader. On their own they tend to achieve rather little, but they are the grease monkeys that turn a solid group into a real force. Their central contribution to alpha-striking is buffing and enabling to multiply the effectiveness of other party members. But even beyond the alpha-strike Leaders are a crucial part of any group. Their inherent access to heals and other mitigation abilities make them the core of every backup plan. Individuel fields of expertise of different Leaders naturally vary, and those that are lacking at either usually make up for it with a strong secondary expertise in either controlling or defending. They usually operate at close range, but you can find everything from melee to long distances abilities in different builds. Benefits: multiplies effectiveness of other characters, helps with both alpha-strike and backup, very viable to have more than once Problems: not very effective on his own, weakness to enemy alpha-strikes, must be customised to the individual party for best performance
At last the Striker is the incarnation of the brute force approach. The first requirement every such character has to fullfil is that he brings enough front loaded damage to the table to quickly remove an enemy from the combat. Failure to do that is only acceptable if enough debuffs can by applied in the process as well to ensure the mob is neutralised efficiently. As such they usually work more like a scalpel against the most dangerous target. Strikers are a very varied group, operating at all ranges, and while often offering secondary capabilities, they have to balance at-will damage, surviability and other tricks carefully. Benefits: more damage is always good, fit well into any group Problems: affected most by complications, tend to employ all-or-nothing strategies, hard to balance correctly
By now you should have a good idea about all the different aspects of alpha-striking. But before turning it into a nice build you have to make one final but very important decision. How much do you want to dedicate yourself - referring both to an individual character as well as a whole party - to alpha-striking ? Naturally putting more resource into alpha-striking (given that you are smart and do a practical optimisation with complications and different scenarios in mind) will naturally mean that you will pull off an alpha-strike more often and more successful. But on the other hand it will also mean that if you fail to do so, you fail ever so harder.
This in fact means that you make no investments into alpha-striking at all. You instead just recognise the importance of alpha-striking and then smartly use the resources you get anyway (most notably encounter powers and APs) to make one if the opportunity comes up. Every good character should at least achieve this level, because not doing so ignores the realities of combat and leaves useful resources untapped. No matter if and how well you then can alpha-strike, you are well prepared for the rest of the encounter, as what I have described here as backup plan is in fact your actual plan. Benefits: comes for free, little chance of wasted investments, automatically has a strong "backup plan" Problems: potentially misses many relatively good opportunities, no alpha-strike might lead to actually higher resource consumption in play Examples: -- Coach and Little Mac (Seeker|Cleric & Fighter, by ShakaUVM): bring swift lockdown and death to whatever they get their hands on -- Inexhaustable Dragon Sovereign (Paladin, by Litigation): self sufficient, backup healer and catches the mobs' attention right away -- Ronin (Battlemind, by myself): mass mob lockdown and swift response to get allys out of trouble -- The Most Annoying Rogue Ever (by Philip): novas like every Rogue should, but impressively disproves the glass cannon stereotype
Here the fun starts, although it's still a rather conservative approach. Beyond a basic plan you take measures to work around some of the more common complications and make a few choices that are particularly helpful during early combat. In total you invest about one third of your resources into setting-up a good alpha-strike. Groupwise this often means instead of everybody taking the casual approach, that about half the characters are dedicated alpha-strikers with only basic backup investments while the other half just takes the opportunistic approach, so they can pick up the slack past the first rounds or in unfavourable encounters. Benefits: highest return of investment ratio, still safe in case of problems Problems: can't rely on the alpha-strike to work all the time Examples: -- Achilles (Battlemind, by myself): high DPR, high resilience, and able to force mobs away from squishier allies from the start on -- God's Right Hand Man (Invoker, by Grey_Warden): flexible between defense and offense, and summons can help out in a pinch -- Master of Puppets (Bard|Warlord, by Dielzen): brings control as he buffs his allies, and makes things flow from the start on -- Pacifist Cleric (by Nausicaa): control off targets early, keep resource comsumption low and bring emergency buttons for hard encounters -- Slash & Dash (Ranger, by lordduskblade): solid nova, and then makes the remaining combat easy with high defenses and solid DPR
You believe that alpha-striking is the surperior strategy, and hence you are willing to invest about two thirds of your available resources into making it work. While you naturally prefer those choices that help both short and long term, you only take the best ones to have enough room to make the actual alpha-strike great. That means both accounting for the very most complications as well as bringing a few enhancements to fabricate more frequent and better alpha-strikes. For a group that rarely means that everybody uses a dedicated build. Instead some characters will follow the all-out strategy with only the most basic investments into longer combats, while one or two characters instead serve as specific backup with rather low contribution to the actual alpha-strike. Benefits: usually wins the fights right away, very effective if done well Problems: faces problems in case of more than occasional anti-encounters, requires experience to build and play successfully Examples: -- Killswitch (Warlord|Artificer, by Auspex7): boosts to initiative, movement and attacks, and brings some solid backup tricks as well -- Ms. No (Psion, by myself): takes mobs out of the fight right away, and has enough tricks to provide solid control all combat long -- Ninja Team Leader (Rogue|Warlord, by CriticalBastard): high on mobility to strike key targets, and afterwards evade and survive retaliation -- Oracle of Death (Barbarian, by myself): big opening nova, and solid party support with healing / defending / DPR for the mop-up -- Stormbringer (Warlord, by lordduskblade): archetypical Warlord, but can also quickly fill holes and grows with the enemie's resistance
This isn't for the faint of heart or the inexperienced, as it takes the stance that what is not invested into killing an enemy is a wasted investments. Hence you put everything towards achieving that goal as quickly as possible, thereby avoiding almost all retaliation and making any defensive investments indeed unnecessary. Furthermore you try to prepare countermeasures to every possible complication. Any long term resources you have are those that you get for free, like basic hit points and proficiencies, at-will powers and selected Utilities. Benefits: leaves the enemies no chance to retaliate Problems: can run dry on resources easily in case of problems, highly susceptible to wipe in case of anti-encounters, very complex Examples: -- Gigantor (Ranger, by DamonTor): crit exploitation at its best -- The Chargers (Barbarian|Warlords, by ShakaUVM): very aggressive to bring down enemies, with still the basic tricks to survive -- The Timebomb (Ranger, by lordduskblade): a classic example of nova optimisation
Auspex7 describes running his Killswitch with a group of CharOp regulars and their builds in an online game.Show
The first time I took him [Killswitch] out for a spin was with an L16 party, against an L20 encounter that featured two Red Slaad Juggernauts, with all monsters adjusted a la Bilsmode. [Bilsmode is basically a quick hack to adjust MM2 mobs to MM3 guidelines.]
That run featured a Sorc (Lumi), Mr. Smith (LDB), a Taclord/Battlefront Leader (Paladin Online), and Challenger (my build, run by Folarin), plus me on Killswitch.
I went first. Resistive, Reorient, War Master's Assault.
Resistive gave myself and Lumi's Sorc each 38 Temp HP.
Reorient put PO and Folarin into flanking position against one of the two Juggernauts, and Mr Smith adjacent to the other. It also moved Lumi's Sorc into a square adjacent to me.
War Master's Assault put 2 hits into 1 Juggernaut (I missed my RBA, both melee hit), and 2 hits + a mark into the other (LDB and Lumi both hit-- Lumi did so with Energy Strobe, thanks to Spell Commander L16 feature). [Energy Strobe is a RBA anyway.]
Next turn was Folarin's Avenger, who went Oath, Overwhelming Strike (pulling the target 1 square closer to LDB), and then used RRoT to end his turn.
Warlord used Death from Two Sides. Hits from both he and Folarin caused Folarin's hit to be a fully maximized RRoT crit, which left the Elite on its last leg.
LDB's Rain of Steel + Come and Get It then popped a few minions, finished off the nearly dead Elite, and re-marked the one he had originally marked (which he missed with this attack).
After that, when the marked Elite hit LDB, I pasted it with Shocking Feedback.
That was the end of our wave of turns, and we were already in cruise control. We had an Elite down, one marked and hurt, minions popped, etc. Added to this, the 2 'softest' targets on our side were sitting safely at range, with 38 temp HP each.
I went first in that Enc, and all of the monsters were dead before they would have gotten third turns. While I used a Daily to open, it was the only Daily used [Not entirely correct, as Mr. Smith's Rain of Steel is a Daily as well.], and nobody used Action Points.
PhatWOP on Epic tier hammer-type alpha-strikingShow
I receently played an Epic Marathon. Other than myself, there was a Pyromancer Wizie, a Deva Invoker, a Morning Lord Radiant Spammer and a Thunder/Lightning Sorc. In other words, everyone but me was hard in to AoE (2 controllers, Striker, Leader). All 4 of them would literally spend the entire fight attacking pretty much every monster on the board at the same time. If the monsters were spread, the first few would spend their first action grouping them (Thunder Summons, any of a hundred other slide effects, etc). Then they would drop bombs. I am sincere when I say it was the sickest party I have seen at Epic (and I have played several Epic games for the full tier).
We had no defender and you know what, we didn't need one. Any defender would have been dead weight. It was unnecessary, monsters were generally so crippled and dead so fast, there was no way they could generate enough damage to actually necessitate the soft control of a defender.
This was the tactic from level 27 onward. I will list all possibilities, but not all of this needed to be done each fight.
The party was fairly stacked for initiative (especially the controllers) as standard, so one or both, and the sorc would usually beat the monsters.
SOP went something like this. When I say action point, it is not as though we APd every fight, it was more if it was available and smart that fight, then this was the all in move.
Sorc 1.) Thunder Summons to group the monsters if he is first. That let him resposition 2-3 monsters meaning you now have the group in a pretty tight pack. 2.) Action Point 3.) Any large damaging Thunder/Lightning spell.
He was a fully tripped sorc with DIS and 2 shards as well the full "Gifts for the Queen" set. Note, that because he had the full set, he could switch his lightning damage to radiant, which is relevant for the cleric below.
Wizard 1.) Soulfire (Enlarged - Area Burst 3) on the now grouped monsters. She had the necessary tools to remove any allies from the burst of course. All monsters are now heavily damaged and weakened. 2.) Action Point 3.) Furnace of Sand (again, we were all at range, so it was rare people were in the burst or zone, this was almost a wholly ranged party) (Enlarged) or if available Prismatic Spray.
She was also fully tripped, DIS, 2 shards, Staff of Ruin, all in fire.
Cleric 1.) Pure Glow. This obviously almost always hits everyone, sets up Radiant Vulnerability and gigs for another 20 at start of next turn. 2.) Action Point 3.) Healing Torch Again, big radiant and a ridiculous buff to the defenses of all allies in the burst.
The cleric was a morninglord/Radiant one with all the necessary healing acoutrement. He also had the thing that when you crit, you increase the radiant vulnerability of all foes in the area, and with 2 area burst 5 effects, he could easily do that (pushing it to 20 or 30 occasionally).
Invoker 1.) Bats clean up with any of a host of Radiant Spells or if the battlefield is just TOO large to defy gathering, then he can turn and blast a portion of the battlefield with a big Compel Action to dominate the other side of the battlefield and have them Run screaming (or charging) into the Furnace of Sand blinding zone to feebly attack their friends.
Obviously these tactics can all be mixed and matched and no matter what the order, every character (save the cleric) was built with a subtheme of being able to push/pull/slide "move" mobs so that the AoEs were always having maximum effect.
To the DM's credit, he kept us challenged, which usually meant battles of 15-20 normals, All Elites or Impossibly High Defense swarm minions that were immune to auto-damage.
Our Final battle was against an upped to 30 Elite Foul Chembroul (though I have no idea what the base monster was) and Tiamat (which was Tiamat). We won fairly handily, but not overwhlemingly.
The application of a different approach compared to the classic slug-it-out combat style also changes the way combat feels and plays. Now that shouldn't come as surprise in general, but there are a few subtle interactions that manifest gradually, and while hard to spot can profoundly impact the course of your campaign.
Walking the Line
It's a trivial observation that a group with well built and played characters can achieve much better results in combat, easily reaching +2 level equivalents. But even beyond that an alpha-striking group also makes the same combats look much easier than they might in fact be. Hence it's prudent to shed some light onto this hidden issue. For you as players that can lead to several bad judgements, which you should be concious about to avoid them. Firstly as alpha-striking is successful, you tend to invest more and more into it, slowly shifting the balance and neglecting to account for complications or backup. Secondly it becomes harder to judge when to fold and run, because an encounter is too difficult - further amplified by the fact that it often hinges on two or three die rolls for a combat to swing, which you just dare to take instead of making a timely and planned retreat. All together it thus doesn't even take an anti-encounter to lead to a TPK. The DM faces a similar problem, as he gradually increases difficulty of encounters to give his players a good challenge, due the already discussed fact that alpha-striking makes fights look easy. Owing to a much more narrow tipping point than traditional groups, in particular with usual factors as luck with die rolls and the like, this can lead to a sudden and unexpected TPK. While DMs often have some solid gut instincts for a good fight (like bringing half the characters to bloodied, or at least downing one for a round), these can easily be fooled by alpha-striking - instead the good paramters to observe are offensive resource expenditure (AP, Dailys, player turns) needed to diffuse an encounter, but also a measurement of the mop-up phase (how many rounds the combat lasted after the alpha-strike was over) and the end of day tally of Healing Surges left. At last the DM should be aware what a typical anti-encounter for the group may look like. While its the players' duty to avoid gaping holes, this is another source of unexpected TPKs - a warning shot usually is the better solution here to let the players know of their weaknesses.
Shifting the Paradigm
While people talking of hidden issues should always be a warning sign when buying some fancy new product, these issues are actually not as bad as it sounds when you are aware of them. But even more they present a great chance to improve your D&D experience ! The most obvious benefit is real time, as quicker combats let you wrap up things much faster (up to the point of handwaving the last survivors, maybe for a small fee like a Healing Surge). Now you could just cramp more combats into a session - but why not take the chance and expand on your RP time, and if just to boast with your war stories to impress the local king... But you can even go a step further towards what is commonly known as sandbox play. While this seems to be at stark contrast to the strictly framed style of D&D, it in fact isn't. If your whole group has a good grasp on the formerly explained pitfalls, you can go ahead and give your DM a free pass. Now you make your own way through the world, and your DM instead just models the challenges you seek as he considers them to be realistic for the world. Overcoming these (for your characters) very real dangers might lead to a quick but also dramatic end if your characters choose to make their stand... or your surperior tactics might well save the day - gloriously !
Generally Useful Resources -- Damage Calculator (by Calatar): helps you estimate if you will have enough punch with your nova -- Reservoir Dogs (by myself): discusses monster capabilities, so you know what you will face -- Swift & Without Mercy (by Auspex7): for an excellent in detail discussion of alpha-striking from the viewpoint of an Avenger
Helpful Tricks -- Critical Hits (by AA_Metatro): an easy way to big burst damage -- DPR Kings (by borg285): not technically nova, but still many of the latest knacks to ooze out as much damage as possible -- Encounter Power Recycling (by ChaosMage): using your best trick more than once is usually worth some effort -- Let's Accessorize (by Soulliard): takes a glance at items, which let you plug many holes or just improve on damage and skills -- Optimising Actions (by mellored): because you just never can have enough of those -- Optimising Basic Attacks (by Erudo): a must to make the most out of the gifts from your Leader -- Saddle Up! (by RuinsFate): discusses mounts, that are an easy way to increase damage, mobility and sometimes defenses -- Skill Power (by Ignis_Fatuus): optimising skills and flexibility with as little resources as possible
In-play experiences, criticism and suggestion are always welcome. This guide has been and is a lot of work. If you have used it, please have the courtesy to drop a line here and tell me how you liked it !