Creating Controlling Powers

This time around I wanted to talk about some dimensions of controlling powers. And I’m not talking just Powers For Controllers, but powers that Control. Coming from a background of heavy Magic: The Gathering playing, I can’t help but make a connection to classic M:TG Control elements when looking at 4e. Controller classes are not exclusively the ones who do control in my view, rather there are a lot of other classes that have secondary controller natures, and many classes who have a power here or there you’d consider control-worthy despite not being controllers.

You can extend even that Defenders do a narrow but really effective form of controlling by removing options from enemies.

I feel that, in a way, Control is embedded into many things in 4e, not just Controllers. So I think understanding control can help homebrewers develop cool powers and help DMs to create cool monsters. I want to talk about what I see as two very important elements of controlling powers that affect very opposite extremes of the game – outside the board, and on the board.

One of the big challenges of writing a control power is that it is really ambiguous what a control power IS, who should get it, and what damage it should have. Generally control powers deal low damage and have a weird effect, but not always. If you look at these different types of controlling effects, you can get a feel for adjusting those concerns, I believe.

Off The Grid: Psychological Effects

A psychological controlling effect allows you to indirectly guide the actions of the enemy by the decisions you lead them to make. This is different from inflicting a condition because conditions often outright deny your opponent choices. Psychological effects, instead, give the opponent some mostly unencumbered bad choices (circumstances willing) and they have to decide which is the least damning course of action.

For example: take a power that deals damage to an opponent if it shifts during its next turn. This is a classic sort of psychological effect that puts pressure on the creature. If it is beside an enemy, it will have to stay there to get battered, or it will have to shift and take the damage, or it will have to move away without shifting and provoke an opportunity attack. If the creature is out in the open with nothing to threaten it, then the choice is much easier.

How about having an opponent suffer a condition if it attacks one of your allies? It already greatly loses a choice there, but if it attacks, it suffers outright choice denial by being immobilized or dazed or something.

There’s also other condition/psychological combos. For example, let’s say a power slows an opponent. Slow is a pretty generally weak condition, all told.  Then comes the choice – it can remove the Slow effect as a free action on its turn by taking an appropriate amount of d6s. Let’s say this is the heroic tier, so about 2d6. Either the creature damages itself or remains slowed. This is often times how Psychological Effects help controllers rack up damage that puts them on par with other classes. If your power starts off dealing 1d6, that’s rather puny. But if it dazes an opponent unless it takes 2d6 more, it’s trading higher damage for a condition, giving a versatile, but psychological, power.

Marks kind of fall here too – but the one that falls most squarely is the Paladin’s Divine Challenge. It’s pretty on par with the rest – either you attack the Paladin or you take damage. Both choices are pretty bad for the typical monster.

What do you set the damage as, for these? The initial damage should be lower than average – weak if you will – but that is to leave room for bad choices. The bad choice damage should be pretty significant, enough to elevate the power to the level of the stronger damage powers, since the opponent doesn’t have to take it. If the bad choice is a condition, depending on the condition, the initial damage should be about average to make up for there being no damage later.

The choices will be what decides what Role these powers cover. They are very versatile, and can be made for practically any role. Ex. A Leader could force a creature to choose between losing an action (or taking a subpar action) or giving an ally a buff.

On The Grid: Battlefield Control Effects

These are attacks that alter the board condition in very perceivable ways. Forced movement is the smaller form of these that almost everyone has – Zones are the culmination of this, essentially layering a “no-man’s land” over a piece of the field and either restricting movement or even indirectly forcing movement (nobody will want to stay in the zone if it means taking damage over and over or being dazed, so you’re effectively pushing them out of it).

There’s in my opinion two big kind of Zone effects, under which you can classify all the other ones. There’s “Superman” zones. While inside a Superman Zone, you become Superman. You can fly, you have Bullet Resistance 5, you can shoot laser beams. Then there’s “Luthor” Zones. Inside a Luthor Zone, all your evil master plans can come true. Enemies get sucked in, or get dazed, or take loads of damage or some other detrimental condition as long as they stand where the X is marked.

Both kinds of zones have the seeming disadvantage that enemies will almost always immediately vacate the premises if they can. If an enemy leaves your Superman Zone, you can’t leave with him. You’ll lose your powers. If an enemy leaves your Lex Luthor Zone, your master plan is foiled. They’re perfectly normal outside the Zone and you’re stuck with a big carpet of uselessness. This is where those psychological effects come in handy, as they add a third layer of contention when within a Zone. Some Zones can also be moved around, so you can force your opponent to play on your field.

But maybe you want the enemy to move away?

The really good Zone powers have their Zone contained within an Effect line. This means even if the damage misses, the zone will be created anyway. Usually, zone powers are bursts, and the burst size determines the area of the zone. Daily powers with Zone effects are obviously the most effective, because the Zone can almost always be sustained, and sometimes even moved around (in case your master plans are almost foiled by a 5 foot step.)

The damage for a zone power depends on what it does. In a way, sometimes the attack and the zone are kind of separate. Do you care that there’s a zone in Icy Terrain? Not as much, because the damaging part of the power knocks everyone in the burst prone. Since zones are usually bursts, they’ll have less damage than normal powers anyway due to having area reach.

As for forced movement, there’s not a lot to say. A lot of the times, they sort of tag along for free with other seemingly normal powers (damage and knock guy prone becomes damage and slide guy 1 square and knock guy prone) and at others you get normal-high damage and “push/slide/pull guy hella far.” The advantages of getting to move people around are fairly easy to spot in any given situation.

On And Off The Grid: Conditions

Conditions are lauded as the important part of a controller. A lot of people go as far as to say that a controller that cannot Daze or Weaken or Stun is completely useless. I don’t think so, personally, but you can see where someone comes from thinking that when you see what the conditions do. Conditions are powerful, straightforward ways of affecting enemies and can be tied to the board or to a psychological effect, or just dealt directly. Conditions are intrinsically control, because often you are trading damage for a tangible effect on your enemy’s choices or board position.

As I see it, all conditions are useful in one way or another, and it’s fun building a character with certain conditions and trying to get them to come into play. Min-maxers will nearly always avoid Slow for example, but I find it fun to push people around and then slow them so they can’t get anywhere for a while. We still play this game for fun, don’t we? I forgot.

We’ll go from weakest to strongest with this one, and talk about the controller conditions most often dealt. Remember though – whether or not I think they’re strong or weak doesn’t invalidate them. Aside from Deafened, I think they all have their place.

Deafened: Defeaned is pretty pointless. It’s only good use is in helping somebody who is using Stealth since it gives a hefty penalty to perception checks. It doesn’t directly control anything. This is the weakest condition. It’s also, thankfully, not very prevalent, and when it is, it doesn’t seem to require any tradeoff – powers can just do a bunch of damage and deafen something.

Slowed: Slow…well, slows people down. The problem with slow is that often times, enemies will already be close or already be engaged when you slow them. Slow is sort of a good first round condition. If an enemy is far away and isolated, you can slow it and keep it down. But if it REALLY wants to get to you, it can spend its actions on running double moves to get to where it wants. So in a way, it’s kind of a weak daze sometimes, but only if your enemy really needs to go somewhere and isn’t there yet.

Immobilized: An immobilized character can’t move. This is Slowed’s daddy, whom Slowed wants to grow up to be. If a character is far away from the action, it’s staying there. However, the character can still teleport, so that’s something to watch out for. It has all the tactical uses of Slowed except getting characters to waste actions. However, it beats that by, when employed to its maximum effect, outright denying the creature its abilities to attack and pressure the board.

Restrained: The final evolution of movement negation is Restrained. The character is immobilized, but can’t be forced to move, grants combat advantage and takes an attack roll penalty, thus rendering it weaker as well as hindering its ability to change positions on the board. This one is much less frequent than the others, but useful when you can get it. However, the stronger conditions all do more to cripple enemy attacks and defenses than does Restrained, even if it is good.

Weakened: This one, I feel, is tied with Dazed. Weakened helps your party become a lot more survivable. Where weakened shines though is with monsters. Players do LOTS of damage, and being Weakened cripples them more than it would a monster. Weakened can lead to grindy fights however – the Wraith for example both weakens things and is insubstantial, meaning it will often be taking 1/4 damage from its enemies. It can also regenerate. Still, it’s useful for anybody.

Dazed: Ties with weakened, Dazed is the bread and butter action negation. You push the button and the target can only take one action on its turn, and it can’t make opportunity attacks, can’t take immediate actions and grants combat advantage. Dazed is pretty much a mini psychological effect, but it also reads “free combat advantage” and “everyone can get away from this guy now” and is quite crippling to defender-type characters and monsters who can no longer really threaten the board as much.

Blinded: Blinded is just outright “everything denial”. Blinded creatures have enormous penalties to attacking and even to targeting anything and are left more vulnerable to attack as well. Though they can still take actions, those actions, unless they are to buff itself or heal itself, have nearly all their potential stripped from them. Blinded creatures can still get in a lucky shot, but this is hardly a bad mark on the condition.

Stunned: This is the big daddy. When you’re Stunned, you can’t take actions at all. You’re a sitting duck, an inert piece on the game board for as long as you remain stunned. The tradeoff is that most things that stun deal low damage or are dailies, and they tend to either be high level, or make it hard on you to stun things (such as requiring multiple failed saving throws). When you have a power that stuns, it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that – it stuns. Except for some particularly dickish monsters who can deal huge damage AND stun you.

Aside from these, there’s knocking prone, domination, penalties to stats, unconsciousness, and petrification (which happens so infrequently it hardly matters), helpless, and a few others. But I’m running out of space, and I think those are a bit easier to categorize and think about.

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Categories: Campaigns, D&D 4e, Meta, RPG | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Creating Controlling Powers

  1. John Magnum

    Really interesting information here. Especially because it provides me a quick reference for the various tactical implications of the conditions!

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