Tuesday, September 29, 2015

D&D: The Shadow Pact & the Poisoned Blade

I mentioned last week that I'd had some thoughts about developing a melee-based Warlock build, to which Brandes Stoddard replied:

I'm curious. What are you looking for in a melee warlock that a Fiendish Blade Pact doesn't offer? (I'd like to figure out acceptance criteria before I start work on such a thing myself.)

That's a fair question.  As it is, you have some decent choices as a melee-based Warlock.  For example, by the time you reach 5th level, you can:
  • Wear light armor
  • Wield a martial weapon using the Pact of the Blade
  • Cast Mage Armor as an at-will power using Armor of Shadows
  • Cast False Life as an at-will using Fiendish Vigor
  • Attack twice/round using Thirsting Blade
  • Use Armor of Agathys after every short rest to gain 15 temporary hit points and deal 15 cold damage when an attacker hits you with a melee attack (no concentration required)
  • Misty Step or use Expeditious Retreat to get out of jams.
  • Use Hellish Rebuke to hurt those who hurt you (useful for melee combatants)
  • Use Vampiric Touch to suck the life out of your enemies in melee
  • Use either Dark One's Blessing to gain even more temporary hit points when you kill someone, or use Fey Presence to scare the shit out of them if they're within 10 feet of you.
Erin Evans's signature character Farideh is a
Warlock.  She never fights with weapons.
This is all good.  Clearly there is a melee/close combat build trapped somewhere in this class design.  Nevertheless, I responded to Brandes as follows:

The main thing I think the class is missing right now is a reason to close to melee. 

As written, the class design is almost entirely based around the Eldritch Blast with the occasional damage kicker spell thrown in for when you need an extra jolt. So you can blast away at range and then use, say, Witchbolt when you want to pull out all the stops. As it is, this is almost always your best option. That's a problem if you're trying to build a different kind of character.

Eldritch Blast deals 1d10 force damage, and if you add the Agonizing Blast invocation on top of that, it becomes 1d10 + Charisma modifier damage, which is a problem in that it is almost always the best possible at-will option.  Assuming a Warlock with 16 Charisma, this is 1d10 + 3 or an average of 8.5 points of damage per attack with a cantrip.  That is a bucket of damage, especially compared to other spellcasting class cantrips.  

Okay, maybe you can make a Dragonborn or Half-Orc Warlock, give yourself a 16 strength, and make your Pact Blade a Greatsword, but that's pretty much your only option to go another way with it.  This gives you 2d6 + 3 = 10 points of damage on average per round.  But the cost of doing that is that it leaves you with an at best average AC (because you've had to make DEX your dump stat), and this in turn leaves you with distinctly sub-optimal survivability.  That is not good for a character who specializes in the getting into the close fight.

More probably, you want a character who can fight close but who doesn't have to, who has a survivable Armor Class to go with his or her other melee-based tricks.  This means taking some different invocations and making Dexterity your second best ability.  Your best bet is to make the Rapier your Pact Blade at 3rd level, giving you almost as much damage as you could get with Eldritch Blast: 1d8 + 3 = 7.5 pts/round.

But now we're back to missing a reason to get into the close fight.  Who wants to give up a point/round?

There are a few potential fixes.  If you don't want to lose spellcasting power, you can multi-class your Warlock with some levels of Bard or Cleric and perhaps pick up a few useful options that way.  You can also take a level or two of Fighter or Rogue, and change the game quite a bit, but this costs a lot in terms of your spellcasting power, though there are a few obvious advantages to going that way as well.  Still, all of this costs in terms of your other Warlock powers, especially Invocations, which are a core part of the class.  Sure, I love the idea of a Warlock/Rogue, but it's still true that every level you take outside your base class puts some of the better goodies, like Thirsting Blade, further from your reach.  That stinks.

My first cut at creating a better variant was actually a subclass of the Rogue.  When I started with it, I wanted to be like the Arcane Trickster for Warlocks, but it came out quite a bit differently.  As written, we'll call it the Shadowdancer.  It's an open question as to whether or not it has anything to do with the ideas discussed above.

Your time spent skulking in the shadows has brought you to the attention of unsavory powers.  Where others fear to tread, you've learned and grown.  You no longer fear the dark.

Shadow Walk (3rd): When you move ten or more feet, you can summon shadows as part of your Move action.  You become lightly obscured, and if you make a Hide check as part of your Cunning Action later in your turn, you do so with Advantage.  If you are already lightly obscured, you become heavily obscured.

Friend of Shadows (3rd): You gain Darkvision and can use your Cunning Action feature to cast the spell Darkness.  Once you've used this feature, you cannot use it again until after you have taken a long rest.

Shadowdance (9th): You can dive through shadows.  Whenever you are in an area of dim light or darkness, you can teleport to another area of dim light or darkness within 60 feet as a Move action, even if you cannot see the place to which you are teleporting.  When you emerge from the shadows, you gain Advantage on your next attack.

This, by the way, is not necessarily a melee build.  There's also not anything that explicitly ties it to the Warlock archetype.  It doesn't even get close to addressing the issues in the Warlock's class design that make Eldritch Blast the overwhelmingly best thing in that class.

Let's try one more and actually use the Warlock class features this time.  The concept here is that it costs both a cantrip and an invocation to make Eldritch Blast a badass power.  We are therefore creating an option that requires the same level of commitment to attain the same approximate efficacy.

Warlock Cantrip: Poisoned Blade
Transmutation Cantrip
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 1 weapon you are holding
Components: V,S
Duration: 1 minute

You coat the blade or point of one weapon that you are holding with a nauseating eldritch poison.  This weapon must be capable of dealing either slashing or piercing damage, i.e. the blade of a short sword or the tip of a crossbow bolt.  The next time you hit with that weapon, the target must succeed on a Constitution saving throw or become poisoned until the end of your next turn.  Creatures that have poison resistance make this save with Advantage.  Creatures that are immune to poison are immune to the effects of this spell.

Design Note: Getting the full effect here requires both a hit with a weapon and a failed saving throw by the target, which is why I decided not to make this a concentration spell--you can still use it in conjunction with Hex.  I also like the fact that the cantrip itself deals no additional damage.  It simply enhances your survivability in the close fight by making your target take its next attack with Disadvantage.  That sounds about right to me.

In its base form, this spell costs an Action to cast.  For the average Warlock, I figure this is what you do when you're preparing for a fight.  As an every-round utility, though, it still needs something.  That is by design.

Invocation: Proficient Poisoner
You can cast the cantrip Poisoned Blade as a bonus action.  You ignore poison resistance and treat creatures that are immune to poison as if they were merely resistant.

This is not overpowered by any means, but it's certainly useful.  It may well make melee attacks a more useful enterprise for a certain build of Warlock, and that's the point.


Otherwordly Patron: God of Shadows
You have made a pact with a denizen of darkness.  This could be a forgotten god or something from the Realm of Shadow or even from the depths of the Underdark.  Such beings have immense power but no way to act in the world.  In exchange for a bit of their power, you have agreed to be the hand of the thing in the darkness.  You are the reason that others fear the night.

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend (1st): You gain darkvision out to 60 feet if you do not already have it.  Shadows swirl around you, and when you are in dim light, you can make a Hide check as if you were in complete darkness.

Shadow Escape (6th): When a creature hits you with a melee attack, you can use your reaction to disappear in a swirl of shadows.  You teleport up to fifteen feet and become heavily obscurred until you move or attack.  Once you've used this feature, you cannot use it again until you finish a long or a short rest.

Shadows' Resistance: You gain resistance to necrotic damage.  When you deal necrotic damage to others, you ignore any resistances your target possesses.  Creatures that are immune to necrotic damage instead have only resistance to your attacks.

Expanded Spell List
1st: Inflict Wounds, Ray of Sickness
2nd: Blindness/Deafness, See Invisibility
3rd: Nondetection, Bestow Curse
4th: Evard's Black Tentacles, Greater Invisibility
5th: Mislead, Legend Lore

Design Note: These are not necessarily melee powers, but I like the idea of having a spooky kind of Warlock, and I'm not sure that the current versions fit that bill.

So?  What do you think?

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