Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Home, home on the range

In video games you run into it all the time. You find yourself thinking, man, I wish I was a melee guy right now or, man, I wish I was a ranged guy right now. MMOs are the biggest culprit, unsurprisingly, with certain encounters favoring one role, class or spec over the others. While many feel this is a chance at a spotlight, others believe that this leads to marginalization. However, think back to single-player, or even group play games. You have experienced the same thing, I guarantee it. We all remember the Lightning Enchanted jerks from Diablo. We remember the horrible "deathblow" abilities that chunked away at melee life. Mass Effect 2 brought on the death of the Vanguard by making charge a death sentence or impossible to use in a lot of circumstances. Dragon Age and Dragon Age 2 tend to favor ranged in most circumstances, but you still need a few melee folks in the group. Still, there are many times when tank and three ranged is the correct answer. Of course there are times when melee is blatantly overpower for the ease of use. The melee weapons in Left 4 Dead 2 are a good example. That ninja sword was made for zombie murder. Fallout 3 and onward treat melee with more reverence than it possibly deserves.

Melee seems to come with the built in expectation of low survivability for those that choose to deal damage that way. As a result, the sustained damage, and often burst damage, tends to trend higher. This can be expanded to include ranged physical damage dealers, as well. Rangers, hunters, etc.

That's all well and good for video games, but what about for table top games? Is there a difference in efficacy between ranged and melee classes that has been taken for granted or not explored? Let's take a look at a few different systems.

DnD: 4E:
Melee Damage Examples: Barbarians, Rogues, Monks, Avengers, Rangers
Ranged Physical Damage Examples: Rangers
Ranged Magical Damage: Sorcerors, Warlocks

Taking this sampling, in no way entirely complete, I think the edge goes to the Ranged classes. The melee classes deal a lot of damage, but are subjected to auras. This is a pretty huge deal in 4e. Auras, auras, everywhere. In addition, you have the marking mechanic, which encourages tanking. The creatures often end up in melee range, which is good for all parties involved, except the melee characters are likely to take splash damage, or be included in attacks. Additionally, once in melee, the characters have an increasingly hard time with mobility. It's very hard to get away from things, especially without taking even more damage. Even if you aren't the focal point of the attacking creature. Charge can help as a gap closer, but it's not a hard gap closer. It's still subject to the dreaded attack of opportunity.

Due to their "fragility", ranged classes tend to end up with more hard escapes. Teleports and damage avoidance are high. Damage for the ranged magical classes tends to scale extremely well, and often multiple targets over a large area can be hit with spells and effects, without limiting the damage that is being produced. Even if they are in melee range, they aren't limited as to what they can cast, because of the way shifting works. They are rarely threatened to any large degree, and auras almost never come into play. Now, you can actively work around this if you are running a game, but you have to work to do so. If you do it every time, it does tend to marginalize the concepts of the defender, and it can frustrate the melee, as they can't pick all of the targets in the same manner than ranged can.

The edge in fourth edition goes to ranged classes, strongly I feel. Though this scales from marginally to greatly as the game progresses in level.

DnD: 3e, 3.5e
Melee examples: Fighter, rogue, ranger, barbarian
Ranged physical damage: Rogue, ranger
Ranged magical damage: Wizard, Sorcerer, Cleric

3e had some parity issues, to put it mildly. Multi-classing and prestige classes were just nuts. However, I think 3e and 3.5 were more friendly to melee, at least early on. Once you get to the later stages of the game, the ranged classes begin to not only dominate, but make you wonder what you are doing wrong.

Auras aren't really a thing in 3/.5E. Multi-attacks, however, are. So many multiple target, multiple attacks. It's as bad as early MMO cleaving. Without an artificial tanking mechanic, it meant if you were close, you were going to get battered. Spiked-Chain Fighter serving as a statistical anomaly here, there was very little incentive to play a melee character. Rogues did great with evasion and greater evasion, but if you lacked that, you were going to have a bad time. Of course, you could pick up a lot of that as a ranged character, simply by using a bow, for example, as a rogue, and not give up your sneak attacks. Even more so than 4e, you really, really had to have potent magic items in 3e to compete as a melee character. Not to mention that you didn't bring any of the party utility the way the magical ranged classes did. We all know that buffing was ridiculously powerful in 3/.5E. Movement was less of a big deal here, as the scale was simply different and it didn't tend to quite be so frustrating. However, again, Spiked Chain Fighter might as well have been from a different game.

Prestige classes allowed for things like Mystic Theurge, Arcane Trickster, Hierophant, and Arcane Archer. The first three are the holy trinity of ranged ridiculousness. The first two are the most egregious offenders, but Hierophant and Neutral with Negative Energy reversion is a really, really close third.

The edge in 3/.5E goes to ranged classes, with the caveat that with enough gear it eventually evened out. The gear level for this was ridiculous and required SR or Immunities, but hey.


I was going to give examples, but really it's simple here. Spellcasting is really, really powerful. It can be frustrating...until you get your powergamer options. Ice Mace and Chains, Pain, Bonedance, etc. etc. Once a caster advances, melee exists as a frontline to not overrun the casters. The casters are the show, minus rogues with questionable math. Spellcasters can even help out the melee with a little choice. The weapons created with magic rock face. Being able to get things like Air Throne with a spell were pretty ridiculous. The complete glossing over of things like how evil some magic is certainly helps, too. Not to mention that getting in range of horrors seems like a Bad Idea. Of course, Earthdawn was pretty egalitarian about the ranged vs melee attacks. However, it was a setting based on the danger/allure of magic. It's not surprising that the outcome is what it is.

Over the Edge

It's classless. It's a great system, but holy shit guns. Having a gun is just better than everything else, even with limited skill. Kung fu is bullshit, get some more guns. You should be a John Wu film.

Spirit of the Century
Very little difference, it's narrative play. Every gets to be awesome in their own way. I liked that a lot.

So, I think for the most part, in the games I have played, that ranged seems to win out. In part it's because it is easier to mess with melee characters. Being in range of the bad is the biggest detriment to the melee characters. Then again, ranged characters also tend to have more use out of combat. Though, that's another entry all together.

In video games, mechanics are introduced to mess with ranged characters, where movement means less damage or less safety. With the turns of table tops, it just really doesn't work this way. As mentioned before, having monsters appear on them, or ignore defenders or whatnot is ok sometimes, but not something you want to lose a lot. You could do things like increase auras, but that's just obnoxious. So what are some ideas to even things out a little in combat?

Eye of the Storm - Reverse aura. You would have a small area of safety around certain units, but that opens you up to attacks. Some options include a dampening field that lowers damage dealt, encouraging players to get close to be more effective, a storm that strikes lightning in the cloud around the eye, or strong winds that decrease the ability to strike actively or moves characters around.

Tendrils - Ranged attacks in addition to melee attacks. Tendrils wouldn't occur as often as ranged attacks, but a character being lashed by something if they were far away or just as an extra damage kicker of the creature would add a little more risk.

Pillars - Things that require line of sight. If the characters can't attack every round, it's obnoxious for them. They feel useless. However, if the characters can use cover and take bonuses and penalties from doing so, it might be encouragement for risk.

Cones, Splash, Breath - More pie slice/wide area attacks. Punish everyone, be equal!

It might not be as big a deal as I am making it out to be, but I do think there is a disparity. Usually this is in survivability, and the trade is very slightly more damage for the melee. However, sometimes this isn't even the case. It might be nice to keep that in mind for future design.


  1. In regard to 4e, I agree that the strikers don't really come out evenly between melee and ranged. Frankly, though, I'm not sure they come out evenly within a category, either. Let me tell you, bow-rangers and sorcerers are head-and-shoulders better than warlocks, because Warlock's Curse is neat and all but not as good as the damage kickers that the other two have going for them. I haven't seen a crossbow rogue or thrown-weapon rogue, so I can't comment as easily on that. I'm not sure how true this is in current design, but original 4e rogues wanted to get into melee because as long as the positioning was available, that was the easiest place to get CA, and a rogue's damage kicker was the best in the game. Arguably, the sorcerer changed that.

    Another part of the problem is the design concept of secondary roles. In theory, sorcerers and warlocks are both strikers with a side of controller. "Controller," however, means two things; sorcerers get the "area damage" aspect, while warlocks get the "debuff" aspect. I'd have a hard time telling you what a rogue's or ranger's secondary roles are.

    Your tactical commentary on melee vs. ranged in 4e is spot-on; when GMing, I tended to look at my optimal tactics as something like "kill the ranged guys first," because even when the melee guys are dealing blistering damage, the ranged guys are for the most part easier to kill. Further, I felt like having to work to defend them was the best thing I could do to make the defend part of defender mean something. Whether or not this was a good idea as a DM is open to discussion, of course.

  2. Come to think of it, I've played in a 4e game that was mostly ranged characters - striker, controllers, and leader were all ranged. In a six-person party, only the defender and one striker were melee types. It was a whole lot harder than a party with a slight preponderance of melee characters.

    Part of the reason for that is that, just like you probably get punished as a PC for leaving a melee, you almost certainly get punished as an NPC for doing the same, unless you have some of the skirmisher or lurker abilities designed to counter that.

    So while ranged strikers may have an easier time dishing out huge damage totals (never having to move helps), it's also the case that I'd much rather have the majority of the team be melee combatants. Even non-defender melee characters can stop enemies from maneuvering freely, which in turn improves the effectiveness of area effects.

  3. As soon as the slider shifts to more melee characters, the range characters have a ball again. They are rarely seriously threatened to any degree. The melee characters are in much dire straights. The auras don't extend, the damage usually doesn't reach them, and you have to start building out massive encounters each time to give them a challenge. Issues of scale become significant, just trying to counter that ranged edged they possess.

    As you said, the monsters can't really leave the fight, leaving the ranged impervious. Depending on the defender you have, the amount of melee needed to lock down the enemy can dwindle significantly(Warden, for example, and don't get me started on Essentials).