Over at the Roving Band of Misfits site, there’s a really great podcast about PCs who optimize and how that affects table balance. The podcast differentiates between optimized and non-optimized (or ineffective) PCs, but I think there’s a middle ground where most people play at. For lack of a better term, I’m going to call them “solidly built” PCs. These middle ground PCs max out their attack stat (which is THE primary thing you have to do to make any 4e character effective), make good choices with their feats (Expertise, Focus, and whatever else appears on SlyFlourish’s list of default feats), and generally play well at the table.
The $10,000 question is, what’s the line? What separates solidly built PCs from optimized ones? At what point in that spectrum does a group or DM impose the value judgment of “cheezy”? Because at the end of the day, “cheeze” is not a descriptive term; it is a value judgment. This is a DM-centric blog, so from a DM’s perspective, a cheesy PC is one that makes me do more prep work building encounters than I want to, or makes me do prep work that takes away from other stuff I want to prep. Cheeze = more work for the DM! This is true, at least, for any DM that wants to build challenging encounters for players. I should hope that is a pretty big percentage of them.
Just because “cheese” is a judgment call, that does not mean it is purely subjective. Lots of gamers handwave away accusations of cheese, claiming that cheese is in the eye of the beholder. Since so many people have so many different definitions of cheese, it is a meaningless term, right? I do not agree with this at all, mostly because a cheesy PC or a cheesy combo has a real, non-subjective effect on a DM’s prep time. If the DM is okay with the combo, and even relishes the opportunity to match tactical wits optimized PCs in their encounters, then there is no cheese. However, if the DM is like me and a) has limited time to craft encounters and/ or b) wants to spend time crafting better story hooks, interesting NPCs, etc., then you better believe there’s a line that some PCs or combos can cross. That line is around where the frostcheezing melee ranger, the “you shall be forever prone” fighter, or the “I stun and give vulnerable 10 to half the monsters before they can even scratch their butts” hybrid swordmage/ wizard hang out. If I’m crafting encounters specifically to counter certain PC combos and tactics and have no time left over to craft some awesome bad guy dialogue, then I’m not a happy camper. I LOVE bad guy dialogue! Do not deny me bad guy dialogue!
Or there will be days that I don’t have a lot of time to craft challenging encounters at all, and all I can really do is take stuff from the Monster Vault, put it on a map with some fun terrain, and go. With a group of simply solidly-built PCs, I know that will work. In fact, the whole of 4e is built on that assumption, as a couple of us on the Character Optimization official boards showed here. But with a really optimized group, I just know ahead of time that all of those encounters will be toast.
For those who stop to think a bit about the feelings of the poor DM, I think a some players assume that DMing is easy in 4e, that we have access to ready, easy tools for DMs to easily ratchet up encounter level. We do not. 4e makes it easy to increase monster math – level, hit points, damage, etc. But none of that does any good if its stunned, prone, immobilized, and probably dead before it does anything. Plus, there is no real central data bank for terrain features, environmental effects, and other “home field advantages” that a monster group might have to up their threat level. I eventually hope to put some of that stuff together in this blog. But just as players have a nice, shiny character builder that gives them access to all the feats and powers they want, DMs need easy access to these environment and other encounter-building resources.
There is a certain amount of work-creating cheeze that is baked into the 4e system, and I cannot blame players for taking advantage of it. Multiattacks are truly broken, and simply hang there in the character builder like low hanging fruit for PCs to pluck. There is absolutely no drawback to making immediate action attacks or minor action attacks. How many rogues have Low Slash? How many avengers have Fury’s Advance? Couple that with piles of items and feats that give untyped damage bonuses, and you have the recipe for “winning” 4e as a player. In my epic level home game, I play with a dragonborn fighter who adds his Con mod and his Str mod whenever he pushes anything, which is pretty much all the time. At our level, that’s +15 free damage just for showing up! That created an arms race with the archer ranger, who picked up the dreaded frostcheeze combo (Wintertouched + Lasting Frost + cold-based items). That gave the ranger a cool (pun intended) +28 damage to his Twin Strike! Is this cheeze? Ask the solo lvl 28 dracolich that we brought to bloodied before it was even his turn, and couldn’t use his bloodied breath power because he was dominated at the time.
So, what can a DM do? Once again, the DM has to be aware of his/ her time, as well as how much fun they have putting together tactically challenging encounters. But if they are making a value judgment of “cheese” to certain things a PC can bring, here are three easy starter tips that I’ve been playing with:
1) Houserule some kind of drawback to immediate and minor action attacks. Some DMs restrict PCs to one immediate in their power list, some make it cost a surge, some make it reset the PCs turn in the initiative order, etc. There’s lots of ways to do it. In my game, the rule I go with is that any immediate/ minor action attack takes a -2 penalty (the power attack penalty), and if the attack misses, the PC grants CA until the end of their next turn. It doesn’t stop them from doing it, but at least it makes them think twice.
2) Add anti-status effect metapowers to your elites and solos. I have short list of Big Bad Evil Guy Metapowers here. Some of these are mine, most are blatanly stolen from other blogs like SlyFlourish.
3) Enforce item rarity. You can’t have frostcheese without frost weapons! Controllers can’t chain -12 to monster saves without a whole bunch of low level items that help them do it! What to do with magic items in a campaign is a whole other blog, but a lot of the really gamebreaking combos in the game depend on the PC having a certain layout of items. Communicate with your players, take a bit of time to look at the item they want and why they want it, and make sure they understand why you make whatever decisions you make. But believe me, PCs cheeziness goes down quite a lot if only half of their magical gear are uncommon items.