Friday, March 19, 2021

Archetype Design 101: Adapting Magic, Witch Bolt, and Knowing When Good Features are Bad

    So, to start talking about Coiling Current monk, I would like to start with the hottest take of the decade:

    Way of Four Elements is… not the best.

    Scorching, I know. This earth shattering revelation is where Coiling Current started, or rather, it started from the next step for most homebrewers who encounter sub-par game content; how do we fix it? There are a lot of ways to approach the problem, partly because Four Elements is a trainwreck at nearly every level. I’ve seen many attempts to tweak and rebalance the archetype, and I’ve even liked some of them, but for me, no version of Four Elements has ever satisfied me. For me, Four Elements’s cardinal sin, the issue that underlies all its other failings, is that it tried to be too many things at once, and didn’t succeed fully at any of them. To really fix Four Elements, we need to abandon tweaking and rebalancing, and start fresh.

    We’ve all seen Avatar, yes? The Last Airbender? I don’t know how to say that Four Elements is an attempt at adapting Avatar’s bending magic system to 5E without seeming like I’m insulting your intelligence, so we’ll just acknowledge that we all already know this, and move on to why bending was good and adapting it didn’t work. (If you don’t know what Avatar is, then get the f&#k out of here and go watch it, and come back after. You’ll thank me, I promise.)

...the quenchiest.

    The reason why bending was and is such a good magic system, at least in part, is in how distinct each style is, despite all of them technically working on the same principle. ‘Martial arts to control the elements’ is so engaging because we see the different ways each sort of bender approaches their power and element in and out of combat, and how the elements and martial arts play off of each other in interesting but fundamentally logical ways. Firebending is aggressive and fast, earthbending steady and immovable, and so on. These subtler distinctions are one of the most notable things that was lost when bending was converted into the Way of Four Elements. Thus, to fix Four Elements, I decided to abandon the idea of putting every element into one archetype, and to instead focus on making archetypes devoted to individual elements and the resulting elemental ‘styles’.

    All of that to say that I went into Way of the Coiling Current intending for it to hone in on a distinct way of approaching all things monk. For a lightning monk, I wanted to capture the idea of electricity as something infinitely flexible, unstoppable not because it shoves everything else aside but because it will surge through and around everything in its path, too fast for anything else to react to or even see. To do this, I stole most of the rider effect from Shocking Grasp, and sprinkled it across several different archetype features. Thus, as a Coiling Current monk interacts with combat, they can surge through the battlefield unopposed by such petty concerns as opportunity attacks, whatever those are. Add some whips and lightning damage, and I had a nice little stew going. As I initially drafted Coiling Current, I decided to take the opportunity to fix another, smaller piece of standard 5E content: everyone’s 17th favorite 1st level spell, witch bolt. It’s a spell that seems cool, because, you know;
the prequels have the best memes and are therefore superior, don’t @ me

...but it never quite lived up to the hype. It’s mostly an issue of action economy; while the damage is fine for a 1st level slot in theory, using your action to maintain the effect every turn is pretty harsh, not to mention boring. Who wants to cast one spell, and then just do nothing new for 10 turns? So, for Coiling Current, I downgraded the damage to d10s (from d12s, for those of you who’ve [understandably] never read or even heard of this spell), but made activating and maintaining the effect a bonus action, as well as costing 1 ki on first activation, intending to make it a flavorful alternative to Flurry of Blows. It was a fun inclusion, letting monks have a way to do short range elemental damage, and so Coiling Current monks would be able to deal steady lighting damage, so long as they stayed in close to their enemies.

    Now, wait a moment.

    Did you catch it? I didn’t the first time. Read back a bit, see if you see the issue.

    …Back? Ok, here’s what I did wrong.

    There’s a contradiction between the archetype’s initial intention and the actual function of the ‘fixed witch bolt’ feature. Most of the features of Coiling Current help the monk to easily escape their enemies’ reach, enabling them to be highly mobile with few if any downsides, but witch bolt demands that you stay within 30 feet of the target to be able to maintain the later instances of damage. I’d written a mobility archetype with a feature that acted like a leash! It’s an interesting sort of problem, and it demonstrates an aspect of archetype design that’s important to keep in mind: an archetype full of balanced, flavorful features can still be faulty if those features sabotage each other’s game plan. Thus, even though the witch bolt feature was fun and, so far as I could tell, well balanced, it got cut, so that the archetype’s playstyle wasn’t hamstrung.

    Another important lesson to be learned here, and one that’s much easier to explain, is the value in collaboration. As I said, I missed the contradiction between these features in the earlier drafts. Jon the Kobold Wrangler was the one who caught it, and the archetype turned out much better for it. He was also the one to recommend the ‘hordebreaker’ angle for a replacement feature, which is what eventually became the Uncoiled Chain feature that made it into the version we released. Listen to critique!

    That’s more or less it for me, for now. Keep an eye out for if that witch bolt fix turns up in a different brew later on down the line. And rest assured, Coiling Current and River monk are not the only elemental monks you’ll see from us, I fully intend to slowly fill out a whole array of options. We’ll see you again soon, for our finale to March of the Monks!

    -James the Snickering Ghoul

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