One of the common complaints about D&D 4th edition is that it’s too hard to differentiate one character from another; that the game’s design leads to cookie-cutter clerics and factory floor fighters. To put this to the test, I’ve decided to closely examine my current character to see if oddball choices, player vision and unique flavor can be a part of 4E.
Sevash is a 9th level drow barbarian. I figured now would be a good time to review his career and judge whether or not it’s been a success (in terms of matching the original vision I had for the character) because his retirement is imminent. Did Sevash turn out like I planned, and did I make the optimal strategic decisions to make him effective in combat? Let’s see…
The choice to create a drow barbarian initially stemmed from a desire to make something atypical, even if it wasn’t a statistically ideal choice. On closer inspection, however, I was intrigued by the possibilities of an agile, fast barbarian. It turns out to be a really interesting choice, since high dexterity increases the armor class of characters who only wear light armor, and the Thaneborn Barbarian option favors high charisma. Guess which two abilities drow get racial bonuses in?
Now, how does a drow become a barbarian? This could be a difficult question if your campaign uses the typical evil, Underdark dwelling, Lolth-worshipping drow. You can always fall back on the old, “the one special drow that escaped and isn’t evil” cliche, but luckily I was able to avoid this. In our campaign world, drow are basically North Africans. They might be Persian, Arabian or Egyptian, but they aren’t inherently evil (or good). I decided that Sevash came from a tribe of desert nomads similar to the Bedouin. In this respect, his “barbarianness” is more like a set of cultural traditions than some kind of unbridled savagery. In fact, outside of combat, Sevash is quite urbane, if somewhat callous. No tattered animal hide armor for him — he meticulously maintains his finely crafted leather armor (and his hair, much to the amusement of his companions).
Wanderlust (even beyond that of his nomadic kin) lead Sevash to travel and learn. To pay his way, he relied on his sword skill and crossed into Europe working as a bounty hunter. In combat, I wanted to create a warrior who moved fluidly and quickly through enemy ranks, quickly striking prime targets before darting deftly away to strike someone else. He was not to be a mindless hack and slasher, but he wasn’t really a team player, either. The emphasis would be on mobility, allowing him to reach almost any target and deal a single brutal strike.
Did it work? This turned out to be one of my favorite D&D characters of all time (who very nearly died last night, by the way) precisely because he turned out just as I’d planned. Powers with built-in mobility work extremely well — the at-will Pressing Strike, which let’s you shift two squares prior to the attack, is a drow barbarian’s bread and butter. Vault the Fallen is another clutch power, granting you attacks against two targets with a shift in between equal to your charisma bonus. A drow can cover a lot of ground with it. Combat Sprint is a useful utility power for those times when you need to cross a large room or catch a fleeing enemy. My one mistake was probably taking Blood Strike instead of Daring Charge. The charge is a great mobile attack, while Blood Strike left me often waiting and waiting for someone to become bloodied before I could use it.
When it comes to rages, Swift Panther Rage seems like an obvious choice, letting you shift two squares and boosting your overall speed. In reality, once I’d gained Rage of the Silver Phoenix, I never ever used Swift Panther (I’d burn it with a Rage Strike instead). Rage of the Silver Phoenix is amazing, granting you regeneration 3 and the ability to bounce back to your feet immediately upon hitting zero hit points. If your barbarian’s party is following the original 4E series of adventures, you’ll want to grab Black Dragon Rage at 9th level. It deals acid damage, and you’ll be heading into the Trollhaunt Warrens soon. It’s also the only 9th level rage not gimped by a low constitution.
Feats can be tough, as there doesn’t seem to be much that helps this type of build. Improved Roar of Triumph and Sickening finish were taken for basic utility: they both trigger when the barbarian kills something, and that tends to happen quite a bit. Improved Initiative was a major boon, allowing Sevash to leap into the heart of a battle as quickly as possible, disrupting the enemy (or sometimes just slaughtering them) before they even have a chance to act. Defensive Mobility (+2 AC vs. opportunity attacks) is key, as you’ll often find yourself moving past lesser targets to take out a leader or a spellcaster. I don’t think Sevash has ever actually been struck by an opportunity attack. Finally, I recently took Durable to gain the extra healing surges. A drow barbarian is not a tank, but he will often be right in the middle of battle, drawing enemy attacks and taking big hits. You need your surges both for allies’ healing powers and to use the Phoenix Rage’s “back from the dead” ability. Some magic items draw down surges, too, so it pays to have as many as possible.
So we can see that up to level 9, Sevash has become exactly the kind of drow barbarian I’d imagined. If he were to move into the Paragon Tier, I’d likely go with the Fearbringer Thane path. You probably already know how I feel about Paragon Paths in general. It just happens that Sevash has one available that fits, but I still don’t really like characters being railroaded into these specializations in order to gain access to the new abilities they provide. But the overall point here is that, by making careful feat and power selections and giving some thought to character background and style, I was able to create what feels like a pretty unique character. You could create half a dozen different types of barbarians — you could even make several different types of drow Thaneborn barbarians, with different powers emphasizing different aspects and abilities. 4E is a versatile system.