My regular readers -- all three of you -- know that I delight in odd combos. The sorcerer / paladin in plate armor. The two-handed dagger-tossing mounted halfling druid / ranger / fighter. The bard / assassin / arcane trickster, designed just to beat uncanny dodge.
Well, I've been thinking about critical hits in Dungeons and Dragons. "What's the best way," I asked myself, "to create a character that is optimized for using crits?" But the answer I came up with is not an odd combination of classes or a bent-out-of-shape misapplication of prestige classes. It's ... drum roll please ... the humble straight-up paladin.
But let us leave our paladin waiting in the wings for now. Let's talk in general about criticals.
Critical hits work by rolling an attack die with a result that falls in a "critical threat range." Usually that means rolling a natural 20, although a few weapons threaten crits on a 19 or 20, and a few more threaten them on an 18, 19, or 20. If your hit threatens a critical (and hits the target's AC), then you must follow up to confirm it, by rolling a second attack -- if the second roll hits the target's AC, then the crit is confirmed.
That means that if you need an 11 to hit a target, for example, then half of your crit threats will be confirmed. If you need a 20 to hit, then only 5 percent of them will be. This is a key concept, to which we will return, so put it too in the wings and let our patient paladin hold onto it for a while.
If your crit is confirmed, then you roll extra damage. The default is that you roll damage twice (x2), adding up the two results. If you do 1d8+4 damage usually, on a crit you do 2d8+8. With a few weapons, your crits let you roll three damages (x3), or even four (x4).
So first and foremost, your choice of weapon is the most important choice you can make. Ideally you would like a weapon that has a threat range of 18-20 and lets you make four damage rolls. But no weapon has that impressive design -- the game is set up as a trade off. You can have a wider threat range, but only do double damage, or do three or four times damage, but only on a natural 20. The choices are (20, x2), (19-20, x2), (18-20, x2), (20, x3), and (20, x4). Obviously, the two best options are (18-20, x2) and (20, x4).
The weapons with (18-20, x2) stats are kukri, rapier, scimitar, and falchion. For the rapier, think three musketeers -- pinpoint accuracy wielded to devastating effect. The other three are all curved blades -- call them "slashers." The kukri, for example, is the weapon used by the Ghurkas of South Asia, most famously, to sever heads.
The (20, x4) weapons are light pick, heavy pick, and the scythe. In other words, weapons that, if they hit you in the head, sink deep into your brain. Call them "spikers."
So which do you pick? a slasher or a spiker? The slasher offers a crit threat on a roll of 18, 19, or 20, that is, 15 percent of the time. The slasher adds one extra damage roll to that you would normally inflict. The spiker offers a crit only on a 20, that is, 5 percent of the time. It adds three extra damage rolls. So with a spiker you only threaten a crit one-third as often, but you add three times the damage. So the two options are identical, right?
Wrong. Yes the damage you inflict is equivalent, by the arithmetic. But when you bury a heavy pick between an orc's eyes, inflicting a vast amount of damage, you are essentially wasting the excess damage. If the orc only had 20 hit points left, and you inflicted 60, that's lots of good damage gone to waste. On the other hand, a person armed with a slasher may have critted three times, doing 20 damage each time. That damage is much less likely to be wasted!
So, although there is a certain style and role-play appeal to using the scythe to mow down opponents, from a power-maximization standpoint, the slasher weapons are better.
But which slasher weapon? Remember that you want to maximize your damage, because it multiplies in a crit. So you want a high strength, with a high bonus to damage. And you want to use two hands, because that increases your strength damage bonus by half again. Therefore, of the slasher weapons -- kukri, rapier, scimitar, and falchion -- rule out kukri because it cannot grant the extra strength bonus used two handed. Of the remaining three, the scimitar and the rapier inflict 1d6 damage, while the falchion inflicts 2d4. On a successful crit, that means the falchion does three more points of damage, on average, than the other weapons. So go with falchion.
A side note for those seeking a falchion-wielding role model -- think back to those halcyon days of childhood, when all you had to do was make your bed and watch Bugs Bunny cartoons. Remember that classic character, Hassan Chop? That's you. :-P
If you still just have to go with the scythe, preferring the Grim Reaper as a role model to dear old Hassan, then by all means get Cleave, too, so that at least your overkill let's you get another attack. And if you happen to spike a foe that is not striken dead, remember the rules for death by massive damage, forcing a save vs death if you inflict enough pain in one poke.
So like I was saying, you really want to max out your damage, so that when you multiply that damage, it pays for itself double. Here are the basic ways to boost your damage.
Strength: Strength pays for itself more than twice, using a two handed weapon. If your Str bonus is +4, you do +6 damage two-handed. That +6 becomes an equivalent +12, for your +4 investment. In fact, a reasonable build, even with a low point buy, should see you start with a 16 Str -- then build that to 18 with bonuses at levels 4 and 8. A reasonable game should offer a +4 Str Belt magic item by level 8-10, so you should expect a +6 Str adjustment as a standard by mid-levels. That translates into +9 two handed and +18 on a slasher crit. Sweet.
Power Attack: Another great way to boost Str damage is with the Power Attack feat, The usual trade-off is that you take a penalty on your attacks and gain back that number on damage rolls. A -4 on attacks gives a +4 on damage. But if you use a two-handed weapon, that bonus is doubled! Your -4 to hit buys you a +8 damage. And with your trusty falchion, your -4 on attacks buys you a +16 damage! Also very sweet.
And The Rest: Urge one of your pals to be a bard -- that Inspire Courage ability of his adds to your damage, and second level bard spells like Heroism and Rage are always welcome (but be careful not to get Raging too early in the fight, when you have spells to cast). Stay away from flaming swords and the like -- those bonus damage dice do not multiply in a crit. Be happy with a stock +2 or +3 falchion, for mid-levels anyway. Any other spell that boosts damage, like Divine Favor, for example, is a welcome addition. Haste spells and Boots of Speed are good add-ons, too.
So speaking of feats, besides Power Attack, what do you need? The only must-take feat is Improved Critical, of course. With that stunning feat, your threat range blooms from 18-20 to 15-20! That's fully 30 percent of attacks! Other nice feats include Weapon Focus, Cleave, and Great Cleave, but the strat does not require them.
But I see that the paladin in the wings is getting impatient. So far nothing we've talked about is paladin specific. Why not a rogue or cleric Hassan, or a Fighter or Barbarian? With the strength bonus from raging, a barbarian would seem like a natural!
Well, the rogue or cleric has a mediocre BAB advancement, and can't pick up the Improved Crit feat until level 12. The barbarian is a nice idea, and the fighter can pick up the essential feat at level 8, but our stalwart (and very patient) paladin beats them all. Let's talk about why.
The paladin's triumph, in one word, is spells
. In two, Bless Weapon
. This spell is the Crit Monster's ice cream cone on a hot summer day: Against evil foes, every crit threat is a crit! That means you do not need to roll a second time to confirm the critical. Voila, for foes that you need an 11 to hit, you just doubled the number of crits you make. For foes that you need a 16 to hit, you just quadrupled your crits. For those enemies you need a 19 or 20 to hit, you just increased the number of crits tenfold.
So go home, barbarian and fighter, and take your piddling rage and needless extra feats with you. Our potent paladin just wiped the floor with you.
Sadly, our paladin has to wait for 4th level to get his Bless Weapon spell, and then only gets one a day if her wisdom is 12 or better (two a day for a 20 wisdom, but how likely is that?). In fact, there just are not enough spell slots on the list to please our paladin. She wants a Blessed Weapon in every fight (or at least, the ones in which she is facing evil foes, which should be almost all of them, or else why is she a paladin?). And in addition, the paladin spell list has lots of good spells, from Divine Favor to those tasty second level buff spells to the odd cure that is sure to come in handy. What's our poor paladin to do when her spells run out, and they will quickly run out.
My suggestion is this: Scribe Scroll. Pick it up at 6th level, and start crafting scrolls. If you have five first level scrolls in hand, that's six spells a day, not one. When you get to 12th level, you might even think about Craft Wand; if your DM is very generous, he might let you upgrade your Scribe Scroll for that.
And donít forget the piece of resistance, the best fourth level spell in the book, another paladin-only exclusive: Holy Sword. That +5 to hit is super, and the extra damage doesnít hurt either, even if it does not multiply. To get the most out of it, you might consider a Metamagic Rod of Extend. And with a lesser Metamagic Rod of Quicken, you can use the first round of a combat to cast a quick Bless Weapon and an extended Holy Sword both in the same round.
Now you see why the straight paladin is the best choice. Brook no delay in attaining your key spells! Do not mingle your holy BAB with that of inferiors! Now get in there, oh mighty paladin, and start your sacred slashing!
Update! [22 April 06] Rereading the description of Holy Sword, I see that Bless Weapon and Holy Sword cannot affect the same weapon simultaneously, per the Holy Sword write-up. Well, it is still a great spell -- just not as great as I had thought at first!