DDO Balancing Act

A look at the balance between multiclass and pure builds with a poll at the end!

DDO’s recent Update 25: Reign of Elemental Evil included not only a brand-new classic adventure in the form of Temple of Elemental Evil, but also an enhancement pass for the rogue class that reworked all three trees of the D&D staple class.


Of course, this has resulted in some divisive discussions on the forums, with one thread in particular quickly racking up pages through a debate on the merits of backloading some powerful abilities. Specifically, some folks have taken issue with a trend in several updates that amps up the power of level 18 and 20 core abilities. The contention is that this trend is killing multiclass builds, and therefore one of DDO’s most touted aspects – the complex character building options – by providing greater incentive to remain “pure” (not multiclassing, or very little beyond a 1- or 2-level splash).

i’m not going to pretend i’m a master builder. Despite a join date of Dec. 2006, i’ve pretty much fumbled my way through the game, playing mostly solo or following behind guildmates playing characters built using spreadsheets to optimize their stats, feats, class splits, enhancements and so forth (or copying those shared on forums).

Nevertheless, i have been playing a long time as well as playing lots of other MMOs over the years, so i have a decent grasp of how these things work and how to at least build characters that aren’t completely gimp. RPG character building in general is a lot like CCG deckbuilding: You choose a method of defeating opponents and build to exploit it.

In the purest form, the goal of both CCGs and MMOs boils down to “dealing damage to defeat opponents and staying alive while doing it.” That being said, all considerations beyond that point are simply a matter of taste for the player piloting the deck, or character as it were. It’s a collection of numbers that affect the way the game is played, and the best vehicles have a lot more to do with the person behind the wheel.

Two guildmates and friends, one a MC staff fighter, the other a MC swashbuckler. Better than pure rogue or bard? i can't say for certain, but different playstyles for sure
Two guildmates and friends, one a MC staff fighter, the other a MC swashbuckler. Better than pure rogue or bard? i can’t say for certain, but different playstyles for sure

To illustrate this, i’ll use the DDO character i’ve been playing the most lately, Experimenta. Based on another, very long forum thread about how difficult DDO was for new players, i created this human fighter following the Stalwart Soldier premade path and leveled her all the way to 20 by letting the path choose feats, stat increases and where to allocate skill points. By the time i reached the epic levels, i enjoyed playing this character so much that she became my primary character, and i started looking for a guild to join. In all my time playing, i’ve never done much raiding or anything, and i wanted to change that and felt like this would be a good character to explore that with.

The Unrepentant is a great group of people who have a much wider community in gaming outside of DDO. Since joining this guild, i’ve not only run quests and raids for the first time – which is awesome – but i’ve also gotten to test my mettle on elite difficulty in higher-end quests as well as learn a lot from the members and engaged in friendly chats regularly. All of those things have given me a new insights into DDO, and if i’m honest it’s like a whole new game for me and a new level of fun, which is great.

One of those insights, which brings back around the idea of balance, regards building characters. The folks i’ve run with so far have some truly amazing characters that can dish out some serious DPS and stay alive while doing it through a combination of defenses, mitigation and healing options. One guy in particular that i play with a lot, who is from Florida but lives in Australia so he’s on in the wee hours i tend to play at, is an excellent builder who carefully crafts his characters. We’ve talked extensively about it and i like his perspective on how a player’s effectiveness has a lot to do with finding a playstyle that suits them, moreso than copying a forum build that is mathematically superior.

i think a lot of people would probably look at Experimenta on paper and think it’s a gimp character. As a pure fighter, there’s nothing in the way of self-healing, and there’s no interesting multiclass interactions going on with her. Nevertheless, my guildmates seem to appreciate my contributions to quests because of Experimenta’s survivability, and she can deal pretty good DPS.

Experimenta ran Rainbow in the Dark on elite, shown here after almost all her gear was eaten up by rust monsters...yet she held her own and completed the quest without dying once.
Experimenta ran Rainbow in the Dark on elite, shown here after almost all her gear was eaten up by rust monsters…yet she held her own and completed the quest without dying once

For some background, after playing to cap, i did an epic reincarnation followed by a TR that i messed up. i planned to try a pure paladin Vanguard build as a Purple Dragon Knight, thinking i’d LR to get rid of the fighter level they start with. Foolishly, i took all 15 levels as a fighter though. So, it looks like it’s another fighter life for Experimenta. But that’s okay, i’ll just have better tactical DC’s next time around.

i spent a majority of the AP in the Vanguard tree including the capstone and Tier 5 enhancements, with the rest in Stalwart Defender, and just a few in PDK for the healing amp. Through chatting with guildmates, i’ve learned that my usual self-deprecating approach to DDO isn’t quite as accurate as i’ve always thought. As it turns out, i know a fair share about what works and what doesn’t, and how to be effective. It’s also been cool to get complimented on my ability to tank and support the group with CC abilities like stuns. And everybody enjoys watching Experimenta’s shield charges, which is also my favorite ability by far.

One thing i’ve taken away from these experiences is a fresh perspective on a lot of forum discussions about character building. As it relates to balance, i read these threads and have to wonder – how are these people playing DDO? With my experience playing solo so much, i’m inclined to think the people who get upset must also be doing the same. Not so much with Experimenta, since i have run some things on elite by myself and handled them okay, but in the past i’ve played some pretty squishy toons and elite was out of my league. But in a group – even with said squishy characters – it’s a different ballgame altogether. Unless a toon is just straight-up build to not work on purpose, i honestly don’t get why people become so frustrated when changes come along that they feel nerf their characters.

To put it simply, a character like Experimenta would be viewed as suboptimal because if only because of being a pure fighter. But there i am, holding my own and contributing to quests – even epic elite – with the rest of a group.

This makes me think that a lot of the forum anger stems from theory rather than practice. Taking a look at the rogue’s Assassin and Thief Acrobat trees, which were the impetus for the thread that led to this post, shows that they have some powerful enhancements available at levels 18 and 20. The forum OP believes this is poor design, because it takes away the options to mix one or two other classes into a build due to what would be a loss of DC for the assassinate abilities, loss of double strike and so forth.

But isn’t that the entire basis of multiclassing to begin with? You are willingly giving up the top shelf abilities of a pure class to allow for variety with your options. That’s always been the case, most notably in the form of giving nonhealing classes the options to heal themselves and be more self-sufficient (so groups didn’t need to wait around for healers).

i’ve never played a rogue, so i can’t speak to the specifics of the argument that much, but the OP ends with something i DO know a bit about – shielders or sword & board builds. To quote:

For years I have been trying to play shield builds. Some of my builds are here in the forums, the majority lost. A shielder was a very non obvious build. You could build an evasion shielder with high hamp using a monk. Or later with DC and consecration, FVS where pretty nice. Wizard splashes, traditional paladin or even paladin fighter splashes. I saw a barbarian splash for shielders that worked nicely at some point. There were very many build possibilities. It was not a super powerful super obvious archetype like the centered kensei, which was basically already chewed for us. But you could somehow play it and still have a ton of options.

Now shielders are powerful again, but they are all the same: Vanguard with 20 levels of paladin. How many choices left there? Very few. It is boring and while the shielder holds its ground well enough in all difficulties, it is boring. Life after life you have to play very close builds, there is very minimal room for improvement. If you deviate from the optimal (pure paladin), you gimp yourself with amazingly little in return. Not cool, not fun, not enjoyable and not good for long-term retention. At least in my case.

At least it ends with a disclaimer that it’s a personal observation. As a shielder myself, i take issue with this claim that a pure paladin is the only way to go and everything else is both gimp and boring. i’ll admit, i’m interested in trying out that build, but at the same time i have to consider what i’m giving up even to follow another pure build.

As a paladin, i’d be getting of course the great saving throws of that class, plus Lay on Hands for healing, Smites and the highly-touted Holy Sword spell for a huge bump in DPS. But what am i giving up from fighter? With all the bonus feats a fighter provides, i’ve been able to max out three complete fighting styles – shield mastery, two-handed fighting (for bastard swords) and weapon specializations, plus improved crits and i was even able to throw in Skill Focus: UMD. That last one i think is much appreciated in groups when the S&B fighter can scroll heal and raise dead.

Now compare either of those to a multiclass build. Through various combinations, i could potentially increase DPS, or healing, or add more spellcasting or whatever. What does that mean? Essentially, it’s only changing the playstyle – not the effectiveness. Let’s say i took just 14 levels of paladin for the Holy Sword access, and the other 6 levels in ranger, which is a popular build that opens up a lot of ranged combat options, the manyshot feat and so forth. In doing so, i’m giving up the top end of Vanguard abilities that add a ton of DPS and defense. This is a change in playstyle only. Sure, i could deal out some serious damage at range, but as a capped Vanguard i could just run up and stand there beating on a monster, and surviving the encounter wouldn’t be a problem. That’s one thing my guildmates have made mention of, which i only marginally noticed since i went from playing mostly solo to grouping – it took me a while to realize how much more punishment i could take in comparison.

Here’s another example, using a popular build that mixes the druid’s wolf form with the barbarian and fighter classes. This build is amazing to watch, with incredible attack speed and damage the literally chews through monsters very quickly. By comparison, i ran a pure druid wolf build a while back that i also found very effective. True, it didn’t bring as much DPS, but it made up for that with the druid’s awesome CC spells, as well as healing and buffing, plus other great options like the Word of Balance spell and a wolf companion that if built well could contribute effectively, too – essentially adding to DPS (and CC with trips). Again, it comes down to playstyle – you’re trading off spells you need to click on for other things to click on like rage to increase damage. At the end of the day, the goal is the same: dead monsters and living adventurers.

What i’ve observed over the years, and which has been a great evolution of DDO, is that class or playstyle balance has become better. Pure classes have grown to where what used to require multiclassing now is only another option. A great example of this is perhaps one of the most difficult character builds in D&D history – the fighter/mage. A “gish” – skilled in both physical combat and magic – has long been a popular concept. In DDO, this was always considered gimp because deviating from the wizard class to take fighter levels for example meant that neither would be effective. Your spellcasting DC’s and simply access to higher level spells was gone, and your combat abilities would not translate into higher level competence either.

Over time, clever builders of course discovered ways to make it effective through out-of-the-box thinking that mixed class abilities and enhancements, for example the uber-popular “Juggernaut” builds of a few years ago. These days, there’s no shortage of spellcasting melee characters either, and they can certainly wreck quests with the best of them. But for purists, there’s also the option of the Eldritch Knight trees available to both wizards and sorcerers. I’ve played a pure sorcerer EK myself, and i found it to be quite capable. In fact, again in terms of playstyle, i enjoyed immensely that i could hang in there with melee combat while retaining full spellcasting abilities for not only buffing but some instakills, AOE damage and room for utility spells like DDoor.

Here’s another example – the ranger’s Deepwood Stalker tree. What i was happily surprised to discover here were that it gave the ranger some cool self-healing through the Tier 2 empathic healing and really made for an interesting character who, while not able to fire off an arcane archer’s array of specialty arrows simply traded off those clicky powers for ones that just did more pure damage. Is a monkcher a better build? i’d content that no, it isn’t – it’s just a different playstyle.

The point i am trying to make with all these examples is that all of the changes that have occurred in DDO since it launched in 2006 have really served to move the game forward. To say that multiclassing is nerfed, or pure classes are suboptimal, is just plain shortsighted. DDO is widely known for and considered to have one of the best, most complex character creation systems of any MMO, and that has only continued to broaden over the years. As my friend in Australia pointed out and that i’ve tried to illustrate here, is that the beauty of DDO lies in the variety of playstyles it supports.

If you are a clever builder who enjoys constructing complex characters who achieve effectiveness through a splash here, an enhancement there, you can come up with some unique, intriguing toons that you’ll have a blast playing and continuing to refine.

On the other hand, if you’re like me and enjoy exploring the potential of a single class in its purest form, you can absolutely hang in there with top-tier players and builds, not just as a piker but as a true party member that can contribute their share to quest completion. In fact, you might even surprise some MC builders with what you can do.

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  1. I agree, excellent post!! I feel basically the same. You should build a character around your play style for that character, not because it is the “uberest” character. I’m not the most prolific builder either, but I generally like all of my characters to be unique but to also be self sufficient.

    With that said, I rarely multiclass. I just enjoy the playing my characters as pure class but I don’t see these characters being significantly stronger or weaker than multiclass builds. In the end, it just depends on what you want that character to do and how you play.

  2. Interesting & insightful stuff 🙂

    I tend to play a mix of pure & multiclass builds, just depending on what i want from the character… i’ve been having a *lot* of fun since u25 with my mechanic rogue, which is splashed 2 artificer levels since while the capstone is nice, i decided the blue bar & rune arm would be of more benefit to my “all my characters have a batman utility belt of tricks” mentality… definitely a case where the top level cores are nice since it makes great crossbow something approaching a sniper rifle. BOOM HEADSHOT!

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