We played Heroes By Trade last night and while it was a good time it definitely illustrated that I have some more work to do on balancing buffs. At the moment in the game I have buffs balanced as though you are casting them in the middle of a battle. That is, if you decide to cast Power Infusion on turn 3 of a fight it is a pretty huge loss of tempo because you aren't actually killing anyone. As such it adds a ton of damage to your attacks for 2 turns to make up for that loss. This is all fine.
The problem comes in when people buff before a fight. Last night our encounter had exactly that, a situation where a bunch of weak enemies came after us from a distance and we had the chance to all cast our buffs before they got there. Power Infusion is perfectly fine when used during a fight, but when it is used before the fight even starts it is ridiculous. Even more than that though was the problem that one of the characters used a 2 round buff and a 1 round buff so that on the round that the enemies arrived and we started fighting he was absolutely absurd. This messes with combat balance in a huge way and although I have noted this in the past it was never quite so stark as it was last night.
I have to fix this. It isn't right that such a huge component of character power is based on buffs, and I don't like that fight difficult varies so wildly based on whether or not the characters are deemed able to buff immediately prior to the battle or not.
But how do I fix it without making buffs absolutely useless when the fight is ongoing? If a buff is really terrible (but still better than nothing) so as to make prebuffing not a big deal, it will never be worth using during a fight except when you really have nothing else to do. I had to find some other ways.
One of the fixes I came up with is to make buffs less offensively oriented. If a buff lasts 1 round and is half offensive, half defensive, it is a lot less of a problem because the defensive portion is not likely to matter at all for prebuffing purposes, but will be highly relevant for in combat use.
Another simple change I had to make was to get rid of buff stacking. No class can have a situation where they can stack up several buffs at once because that is going to get out of hand. Buffs either have to be exclusive or only last 1 round so that they can't be combined with prebuffing. I definitely can't have a class with a 1 round buff and a 2 round buff.
I also need to consider the discount rate I am applying to buffs. Normally when an effect happens right away it is more costly than a delayed effect. For example, for 3 ranks you can either do 4.5 damage right now or you can apply a debuff to an enemy that will do 10 damage next turn. That 10 damage might not matter because the enemy might already be dead, and even if it does matter it doesn't stop the enemy from getting one last action. I was using a similar sort of discount rate for buffs, making them more effective because they were delayed. Unfortunately that was a huge problem with prebuffing because the damage wasn't being pushed to later rounds, rather it was being applied on the first round or two of combat, which is exactly where you want it. I think I need to reimagine my balancing of buffs such that they are useful when you are out of position or haven't got a great action, but that they are simply not a good choice when you have a good direct action you could take instead.
I went through all the Powers and made some changes in accordance with this new philosophy. One good example of the changes is the buff Power Infusion, which previously added 2d10 damage to your attacks for 2 rounds. The new version lasts only 1 round instead and it adds 2d6 damage and +7 Speed. The change in the damage is just a shift in the discount rate and the change in the effect is to get rid of the offensive orientation of the buff to some extent. It is still a great Power to use when you have the change to prebuff but the damage bonus is reduced from 21 over 2 turns to 7 in a single turn. Much more reasonable.
The one thing that is really being a challenge is that there is one class whose theme is totally centered around buffs. Marauders have a series of Powers that let them take on the Aspect of a particular animal. Aspect of the Drone lets you hit enemies that a chosen ally hits, Aspect of the Cheetah makes you really fast, etc. The problem here is that these are a core ability of the class and I expect them to use these abilities all the time. One quarter of all of their Powers are Aspect Powers and so if they aren't really good except in niche circumstances the class loses a ton of its theme. This is going to be a tricky thing, but I suspect I am going to end up having to slap on an attack to each of the Aspect Powers. Right now when you use them you don't do anything else that turn, so they are pretty powerful. However, if I just make all of them also include an attack then they won't be overpowered in a prebuffing situation because the attack is worthless, but they should be fine to use during a fight, which is definitely my intention.
This is a lot of work, and a significant rewrite for a lot of abilities, but I think in the end it will be worth it. I don't like that characters always want to know if they have a round to prebuff, and I don't like how important the answer to that question is, so I have to get this fixed.