Thursday, April 30, 2009

Player's Handbook 2 Feats Corrected

After my previous post, it was pointed out that I overlooked the fact that the non-AC defense (I've seen this abbeviated as NAD) boosting feats are all typed "feat" bonuses except for the three Epic feats. This means that, at paragon level, you won't want to take the "+2 to one defense" feats if you take Paragon Defenses. Now, I always thought those feats were pretty mediocre anyways. But now what I see is that if you take Paragon Defenses in the early Paragon levels, it should bring your NAD's up to par, but they will still fall behind at mid to high paragon levels. But also, some characters will take armor specialization to bring AC even higher, and ensure that NAD's still fall behind. Once you reach Epic, everyone should take Robust Defenses, which at level 21 may almost make up the lost ground on AC. NAD's would fall behind again as you reach mid-to-high epic, except that you have those "+4 to one defense" feats.

These are at the point where it is unclear whether the players will take none, some, or all of them. My analysis of the monster manual was that at heroic level, monsters attacks are approximately 70% AC, 10% Fortitude, 15% Reflex, and 5% Will. I haven't had a chance to analyze higher tiers. Informal perusal suggests that non-AC attacks are more common at higher tiers, but AC is still probably as important or more than the other 3 combined. So +4 to one defense isn't necessarily better than +1 AC, which I think of as a solid but not overwhelming thing to get from a feat. Except that +4 is big enough that you may start becoming awfully hard to hit at all, which can be quite tactically useful. So it will depend on the character's design and how good other feat choices seem to be. But if you do take a +4 feats, that is a huge difference. If everyone takes all 3, they will be short on feats, but they will have extremely high defenses in the "strong" areas that match with their statistics. If only some characters take the +4, and only in some areas, it seems like the numeric chaos of high level combat will increase even more, where monsters may auto-hit some characters and be less than 50% to hit others. This is disappointing, I liked the way that, at least at lower levels, 4th edition tries to make sure your chance of hitting almost always falls into a reasonable range.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Player's Handbook 2 - Feats

Starting my discussion of the Player’s Handbook 2 proper, I first discuss the new feats introduced.

Paragon Defenses and Robust Defenses are clearly designed to compensate for the increasing discrepancy between armor class and other defenses as you gain levels, as I noted back in a previous blog entry. It does appear that they've got the math correctly, and that the +3 to all defenses that you get from taking both feats is about what you need. The main problem here (aside from stealing feats from the players, which I shall discuss later), is that the Paragon Defenses feat is good but not so outstanding that players would take it in preference to the wide and ever-increasing variety of other interesting feats. Combined with the fact that the bonus is small, it is likely that there will be very little relief for the problem at paragon level, when the discrepancy is already very large and noticeable. Then, at epic level, there will be a sudden shift towards better non-AC defenses, which could potentially be very pronounced if the characters also take the epic feats to improve specific defenses.

Weapon/Implement Expertise is the other huge fix. It is clearly meant to cause the accuracy of the characters to scale more closely to the monster defenses, and in particular to correspond to the bonus defenses earned by light armor wearers with masterwork armor. I have to say, I hadn't realized that this was an unintentional mistake. I had thought they might have done this to compensate for the various abilities high-level characters have to increase their chances of hitting. But apparently this was a mistake and they are fixing it. I’d tend to say this is a good thing, my limited experience with high-level play was that trying to hit the target was annoyingly difficult. The other thing this feat does, in addition to compensating to giving you the +2 accuracy you need to fit the mathematics, is to give you an additional flat +1 accuracy. I'm not sure whether they actually wanted to increase the accuracy of all characters in the game, or whether they simply felt compelled to do it this way in order to make the feat “look” like a normal feat.

Aside from the mathematics, the fact is that they chose to implement these fixes by providing feats that all characters must take in order to fix the mathematics. Therefore, it essentially reduces the number of feats available to the characters for actual interesting abilities. Admittedly, a number of the classes were starved for interesting feats before, and this spares them the annoyance of having to pick between a wide assortment of unwanted feats. But other classes in character types had way too few feats for what they needed, and they will really suffer. What I really dislike is that a lot of flexible characters, who already had too few feats for what they wanted, are now double punished because they have to get both Weapon expertise and Implement expertise separately.

You can see why they would do things this way. Changing some of the basic rules of the game is a troublesome process that makes a lot of people upset for various reasons. But if they sneak the change into a feat, they can maintain plausible deniability, it is “just a new option” and everyone knows that new books have new options. But from my vantage point, I'd rather this was done a bit more openly. At least some designers notes – “by the way, we inserted some new feats that all characters are required to get at high-level.”

Anyway, the obvious fix for this is to simply incorporate these fixes directly into the game. One method that I was already using for my own game is to have master work bonuses for Neck items: increasing the defense bonus by +1/+2/+3 for neck items with enhancement bonuses of +3/+5/+6. In other words, a “+5 magic amulet of protection” adds +7 each defense. Or you could be more direct and give a +1 bonus based on your level (perhaps +1 every 8 levels). Of course, none of this will fix the fundamental problem that your defenses become more and more different from each other as you gain levels, but that issue is baked much more tightly into the design of the game.

For the expertise, the simple solution would be to give, essentially, expertise in everything to all characters for free.

Another 2 feats which struck me as highly important were Distant Advantage and Vexing Flanker. These make ranged rogues much more practical, which may be a good thing because I've had a lot of trouble with rogues getting beat up a lot. They also seem to make ranged attackers of all sorts generally more powerful, as they can now arrange to get the flanking bonuses that melee characters get. This might, perhaps, improve the fairness of the game, or it might take away an important advantage of melee characters, I'm not sure which. But what I don't like is that it encourages focused fire even more. Flanking is cool because it encourages movement in combat by rewarding you for moving around. But when a ranged character can get flanking without having to do anything, I don't find it very interesting, just annoying that the ranged character is now compelled to attack the same target as the melee characters.

Melee Training, on the other hand, I think is just great. It is really nice that it is now possible for non-melee characters to learn how to fight to some degree in melee combat, and it is possible for characters without a high Strength to learn how to charge and make opportunity attacks. I guess the only question here is whether charisma paladins, artful dodgers, and the like should have been able to make effective opportunity attacks before. I'm not sure what the answer to this is. It seems I kind of an amusing balance factor between the classes that some can make charge attacks effectively and some can't, but on the other hand it is sort of annoying and weird that monsters almost invariably have effective opportunity attacks while many characters have little or no "zone of control". I often wonder whether the monsters are supposed to know or guess that they don't need to be too worried about opportunity attacks from many of the characters they are fighting.

Restful Healing I do not like at all because it exacerbates the I mentioned in a previous blog entry, that spending healing surges in combat is wasteful if you play in a game in which healing surges are important (and if you aren’t playing in such a game, Restful Healing is irrelevant). It also very powerful compared to Durable, which I thought wasn’t such a bad feat to begin with. I won’t be using this feat.

Since this entry covers feats, my last comment is on the multi-class Avenger feat. I thought a lot of multi-class feats were awfully good for the price before. But boy, does that Avenger feat seem over the top. If you are tired of missing with those daily powers, here is the feat for you!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Power levels: Baseline vs. Minimax

I have a passion for game balance, and I often evaluate games in considerable detail to determine which things are more powerful than others. After buying the D&D Player's Handbook 2, I naturally started looking things over to determine what the power level was and to determine whether there has been "power creep", the tendency of games to print new things with every expansion published that are more powerful than the old things, so that people playing with the new expansions are more powerful than people playing with the old stuff. But first, I thought I would mention something that often comes to mind, which is why my own opinion of the "power level" of various things in the game does not always seem to match up with what would appear to be the "online consensus" that one might tend to pick up by skimming popular forums. I think that my temptation is to analyze the "baseline" power level of a game, but that most people who evaluate the power level of a game are more interested in evaluating the "minimax" power level of the game.

For instance, in a theoretical sense you would expect the various power choices available at each level for a D&D class to be approximately equal to each other. But in practice, they are not equal. I often get frustrated with the way that powers can be so blatantly unbalanced that it is immediately obvious they are not equal - what were they thinking? But even if you make a serious attempt to balance the powers, you are bound to make mistakes, it is just too difficult a task. So you have a bunch of different abilities, some of which are more powerful than others. Which abilities represent the "power level" of that class?

From the power-gaming point of view, the answer is clearly the very best powers from each class level. Moreover, the focus of discussion is on using these powers in combination or in situations in which they are most powerful. This "minimax” power level seems to be the most often talked about, likely for the reason that is the essence of power-gaming. And by “power-gaming”, what we are really talking about is traditional competitive game playing. Surely just about every chess book ever written is written from the "power-gaming” point of view, the desire to analyze what the best way to win the game is. Who writes chess books about fun ways to just move the pieces about? The fact that role-playing games can allow, and encourage, non-competitive playing is the unusual new paradigm.

This, however, is more like the paradigm from which I view the game. The "baseline" power level is the level that appears to represent how powerful the game designers intended to make each ability, under the assumption that they thought they were making balanced powers. Mixed in with this is a dose of how good the powers would have to be in order to make the classes equal. Also, in many cases, what I tend to look at for the “baseline” power level is what would be the average power if you ignored all the powers that were so weak and useless as to be boring, and ignore all the powers that were so mighty and broken that I would want to modify or ban them.

An illustration here is Magic: The Gathering. I go in and out of phases of playing this game, but my passion is always for making decks that are fun to play and balanced against each other rather than trying to make decks that will beat other players’ decks. When looking at the various sets of magic cards published, if you look online, you might see a lot about how many of the cards in the original “alpha” edition of the game were completely broken, like the infamous moxes, which could make just about any deck better, and how this was corrected in later sets. You don’t see so much talk about what is interesting to me, which is that the vast majority of the cards in the original edition were extremely weak compared to the average cards in later editions, and the power level of the average card seemed to keep moving up and up in later editions. If you are interested in competitive gaming, it isn't terribly interesting how powerful the average card is, since most cards fall into the category of "useless cards" anyway. But when I'm trying to make decks that are balanced against each other, it is very significant to know how powerful the average card actually is. To a competitive discussion, the “correct” power level of a card is to be equal to the best cards currently played with that aren’t banned or restricted; to me, the “correct” power level of a card is the typical power level you might get if you built a deck from random cards.

On a related note, the question of how "broken” a card is also varies on your perspective. A “mox” is considered totally broken because you pretty much want to have in every deck, as it is strictly better than the alternatives, not to mention the possibility of including it in evil combinations. But from my perspective, when constructing "normal" decks, a card like "Moat” is much more broken. The "normal" deck wins by attacking with creatures, and Moat can potentially shut down certain decks completely so that they cannot attack at all. Moat isn’t the sort of thing that is considered powerful in competitive play, since you aren't using "normal" decks at all, and even if you are using a deck that would be affected, you could easily make sure your deck can deal with the problem, and because so many decks can deal with the card, nobody will bother to even put the card in the deck at all. But I find this card very broken because it is fairly easy to play, and once it is played the other player, if he is using the wrong kind of normal deck, may be totally helpless, or may be stuck trying to draw the one or two cards in his entire deck that could deal with the situation. Putting a mox in one of my normal decks would seem tame by comparison; it wouldn’t break the game to draw a single mox, it just makes the deck more powerful.

This reminds me somewhat of web discussions on the “Orb of Imposition” wizard ability in D&D. It is easy to find discussion about how broken this ability is - which is certainly true when you reach very high levels or combine it with unfortunate combos. But my first impression about this ability is how depressing limited it is at low levels. There are only a tiny handful of daily powers with which this can really be used, and the effect isn't that much. You pretty much have to take the sleep spell if you want this ability to do anything, and even then it is just a modifier to a roll by the GM once per day. Pretty disappointing compared to most real class features. The real story with this ability is how broken the scaling is, it starts off weak and grows disproportionately rapidly with levels.

Well, back to the original point, while I haven't really had the time to do a deep analysis, my impression of the PHB2 was that it increases the "baseline" power level, but doesn't have as many "broken" powers, and is probably better balanced in general. So it probably doesn't increase the "minimax” power level, except insofar as the new “mandatory” feats make every class in both books more powerful.

I'll continue this discussion in the next blog entry.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Skill Checks, part 2

Neubert had some good questions about my group skill check system, so I thought I would go into it further.

The math: First we ask, what is the average skill bonus of a L1 character? If an L1 character has stats 18, 16, 13, 12, 11, 10 (after racial bonuses), the average stat bonus is +1.5. The average character class has 4 skills, but some characteres may have feats or classes that give more, so assume 4.25 skills, which is ¼ of the total number of skills. This gives an average skill bonus of +1.25. And the average race has +2 in two skills, an average of +0.25 per skill. This gives an average skill bonus of +3.

How this is divided among the party will vary, but let’s assume +8, +5, +2, +0, +0. This means the chance of no one making a DC 20 check is 55% x 70% x 85% x 95% x 95% = 30%, so the chance of success is 70%.

The actual DC chart:
Characters should almost always succeed: DC 16
Characters should usually succeed: DC 18
Characters should succeed more often than not: DC 20
Character success is 50/50: DC 22
Characters should fail more often than not: DC 24
Characters should usually fail: DC 26
Characters should almost always fail: DC 28

The rules I gave for group skill checks are only for the most common type of skill checks, checks in which a success for one person is a success for everyone. Examples:

Almost all Knowledge checks (Arcana, Dungeoneering, History, Nature, Religion, Streetwise)
Noncombat Perception and Insight checks to see if the group notices something

I also like to use it for social skill checks (Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate). While you might argue that it is more appropriate for one diplomat to make all the rolls while everyone else stays quiet, I prefer to be a bit more abstract and allow everyone to contribute. I imagine that the charismatic types are contributing more, but the better everyone is at social skills, the more chance the party as a whole has of succeeding. You might imagine, for instance, that the “special effect” of the surly dwarf succeeding in a group diplomacy roll, is that he managed to refrain from saying something rude that would have ruined the negotiations.

Skill checks in which everyone has to succeed – in which only the worst performance counts – are a totally different animal that my rules were not meant to cover. This is a much trickier problem. In practically all traditional skill systems, it is impossible to make a group stealth check, since lots of people are rolling and someone is bound to screw up, especially when that someone is clumsy and wearing plate mail. An idea I’ve been considering is that everyone rolls, and everyone has to succeed, with one change. For every 5 points by which a character makes his initial skill roll, he allows one reroll for one other character. I think this will have the feel I want – the weak link is certainly a weak link, but everyone makes a difference and having some experts in the party helps out a lot. The math for this system is decidedly non-trivial and I haven’t had time to work it out, but I’d estimate DC 10 or 11 would be equivalent to a DC 20 best-roll skill check.

Example: The rogue, ranger, paladin, fighter, and wizard are making a group stealth check at DC 10. The rogue gets a 22, the ranger 17, the paladin 6, the fighter 9, and the wizard 12. The rogue and the ranger have earned 3 rerolls between them, so they give one to the paladin and one to the fighter. Now the paladin gets a 4 and the fighter gets a 20. The fighter does not earn any rerolls (this isn’t the initial check), but there is still one reroll left over from the ranger and the rogue. The paladin rerolls, gets a total of 11, and passes the check. The group is stealthy!

Skill checks in which each person succeeds or fails separately (such as, roll an Endurance check or lose a healing surge) are straightforward and easy to do. The only thing to remember is that such a check is much, much harder than a group check. DC 10 would be about equivalent to a DC 20 group skill check.

The system doesn’t envision “opposed” skill checks, as I’ve been using it for skill checks baked into a scenario. In general, I don’t normally roll the monsters off against the players, I just set a difficulty for the players. This puts more control into the rolls of the player (all that rolling for the monster does is make the difficulty number for the players unpredictable, so sometimes the party fails with a good roll or succeeds with a bad roll). If I’m making the scenario, I don’t really need to look at the stats of the monsters, I just set the difficulty based on the situation. If you need to make an impromptu check, a DC of 12 + monster skill bonus seems reasonable if you want to players to succeed more often than not, the equivalent of a DC 20 group skill check.

Skill challenges are a whole different ball game that needs its own article.

Note that physical skills are slightly harder if the characters are wearing armor, so you may want to make them one point easier. Also note that “trained-only” checks are more difficult, so you would want to make them around DC 16 to be equivalent to a normal DC 20 check.

One thing I forgot to mention last time: I don’t use passive skill checks. Passive skill checks guarantee that nothing matters except the character with the highest skill, and I am trying to avoid that. And rolling dice is more fun for the players.

Neubert asked about converting skill checks from modules. The difficulty with this is that when the module says “DC 21 Religion check”, there is generally no telling how difficult the writer wants the check to actually be, in terms of whether the writer expects group skill checks to be much easier than individual skill checks, and how often the writer wants to party to fail. Even if the writer does nothing but look at the charts in the DMG, everyone can interpret Easy, Moderate, and Hard in different ways. You have to look at the style of the various skill checks in the module.

However, if the difficulty is taken from the errata DMG (which seems to put DC 10 as Moderate), and you assume that “Moderate” is a typical difficulty, then group skill checks will be 10 points too easy and individual skill checks will be right on. I took a look over the adventures in Dungeon 164, and based on those, it appears that if use my system and allow everyone to roll the check, and you want the party to have a decent chance of failing, you should add 5 to the DC of all the group skil checks.

As far as checks in the book with fixed DC’s – I myself don’t often use the listed DC’s, I prefer to rely on my own judgment and just pick a DC based on how hard I think the check should be for the average party. Looking at the skill section of the book, I see that the Arcana checks are pretty harsh already, no need to make them worse. Most of the other group-oriented checks have fixed DC’s, which I don’t normally use. Given the wacky way in which D&D characters become experts in all skills just by gaining levels, I figure that high level monsters should correspondingly be harder to hear, harder to track, and harder to obtain useful knowledge about. I’d need a whole blog article to describe how I’d specifically handle various types of skill checks.

With regards to making combat stealth checks, the new stealth rules are a great improvement over the (lack of) rules in the original players handbook, but I still don't completely understand how the designers intend stealth to work. The rules are quite understandable if there is one player trying to be stealthy against one monster, but what happens when there are multiple monsters is not clear. I've been playing that you make only one stealth roll, but you apply that roll separately against each monster, and you can be hidden against some monsters but not others. In that case, it is not too hard to hide successfully and ambush some monsters. These combat skill rolls have a very different meaning from noncombat skill rolls, and I haven't really played with them enough to have an opinion on whether they are too easy or too difficult.

I thought a little about the progression of skill rolls with levels. You get +1 every 2 levels just from the level bonus. You gain 11 points of statistics every 10 levels, which is about +1 to every skill for every 10 levels. Looking at the book, I see that most of the feats and utility powers than improve skill checks are low-level, more like something to factor into the basic numbers than something you gain with levels. You certainly can gain skill bonus magic items with levels – but you probably only are wearing about 1 even at the highest level. So whether you get a lot of bonuses at high level depends on whether your game encourages your high-level characters to buy hordes of cheap magic items and swap them about before performing each check. If not, you probably won’t gain even as much as +1 in every skill by 30th level.

You will, however, become more polarized – better in your best skills compared to your other skills. This is statistically advantageous. So if your bonuses are +29/+23/+18/+16/+16 at 30th level, your chance of failing against DC 38 is (40% x 70% x 95%) = 27%, pretty close to the same. This works out to increasing the difficulty by 0.6 per level. Not too far from the rate of progression in the DMG, which is 0.66 per level.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

D&D group skill check rules

In many games, there are clear rules for making a "skill check", but the rules for how skill checks will really work in the game in terms of who makes what roles how often in what situations are not fully specified and are left up to the GM. In fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons, it is not always clear what method the game master should choose to have the party make “group” skill checks, in which anyone could potentially make the check and the entire group will benefit. Since I'm planning to put one of my adventures up on my sidebar, I thought I would describe how I've been playing group skill checks.

The method I have chosen is to have every player roll a single skill roll against the listed DC of the group skill check, and if any player succeeds in the skill check, the party succeeds in the skill check. The typical DC is 20 for a level 1 check. Here are the reasons I chose this method:

1. I decided I wanted having skills to be very useful even if you don't have the highest skill level in the party. In many games I've played, having a skill is pretty much useless if someone else in the party has a higher skill level than you. This isn't much fun if you are the one with the second-best skill. This is especially so in D&D, now that the party will have more total skills than the total number of skills in the game, so some of the skills will definitely be doubled up. Also, in D&D you basically have no control over how good you are in a skill unless you take rare feats like skill focus; if you take a skill, your ability and that skill depends on your statistics, and your statistics depend on your class. It is already not very efficient for a fighter to take a skill he won't be very good in, like Streetwise; why compound the problem by guaranteeing the skill won't be useful if the party has a higher charisma character who has taken the skill. Hence, I did not want to allow only the highest skill character to try the challenge.

2. Also, when I first saw the rules, I noticed that the bonus for training in a skill is rather small compared to what you would expect in reality or fiction. If the check is so hard that you have only at 50% chance of succeeding even with training, you still have a 25% chance of succeeding even without training. I decided that this is part of the “fun is better than simulation” aspect of the new D&D rules, and wanted to reflect this spirit in the use of my rules by allowing everyone to participate in the skill check, allowing the barbarian to occasionally get lucky and know more about arcane knowledge than the wizard.

3. The game has rules for “aid another”, but I decided not to use those rules. First, the rule is broken because the DC is fixed, meaning that once you reach a certain level the aid action becomes automatic and your level of skill no longer means anything at all - an incompetent helps just as much as an expert. This is a minor quibble because it could easily be fixed by setting the aid DC to equal the skill DC – 10. My real objection is that even if you do this, the skill level of the aiding players has a rather small effect; the skill bonus of the lead player is 10x as important as that of anyone else.

4. In some campaigns, only characters who declare that they are trying the skill get to roll. But if I'm going to allow every character to make a skill roll, I think it is much more fair to simply have everyone do so rather than give bonuses to players who talk more.

5. DC 20 gives the average party about a 70% chance of making the roll, and I like making the characters successful more often than they are unsuccessful. And this isn't one of these "by average difficulty I mean easy" averages, this is an average difficulty. Characters are certainly highly successful in combat, they should have a good shot in noncombat too. I never understood games where any task interesting enough that a hero would want to do it, is so hard he has about a 25% chance of success. That just isn't a lot of fun.

Also, DC 20 is a nice number because it means that checks are generally not impossible, a one point difference in you skill almost always makes a difference. A skill bonus of 0 is better than a bonus of -1 and worse than a bonus of +1. This wouldn't be the case with DC 24, since the roll would be impossible in all 3 cases.

At high levels these various numbers won't work out too well anymore, but I'm not worried about high levels yet. I haven't yet figured out a good formula for how quickly the skill checks should rise. Clearly skill checks rise more slowly than hit rolls, since most of them are based on statistics that do not rise every 4 levels, and magic items that improve skill checks are fairly rare. But characters occasionally get utility powers or possibly feats that improve skill checks, so figuring out the expected rate of progression could take a fair amount of analysis.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Barbarian class comparison

I was discussing with my friends my impression that the classes in the D&D Player’s Handbook 2 seemed to be more powerful than the original players handbook, but not in the sense of trying to be better than the best things in the previous classes, but more like trying to be equal to the good classes and options rather than trying to be equal to the average classes and options. Anyway, I felt the barbarian was better than the melee ranger, so I started trying to write down an exact analysis so everyone could look at my analysis and either agree, or if not, what exact point of comparison they disagree with.

Obviously, the comparison is going to depend on a lot of assumptions. Assume around level 6, primary stat +4, secondary stat +3, magic weapon +2, weapon focus. Ranger with urgrosh does 17 damage with twin strike. Barbarian with execution axe does 18.5 with howling strike. Barbarian rampage (free basic attack after each critical) is worth about +1 damage. But hunter’s quarry is worth almost 4 damage, so ranger is ahead by 1.5 or so. But barbarian can charge for full damage, so they are perhaps evened out.

Ranger has higher Dex – more initiative and reflex defense. Barbarian has higher Con –more hit points and healing surges. I think I like Con better, but it is close.

Aside from this, rangers get an extra +2 AC or so for higher Dex, while Barbarians get +1 AC and +1 Reflex inherently. Advantage Ranger. But barbarians get +2 inherent healing surges, bringing the advantage back to the barbarian. One extra skill for the ranger balances this out.

Barbarians get rageblood vigor, Con temp hit points when they defeat a foe. This seems like plenty of compensation for the extra feat of the ranger.

Barbarians have some very useful bonuses for the entire combat when they enter a rage. But rangers can fight pretty well in ranged combat, even if they are a melee ranger. And rangers are better against minions.

Rangers get +1 AC for the urgrosh and have an extra skill. Barbarians can switft charge as a free action after defeating a foe, once per encounter.

Barbarians have some pretty scary daily powers.

So it seems to me, so far, that barbarians are at least comparable to the melee ranger. But we haven’t added the last bit:

Barbarians have defender hit points.

So I think barbarians are better than melee rangers.

Not included in the analysis is that str/dex rangers have a rather more limited selection of powers, due to the low wisdom. Or that they didn’t have double weapons when first published.

But I've usually thought of melee rangers are one of the weaker striker classes. But then again, that impression was before double weapons came out. So let's compare a melee ranger to an artful dodger rogue with a double sword:

Rogue with sly flourish does 14.5 damage, adding 2/3 of sneak attack gives 19 damage. But double sword is +1 to hit, so this evens them out with rangers.

Rogue has at least +1 AC for having Dex as a primary rather than secondary stat (and this benefit is much larger when minimaxing with the point system). If we count this as +1.5 AC, and add the rogue’s extra skill, it cancels the ranger’s extra feat, and the fact that the rogue must spend a feat on melee training to be decent at charge / opportunity attack.

Ranger gets hide proficiency for free. Rogues get First Strike, which is probably better.

Both classes have good ranged combat options which are hard to compare – ranger has to use two hands, but has prime shot, a bigger weapon, and hunter’s quarry is much easier to use from range than sneak attack, but has to use a secondary stat to attack. Rogue gets the better initiative and skill bonuses from Dex/Cha vs. Str/Dex. It is hard to say who has better encounter/daily powers.

Ranger is much better against minions, while rogue gets his artful dodger feature, the bonus AC against opportunity attacks.

So I’m thinking the artful dodger is at least equal to the melee ranger, perhaps between the ranger and barbarian. But a brutal rogue using piercing strike is better than an artful dodger rogue – the extra damage with high accuracy is quite formidable, possibly even making the class better than the barbarian (although personally, I’d rather have the barbarian with his huge number of healing surges, as opposed to that annoying rogue who always get pulverized and runs out of healing surges).

You can also try to compare the barbarian to the Str/Con great weapon fighter.

Hit points are equal.

Fighter has +1 to hit and reaping strike, but this is only about equivalent to 20 damage, a little weaker than the standard set above for strikers.

Fighter has about +2 AC and +1 armor skill modifier and +1 healing surge. Barbarian has +1 Reflex and +1 speed. Definitely we now have distinct overall advantage for the fighter.

Barbarian has rageblood vigor and swift charge. The barbarian has useful bonuses when raging. But the fighter has the mighty combat challenge / superiority ability.

The powers are where it gets tricky. The barbarian’s rage powers are better than the fighter dailies in general. But if the fighter gets to take a rain of steel, that is just broken and makes up for an awful lot – thought Vengeful Storm Rage is pretty scary.

So these classes seem hard to compare, it depends on which powers they take.