This week on Behind the Mask, we'll be looking at freeform characters and how they work. This is more of a primer for players who are interested in the Gold subscription and would like to know more about how freeform characters differ from archetypes. I'm also spotlighting it to show just how archetypes are built poorly and some ways they could be improved.

Freeform characters differ dramatically from archetypes. However, they follow a concrete set of rules on how they must be built. A hero can't just select Gigabolt, Ego Storm, or other high-level powers right from the start; there's a list of power restrictions that must be selected first. The power restrictions basically correlate to level restrictions, although there are some ways around that too.

While this may be familiar to Gold players, it will serve as a primer for those who are not experts at maneuvering around the power selection process.

Instead of selecting an archetype, freeform characters are prompted at character creation to select one Energy Builder and one Tier 0 attack. However, once you leave the tutorial (or skip it), you are no longer required to adhere to this restriction. You still have to take an energy builder, but you are offered a limited selection of Tier 1 powers based on your energy builder. Thus, taking the right energy builder is important. You don't want to be forced to take a Tier 0 power unless you want to.

Choosing a Tier 0 and why you should do it

The first reason you might want to take a Tier 0 power is that the power might actually be useful or effective. There are only a few Tier 0 powers like this. Power Gauntlet, Ice Blast, Cleave and a few others are worth picking up, even if you've unlocked Tier 1 powers.

The other reason might be that you really want a particular energy builder but don't want the Tier 1 powers from that set. For instance, you may want Clobber or Bestial Fury for their advantages, but you don't want any powers from their sets. Bestial Fury is good for bleed-oriented builds, but you may not want the monster-oriented Bestial Tier 1 powers instead of Single Blade attacks.

Otherwise, you want to pick an energy builder that unlocks Tier 1 powers you want to use. Each energy builder unlocks powers in its own framework, so if you want to unlock Bionic Shielding and Molecular Self-Assembly, you'd want to take one of the Gadgeteering energy builders. Likewise, if you wanted Laser Sword and Invulnerability, you should take the Powered Armor energy builders (currently only one, Wrist Bolter, but the devs are planning on adding more).

Open Tier 1 and closed Tier 2

Once you've chosen your first two non-energy building powers, your Champion can openly select Tier 1 powers from any framework. This is where most of the fun of freeform characters lies. A telepath mimicking the Mind archetype might pick Psi Lash as an energy builder, then unlock Ego Sprites and Ego Sleep (both Tier 1 powers). She could then take Aura of Radiant Protection (the Mind's passive) or any other passive she wanted. As you can see, a freeform version of the Mind can skip an extraneous power (like Ego Blast) to get better powers more quickly. She could also pick Telepathic Reverberation, which is also a Tier 1 Telepathy power, and kiss her energy problems goodbye.

Our Mind look-alike could also take a Tier 1 power from anywhere else at this step, such as Celestial Conduit or even completely unrelated powers like Laser Sword, Gauntlet Chainsaw or Assault Rifle.

However it is also possible to take Tier 2 powers once you have three powers in the same framework. As I've mentioned before, most Tier 2 powers are not that big of a deal. However, there are some like Enrage, the martial arts forms, Bountiful Chi Resurgence, and the Dragon's attacks that are quite valuable to have early. This is most useful for martial artists who have a lot of different options, but there aren't that many non-MA Tier 2 powers that you really need to accelerate. In our Mind lookalike example, she could pick Empathic Healing (a pretty nice pick) instead of the Celestial heals. Either is a viable choice.

Closed Tier 3

After getting five in-framework powers (including your energy builder), you get the option to unlock Tier 3 powers in your framework. You can do this as early as level 14, which can lead to some very high-powered, low-level characters. Some characters, such as mentalists, can use this to rush very powerful abilities. With just Psi Lash, Ego Sprites, Ego Sleep, Telepathic Reverberation, and Empathic Healing, you can unlock the either the mighty Ego Storm or the godly Mindful Reinforcement at level 14.

In general, for most characters this is a bad idea. A mentalist character rushing Tier 3 generally lacks some sort of performance until after he's picked up the powers that he's rushed to. For instance, a telekinetic like the Disciple might rush Telekinetic Lance for early game mega-damage, but he'd lack any sort of defense until he picked up some out-of-framework powers.

Rushing Tier 3 is exciting, but you can be weak until you cover those holes. It also may mean you take trash powers instead of good ones. For instance, rushing Electricity to Tier 3 for Gigabolt might mean that you pick up some less viable powers along the way.

Open Tier 2 and beyond

After you've picked up five non-energy-building powers, you unlock Tier 2, which comes around level 17. Because this unlocks Active Defenses, it's kind of a big deal. Active defenses change the game quite a bit, since they allow you to get out of bad situations more easily. However, Tier 2 is not that important aside from active defenses, and you'll probably still be picking Tier 1 powers at this stage. If you rushed to Tier 3, you'll definitely want to get Tier 1 powers to complement your character here.

The final stage of the freeform game occurs when you unlock Tier 3 for all frameworks. It happens at level 26. Most freeform characters explode in power at this level, although some characters may peak earlier. This is especially true if they rushed to in-framework Tier 3 powers at level 14.

Once open Tier 3 selection occurs, many powers that couldn't be realistically rushed now become available. A good example is the Force framework. Although it is more possible to rush to Force Cascade than it was prior to F2P, there are not a lot of really good powers in Force, and the usability of many of the Force attacks is eclipsed by Force Cascade. Once you hit 26, you can take FC and Inertial Dampening Field as open picks without having to rush through all of Force. Unfortunately, that doesn't leave a lot of selections, and it can be troublesome to squeeze in all the big powers that you want.

Free players who think that every freeform hero has all the FoTM powers are in for a rude awakening; even with 13 power picks, it's hard to squeeze everything in. Picking the right energy builder to unlock the T1 powers you need is the first step, but building a freeform character is a tough balancing act. It's really easy to waste power selections on "cool" picks and end up dramatically worse than an archetype unless you make sure to pick the right powers for the job.

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.

This article was originally published on Massively.