Sword, Sorcery or Sword…cery?

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Another source book has been announced entitled Mythic Odysseys of Theros, an expansion on the Magic: The Gathering world. It contains a few new subclasses, races, supernatural gifts and other content that seems aimed at tier three and four play. While I am not familiar with Theros, the little I have gleamed seems interesting and more 5e content is always welcome.

It’s stated that the supernatural gifts will be presented in the form of a race. I’m curious how they intend to do it because it can either be very bland or imbalanced. I just hope we don’t end up with another orc, which is often considered one of the weakest races they have ever added. Going from the more recent UA for class options, I am hoping they provide some alternative features for races instead of just creating new ones, which can lead to more elf bloat and leave some races behind. That’s all we need, supermanelf, batmanelf and vampelf.

On the topic of supernaturals, I once toyed with the idea of a series of feats that give you powers of vampirism and lycanthropy. For vampires the benefits and detriments increased with each subsequent feat. On the other hand lycanthropes had a fun curve that allowed them to control their shifting more and more, but when it went wrong, it could be disastrous. Rolling a 1 on the shifting check would cause the character to lose control and be nigh unstoppable for some time until they could make another check. It was a fun concept I never finished or used.

Sword, Sorcery or Sword…cery?
Onto the topic at hand, martial versus magical classes. So I like the three pillars and if I had to pick a ratio it would be 20% exploration, 40% social and 40% combat. Given that, it should be no surprise that my favorite classes are rogue and warlock. They combine great combat capabilities with amazing utility in the form of expertise and invocations respectively allowing them to really shine in the right situations. I definitely think wizard falls into this category as well, but I personally cannot stand how squishy they tend to be.

One thing I find annoying about 5e that was nearly perfect in 4e are pure martial characters. The structure to fourth edition nearly ensured all characters had abilities they could use to change the flow of an encounter that mimicked spells like launching a fireball, casting slow or charm person. This issue makes me feel the pure martial subclasses are quite dull and lack the flare that 4e ensured every class had.

Hell, in 5e I don’t think I would ever touch a pure martial class outside of scout, swashbuckler or battlemaster, but let’s look at them individually to see where my problems lie.

Barbarians are less martial than they should be, by all rights. In reality only battlerager and berserker are non-magical and they are often considered the weakest of the subclasses. Sadly berserker is the most cliche subclass and just falls flat for me. Generally, it’s another shirtless dumb guy who gets mad and smashes things. Battlerager is, well… just… you know, let’s just table that mess and move on. That said, the other more magical ones I find interesting and evocative. When I imagine a totem barbarian I get an image of characters like Rexxar from Warcraft and Udyr from League. A warrior who understands nature and seeks to emulate it in combat, roaring like a beast or simply moving like one. The spells they get access to even lend the subclass to a more martial version of a druid. Zealots are warriors of god who, to me, feel far closer to what I imagine a paladin being than actual paladins. They radiate the passion of their faith as they tear a swath through the battlefield and just refuse to die until they feel their deity is done with them. Storm heralds run across the battlefield with literal storm effects enveloping them like the Tasmanian devil. Ancestral guardians take the battlefield and summon their ancestors to harass their enemies, how fucking metal is that?

Rogue is where this gets weird for me because the base class is just so solid. You could ignore subclasses and it would still be strong and compelling. It’s a delicious, perfectly cooked steak and the subclass is just the wine and sides that only add to its splendor. That doesn’t mean I don’t have the aforementioned problem with them. Subclasses like assassin, inquisitive and mastermind really sound good, but play strangely. They both require a strong social pillar to let them shine. Swashbuckler is a kind of frontline rogue, not giving a shit about positioning to get sneak attack and lending itself to a classic and cliche rogue. Scout is a wannabe ranger with no spells, but does it well. While it cannot compare to true ranger in their chosen environment, they can do very well in a game with a strong exploration pillar. Thief is the rogue subclass I often forget exists. It’s not bad, but that’s because it’s really just not anything, it’s just rogue plus. Then, of course, there is arcane trickster. A rogue that can cast spells is great in and of itself, but add in the actual features like mage hand legerdemain and magical ambush and you got yourself a stew going, baby.

Last and, in my opinion, least are fighters. Oh fighters, you are so great in the long run. Action surge, up to four attacks, an extra ASI and second wind are nothing to scoff at. Mechanically solid but, without a great character concept, so dull. Champion is just the epitome of the issue I have and is just ‘fighter fight fightier.’ Cavalier was the mounted fighter in its UA form but they did away with that in favor of something better but still leaving some of that flavor. Still feels dull and quite frankly many of the features it gets are very similar to maneuvers battlemasters can choose. Samurai isn’t that bad and has it’s head above water in my book, but still isn’t quite there. It has great combat features and some rather decent social ones, but is still just shy of something I would ever want to play. Battlemaster is where things get interesting. The maneuver system is just great and provides players with customization options. The downfall to battlemasters is that is more or less all the class is. Know your enemy is nice, but the information is vague and the requirements feel disjointed. To be completely honest it’s a subclass I feel shouldn’t exist. I feel the maneuver system should have been baseline as a customization feature for fighter. I would favor that over the extra ASI. Moving onto the eldritch knight, which is good, but it feels at odds with itself sometimes. I want to be gishing, casting a spell and swinging my weapon, but that’s not really an optimal option. Attacking twice is generally more competitive than using the melee spells like green flame blade or booming blade. Even once you get war magic, it loses it’s novelty once you hit level 11 and get a third attack. I will say that weapon bond and arcane charge are pretty boss, however.

I should, at least, mention the spell-less ranger that was published in a UA. It was interesting, but seems to be abandoned at this point. Skirmisher’s stealth was a bit broken, but the rest of it was so lacking in comparison to spells it made a sort of sense.

I like customizable features in my classes, which is why I love warlocks. Invocations are amazing and really give a customization option that just works in my opinion. I would love to see something like it for every class, which is where I feel maneuvers going baseline would make fighters great. In addition to combat abilities, give the list things used outside of combat that use the same die. As I mentioned previously I like the direction they seem to be going with the class options UA and hope they publish and expand on the concept in the future. Options are good.

In any case, enough of my anti-martial rhetoric, what do you think? Are pure martial classes boring? Are you like me and need some sort of magic or at least magic adjacent features to make it fun? Will Owlbearman save Griffinboy from the Jesters trap? Find out next month.

The Impossible Choice

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So a few weeks ago on Critical Role (Campaign 2, Episode 93) the Mighty Nein faced the age old impossible choice. In their circumstances it is an evil entity making them choose between happiness of one for the misery of another. While a bit unfortunate at least it seems pretty cut and dry. Sometimes the impossible choice is far more esoteric in nature, leading to broad and sometimes incomprehensible consequences. In any case, while I will not reveal the specifics of the short term outcome of the encounter, it was a great D&D moment.

The impossible choice is a trope in entertainment as far back as stories go. As I DM I want to put my players in that situation. Not to stress them out or make them uncomfortable but to help them define their character and perhaps learn a bit about themselves. Grunt the half-orc is the hardest barbarian you’ve ever encountered, but how does he react when he is forced to choose between his son and his soul mate? Will he accept the Axe of Corruption knowing he might succumb to it one day? Will he trade the hag a piece of his soul for eternal glory in combat? I wonder…

Is it fun to be put in those situations? Perhaps, perhaps not. I wonder though… I mean it has to be in some way. Entire pen and paper games revolve around worlds where your options are to choose between awful and horrible. Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness are great examples.

Call of Cthulhu pits you against a world where Loftcraft’s Old Gods exist and cause the madness captured in his works. Your role is that of an investigator and generally leads you into cases where you find evidence of things humans are not meant to know, let alone study or investigate. You are constantly hounded by things you can scarcely comprehend let alone defend against. All the while you slowly go mad simply trying to survive. The only way out is to run and never look back, leaving it all behind and hope it doesn’t find you again. Running usually means leaving friends and loved ones to die, driving home the harrowing corner of life you have chosen to experience.

World of Darkness, specifically Vampire the Masquerade, the subgame with which I am most familiar, releases you into a world you generally know nothing about. The world is filled with rules you could not know nor understand at the start of your rebirth into unlife. You have to be taught by those older than you who seem to want to use you for their own ends no matter the personal cost to you. That just hits the tip of the iceberg as vampires whose ages can only be guessed use everyone to play their ancient and nearly incomprehensible game. You live a mean existence that demands you choose between your very humanity and surviving as a ravenous beast within you rages against your will in an attempt to be released. Indeed, should it be released it will simply slink back to it’s cage to rest while you are left to deal with the fallout of its actions. Difficult choices followed by difficult choices interspersed with impossible ones.

Games are generally used to vacate your own personal life for a few hours. Some decide to play that out in a world with an unbelievable amount of stress. Perhaps imagining these places gives us perspective. Maybe it reminds us that things could be much worse and the piddly problems we worry about each day are so inane in the grand scheme of things. Or is it that humans just love conflict? Maybe it’s all three or neither.

Personally, I enjoy it in the moment. As a DM being put on the spot when players do something you don’t expect is fun and interesting. It makes you think and come up with a solution. It’s an odd feeling for me specifically because I am an anxious person and prone to drastically overthink decisions if I have too much time to dwell on them.

So, are they fun? Or is it something you would rather avoid in your recreation?

Mind, Magic and Mindflayers

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Welcome to 2020. So Evan (Mardin) convinced me to write this. Although I say convinced it was far less dramatic, a barely two sentence question posed through Discord. I enjoy writing so it took very little convincing honestly. By the way, my name is Christopher otherwise known as Xeir and, on occasion, Kelkorian.

That said, this shitshow I will be writing is regarding Dungeons and Dragons. Ye olde satan worshipping parties thrown by nerds. My goal is to give my thoughts on the game in general and new developments. Might as well dive right in.

Recently, Wizards made the world of Exandria, of Critical Role fame, a canonical setting. Matthew Mercer, Exandria’s creator, is a great storyteller and has a great setting that he has clearly poured his heart and soul into. Kudos to him. Also over the last few months there have been several Unearthed Arcana articles for every class. Some were testing out psionic subclasses, a concept I have always had a few problems with, especially within 5e.

Let’s talk about that shall we? The base concept is magic, but with no components, all achieved through sheer force of the mind. An interesting premise for sure, but ultimately flawed. Magic without components is very powerful as they limit your ability to use them in every situation. A person who can cast mind altering or reality altering spells without the use of words, hands or materials can be terrifying and nearly impossible to keep at bay without very powerful countermeasures such as something like an anti-magic zone. Does that work though? Is psionics still magic? At the end of the day, it is magic, but is it magic within the rules of D&D?

It’s up for debate with the ruling on such things shifting its wording several times. One source states that magic and psionics are two different effects. Another states that psionics create magical effects and a tweet from Jeremy Crawford, the lead game designer of D&D, himself states that innate spellcasting is still magic, but does not specifically mention psionics. Crawford is quite articulate and when he states something he usually states it in a specific way, so for him to omit the term psionics seems indicative. Of course, he’s human and isn’t infallible, but the point remains.

Ultimately I think psionics is something that should be more flavor than substance. Perhaps a peppering of intriguing features over high powered, lack of component magic. By the rules, a wizard technically only needs his or her spell book to prepare and add spells to their repertoire. This way of doing magic is very Vancian and, to me, is already quite close to psionics. Luckily, for the most part, this seems to be the route Wizards of the Coast are taking with the concept. I don’t agree with the way they formed a few of the subclasses, but Unearthed Arcana is a beta test after all. We will see how they get shaken out when and if they are published into a source book.

There is some speculation online about a return of Spelljammer to accompany all these psionic subclasses. I hope it’s true. Spelljammer takes this concept of the astral sea being a literal sea and just runs with it and it’s amazing. Of course that mixture of space and fantasy doesn’t float everyone’s boat, but it does for mine and that fucker is powered by magic… in space.