We going to leap into a few ground rules, or guidelines, or something of that sort for an intro here, largely because I don’t know precisely where to begin. We’re discussing classes today, how to design class features specifically. I should note this won’t discuss much in the way of probabilities and what damage a class ought to provide at certain levels, because even if I did have some attachment to writing out targets for class damage at specific levels, I don’t know that any such targets exist for 5th edition. Besides, I’m sure as hell not going to figure those out before those of my own game, not when comparing a 20 level progression with a 12 level progression.
I suppose I’ll start off with core modes of play. I’m going to define a core mode of play as something in which everyone is supposed to participate. In 5th Edition, that would be combat. It’s not Exploration, or Socializing. Exploration doesn’t exist as a system in 5e, beyond mention of “If you have this feature, you get to ignore what we can only assume would be the focus of an exploration system, if we had one, which we don’t.” This will not be a snark-free essay. In other games (earlier editions), there’s an argument to be made exploration was the core mode of play beyond combat. After all, exploration is pretty solid if you’re diving into a megadungeon. If you have a map in front of you, you’re planning and forming a strategy about where to go next. I’m on the fence about this argument; on one hand, exploration is largely modifying the preparation for and conditions under which you engage in combat. On the other hand, other modes of play could be dismissed under that kind of reductionist qualifier, and there’s no reason I couldn’t turn it on its head. “Combat largely modifies the materials with and conditions under which you engage in crafting.” Doesn’t work. Socializing has a greater presence in the game, but isn’t a core mode of play by default. Why? Because social interaction is, by the game’s assumptions, locked behind a stat. Charisma excludes social interaction from being a core mode of play. You know, I think there’s an argument to be made that since players can huddle and confer on plans of action, all players can prepare for an upcoming social interaction, pass notes, whisper, you know the deal. In that sense they’re all participating in social interaction, but we can still distinguish this method of play from the true, core mode of play in 5e: combat.
Combat tends to take up the lion’s share of session time in a lot of new school games, at least when they appear. You can go sessions without engaging in combat (even if you’re up against hostile parties), but when combat does appear, it tends to take awhile. Say we have, in a hypothetical game, a diplomat class. Chances are, he doesn’t have much to do in combat. This is okay, we can give him a hireling to play (his bodyguard, for instance). If we place a class in the game which isn’t terribly competent in combat, we should be clear that’s the case. I’m not saying all classes should be competent in combat; quite the opposite. If a class isn’t going to do much in combat, the lack of competence should be obvious. This way, the player need only get another character asset (such as a hireling) to participate in combat if they wish.
For today’s example, I’ve chosen a character concept which straddles two modes of play; Combat, and Item Creation/Crafting. It’s the Artificer. I’ve DM’d for two artificers now, one using a homebrew class, and the other which used an Unearthed Arcana (the original UA expression of the class, if I recall correctly). I should mention we made use of homebrew for the UA-based character (a lot of it; I have my own firearms system, so we ripped out the one found in the class at the time). The UA was unsatisfying to a lot of folks who played it back in the days of 3/3.5(?), but I thought it was at the very least on the right track for 5e. An artificer is a sort of mage-smith. I’m glossing over the finer details, but there are a few component parts to the character concept:
Artificers can imbue mundane materials and equipment with magic for a time.
Artificers can craft items, both mundane and magical, and partially rely on magic for this process.
Artificers can make use of the assets they create in martial practice.
So artificers are mages, smiths, and fighters rolled into one. We’ve got something of a small problem when it comes to the crafting element of the artificer. Whereas earlier editions featured robust crafting systems, 5e has “Gold + Shopkeeper equals item (shopkeeper component is not expended in this recipe)”. I never got around to responding to the comment on my crafting article (sorry Michael, I didn’t forget about you buddy), but any system which has you spend gold to create the item is not crafting. Ditto for “50 gold’s worth of materials”; the only identification we’ve been given for the material is gold cost! Players just go spend the gold to acquire the materials at that point. This is not crafting. So let’s say I didn’t do the work for you during my last crafting article, and we need to design an artificer which doesn’t key into a crafting system. Technically, you would have to list out the homunculi, constructs, etc the Artificer could build. So I guess I didn’t do that work for you. Actually, I don’t need to! All those things exist from earlier editions, and all you need to do is adapt the rarity of the creation (in my opinion, the easiest part of adapting them).
Back to the point though, we’re not going to start off with writing up abilities and features which key off the supplementary mode of play. The artificer is defined as someone who can bring their tools and magic to bear in combat, so we begin with features that key off combat. It’s okay if the artificer doesn’t exist on a 1-1 with another class in combat, but we need to be careful with how we organize the character features. I’m going to adapt and paraphrase a discussion I heard ages back involving the ranger and the value of redesigning a class. Say for a moment we took the artificer, the beloved spellpunk arcane smith, and keyed most of his abilities off of the game’s….garbage collecting system. The artificer is now a garbage collector. Every other class is focused on combat, but the artificer is split between combat and garbage collecting. Understandably, some people might complain. They might say things like “This doesn’t come up in my game”, or (if the class was hilariously enough suffering from an even worse design) “This class’s features don’t make a difference even when the system does come up.” If the designers are smart, they say things like “Oh, we’ll fix that, because we value you playing out game, and realize the class as-is turned something you loved into a deeply negative experience. Some people are okay with the class, but those people will be fine with the fix as well, since their standards are clearly low.” If the designers (and by extension the people who parrot them) are short sighted, snarky, and mean spirited, they’ll say things like “Oh, well GMs just don’t use the garbage collecting rules enough” or worse, “You just don’t understand the garbage collecting rules.”
There’s a simple, fast response to the oxygen waster masquerading as a dev for your roleplaying game of choice, or whoever happens to be defending them at the time. “I don’t give a shit about the garbage collecting rules, give me back my class.”
Moving on. We begin with combat! What are artificers proficient in? Start with armor Given how often they work with metal, I wouldn’t be surprised if they could move up to medium armor, but they’re also half casters, so we might leave medium armor to a subclass or other character choice. We’re definitely giving them light armor though. Shields also seem appropriate; I personally think of artificers having more of an investment in ranged combat (particularly when it comes to crossbows and firearms). We’re ostensibly creating this for a new school style game though, and the capacity to invent character archetypes is the staple of a good new school game. For spellcasting, we’re going to give the artificer half progression. He increases his caster level once every other level, by default. In Lords of Brackas, he’ll have the option of stacking on more martial or caster levels as he pleases by changing hit dice, but he’ll still start out at a 1d8 progression. Third progression casting works terribly in a locked spellcasting system (like 5e), so that’s out the door. This class will have enough of its own dynamic class options, so we’re not making them full progression casters either. Far too much crap to keep track of without tossing a ton of spells onto them. Their spells should focus on bonus actions and enhancing weapon attacks. Since we’re adding a new class to the game, we should obviously add new spells designed for it, rather than stupidly try to cram something like wizard spells onto a martial class. The last of the basics is weapon proficiencies. They get everything. Simple, right? Well, they get “everything” in 5e because both of the existing half-progression casters have proficiency in all weapons. Seeing as though artificers will likely make use of firearms and pneumatic weapons (and possibly even more outlandish/spellpunk weaponry), we gotta give them the defaults as well. In LOB, I can do things like restrict general weapon and armor proficiencies based on martial level, and certain universal character options (feats I guess, lacking a better term) will let you get them faster or avoid taking martial levels to get them. For something like 5e characters, who remain largely static past level 3, we can’t take such liberties.
Now we get to the meat of the matter: our first class specific feature, which will also end this first essay. Yes, another series, though you should’ve expected that by now. If we’ve any hope of getting an in depth analysis of what abilities make for better class design, we’re not going to write 15k word essays. These things work better in chunks!
But for real, the class feature. This is the thing the original 5e UA got mostly right, but didn’t properly build on. It’s Infuse Magic! We’re going to make our own right here.
You can infuse objects and weapons with magic. When you cast a spell that targets only yourself, you can choose to forgo the effect and infuse a small or smaller object with the spell for one hour. Any creature who holds the object can gain the spell’s effects by using the appropriate action, expending the magic in the process.
We’re going to go through, step by step on what qualities make this feature character and party role appropriate and worth building the class on. Then, we’re going to build the class on it. Next time, that is!