Some thoughts on character specialization

I might’ve lied. Technically this is a post on character specialization. However it’s primarily me ranting and raving and generally putting down other people’s thoughts on the subject using allegories and analogies that I have an emotional attachment to. Maybe you’re thinking hey, isn’t that what he always does?

You’d be correct.

I’ve been working on the Rebuilt Ranger recently, squeezing original abilities and spells out of my head like a pressed orange to what’s essentially the husk of the revised ranger Wizards Of The Coast released. There’s something of a shibboleth floating around the ranger class, a preprogrammed response to that afterthought-design cobbled mess. Everyone likes to talk about the Beast Master, and while I of course agree that it’s so miserably designed I practically hope WOTC never attempts a redesign of that particular subclass, I don’t like focusing on it! Poorly designed subclasses can still hold themselves together provided their built on the foundation of inappropriately design class. Likewise, a spectacularly designed subclass can elevate a poorly designed class (as unlikely as that particular combination is) so as to conceal some of core class’s flaws. For this reason, I focus on the Hunter. A subclass of impressive design, clearly focused on martial prowess with a host of well-designed abilities to complement a number of play styles. Unfortunately, the ranger still sucks. The Hunter would be even more fun to play or attach to a class that wasn’t half-baked.

That’s a standard intro I give to any conversation, post, or general essay on the ranger. Here though, I want to drill down on a specific debate on design within 5E. When is it appropriate to attach specialized class features? How specialized is too specialized? Do benefits against specific kinds of creatures take away from the fun of fighting anything else? That last one (aside from the fact I practically open this talking about the ranger) probably gave it away. I’m told what is ostensibly a core feature of the Ranger, favored enemy, can’t possibly do anything useful within the context of the game ( especially not combat). after all, if you’re especially good at dealing with a specific kind of enemy in combat, you’ll feel bad at fighting just about anybody else! How does the rest of the game feel about this? Ah yes, the forbidden question. Are there any other class features in the game that adhere to this apparently unshakable principle? Both the cleric and paladin have bonuses against particular enemies. The cleric has access to destroy undead, which functions as turn undead to any other living creature not immediately vaporized by it. Interestingly enough this is a channel divinity feature; every single cleric archetype comes with its own channel divinity feature. You can use that channel divinity as opposed to turn undead. How about the paladin? When he uses his divine smite feature (adds a bit of holy judgment to a weapon attack the paladin makes), The unfortunate creature takes additional damage if it is a fiend or undead. Not bad at all. What do both of these features have in common? They are not the end-all be-all of the class. In the cleric’s case, turn undead isn’t the only way to use his channel divinity feature. The paladin on the other hand, can apply divine smite to any creature, and simply gains an additional benefit if the creature is of a specific type.

No one really complains about not being able to fight undead in the case of the cleric, or both undead and fiends in the case of the Paladin. Their class features are satisfying enough on their own that fighting these enemies makes them especially useful: not simply useful. There is a difference. To further illustrate the point, imagine if you will that these holy warriors and men of the cloth had no special abilities or features to bring to bear against unholy terrors of the night? It might seem a little strange. Let’s suppose further that we spent several hundred words as a description of a supposedly core class feature describing how good these classes were at attacking these particular creatures. It would feel like a sham; you would wonder why it was there in the first place! The class itself might well mathematically check out in terms of its utility or skill in combat, but this obviously terrible design choice would leave you feeling underwhelming.

I think we can all see well enough that specialization enhances the specifically narrative elements ( how you think about your character and how it’s perceived by others) even if its only technical application is in combat. I sincerely apologize to all the people who think that storytelling and mechanics are completely divorced from one another, who will only read this apology after recovering from what was surely a solid five minutes of wailing and gnashing of teeth, spurred on by my previous statement. Moreover (steel yourselves, please), I think excluding specialization from where the narrative clearly made room for it is a recipe for disaster. Doubly so if the aforementioned hints from the narrative take the form of a 1,000 word description of a class ability.

If you want to make a big deal about how well the feature or class or spell deals with a specific problem, make sure it actually does. Features which deal with specific problems ( or simply do so especially well) should probably be tacked on to a generally useful class, not used as compensation for something underwhelming (side note, I might’ve just solved the poor transition from the 3.5 to 5E Ranger, you’re welcome). Thanks for reading.

Weekly Statblock: Ebrietas

Ever on my Bloodborne kick, I made this creature on vacation for a session that same day. 

The party was Dennis playing Asura, Chris playing Alan, Matt playing Sael, and two others from our primary group! My friends Caleb playing Kevlier and Megan playing Kieron joined us for the session, bringing a Druid and Paladin to play.

I'll probably go into the non-combat details of that session some other time (I tried out some new storytelling techniques), but for now, the boss of that session is here.


So, you wanna stat Gods? This is a good start! Ebrietas's strategy for attacking is pretty simple. First, cast Crown of Stars. The sooner you cast it, the more mileage you'll get. 4d8 as a bonus action every round is nothing to sneeze at, and her +12 bonus to hit makes it fairly consistent. Next, start using legendary actions for Magic Missile. There were 2 paladins in the party facing Ebrietas, both with high armor class. You can already see where this is going. If you really focus a single person, it can end up somewhere around 30 damage per round. That accelerates to 60 once Ebrietas drops below half hp.

After the first round, start blowing other high level spells. Synaptic Static is devastating, dealing psychic damage and producing a pretty negative effect on a failed saving throw (which is intelligence, not a common save). Maelstrom was also excellent. The creek in Ebrietas's lair widened to accompany the Maelstrom's size, and at a 30 ft radius, it was excellent for area denial. Area denial works both ways, of course. That is, until, Ebrietas starts using her "Fly" legendary action. 80 feet of movement easily carried her from one side of the lair to the other.  I did end up using Chain lightning, but against my players in particular that was sort of a bad idea.

The Rune Spells are a subsystem I designed, the Elsry rune being the most esoteric (on purpose). I used it several times to Halt (the second level variant of the rune) Alan, freezing him in time. Once a character interacted with him however, he was good to go. I think I used Halt all 3 times she was able to cast it, and all on Alan. That’s all that kept her alive for so long, he’s such an absurdly tanky character.

This was a beast of a creature; I’m happy with how she worked out.


Another Condition: Weakened

My long suffering page followers were hit with a barrage of COME WATCH MY STREAM posting (and indeed you should) while I played For The King, specifically their Frostbite Mountain adventure. I had a great time, and it scratched my D&D itch to boot. I’ve been thinking over a lot of the items, skills, spells, and in particular status effects. Video games are better equipped to handle a multitude of status effects than your average RPG by far. You have more time to engage with the game than if you were depending on scheduling something out with your friends, the game adjudicates the status effect’s impact on gameplay by way of the developers coding, etc.

Status Effects in RPGs depend on the players to properly adjudicate the effect, and the DM in particular. So, status effects need to be clear on how they impact the game, concise in their clarification, and from a mechanical perspective can’t bog down the game. This lends to fewer status effects that are featured in a multitude of spells and abilities. The interesting variation comes not from several different iterations of the same status effects, but the twists and circumstances of the individual skill or spell that produces it. I see plenty of requests for new abilities and even spells, but very few for new effects, and in all honesty that’s probably for the best when it comes to your average homebrew designer,

I’m not that designer. Also, a new status effect is more of a tool specifically for people creating content, seeing as you need some sort of delivery system for a status effect to even come up in the game. When considering what I wanted out of a new status effect, I decided on a damage boost (against the target effected).

So here it is.
Frozen: The target is vulnerable to the next damage it takes.

There’s a few issues with this, but let me hit you with the inspiration. “Frozen” in For The King causes the target to suffer an additional 25% damage. Now, vulnerable obviously deals an additional 100% damage. Frozen in FTK lasts for more turns, but that’s besides the point. I don’t need to duplicate it to the exact.

First, the question of Resistances and Immunities. I need to include a small disclaimer of those. I could simply say that it has no effect if the target is immune to the damage type. I could assume the game master is happy to make a target normally resistant take normal damage. Applying vulnerability to a creature normally resistant to an effect isn’t something people normally need to deal with. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that situation has existed even as a possibility until the release of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, with the addition of the Grave Cleric. Its channel divinity feature makes the creature targeted vulnerable to the next attack against it. Do resistance and vulnerability cancel each other out? I certainly think so, and I’m sure everyone I play with would agree.

That’s not quite my standard for placing caveats in my design. If I can clear things up without inflating the word count too much, to me that’s preferable than any unnecessary amount of confusion. The questions Mearls and Crawford in particular have to suffer shows it doesn’t hurt to include some extra clarification.

Frozen: The target is vulnerable to the next damage it receives. If the target would normally be resistant to the damage, it instead loses its resistance to that damage. If the target would normally be immune, it takes no damage.

Not too bad! We should fix two last things. First, “Frozen” is probably a bad name for the status effect. It’s a port from something else; D&D has a ton of monsters to use. While it makes sense in the context of For the King, there’s no specific relation to ice or frost here. Next, the last sentence on immunity sounds redundant, so we’ll change it up.

Weakened: The target is vulnerable to the next damage it receives. If the target would normally be resistant to the damage, it instead loses its resistance to that damage. Targets which are immune to the damage suffer no effect.

Now we’re cooking with gas! Weakened makes far more sense when it comes to the effect. I don’t have to worry about any dissonance between the condition’s name and its effect on a creature like Frost Giants or Rhemorazes. This should provide some interesting levers to play with when designing homebrew content. In fact, I have to make a magic bow for Kevin’s new character.

Might see some use!

Fix the Eldritch Knight?

The Eldritch Knight is something of an abomination within D&D. Just about all the martial classes have a subclass which is considered to be the magic fighting hybrid. And they all pretty universally suck. Well, maybe I shouldn't go that far. I'm relatively certain you could play a combat effective Eldritch Knight. You can take spells like shield from the get go, making you extremely hard to hit (especially if you're in something like plate armor). You can further boost your chances of survival with spells like blur, absorb elements, protection from evil and good, you get the idea. I'm not going to mention spells like haste (seeing as though you're practically never get up to that level), but hey, they're out there.

All that being said, the subclass feels disjointed. You're constantly going to choose between either casting a spell, or using your melee attacks. As you learn more about the subclass and what's optimal (not to mention your number of attacks going up) you start doing the smart thing and pretty much ignore your spells.

I preface the mechanical change I'm about to propose to demonstrate I'm willing to look at the subclass as being viable for combat. When people want to play a hybridized magic knight, they want to do two things. They want to in some fashion combine spellcasting and their martial abilities, or at the very least on a regular basis do spellcasting and their regular attacks within the same turn. On this basis, the Eldritch Knight doesn't fill that niche. You either cast spells, or you make physical attacks. And as previously mentioned, as the levels go up, you lean heavily in one of those directions.

I can say this now having done it, if I wanted to play a kind of magic knight I would simply mix wizard with about three levels of Battle Master fighter. I get several maneuvers that allow me to toy with the battlefield, some damage and survival enhancing abilities, and in general don't have to choose between using my core class features and spellcasting. It actually works out pretty well, and I highly recommend it to you all (even those of you who accept the mechanical change I'm about to propose).

All that being said, let's look at one abilitiy in particular.

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, when you use your action to cast a cantrip, you can make one weapon attack as a bonus action.

Now, this is pretty miserable. By the time you get this ability, you've already gotten the first of your extra attacks. If you're using any sort of heavy weapon, the damage you do with one attack will likely outclass anything you do with a cantrip. If you're not using a heavy weapon, the difference between a single physical attack and a cantrip is much smaller. As previously mentioned however, you can at this point make two attacks per round.

Just to reiterate; the fact you will not use this ability except in very specific and convoluted circumstances does not mean that the Eldritch Knight can't be effective in combat. It just suffers from one of the many instances of a class receiving poorly designed abilities (not ribbons) that pretend to change the character. Even if the class as a whole is well designed and even carries the subclass through, if the subclass's special abilities don't seem to fundamentally change the character, it'll feel lackluster.

Did that make sense?  Let me try putting it this way: the Eldritch Knight could be completely viable and even on par with the Battlemaster (as an example) levels 3-20 despite never changing from "that guy who swings his sword and casts shield". However, if those abilities he gets from 3-20 don't produce any improvements (i.e. the character actually uses them on occasion), the subclass doesn't actually grow. That's fine, unless literally any other subclass or class does grow. If another subclass actually improves over time, it's more fun to engage with (for most people).

 Now, on to the proposed change:

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, take the attack action, you can cast a cantrip as a bonus action. 

Let the harpies come. 
I'm going to try to justify this as best I can before I put any additional restrictions on it. At this level, your cantrip damage has only increased by one dice, and Int is still most likely your secondary or tertiary stat. No wizard at this point is "taking a dip" into the class, they're giving up some serious firepower to do whatever insane build the seven level deviation is for. Ditto for Warlock and Arcane Trickster. You have a decent increase in damage (probably not something that will supersede the champion) and a bit of increased utility to boot. On top of that, you can actually use this ability without feeling like a complete idiot, right?

That being said, we should definitely add a caveat. 

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, when you take the attack action, you can cast a wizard cantrip as a bonus action. 

This is just to prevent any Eldritch Blast shenanigans. The fighter gets enough feats that Magic Initiate becomes a must-have, and Eldritch Blast being what is is, Warlock is pretty sound. Also, with the release of the Hexblade, a heavy deviation into something like Eldritch Knight becomes viable (seeing as you'd only need to focus Int and Cha for your offensive abilities). 

Now, if this still seems too powerful for some reason (and there are several), we can cut it down further.

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, when take the attack action, you can cast a wizard cantrip as a bonus action. You can use this feature a number of times equal to your Intelligence modifier (a minimum of once). You regain all expended uses when you finish a short or long rest.

Now we're cooking with gas. I admit, this feels punishing compared to the last example, but in actuality it's probably more balanced. These additional cantrips are now on par with something like Battlemaster Maneuvers, though perhaps a bit damaged focused. 

I can definitely see an Eldritch Knight pummeling an enemy to just a few hitpoints trying to save the Sorcerer or something, casting Shocking Grasp to let him exit safely.

A big part of this is the introduction of the SCAG, and several cantrips that allow you to make a weapon attack as part of the spell. Having unlimited access to that as a bonus action would quickly (and I really don't use this lightly) overpowered.

So, let's recap:

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, when you use your action to cast a cantrip, you can make one weapon attack as a bonus action.

This is the default ability for the Eldritch Knight. Your player will never take a second glance at it, and poor design like this turns your players off from the subclass.

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, take the attack action, you can cast a cantrip as a bonus action. 

The first proposed change. It'll see use, maybe too much use. The constant extra damage or utility from the cantrips can override the Battlemaster and Champion's abilities, making them seem like the suboptimal choice. Also fairly easy to break with multiclassing.

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, when you take the attack action, you can cast a wizard cantrip as a bonus action.

Issues with this change are identical to the last, with the exception of problems caused by multiclassing. This would be a nice ability to attach to a magic item. 

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, when take the attack action, you can cast a wizard cantrip as a bonus action. You can use this feature a number of times equal to your Intelligence modifier (a minimum of once). You regain all expended uses when you finish a short or long rest.

The final proposed change. Less ideal as a reward in the form of magic item or simply an improvement upon an ability (though your players won't complain for getting it), but makes an excellent replacement for the Eldritch Knight's 7th level ability.

Let me know what you think in the comments.