Classy Considerations: Thematics

We’ll begin this series’ more detailed look today by talking about the dimension of thematics for creating new classes. If you want to design an entirely new class, this is a good starting point–what archetype can you imagine that would make sense as a low-level character that isn’t currently in the game?

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As discussed last week, I think D&D 5e is very well designed in terms of encouraging homebrew material, especially for new class options. However, there are still a number of character archetypes that aren’t really covered under the existing classes. Taking a look at other media and even previous incarnations of D&D, we can see some base classes that exist in those games. Shouldn’t these be options–or at least starting points–for creating new classes out of whole cloth? We’ll begin this series’ more detailed look today by talking about the dimension of thematics for creating new classes.

Theme is a difficult thing to discuss, as its somewhat subjective and there’s no “correct” answer when it comes to whether a certain class can be a certain theme or not. On one hand, you probably have people who wish we had the basic Thief, Fighter, and Magic User classes and could differentiate all character archetypes through them. Rangers are nature-themed Thieves, and monks are Thieves who studied unarmed combat. Your barbarian is an angry Fighter, while the paladin is a divine fighter. Clerics are Magic Users who pray to gods for power; warlocks make bargains for it. To be honest, I think this works if the game is designed that way, but 5e has given each of the base classes mechanically distinct options that differentiate them more than just what you call their power source or specialization, and I like that.

On the other, you have people like me who think that a class is worthy of introduction if it can offer a unique space according to the game’s principles. Even as someone who’s not a fan of D&D 4e, I still enjoy that they tried to create classes for each of the power sources and roles in the game (even if some of them seemed a bit forced). For the dimension of thematics, then, let’s look at how the existing base classes flavor themselves to see what we might be missing. Because these themes tie into other components of class design for this particular RPG, we’ll revisit these descriptions in other parts of the series.

  • Barbarian: An angry, primitive warrior, exhibiting incredible strength and toughness and going into a berserk rage that improves her might.
  • Bard: A musician who harnesses the arcane power of song to support his allies.
  • Cleric: A magic user who prays to the gods for strength, wielding powerful magical abilities.
  • Druid: A magic user who uses the power of nature, shapeshifting into animals and maintaining nature’s balance.
  • Fighter: A trained warrior, using discipline and equipment to be the consummate soldier.
  • Monk: A mystical unarmed warrior with great mobility and strange spiritual powers.
  • Paladin: A mystical warrior equally adept with sword and spell who calls on divine power to protect her allies.
  • Ranger: A nature-themed warrior at home in the wilderness with some primal power as well.
  • Rogue: A skill-based martial character adept at exploration, scouting, and interaction with other game elements, who also uses stealthy attacks to defeat his foes.
  • Sorcerer: A magic user with innate magical ability.
  • Warlock: A magic user who cheated to get it by making a pact with a powerful supernatural entity.
  • Wizard: A magic user who harnesses arcane power through disciplined study.

These are all good and thematically distinct, but can we think of other class themes still missing from this list? If we look briefly back to previous editions, there seem to be some archetypes left out. For starters, the Hexblade, a mystical warrior who curses her foes, wouldn’t work very well in this new edition. Paladins and rangers are similar, maybe, but they don’t really inhibit enemies with arcane magic. The Warlord, a martial leader who shouts commands to his allies, would be difficult to develop at 1st level; fighters are more attack-oriented and don’t get support features early while bards have a strong magical flavor that is difficult if not impossible to overlook. And what about runic magic? It’s a strong fantasy trope that has no immediate support.

Even worse is how the class options system restricts us. Due to the way that works, even if you design class options to support these thematics (like the Battlemaster fighter, for example), it’s still not quite the archetype because it isn’t present for a few levels.* Additionally, our Battlemaster will always be more “fight” than “support” because of its base chassis–no matter how many supportive maneuvers you take, .you will still be encouraged to use the basic Fighter features and often.

As broad as these classes are, there are a number of themes that can’t be supported from 1st level. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it does mean that even some pretty typical archetypes aren’t present in the game on a basic level. If you want to design an entirely new class, this is a good starting point–what archetype can you imagine that would make sense as a low-level character that isn’t currently in the game?

Next time, we’ll keep looking at these holes for what might work as new material.

* I realize that there are a few (well-designed, in my opinion) exceptions: clerics, sorcerers, and warlocks. However, as “full casters,” these only work for themes that would use a lot of magic.

Remembering Our Ancestors: A Homebrew Barbarian Path

Many of the more uncivilized tribes practice some kind of ancestor worship rather than more organized forms of religion. Barbarians who follow this path know that they will never be alone in the heart of the battle: until they meet their own end, those who have preceded them into the final rest will continue to grant their assistance.

With it being Memorial Day weekend, I thought it apt to include a homebrewed path for characters that might wish to call on the power of those who have gone before them. As usual, design notes follow each feature.

Barbarian Path – Path of the Ancestors
Many of the more uncivilized tribes practice some kind of ancestor worship rather than more organized forms of religion. Some of these tribes have taken this a step farther, calling on the departed spirits with their funerary rites to bless those still with the tribe. Barbarians who follow this path know that they will never be alone in the heart of the battle: until they meet their own end, those who have preceded them into the final rest will continue to grant their assistance.

Ancestral Protection: You may summon the spirits of your ancestors for a minor boon. At 3rd level when you adopt this path, you learn the cantrips resistance and guidance, but may use them only on yourself or someone else with this feature.

Not a ton of combat application, but there’s some nice out-of-combat utility from this feature. It’s generally better than the rituals given by the Totem Warrior, though it doesn’t compare with the Totem Spirits. However, it also doesn’t come with the Frenzy drawback, however. I might need to add something minor to bring it up a bit; removing the restriction on targets might be enough.

Ancestral Assistance: At 6th level, you can call on your ancestors to more overtly aid you. When you make an ability check or a saving throw, you can use this feature to add 1d10 to your roll. You can do so after seeing the initial roll but before any of the roll’s effects occur. Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

Basically borrowed from the Fiend Patron, this feature gives you another “active” thing to remember, but it helps ensure that you really make that crucial save.

Ancestral Courage: The spirits surround you and your allies, keeping your minds free from fear. At 10th level, you and friendly creatures within 10 feet of you can’t be frightened while you are conscious.

It’s fairly similar to what the Berserker gets, but this one helps out your allies.

Ancestral Advantage: The spirits of your ancestors manifest more fully, distracting your foes to the benefit of your allies. At 14th level, as long as you’re raging your friends have advantage on melee attack rolls against any creature within 5 feet of you that is hostile to you. You may also expend Ancestral Advantage to gain advantage on all melee attack rolls you make for the rest of your turn, but you can no longer benefit from this feature until after you finish a short or long rest.

So this is recycled from one of the Wolf totem benefits, but it also has a nice “spike” feature if you really need to kill things without also making yourself an easier target. Sure, you can get advantage at will with Reckless Attack, but this one doesn’t have as steep of a drawback in the moment.

If you like this content, you can find additional player options with the DM’s Guild Skull and Shadow. I’ve linked it before, but it’s themed around death and undeath and has a lot of new player options. Additionally, it’s a Pay What You Want title, so you don’t have to spend any money to get it.

Thirsty Thursday: Let’s Homebrew a Cleric Domain

In both long-term D&D campaigns in which I’ve been a player, I was a cleric. Clerics are both extremely valuable and extremely undervalued by players. 5e has thankfully done a good job at making them more attractive to play, but they’re the class that everyone wants but no one wants to play. Healing is very valuable but an often thankless job and not necessarily seen as “cool” by the people who have to do it.

Having said that, they’re a useful plot element for the assumed polytheism of D&D, and 5e has given them some neat tricks that make them a bit more attractive. This week we’re going to reintroduce an old domain, Exorcism, that still falls pretty close to a “typical” cleric.

Exorcism Domain

The most malevolent fiends take mortal servants by possession, stealing their bodies for vile acts. To combat these monsters, deities may empower their servants to keep evil creatures away from the Material Plane. Deities who offer this domain are generally good or occasionally lawful deities concerned with defending the innocent and opposing evil with corresponding force. Deities that might offer this domain include St. Cuthbert, Ilmater, and the Silver Flame. Clerics with this path focus on magical protections and countering the manifestations of evil.

Exorcism Domain Spells

  • 1st protection from good and evil, sanctuary
  • 3rdcalm emotions, warding bond
  • 5thbeacon of hope, magic circle
  • 7thbanishment, freedom of movement
  • 9thcircle of power, dispel evil and good

(The spell list here is very defensive and focused on dealing with extraplanar threats. This makes a whole lot of sense for what we’re trying to do.)

Bonus Proficiency: When you choose this domain at 1st level, you gain proficiency with heavy armor. (This makes the cleric a bit sturdier, like several other domains, but doesn’t add a lot of offensive ability.)

Mental Ward: At 1st level, your faith provides you a measure of protection against mental effects. Whenever you make an Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma saving throw, you can use your reaction to gain advantage on it. You can use this ability a number of times equal to your Wisdom modifier (minimum 1). You regain all expended uses after finishing a long rest. (This cleric will be very difficult to hit with mental effects.)

Channel Divinity: Turn the Faithless: At 2nd level, you can use your Channel Divinity to frighten extraplanar creatures. This ability is identical to Turn Undead as described on p. 59 of the Player’s Handbook except that it affects fiends and fey creatures. Creatures with a Challenge Rating higher than your cleric level have advantage on the saving throw. (Although this isn’t particularly thrilling, it’s probably reasonably balanced. It also gives another option against the enemies you’d presume this character will face.)

Improved Mental Ward: At 6th level, you can use your Mental Ward ability when an ally within 30 feet of you makes an Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma saving throw to give them advantage on the roll. (This is similar to how the Light cleric ability upgrades, but it works with the theme. Your party will be glad to have you around.)

Divine Strike: At 8th level, once on each of your turns you can infuse your weapon strikes with divine energy, causing the attack to deal an extra 1d8 psychic damage. When you reach 14th level, the extra damage increases to 2d8. (All clerics get this or Potent Spellcasting. I think either would fit for this character and basically just made a choice. Psychic damage feels like the best fit for this domain; force would be the runner-up)

Expel Afflictions: At 17th level, you can use your action to touch an adjacent creature and end one of the following conditions: charmed, frightened, petrification, or poisoned. (This seems pretty strong, but it’s really a supportive variation on something the monk gets much earlier. It’s pretty good, though, and can save you some spell slots on restoring your allies. Adjacency limits the utility somewhat, forcing the cleric into danger to use it.)

 

Like this content? There’s a new DM’s Guild release “The Heavens Above” you can find here.

Faction-Building, Part 6: Re-Visiting Scope

When you create factions, you should think about the scope they will entail.

I began this series thinking about the goals for my particular faction, and fleshing out their motivations helped lead me to a relatively cohesive group that has a number of hooks through which you could involve players. Having gone through this process, I wanted to re-visit a concept that I implicitly used in creating this group but didn’t detail much at the time. I said that I wanted them to have some influence but not be an insurmountable obstacle–basically, strong enough to make things difficult on my players but not so strong as to make fighting them seem pointless or overwhelming. This kind of decision is highly dependent on the players you have, and as I was writing I was thinking about low-level / early adventurers as my target in mind. Most adventuring seems to take place at relatively low levels, and the kinds of things players can do at this point aren’t quite world-shaking in importance just yet. This leads nicely into our discussion topic for today: scope.

When you create factions, you should think about the scope they will entail. There are different ways you could categorize this, but I want to approach the topic from a geo-political perspective. The way I see it, you can consider a group’s scope based on how big an area they can influence.

  • Local: A single village or town. Local groups should care about things farther away, but they don’t have the resources or manpower to affect such things very much. A local organization probably doesn’t need a lot of faction-building, given that they’ll be so small. Examples might include a Council of Elders or the Baron’s Elite Guard.
  • Regional: A larger city or network of villages or towns. Regional groups have a limited network and mean that the party’s actions in one place might have consequences nearby. Examples might include a city’s Magic College or valley-wide trading union.
  • Provincial: Larger provinces or “states” that might occupy a range of different geographical features. Groups at this level are much more powerful, and many of these regions have governing bodies to secure their interests. Although city-states may exist in your world, this is generally the level at which strong independent governments may begin forming. Examples here might be a minor culture’s religion or a general’s provincial legion.
  • National: Collections of regions united under a single government and suitable adversaries for high-level players. These groups are not going to be defeated in a fortnight. National groups and larger lend themselves to competing sub-factions, such as rival religious leaders or warlords. Examples here might be the emperor’s secret police or the official national religion.
  • Continental: Essentially the major territories in which you might expect your players to act, continental groups are extremely powerful and almost impossible to eradicate. Examples here might include an international peace-keeping organization or wide-ranging secret society. You could even include global organizations as an additional step up, though there likely won’t be much difference.

The Shields of Abigil work very nicely at a local or regional scope, making them a suitable organization with which low-level adventurers can interact. Their concerns are somewhat individualized and fairly minor, and even her lieutenants have small-scope ambitions. Alanis the Druid is concerned with protecting her small stretch of the woods, and Wari’s interest in invasion might be predicated on the region being small and not getting a lot of help from elsewhere. The land over which Abigil and Gyliam are concerned might not be worth an international war. If I wanted to scale this group up, I’d have to rethink the scope of their goals as well. If it were a battle over who would be the next imperial ruler, that would be more suitable for a national or continental sort of conflict.

In conclusion, when you design factions, think about what scope your campaign needs. Are they low-level characters confined to a small geographic area? Are you planning something world-spanning that only extremely powerful people can hope to resist? What are you going to need to engage your players considering their position in society? Don’t have everything planned out from level 1 or force them to resist a global conspiracy in their first adventure–it’s something toward which you have to build.

Classy Considerations

I thought I’d run a primer for some questions to ask if you’re considering making a new class rather than a new class option for 5e. Looking at them with a critical eye, I think the 5e designers had these aspects in mind.

Despite being someone who did a ton of homebrew building for Warcraft material in D&D‘s 3rd edition, 5e is so much better for homebrewing and a more balanced system to use from the ground up. I think the design team did very well in creating 5e, but I do happen to think there are still some gaps that could be explored with additional classes–not just new class options for the existing 12. I’ve already developed several in my homebrew efforts here, but I thought I’d run a primer for some questions to ask if you’re considering making a new class rather than a new class option for 5e. The existing classes all distinguish themselves in a number of ways from one another, but, looking at them with a critical eye, I think the 5e designers had these aspects in mind.

  1. Thematics – what is the core character archetype fulfilled by this class? As you think about the different classes, they generally embody a particular fantasy trope, or you can think of a group of fictional characters that would fit with that class. Some classes may be thematic overlaps of others–the paladin is like a cross between the warrior and priest, for example. This also ties into considerations of “power” source, to borrow a concept from 4e’s handbooks.
  2. Mechanics – what is the class’s unique mechanical aspect(s)? These can be major building blocks of the class or fairly minor and even further subdivided. Your full casters have some similarities to one another, but spell lists still distinguish them, and each has their own unique mechanic as well. Creating a new class should have something from a rules perspective that makes them different.
  3. Roles – what is the class supposed to do within a D&D group? Dungeons & Dragons is generally a cooperative game, and for years a “balanced” party has been made up of a front-line heavy, damage dealer, magical utility specialist, and support character. Or, to again put it into 4e terms, a Defender, Striker, Controller, and Leader–for all of my criticisms of that edition, I think codifying these roles is helpful for people trying to understand the game. (They’re not necessarily for new players, but as a critic I find them helpful terms.) 5e has also had a trend toward making all characters provide some support (at least potentially), which makes your typical Leader players feel like they’re shouldering less of the burden and thanklessness of helping everyone out.
  4. 5/31 Update: Flexibility – is the class broad enough to encompass multiple archetypes? In other words, is the class so narrowly defined that it won’t have class options? 5e is designed to have some flexibility within classes so that they can embody a wide range of characters, and I’ve seen a few homebrew classes that are probably just too narrow to warrant this kind of implementation. If you can think of multiple different characters that would fit as part of this class, it’s probably a good start.

If you can’t find unique space within these areas, you should probably make your idea into a class option. For instance, I might want a heavy-hitting frontliner who gets a lot of attacks but calls on nature magic to power his abilities. Thematically, that may be unique, but I want a mechanically generic Defender–why don’t I just make a Fighter Archetype instead? It will still be new, but it won’t require the same work as a full class. Or perhaps I like the idea of a melee warrior using nature magic–but in that case I can take inspiration from the Eldritch Knight and Arcane Trickster and do a Barbarian archetype with druidic spells. You need to find multiple dimensions of need before you set out to design a whole new class.

Perhaps there is an area or two I’ve missed–let me know if you think there’s some other consideration I’m ignoring.

In upcoming entries, I want to explore these further through the lens of homebrewed classes I’ve done to break down some of the design decisions I’ve made. For your thoughts: what classes do you find missing in 5e? How would you find unique space for them within this 5e framework?

Thirsty Thursday: Let’s Homebrew a Blighter Druid

The evil druid or “blighter” has long been a part of D&D, so I felt I would do my own take on the idea.

Like barbarians, bards, rangers, and sorcerers, druids have only two published options for players to use. One of the things that inspired my homebrew material was dissatisfaction with such a lack of options–getting a binary choice doesn’t feel very good. Thankfully, there are a number of additional thematics and power sources the Player’s Handbook didn’t cover, so I imagine I can be introducing things for a long time.

For this class option, I again looked to previous editions for inspiration. The evil druid or “blighter” has long been a part of D&D, so I felt I would do my own take on the idea. It also incorporates a bit of a concern for nature Interestingly, when I suggested this archetype at various places online, a lot of people told me this was a bad idea and didn’t fit with what a druid would be. This attitude doesn’t make any sense to me–if you think a druid shouldn’t revere death, that’s one thing, but it’s been a trope in D&D and it doesn’t seem to take much imagination to see how one might reach such a conclusion. And if you wouldn’t allow druids like that in your world, that’s fine (though what would you do with a character with those motivations?), but that doesn’t mean you can say “Druids can’t be that in your world, either!” Strange.

Anyway, here’s a take on the druid that introduces a bit of darkness into the class.

Circle of Decay (Blighter)

Some druids reject the call to become guardians of natural life, instead seeking its balance in death and destruction. Nature renews itself through decomposition, they believe, and members of this circle have an affinity for plants and fungi that feed on the detritus of animal life. Unlike many of their brethren, these druids also see the undead as part of this natural cycle, learning to channel necromantic energies and even assume the shape of undead creatures as their power grows. Organized Circles of Decay are rare due to their dark powers being persecuted in many places, but these druids nevertheless believe they serve a valuable function. Colloquially, druids who follow the Circle of Decay are often known as “blighters” due to their wielding of rot and disease.

Blighter’s Shape: When you choose this circle, you lose the ability to Wild Shape into animal forms. Instead, you may use your action to assume the form of a plant or undead creature you have seen before. This feature is in all other ways identical to the Wild Shape class feature, including its limitations. (Although this gives you a few advantages over the normal Wild Shape, it’s also much less versatile.)

Blighter’s Touch: When you choose this circle, you gain the ability to strengthen your attacks with necrotic energy. As a bonus action, you can spend a spell slot. Your melee weapon attacks or natural weapon attacks deal an additional 1d4 necrotic damage for a number of rounds equal to the spell level of the slot expended. (Similar to the paladin’s Divine Smite but toned down because of the druid’s greater spell ability. Works during Blighter’s Shape, though.)

Circle Spells: Your connection to the forces of death and decay grants you additional spells. At 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th level you gain circle spells that are always prepared and do not count against the number of spells you can prepare each day. These spells are considered druid spells for you. (Reinforces the anti-nature / death thematic.)

  • 3rd – darkness, ray of enfeeblement
  • 5th – animate dead, vampiric touch
  • 7th – blight, grasping vine
  • 9th – antilife shell, cloudkill

Inescapable Destruction: At 6th level, your ability to channel negative energy becomes even more potent. Necrotic damage dealt by your druid spells and abilities ignores resistance to necrotic damage. (Borrowed feature, but it makes your Blighter’s Touch a bit stronger.)

Shadow Projection: At 10th level, you may call upon the powers of death to temporarily shed your mortal body, transmuting yourself into a spectral undead creature. You may spend two uses of Wild Shape at the same time to transform into a Banshee, Wraith, or similar creature at your Dungeon Master’s discretion (see Monster Manual for statistics). (More versatility for Wild Shape, like the Elemental Wild Shape feature.)

Blighter’s Command: As your strength grows, you gain greater command over the powers of decay. At 14th level, you may use your action to enchant a plant or undead creature at will. This feature otherwise functions identically to the spell crown of madness. (Some additional utility and control ability. Similar to what Greater Old One warlocks or Nature clerics get, though more limited.)

Any themes you’d like to see for this edition? Let me know and I’ll probably put something together.

Like this content? You can find this class option and other homebrewed material here.

Faction-Building, Part 5: Making Friends Instead of Enemies

This time, we’re going to look at a couple of scenarios and how they could be adapted if you would rather have your players ally with Abigil and her cause.

We know quite a bit about our group, the Shields of Abigil. They fight a covert battle against Gyliam the Noble in an effort to restore Abigil’s status while making things better for the common folk. There are a few associated members with their own agendas that don’t really line up with Abigil’s cause. Involvement with this faction is also likely to be more roleplaying or creative problem-solving than throwing a bunch of damage at the issue.

Last time, we assumed that our players wouldn’t investigate the Shields very closely. Whether they formed a partnership with Gyliam or just generally didn’t care to talk through things, they could easily find themselves opposing the Shields for one reason or another. This time, we’re going to look at a couple of (admittedly similar) scenarios and how they could be adapted if you would rather have your players ally with Abigil and her cause.

Scenario 1: A Boorish Affair

Under this scenario, the group is approached by one of the members of Abigil’s faction, informing them of Gyliam’s oppression and pleading with them to do something about it. Luckily, they know that Gyliam is preparing a major feast, and they think they can get the group invited. This time, your players are tasked with sabotaging this party. However, they need to be subtle about it–if they are caught, Gyliam will get wind of Abigil’s efforts and stamp them out. You can have the Shields member make suggestions if you like or leave it up to their own creativity. Side note: whenever you give your players free reign like this, they’ll almost certainly surprise you.

Scenario 2: Tournament of Champions

In this approach, Abigil has approached the players to act as her representatives in this upcoming tournament. If you use this scenario, you should have contests for each of your players. For the minor contests, your magic user might have  to identify different spells as they are cast, the rogue or bard may get a Performance opportunity, and the barbarian might have a test of strength. The cleric might even get to play “tag” with a group of undead–once one touches him or her, the game is over. Additionally, you should probably make a final battle where they can fight as a team in the tournament against Gyliam’s representatives–an adventuring party like themselves.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about creating this faction is that we ended with a group that encourages conversation and subtlety. This isn’t an approach for everyone; if you have players who would prefer to dungeon delve or fight heroic battles, so be it! Nevertheless, these suggestions might be an alternative if you find yourself tired of fantasy combat or just want more roleplaying opportunities for your players.

If you use this group, let me know what you think.

Next: more generic thoughts on faction-building.