Martial Spellcasters (Gish Builds), Part 1

Previous editions had some real problems with multiclass characters. In some cases they didn’t exist (BECMI, ignoring the ‘prestige’ versions of the classes), were way too effective while at the same time being strictly structured (AD&D), or tended to pretty much cripple multiclass characters unless various patches and workarounds were applied (D&D 3.x). I’ve read from D&D 4e proponents that multiclassing possible there doesn’t suck, but I really haven’t investigated.

Echelon is essentially a classless system. For the last month I have been talking about various roles (martial, spellcaster, etc.) and using D&D classes as a shorthand for character type, but there really is nothing requiring characters to follow particular construction paths. I don’t doubt that a character whose talents relate to and support each other (such as Martial Training and the Martial Discipline Talents) will be more effective in the chosen character facet than someone who does not have supporting talents. While I have not fully tested (or even done in-depth analysis of) the Eldritch Weaving framework or the Martial Disciplines framework (the second attempts at each of the two subjects) I am fairly confident they would be playable – perhaps not the best-balanced, but playable.

The arcane warrior (sometimes called a gish) is a very popular character type that blends martial ability and spellcasting. A lot of people have been very disappointed with how D&D 3.x handled this.

With Echelon’s emphasis on always providing level-appropriate abilities a character doesn’t need to trade away abilities that would have been gained at higher levels in a class for abilities that would be gained at low levels, but is still constrained in how many talents he can have at higher levels. I believe this should provide a reasonable framework for characters with mixed abilities (such as the arcane warrior or divine wizard).

After my posts recently about spellcasting and martial disciplines, it seems a good time to try building some arcane warriors.

I’d expected to get to higher levels than I have here, but I decided to include straightforward builds for straight martial and caster characters for comparison, to see what the arcane warrior is trying to combine. I’ve also included some notes on what a similar design in D&D 3.x might look like (Fighter/Wizard with as close to balanced levels as possible – not terribly efficient in places, but I’m not tuning the other characters either).

Building a Gish

For this point I may mention things that have not yet been published. In some cases they’re in the works, in others I’m trying to fill blanks. I’ll identify which is which as I go.

In this article I plan to build characters that use a mix of spellcasting and martial disciplines. Any particular character may or may not be balanced between these two areas, but should have reasonably usable amounts of each. In fact, the way the talent slots work out it is likely only at the top end of a tier that a reasonably balanced build (three talents in each area) is possible – up to then one talent must exceed the other.

I’m going to write these up as a simple martial character (some discipline training but maximizing attack bonus), primary caster with some item creation ability (Craft Skill), and at least one gish build (usually one, as close to balanced as I can get, but at first level it just isn’t possible to get close because of the slots available).

Alnorn Gorthak, Level 1 Dwarf

I will assume for now that Alnorn has Con 14, Int 14, Strength 14. Being a dwarf, he’s probably always going to be at least a little bit gishy (even the pure caster carries a battleaxe, at least, and is fully proficient with it if not as skilled as the other characters).

Clean Builds

Martial Caster
  • Expert Martial Training
  • Expert Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes, +1 critical multiplier and +1 AC.
  • Basic Armor Focus (medium and heavy armor ‘proficiency’)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • Basic Toughness (+10 hit points)
  • Expert Caster Training (+1)
  • Expert Thread (Runes)
  • Basic Martial Training
  • Basic Craft (smithing)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • BAB +1
  • 32 hit points
  • d10+2/x4 battleaxe
  • +1 AC
  • BAB +0
  • 14 hit points
  • d6+2/x2 battleaxe
  • 6/2 spellcasting
  • 1st-level Rune spells
  • Can make Basic Masterwork metal items, Basic enchantments

Spellcasters can add their Intelligence modifier to the number of cantrip slots they have available (which are used only to prepare; you can cast as many cantrips each day as you want).

Gish Builds

Martial Gish Caster Gish
  • Expert Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes, +1 critical multiplier and +1 AC.
  • Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Basic Spellcasting Training (cantrips)
  • Basic Armor Focus (medium and heavy armor ‘proficiency’)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • Expert Caster Training (+1)
  • Expert Thread (Runes)
  • Basic Martial Training
  • Basic Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • BAB +0
  • 14 hit points
  • d8+2/x4 battleaxe
  • +1 AC
  • prepare maneuvers 1/- + 1 Stone Dragon up to 1st level
  • 5/- spellcasting
  • Cantrips only
  • BAB +0
  • 14 hit points
  • d8+2/x3 battleaxe
  • CL 1, 6/2 spellcasting
  • 1st-level Rune spells

I had a ‘balanced gish’ build here initially, but it’s not terribly meaningful because I ended up with ‘Expert Thread (Runes)’ without a caster level, or Caster Level +1 with no spells to cast – though I suppose he could cast some heightened cantrips. Given that I’ve recalibrated saving throws by using the higher of spell level and Intelligence modifier, and this character’s Intelligence modifier is +2, there’d be no real benefit unless there was a direct contest between spells.

I’m not sure what thread talents would do if you don’t have Caster Training to back them (this is probably only a problem at really low levels). It might be suitable to safely use spell completion items, but I like the idea of enchantment (enchantment rules not yet written) to depend on spell knowledge rather than ability to actually cast. Artificers would thus be expected to have good crafting skills and broad spell knowledge, without necessarily being able to cast spells. Yes, yes I do like that idea.

So far the differences aren’t very big. The martial gish is a little tougher and tends to hit harder, but has only cantrips (well, and relatively comfortable use of heavier armor), the caster gish has better spellcasting.

D&D 3.x Gish Build

Frankly cannot be done at this point unless you use the “apprentice class” rules from the DMG 3.0 or choose contra-class feats (Fighter with Wizard-good feats or Wizard with a Fighter-good feat).

On the other hand, in practical terms that basically describes what I’ve presented above, so I can’t say it’s totally bad.

Alnorn Gorthak, Level 3 Dwarf

He’s spent some time delving deeper into the mountains and recovered a valuable item for the Moot, who arranged for him to get further training.

Clean Builds

Martial Caster
  • Expert Martial Training +1
  • Improved Expert Martial Training +1
  • Expert Combat Style (Iron Dragon)
  • Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Basic Armor Focus (medium and heavy armor ‘proficiency’)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • Basic Toughness (+10 hit points)
  • Expert Caster Training (+1)
  • Improved Expert Caster Training (+1)
  • Expert Thread (Runes)
  • Expert Thread (Earth)
  • Expert Craft (Smithing)
  • Basic Martial Training
  • Basic Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • BAB +3
  • 48 hit points
  • d8+2/x4 battleaxe
  • +1 AC
  • IL 2, 2/- +1 Stone Dragon up to 1st level
  • BAB +1
  • 22 hit points
  • d8+2/x3 battleaxe
  • CL 3, 6/3/2 spellcasting
  • 2nd-level Rune, Earth spells
  • Can make Expert Masterwork metal items, Expert enchantments

Gish Build

This is just about as balanced as an arcane caster can get at this point. At higher levels it can be better because the lower-tier slots can be filled with various talents supporting the combat and arcane sides more evenly, right now they just aren’t available. It doesn’t help that I soaked up three of the Basic slots with being a dwarf.

Gish
  • Expert Martial Training +1
  • Expert Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes, +1 critical multiplier and +1 AC
  • Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Expert Caster Training +1
  • Expert Thread (Runes)
  • Basic Craft (Smithing)
  • Basic Armor Focus (medium and heavy armor ‘proficiency’)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • BAB +2
  • 30 hit points
  • d8+4/x4 battleaxe
  • +1 AC
  • IL 2, 2/- + 1 Stone Dragon up to 1st level
  • CL 2, 6/3 spellcasting
  • 1st-level Rune spells
  • Can make Basic Masterwork metal items, Basic Enchantments

This build looks a reasonable balance between the two straight characters. He might want to trade off heavy armor use if it interferes with runecasting (which it might not). He has a decent number of spells but has slightly lower max spell level and two spells less than the straight caster and only half as many known. The save DCs are comparable (Int modifier +2 overrides spell level for all save DCs here). He is reasonably capable, but can be outcast by the straight caster and outfought by the straight martial.

D&D 3.x Gish Build

At this point he would be a Wiz2/Ftr1 or Ftr2/Wiz1. He’ll have BAB +2, about 21 or 24 hit points, and access to cantrips and some first-level spells. He’ll also have one or two Fighter feats and Scribe Scroll.

Alnorn Gorthak, Level 5 Dwarf

Alnorn’s really building a name for himself and tales are being told about his prowess and adventures (Heroic tier).

Clean Builds

Martial Caster
  • Heroic Martial Training +2
  • Heroic Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – x5 crit, +2 AC
  • Improved Expert Martial Training +1
  • Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Improved Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Expert Discipline Devoted Spirit
  • Basic Armor Focus (medium and heavy armor ‘proficiency’)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • Basic Toughness (+10 hit points)
  • Heroic Caster Training (+2)
  • Heroic Thread (Earth)
  • Improved Expert Caster Training (+1)
  • Expert Intelligence (+2, 1/day +4 feat of Intelligence)
  • Expert Thread (Runes)
  • Expert Craft (Smithing)
  • Basic Martial Training
  • Basic Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • BAB +5
  • 64 hit points
  • d8+2/x5 battleaxe
  • +2 AC
  • IL 4, 3/2 +1 Stone Dragon up to 2nd level, +1 Devoted Spirit up to 1st level
  • BAB +2
  • 30 hit points
  • d6+2/x2 battleaxe
  • CL 5, 7/4/3/2 spellcasting
  • 3rd-level Earth, 2nd-level Rune spells
  • Can make Expert Masterwork metal items, Expert enchantments

This is just about as balanced as an arcane caster can get at this point. At higher levels it can be better because the lower-tier slots can be filled with various talents supporting the combat and arcane sides more evenly, right now they just aren’t available. It doesn’t help that I soaked up three of the Basic slots with being a dwarf.

Gish Build

Gish
  • Heroic Martial Training +2
  • Heroic Caster Training +2
  • Expert Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes, +1 critical multiplier and +1 AC
  • Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Improved Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Expert Thread (Runes)
  • Expert Thread (Warrior)
  • Basic Craft (Smithing)
  • Basic Armor Focus (medium and heavy armor ‘proficiency’)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • BAB +4
  • 46 hit points
  • d8+2/x4 battleaxe
  • +1 AC
  • IL 4, 3/2- + 1 Stone Dragon up to 2nd level
  • CL 4, 6/4/3 spellcasting
  • 2nd-level Rune and Warrior spells
  • Can make Basic Masterwork metal items, Basic enchantments

D&D 3.x Gish Build

This would be a Ftr3/Wiz2 or Wiz3/Ftr2. He’d have BAB +4 (and first-level spells) or BAB +3 (and second-level spells). A Ftr5 would have BAB +5 and another feat, a Wiz5 would have third-level spells. The difference between the gish and the straight classes is getting bigger.

Alnorn Gorthak, Level 7 Dwarf

Clean Build

Martial Caster
  • Heroic Martial Training +2
  • Heroic Improved Martial Training +2
  • Heroic Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – x5 crit, +2 AC
  • Heroic Discipline Devoted Spirit
  • Heroic Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Improved Expert Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Improved Expert Discipline Devoted Spirit
  • Expert Strength (+2, 1/day +4 feat of Strength)
  • Expert Fortitude (+2 Fort, etc.)
  • Basic Armor Focus (medium and heavy armor ‘proficiency’)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • Basic Toughness (+10 hit points)
  • Heroic Caster Training (+2)
  • Heroic Improved Caster Training (+2)
  • Heroic Thread (Earth)
  • Heroic Thread (Runes)
  • Heroic Intelligence (+4, 2/day +8 feat of Intelligence)
  • Expert Thread (Knowledge)
  • Expert Thread (Storms)
  • Expert Thread (Wards)
  • Expert Will (+2 Will, etc.)
  • Expert Craft (Smithing)
  • Basic Martial Training
  • Basic Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • BAB +7
  • 80 hit points
  • d8+3/x5 battleaxe
  • +2 AC
  • IL 7, 4/3/2/1 +1 Stone Dragon up to 4th level, +1 Devoted Spirit up to 4th level
  • +2 Fortitude
  • BAB +3
  • 38 hit points
  • d6+2/x2 battleaxe
  • CL 7, 8/5/4/3/2 spellcasting
  • 4th-level Earth, Rune spells; 2nd-level Knowledge, Storms, Wards spells
  • Can make Expert Masterwork metal items, Expert enchantments
  • +2 Will

Gish Build

The gish’s power generally lags the others by about a level (caster level 6 compared to caster level 7, initiator level 6 compared to initiator level 7, base attack bonus +5 compared to base attack bonus +7). At these levels it costs him one level of power (spell level or maneuver level). He can probably get one level higher for one of these three at the following even level (increase attack bonus or caster level or initiator level) but cannot do all three, so he may end up with “+0/-1/2” or “-1/-1/-1” for the three (depending what he improves). The others have started branching out more in their areas of expertise (greater spell knowledge, Intelligence, Will, and Craft skill, or more maneuvers, greater Strength and Fortitude).

Gish
  • Heroic Martial Training +2
  • Heroic Caster Training +2
  • Heroic Combat Style (Iron Dragon) – axes, +2 critical multiplier and +2 AC
  • Heroic Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Heroic Thread (Warrior)
  • Expert Improved Discipline Stone Dragon
  • Expert Discipline Devoted Spirit
  • Expert Improved Caster Training
  • Expert Thread (Runes)
  • Expert Thread (Warrior)
  • Basic Craft (Smithing)
  • Basic Armor Focus (medium and heavy armor ‘proficiency’)
  • Dwarf (three basic talents)
  • BAB +5
  • 54 hit points
  • d8+2/x5 battleaxe
  • +2 AC
  • IL 6, 3/3/2- + 1 Stone Dragon up to 3rd level, +1 Devoted Spirit up to 1st level
  • CL 6, 6/4/4/2 spellcasting (no Int bonus for 3rd level, will have one next level from capstone “+1 to all ability scores”)
  • 3nd-level Warrior spells, 2nd-level Rune spells
  • Can make Basic Masterwork metal items, Basic enchantments

D&D 3.x Gish Build

This would be a Ftr4/Wiz3 or Wiz4/Ftr3. He’d have BAB +5 and second-level spells either way (just different numbers of spells and combat feats). A Ftr7 would have BAB +7 and another iterative attack, a Wiz7 would have fourth-level spells.

The differences are getting bigger again.

Interim Observation

I call this an ‘interim observation’ because I don’t yet know enough to call it a conclusion and therefore might find something that causes me to change my mind.

So far, these look not too bad. The very low-level characters don’t have a lot of differentiation, and I didn’t really expect them to. Even the martial and caster characters don’t have as pronounced differences as I thought they might, but I think that is largely due to my laziness in making them both dwarves to soak up three Basic talents instead of Doing It Right and giving them different sets of Basic talents better suited to their intended purpose.

It is also worth mentioning that the gish builds above were intended to be as balanced as possible. Other blends are possible, such as splitting between tiers instead of within them. If this is done you could end up with a character with maximum attack bonus and basically one martial discipline at top tier, then a tier down have his spellcasting (caster level two less and lesser spell knowledge). For example, you could have a Master-tier character with Master-grade martial ability with a single discipline (two talents for Martial Training +6, one for Combat Style, two for Martial Discipline Training, at 11th level) and Heroic-grade spellcasting (two talents for Caster Training +4, three for Thread Talents and a total of 36 spells known of up to 4th level, plus cantrips).

It’s also possible as you get even higher to more or less ‘un-gish’ yourself. The arcane warrior above could choose to ignore the spellcasting side of his abilities and focus again on his martial abilities. Eventually his top two or three tiers might be spent entirely on combat abilities. He retains some nifty tricks from his youth, but he’s a much closer match in a fight to the straight martial character than he is now. He could also go the other way, of course, and become a now-respected arch-wizard with a bit of a rough-and-tumble past.

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3 Comments

  1. hadsil

    I like the look of this too.

    In D&D obviously a multiclass spellcaster is not magically as powerful as a single class spellcaster, but I find too many people harp on that. When you consider spellcasting to be augmenting your other class and stop thinking your character is primarily a spellcaster, then you have a better perspective on how well your character actually is. However, 3E still needed a patch for “true” warrior-mages via Prestige Class or Duskblade.

    I rarely multiclass in D&D. If I were to gish in Echelon, I’d be fine with not casting every spell from every school. I’d pick the two or three schools I really want and be a warrior with the rest of my talents, give or take depending on details and mood at the time.

    Personal bias: I always play humans in D&D out of spite, though in 3E they don’t suck and even Pathfinder gave them a +2 ability score. With dwarf eating three talents in Echelon, I definitely see myself looking forward to playing a human. I’m a powergamer, and I want every talent slot to count. :D

    Echelon – what 4E should have been. ;)

  2. FWIW, even a dedicated caster isn’t going to be able to cast every spell from every school (or thread, rather). He simply doesn’t have the talent slots.

    For that matter, I’m thinking of making the casters grow similarly to the martial adepts. Disciplines end up costing more altogether than the caster does. Casting costs two slots to keep maximized, then one per thread to keep them up. Martial disciplines cost one to get access to a set of disciplines (and improvements with the weapons used for that combat style, true), then two per discipline to keep up.

    You get more spells (which are generally better than maneuvers anyway) than you do maneuvers. The martial adept pays more for fewer tricks (does get some other stuff, but that’s probably outmatched by the thread powers too, once they come online).

    I think I’ll do a post soon about tweaks that can be made to these character facets. I can see a number of ways to adjust their power and flexibility.

  3. And thanks for your vote of confidence, though I’m deliberately moving away from a number of D&Disms (“no classes” is the big one, though I’m keeping levels).

    Oh, and another thing — I think I see a way to keep “divine” and “arcane” distinctions, of a sort, or at least make it so it is profitable to keep to somehow-related powers. Let me think about it a bit more.

    I really need a To-Do List. I’ve got access to ticket systems, but something here might be nicer, especially if people can see it.

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