Variant Specialist Wizards

I have always liked the idea of specialist wizards, but have never really been fond of the implementation.  A couple barred schools of magic (only one if specializing in Divination, because it sucks), in exchange for an extra spell slot per spell level and a +2 bonus to Spellcraft checks relating to spells of the specialized school.  As I recall the AD&D Second Edition specialist wizard was ever so slightly more school-specific, but not enough to really matter.

It might be possible to get more formulaic and boring, but if that happens I’d prefer to not see it.

I’ve long wanted to run a campaign where all wizards were expected to be specialists, and really want to for my West Marches-style sandbox campaign.  I don’t have the heart to make my players take on the lame implementation from the core rules.  I’ve taken a couple of runs at improving the situation but never got around to wrapping it up.  At some point I’ll dig through the archives to post here what I had written.  I remember there being a prestige class solution (that was never really completed) and a feat-based solution (that had a lot of feats that could encourage or help specialization) that never got tried for real.  Neither of these mandated specialization, they merely rewarded it.

I want to see specialist wizards that are notably different from each other.  They are based on the same framework, but do somewhat different things.

There are a few sources of inspiration (or at least ideas) that could help here.

  • Unearthed Arcana provides some tools to help with this, alternate class abilities suitable for specialists that take the place of standard or specialist abilities.  The bonus feats, familiar, and bonus spell slots are all subject to replacement with these new abilities.  I don’t necessarily like all of the suggested abilities, but they do provide a starting point.
  • The Dragonlance core book has the White, Red, and Black Robe wizards.  Each group specializes in different schools of magic and must choose from specific opposed schools, and at higher levels they may specialize in two schools of magic (at a total cost of three or four barred schools).  I will likely want to review this material later.

For now I’m leaning toward the meta-class approach, using the wizard class as a framework for building actual specialist classes.  A character may be a member of only one of these classes and may not be a generalist wizard.

D&D Meta-Classes

In AD&D 2e you could choose your weapon and nonweapon proficiencies (optional rule), thieves could choose how to distribute their skill points, and (in the Complete Priests Handbook) speciality priests could have different ‘spheres’ that controlled what spells they had access to and influenced the powers they received.

D&D 3e started making classes even more flexible.  In all cases you can choose the skills you learn and to what degree, and all characters get feats that can change aspects of the character.  The multiclassing options were greater than before and offered even more flexibility.

Many classes also had options for customization as well.  Spell casters could select spells that suited their concept (such as a ‘fire mage’ or ‘necromancer’), clerics could choose domains that affected spell selection and granted powers specific to the domains, fighter could pick even more feats, rangers could pick favored enemies, and so on.  Barbarians, not so much.

This covers just the D&D core rules.  Over time even more options became available.  Among them,

  • Green Ronin, in Book of the Righteous, provided the “holy warrior” class as an alternative to the core rules paladin.  Like clerics, holy warriors had domains that governed the powers and spells they gained through their class.
  • Unearthed Arcana described variant classes and class options that could change a character class.  For instance, class options that changed barbarian ‘rage’ to ‘frenzy’ (strength vs. speed), changed druidic wildshape to ‘aspects’, and replacement abilities for specialist wizards.
  • A number of supplements and Dragon Magazine articles presented ‘substitution levels’ that replaced, for some characters, specific class abilities.  For instance, a ‘dwarven paladin’ might have a substitution level that changes his remove disease ability to something involving stone or divination.
  • Fantasy Flight Games, in their Path of… series and Dawnforge presented ‘legendary classes’ that gave some basic class benefits (base attack bonus and saving throws, possibly continuing spell casting) and then had the specific abilities for each such character chosen at each level.  Each level in the class would provide the character a new benefit (ability, power, or the like) scaled by the class level at which it was taken.
  • Pathfinder expanded the flexible nature of the classes.  Even more classes gained choices and alternate abilities and so on.

From an engineering perspective, I like this.  I’m all about flexibility and tend to dislike designs that restrict that.  A tool that may be used in many ways is, to my mind, a good tool.  If this tool can be used in ways that were not planned (or necessarily even imagined) by the designer it is even better.

However, as a GM and player… it might be a bit much, really.  The increase in flexibility brings with it the need for players (and GMs during preparation) to make more choices.  While choice is good, the sheer volume (not number, volume) of choices is starting to reduce the value of the decisions (and the ease of making them; “I can heal stuff” is an easy decision, “I can heal this and this, but not that” can be higher-resolution decision-making than it needs to be).

Echelon simplifies this by having talents that try to include as much as possible of the things people with the talent should be able to do.  When building a character you simply choose the broad categories of things that the character can do and work out how they fit together (since most talents don’t directly interact this should be fairly straightforward).  On one hand this is even more flexible (you have pretty free choice of talents) and thus would be even more time-consuming, but the pieces are large enough that they can be easily worked with (and don’t interact much directly, reducing the effort of connecting things).

This post isn’t about Echelon, though, but about how the increasing flexibility of class design in D&D may be used more efficiently and easily.

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Valkyrie Class, Tweaked

GreyKnight is starting a campaign set in the world implied by Nethack, using Pathfinder RPG as his base rule set.  Among other things, this requires him to build some new character classes.

He has taken a run at the Valkyrie class and asked for some comments and suggestions.  This post identifies a few changes I would make.

While working on it I felt a huge urge to crank up the death aspects of it, and possibly make it more design.  Shift it from “cold fighter with a bit of death” (which might be reasonably close to the NH source material we’re modeling) to (eventually) “avatar of frost and death” — grant a mix of cold and death powers.  The spell casting looks too good, it should probably be backed off a fair bit — perhaps replace it with a reduced Sorcerer casting progression (where the first two spells of each level must be related to cold and death).  For now though, I’ll stick to tweaks.

The Valkyrie gets a weird mix of abilities from several different core classes because I’m trying to model the feel and play of the Nethack Valkyrie.  Among other things, they get the “Speed Intrinsic” at XL 7.  I have chosen to model this using the flurry of blows ability (as done in the RSRD Monk; I didn’t think the Pathfinder Monk flurry of blows fit as well here).

I may take another run at this later, starting from first principles.

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Wizard Guild Classes

I’ve been writing up about the Arcane Academy of Ter Liatri.  This is a big wizard guild in my campaign — Ter Liatri used to be the capital of the Empire before it collapsed, and the guild survived it.  More or less.

I have in mind a couple of prestige classes, but haven’t ironed out all the details. I’m going to skip over the guild structure and the like (it’s not really relevant here) and get to the high points of the classes.

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Class Framework – Advanced Classes

Advanced classes provide some additional ability, sometimes at the cost of constraining character options. Each class has prerequisites such that a character has to work toward becoming a member of the class. To become a Wizard you must have some spell casting ability, a cleric must be able to channel divine power, a soldier can be expected to know how to wield a number of weapons and have certain training. The prerequisites and class-specific benefits for each class below are not shown; I have not worked on this framework in years and no longer recall specifics to each class.

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