Thursday, July 29, 2010

Expanded Class Feature 2: Truenamer

Class: Truenamer
Source: Tome of Magic

Last week, we looked at the Shadowcaster, a class from Tome of Magic that tends to get a bad reputation as a useless class but, while somewhat underwhelming, does have some real merits that give it use as an NPC class, if nothing else.

This week, we stick with the experimental grab bag that is Tome of Magic, moving on to the Truenamer. And of course, with any experiment, there is a chance for failure. This is Tome of Magic’s failure. I’m telling you right up front, this thing is the absolute worst class WotC has ever put out, and the one class that is really and truly broken. Not underpowered. Not overpowered. Broken. As in nonfunctional.

Now that that’s out of the way, like the Shadowcaster, this is another class that got absolutely no support past Tome of Magic. All truenaming-related material is fully contained on pages 198 through 285 of Tome of Magic, again including the class, feats, prestige classes, spells, magic items, monsters, organizations, and plot hooks.

Fluffy bits:
So, let’s start with the flavor, which is actually very good and the reason the class is such a disappointment. Truespeak is a cosmic language of unfathomable power, the language of creation itself capable of rewriting the universe. It is the most obscure, primal, fundamental form of magic there can possibly be; an entire branch of arcana dedicated to unraveling the secrets of reality.

Truenames have a long-standing tradition both in mythology and in the genre itself. There is no greater hold over someone than to know their truename and command them by it. In Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark, you can end the campaign by learning the truename of Mephistopholes, archdemon and lord of the 8th layer of Hell and skipping the final boss fight entirely by calling out his truename, bringing him to his knees, at which point you can command him to leave to the farthest corners of the multiverse, never to return, or even become your thrall and turn over control of the eighth layer of Hell to you.

So the Truenamer really has an awesome legacy to live up to. Let’s see how it completely and utterly fails to do so.

How it works:
Roll a skill check. If you pass, you cast a spell. That’s truenaming in a nutshell.

Truenaming introduces a new skill, Truespeak, which you roll every time you speak an utterance (translation: cast a spell). It’s an intelligence-based skill, and of course it’s only a class skill for the Truenamer (though there is a feat that lets other classes get it as a class skill). You cannot take 10.

The utterances themselves are, again, essentially spells. They have the same structure, with an effective level, spell resistance, and similar effects. Saves are based on half your Truenamer level rather than any sort of spell level, thankfully, since the highest-level utterances are 6th-level.

Utterances are split into three categories; the “Lexicon of the Evolving Mind,” which are basically spells that affect creatures and range from 1st to 6th level, the “Lexicon of the Crafted Tool,” which are basically spells that affect objects and range from 1st to 5th level, and the “Lexicon of the Perfected Map,” which range from 1st to 4th level. You have a separate pool of utterances for each of the lexicons, and each becomes available at a different level; Evolving Mind is your bread and butter, available at level one. Crafted Tool is first available at level 4 and Perfected Map is first available at level 8.

As stated, you roll a Truespeak check to speak an utterance. The DCs for these effects are as follows:

Evolving Mind: 15+2 x the target creature’s challenge rating.

Crafted Tool: 15+ 2 x the target item’s caster level (or 25 if it’s nonmagical)

Perfected Map: They did not print the DC. How in the world do you manage that? In a class that is entirely centered around, “roll a skill check to cast a spell,” what abomination of bad editing allows the omission of the friggin’ DC of an entire subcategory of spells? I’m beginning to believe the rumors that the staff was drunk when they slapped this thing together.

Now, they did release errata, and in it they set the DC for Perfected Map utterances as 25+5 x the level of the utterance, with an additional +5 if the location is magical, but this is not the sort of thing they should have to put in the errata.

Also, Truenamers do not have spell slots. Instead, every time they use a given utterance successfully, the DC to use that utterance is increased by two until eventually it becomes so difficult as to be impossible.

Another quirk is that for any utterance that has an ongoing duration (like, say, the vast majority of them), you cannot use that utterance again until the duration ends. So, if you use an utterance that inflicts 2d6 energy damage a round for five rounds, you cannot use that utterance again until those five rounds are up. You don’t get a great many utterances to begin with, and if you split your utterances between buffs on allies and ongoing effects on enemies, you can easily find yourself left with no options save your lowest-level spells.

And that goes poorly with another quirk of Truenaming that could have actually been cool. Evolving Mind utterances have two different effects; one when spoken normally and the other when spoken backwards, which tend to be the opposite of each other. Take Knight’s Puissance, which can either grant a target +2 to hit for five rounds or impose a -2 penalty to hit for five rounds. Now, at level one, when you only have one utterance (and no equivalent of cantrips, mind), that means that you speak your utterance once at the beginning of combat, and you’ve got nothing but a crossbow for the next five rounds. Joy.

Now, let’s back up a step and return to another issue. Remember those DCs to speak utterances? 15+2 x CR for creatures, 15+5 x CL for magic items, 25 + 5 x UL for locations, with an additional +2 for each successful use of an utterance. So, if you’re a first-level character with 18 intelligence, max ranks in Truespeak, and Skill Focus: Truespeak, you’re looking at a +11 bonus. The DC to use an utterance on the lowliest goblin is 15, a 85% success chance. Not awful. Next casting is 75%. Then 65%. Then 55%. And you don’t have cantrips to fall back on, or any kind of bonus spells, plus this is a character who was really pushing that Truespeak check and utterances are generally much weaker than spells to begin with. And if your party runs into something like a hell hound or an ogre- a very difficult but not unreasonable encounter for a first-level party, particularly a large one- you start with a DC21 check as a first-level character and go up from there. A 55% chance of casting your spell at all, when your party really needs that spell support. That’s before any saves or spell resistance, mind.

And the DCs go up at roughly a rate of +2/level, when you only gain one rank per level, so you’re racing to get all the extra pluses you can through magic items and abilities, but most likely you’re not gonna make much headway through normal means, and you’ll always be in a situation where after three or four castings, you’re at less than a 50% chance of even pulling off your utterance against normal foes, let alone powerful ones, and even before that, it’s not reliable. Wizards avoid even a 10% spell failure chance, after all. Even if you make your Truespeak check, you still have to get through enemy saves and spell resistance, and the layered failure chance really stacks up. Even succeeding at three consecutive 80% chances of success is a 50/50 proposition, which tends to put Truenamers in a bad situation through sheer volume of dice.

As I said before, you don’t get a lot of utterances, so you’ll probably have only a couple higher-level utterances available to you, which you can’t reliably pull off, and which you can’t use successively because you have to wait for durations to expire, and are rarely anywhere near as good as comparable spells, so you’re frequently left to lower-level utterances which are already obsolete and you can’t use reliably either.

Though the real slap in the face are the metautterance feats. Empower Utterance, for example? +10 to the Truespeak DC. That’s got a good chance of being a -50% chance on what was a 75% chance to begin with against any enemy dangerous enough to bother using it against. Quicken Utterance? +20. Because really, a -100% chance to make what was already a DC 35 skill check is no big deal, right?

Though what really makes Truenamers broken rather than merely crappy is that… skills really aren’t a big deal in 3.5. There are a lot of ways to get big pluses short-term, some of the biggest being Guidance of the Avatar or Divine Insight, two spells that basically give you a large bonus to a single skill check within the duration. Then, there are things like Unearthed Arcana’s ridiculous item familiar, which can basically double your ranks in a skill. Like, say, Truespeak. Or you could just take Leadership to hire a posse that goes around and makes Aid Another attempts to give you a +lots bonus to Truespeak. So, the class is in a situation where normal means (even with a lot of scrimping and scraping) yield a flop that can’t reliably cast any given spell more than once or twice, and if you go all out to ramp up that Truespeak check up to the point where you can speak utterances at 100% success rates a dozen times each per day without much trouble.

Also, that DC is keyed directly off of CR, which begs the meta issue in that you pretty much tell the players the monster’s CR based on whether or not their Truespeak check passed. And for items, you have to know their caster level, which is such an arcane and trivial piece of information that it should never be referenced.

Though one of the most disappointing things in this pile is personal truename research. Oh, yeah, you can research personal truenames, which should be totally awesome, right? Well, just hole up in a library, get a friend to cast some divination spells (which is rather odd in and of itself; truename research requiring arcane spellcasting as what should be the crown jewel of the subsystem… a subsystem that trades arcane spellcasting for truenaming… And it’s absolutely required for research some of the time, making it impossible to even make an attempt to learn a truename otherwise.) and then roll a really high Knowledge check. If you succeed, you learn that creature’s personal truename.

Alright, you’ve got a personal truename, the mighty force that brought Mephistopholes to his knees just by being spoken aloud. And what kinds of power does this personal truename grant you over victims? +2 to save DCs and +2 to overcome spell resistance against that specific target. And you add +2 to the DC of that already unreliable Truespeak check you gotta make.

Okay, I know personal truenames can’t be something as awesome as enslaving demon lords, but come on, that’s pathetic. Knowing someone’s personal truename should at least give you a massive bonus to your Truespeak check, like +10 or something. At least then you’d have a reason to research the Big Bad’s personal truename. The guy’s probably got a much higher CR than anyone else around, so learning his personal truename lets you actually participate in the fight against him! Blech. Anyways, on to the mechanics of the class itself.

Crunchy Bits:
Let’s start with the skeleton. d6 hit die, medium BAB, strong will saves, light armor and simple weapons, 4+ intelligence skill points with what’s essentially the Wizard’s list. Though the lack of Decipher Script is utterly baffling considering the entire class’s oh-so-scholarly flavor.

Already, this is odd. We’re talking about someone whose entire shtick is talking to rewrite the fabric of reality, and they have medium BAB. Why? No utterance requires an attack roll of any sort, unless I overlooked some. The pictures of the Truenamer usually hold a mace or a spear, and a lot of the spells are buffs. It’s almost as if the Truenamer- the scholar’s scholar- is designed as a self-buffing melee type, a la the Cleric, rather than, y’know, bringing foes to their knees with a word like they’re supposed to.

Anyways, stats. Charisma determines the save DCs for your utterances (if you’re a build that cares about save DCs), and intelligence determines your Truespeak skill, which is all-important. There is no minimum stat to use an utterance. And, of course, if you go the “hit people with blunt objects” route, you need all your physical stats, particularly since you only get light armor. If you’re an elf, you get bows, and can skimp on strength and constitution, but stats are in pretty high demand since you most likely need physical combat as a backup.

Anyways, getting on to the class features, and skipping over those utterances for a moment. We start with (dramatic pause) knowing your own name! You get a +4 bonus to your Truespeak check when using utterances on yourself and you need all the pluses you can get. Another check in towards self-buffing melee. Other than that, you get skill focus a few times for Knowledge skills, a +2 for researching personal truenames, a few bonus feats, and four more substantive features.

At level nine, you get See the Named. A 1/day ability lets you make a Truespeak check using a personal truename you’ve researched to scry the subject for one round.

At level thirteen, you can use Sending three times per day. If you make a successful Truespeak check. And you know the subject’s personal truename, which again requires research.

At level seventeen (the level at which Wizards are getting their ninth-level spells, might I add), you get Speak unto the Masses. It’s the ability to use your Evolving Mind utterances to affect multiple targets. And you get this at level seventeen. Anyways, the DC goes up by two for every enemy beyond the first, and the DC is keyed off the most powerful member of that group. Just in case the DCs weren’t high enough for you yet.

At level twenty, you finally get something that at least has style, even if it amounts to squat. Say My Name and I Am There. Basically, you get a codeword you can teach your friends, and when they say that word, you can teleport right to them.

And then, there are the utterances. Where mysteries were the high point that ultimately redeemed the Shadowcaster as an NPC class, if nothing else, utterances are the last nail in the Truenamer’s coffin.

You get one Evolving Mind utterance per level, which means that early in your career, you’re pretty much in the same boat as the Shadowcaster with almost no spellpower to draw on. Except this time, it’s worse, because of lack of cantrips. By level 20, you have five Crafted Tool utterances and four Perfected Map utterances, one for each utterance level for both. You get your sole 4th-level Perfected Map utterance at level 20, making it your real capstone.

Now, for utterances, this class needs something cool, something new, something interesting, or at least something effective. And… it doesn’t get it. The effects are bland, boring, and not even very good. Let’s look at the unabridged list of 1st-level utterances.

+/-1 AC for five rounds, one-round immobilization or freedom of movement, +/-2 AB for five rounds, +/-5 on skill checks for five rounds, and either fast healing 1 for five rounds or 1d6 damage for a round (two if you concentrate).

And this would be a good time to mention that, unless I’ve overlooked one, utterances do not scale. That +/-1 AC for five rounds? That’s not “Grant a bonus or penalty of one to the target’s AC, plus one for every four caster levels, for five rounds plus one round for every two caster levels.” No, a 20th-level Truenamer using Defensive Edge still only gets +/-1 AC for five rounds out of the bloody thing.

And the higher-level utterances aren’t any better. Let’s look at what some of the 6th-level Evolving Mind utterances can do. Keep in mind, you get these at level 18.

The target must make a fortitude save or be paralyzed for one round. Cure a list of effects that Panacea, a 4th-level spell available to any 7th-level Cleric, could cure. +/-5 to attack and damage for five rounds. Break Enchantment. Dominate Monster- truenaming’s only compulsion/control effect, might I add, from a class whose text explicitly calls out the lowly Command spell as a form of truename magic- for up to a whopping five rounds IF you maintain concentration… good lord, what were these people drinking when they came up with this stuff?

And that +/-5 attack and damage? Yeah, if you want to use that on one of your 18th-level allies, that’s a DC51 skill check that goes up from there! We’re getting into epic DCs. Climbing a cliff that’s upside down in the middle of a thunderstorm with just your hands is a DC30 Climb check. Turning a hostile enemy friendly in a single round is effectively DC45 (and that’d be more useful than the +/-5 most of the time). With a Jump result of 50, you could jump twelve feet into the air. You could hear a pin drop from the other side of a stone door. Going into the Epic Level Handbook, you can pickpocket a sheathed weapon and control your horse while unconscious and see the invisible and tumble up a vertical wall…

Or you can paralyze an enemy for one round. Fortitude negates.

Okay, so Evolving Mind is a flop. Maybe the other two lexicons are better. Let’s move over to Crafted Tool… of which there are ten utterances. Spread across five utterance levels. And Heat/Chill Metal is one of the second-level utterances (which you don’t get until 11th-level for Crafted Tool). Great selection. You can get things like Identify, which is very meh. Suppress Weapon and Suppress Item (3rd- and 4th-level utterances, available at 15th- and 19th-level respectively) suppress a magic weapon or item’s abilities for a duration of… concentration. Meh. This is really stinking up the court.

Maybe Perfected Map? You start getting those at 8th level, then get stronger ones when you hit levels 12, 16, and 20, and you get higher levels of Perfected Map utterances.

And you can start with… a fortitude save versus falling prone. Well… it’s an area effect, I guess. One can create or remove cover, which is about as interesting as it gets. One of the 4th-level ones (again, available at level 20) functions as the Gate spell, which can be ungodly powerful, I guess, being Gate and all, but it’s not interesting and only contributes to the class being a total mess.

What’s frustrating is, not only was the concept so awesome, but here and there, you can find hints of what could have been a really cool class. Incarnation of Angels can bestow the celestial or fiendish template on a target for five rounds. Now, if there had been more stuff like that, better considered, where the Truenamer can redefine what a creature is on a fundamental level, that could have been interesting. This could have been a kind of mad geneticist class, using truenames to temporarily rewrite creatures’ natures, so that you could pile on a few utterances (or preferably some better-conceived spellcasting mechanic) to rewrite the universe and turn your ally into a twenty-foot-tall four-armed fire-breathing monster with poison dripping from her claws or something, with the truename effects bestowing abilities and templates. But, that’s not what they put out.

And as a final slap in the face, there’s a section on truename spells. Not utterances, but spells usable by standard spellcasting classes that require a Truespeak check. In fact, many of these require you to speak the subject’s personal truename, and have effects that are actually scary. Spurn the Supernatural, for example, can suppress a subject’s supernatural abilities. Expunge the Supernatural can remove a supernatural ability permanently, so you can permanently rob a dragon of its breath weapon (though probably not, since fortitude negates and dragons have really high fortitude saves). There aren’t a lot of these spells, but the few of them that are actually decent are cool enough to show up the entire Truenamer class.


Now, if you still want to go ahead, good luck. In a traditional fighter/thief/cleric/mage team, expect to fill the cleric slot. Most of your utterances are of the support/debuff variety, but I’d advise focusing on support simply because you know what the DC for using an utterance on a fellow PC is going to be.

Know that most of your utterances are so mediocre that they probably wouldn’t be a huge deal if you were able to cast them infinitely in a manner similar to Warlock invocations. Still, you have to make a ridiculously high skill check to use them, so you need to get that Truespeak skill as high as possible. Skill Focus and magic items that boost your Truespeak skill are, of course, a must. Also, go into Unearthed Arcana and get an item familiar. It’s totally overpowered, but in the case of a Truenamer, it’s absolutely essential if you want a Truespeak skill high enough to be reliable. If that’s out, then you need every boost you can get; prepare to stick mainly to buffing yourself then switching to melee in combat.

At least some of the Word of Nurturing series is pretty much necessary. It’s your primary healing spell. It’s also your best damage-dealing spell, but it’s only on par with magic missile style spells and you need it for healing, so don’t go too nuts firing it off at the enemies. Also, keep in mind that you only add another +2 to an utterance DC if you succeed, so outside of combat, you can afford to slap on a +5 to the DC to extend Word of Nurturing’s fast healing, even if it takes you all the way down to a 5% chance to actually succeed. This lets you squeeze out a lot more healing that way.

Though in the end, my best advice is to lower your expectations. I’ve done a lot of futzing with this mess, and the only time it hasn’t been anything but a nightmare was one time when I used it as a sideline healing NPC, and that had some houserules in place that she could take advantage of to ramp up her Truespeak skill tremendously.

This class sucks.

Remaining classes: Ardent, Artificer, Binder, Crusader, Divine Mind, Dread Necromancer, Erudite, Incarnate, Lurk, Psion, Psychic Rogue, Psychic Warrior, Soulborn, Soulknife, Swordsage, Totemist, Warblade, Wilder.

Next Week: Soulknife

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Expanded Class Feature 1: Shadowcaster

Class: Shadowcaster
Source: Tome of Magic

So, here we have the first Expanded Class Feature. The structure is nothing fancy; I’ll start with the fluff, go on to the crunchy bits, then continue on to leftover thoughts, party integration, or whatever else I think’s needed.

Getting started, Tome of Magic is, pretty much without question, the most experimental book in the entire official 3.5 library, and has a lot of cool stuff (which is not necessarily the same as good stuff). It’s a big book at nearly 300 pages, and it covers three new spellcasting systems. Pact magic, shadowcasting, and truenaming.

This installment will focus on shadowcasting, which… really isn’t much of an alternate system. It throws around a lot of new words and terms, but ultimately, it’s pretty much still Vancian. Also, to the best of my knowledge, all shadowcasting-related rules material ever put out by WotC is on pages 109 to 190 of Tome of Magic. That includes the class, feats, prestige classes, spells, magic items, monsters, organizations, and plot hooks. They never appear again in any supplement and only official web material I’ve ever seen on them is an article on how they fit into the Forgotten Realms, without so much as a new feat or spell or some sort of alternate class feature.

Fluffy bits:
Shadowcasters are dark. And dim. And black. And gray. And shadowy. And ebon. And umbral. And nightly. And nocturnal. And off-white. And my God, this unlit gloomy nonshininess gets annoying after a while. To whoever wrote the shadow magic chapter: Thesaurus privileges are now revoked.

Shadowcasters are mages who draw their powers from the off-white secrets of the mysterious Plane of Shadow and the alien, cthulhic beings that reside there. Of course, since this is D&D, a game where you can plane shift to Celestia to have tea with gods and still get home in time for dinner, rather than Call of Cthulhu… Well, cthulhic horrors aren’t what they used to be.

The book points out that dark is not necessarily evil, which is important, but considering you’re drawing on the powers of cthulhic horrors and your limited selection of spells includes such effects as “break the target’s brain with fear in hopes of reducing them to a nightmare-addled coma” or “seal the target in a nigh-unbreakable shadow prison that slowly saps their life away,” it does rather lend itself to villainy or at least antiheroism.

And as much as it gets mentioned, I’m pointing out again that this is a dark mage we’re talking about. Normally, dark magic in D&D means raising zombies or summoning demons or something, with nothing to do with darkness. This is an actual dark mage, who’s more likely to stab you with your own shadow and then disappear than summon a zombie horde. For being as iconic as it is, it’s actually very rare in 3.5. There are some PrCs like maybe Shadowcraft Mage, but even those are a bit dubious. You’ve got mage/thieves, necromancers, mystic assassins, necromancers, evilmancers, and thief/mages, more necromancers, but no real shadow mages, so it does fill a significant niche in the genre. A murky, shadowy, umbral, grimdarkmystery niche in the blackest corner of the gloomiest tower at midnight. Probably while sitting between a raven and a barrel of tar.

How it works:
Shadow magic uses “mysteries.” Mysteries are spells. Half of shadowcasting is now explained. The rest are details.

Really, shadow magic doesn’t add much to the Vancian equation, save for some odd complications that are an experiment in limitations. They separate spells into fundamental mysteries (a.k.a. cantrips), apprentice mysteries (1st-3rd-level spells), initiate mysteries (4th-6th-level spells) and master mysteries (7th-9th-level spells). You basically get access to them at the same rate as a Wizard.

As for whether these Shadowcasters are spontaneous or prepared, well… imagine a Wizard. This Wizard prepares spells once and only once. Ever. That’s a Shadowcaster. Essentially, once you learn a mystery, it’s locked into a single “slot” permanently. No spontaneous conversion, no swapping out prepared mysteries, not even swapping out mysteries upon level-up like a Sorcerer.

What shadow magic does have, however, is one particularly unique mechanic. As you level up, every time you gain access to a new tier of mysteries, your lower-tier mysteries go from being treated as arcane spells to spell-like abilities to supernatural abilities. Also, each spell-like ability gets two uses per day instead of one, and each supernatural ability gets three uses per day instead of two. So, at level seven (when you first get initiate mysteries), your initiate mysteries are treated as arcane spells and your apprentice mysteries are treated as spell-like with doubled uses. At level 13 (when you first gain access to master mysteries), your master mysteries are treated as arcane spells, your initiate mysteries are treated as spell-like abilities, and your apprentice mysteries are treated as supernatural abilities. So, at level 13, you can expect to have 18 uses per day of apprentice mysteries (split among six mysteries), 12 uses per day of initiative mysteries, and one use of a single master mystery. And most mysteries age about as well as spells. Which is to say, they age poorly, so that stack of low-level mysteries is liable to be mostly obsolete by the time you get that far.

The change of type also brings in a shift in mechanics as spells, spell-like abilities, and supernatural abilities are all treated slightly differently. Mysteries treated as spells are subject to spell failure, counterspelling, attacks of opportunity, and have somatic components (but not verbal components). Those treated as spell-like abilities can’t be counterspelled and have no somatic components. Supernatural abilities can’t be dispelled, ignore spell-resistance, and don’t provoke attacks of opportunity. This ascent’s impact is… subtle, but can be meaningful.

As an added bit of weirdness, within any tier of mysteries, you cannot learn the next level of mysteries without first learning two mysteries from the level before (in other words, you can’t learn 3rd-level mysteries without first learning two 2nd-level mysteries), which is really just a more cumbersome way of saying “Wizard spell progression” since you’re probably going to take the highest-level mysteries you can as soon as you can get them.

And one of the most annoying parts of shadow magic? All mysteries are organized into paths. Three mysteries within a tier, ordered in sequence. For example, the Black Magic initiate path, which has Warp Spell (4th-level), Echo Spell (5th-level), and Flood of Shadow (6th-level). If you want to learn the second or third mystery in a path, you need to learn all the mysteries before it. You can’t learn Flood of Shadow without first learning Echo Spell and Warp Spell. That can mean that in order to get a mystery you want, you need to go through two mysteries that are of no use to you, and when you only get one mystery per level, that’s a Big Deal.

Also of note, there’s a very slim selection of mysteries. While the spells chapter of the Player’s Handbook is a hundred pages long, and there’s supplement after supplement adding more spells to the mix, Tome of Magic gives less than twenty pages of mysteries with absolutely no additional support.

Crunchy bits:
The shadowcaster gets a d6 hit die, simple weapons, no armor or shields, low BAB, strong fortitude and will, and weak reflexes. For skills, they have 2+int skill points per level with what amounts to the Wizard’s skill list with fewer Knowledge skills and three notable additions; Hide, Move Silently, and Spot, which are quite nice, letting you do a little bit of double duty as team sneak/scout. So, essentially, we’re looking at a slightly tougher, slightly more flexible Wizard skeleton on a class that’s meant to function similarly, with a slightly greater emphasis on stealth, but you get neither the skill list nor the skill points to be the team skill monkey.

Now, for stats, Shadowcasters are split-stat casters. They use intelligence to determine the highest level of mystery they can cast, but use charisma to determine the save DC. That’s not a big deal for classes like the Favored Soul, who’s probably going to be casting buffs and support spells in place of anything that offers a save, but as a Wizard-like class without a whole lot of spells to draw on, Shadowcasters don’t really have that luxury and save DCs are a big deal, so having to split that casting stat hurts. You also need dexterity for stealth, AC, and initiative, and constitution for Concentration checks and hit points (that d6 hit die doesn’t make you stop being squishy), and if you want a decent Spot check you really can’t dump wisdom, so stats really become an issue. Note that I didn’t mention a stat governing bonus mysteries. Shadowcasters don’t get any.

As for actual abilities (also known as the part that matters), Shadowcasters ultimately have four class abilities. From least to greatest, they gain an ability called Sustaining Shadow. As you advance as a Shadowcaster, you start drawing sustenance from the dark forces that fuel your magic such that you need less food and sleep, going from needing only one meal a week at 5th level to having no need to eat, sleep, or breathe along with immunity to poison and disease at 20th-level. From level 3, they gain darkvision (or improvements to existing darkvision) that eventually leads to perfect vision in natural darkness and the ability to see sixty feet into supernatural darkness. Also, they get bonus feats, with an odd stipulation on how you get them. You gain a number of bonus feats equal to half the number of paths you’ve taken mysteries from. The idea is that it forces you to choose between higher-level mysteries and lots of feats, but that choice is a no-brainer; you need higher-level mysteries as much as a Wizard needs higher-level spells. The feats are pretty meh anyways. So, this basically means you get a bonus feat at levels 2, 8, 14, and maybe 20.

That rounds out a decent enough looking skeleton for a casting class, but that’s not the real meat of the class, the big determining factor that can either make or break this class. Let’s get to mysteries.

For starters, you gain one mystery per level.

Let me repeat. You gain one mystery per level. That’s it. And that mystery, once taken, is forever locked in place as if it were a prepared spell. So, as a first-level Shadowcaster, you get one first-level spell per day, with no bonus spells. Even a first-level generalist Wizard can expect to have two thanks to bonus spells. A first-level Sorcerer likely gets four, and can alternate them between two spells known rather than being locked to a single spell. It’s a return to the AD&D problem at level 1 of, “Well, the mage cast his one spell for the day, I guess we gotta rest.”

Now, admittedly, you do start with three fundamentals each usable three times per day, but those tend to be things like Detect Magic (sorry, “Mystic Reflections”) or not-Mage-Hand. There is Arrow of Dusk, a fundamental which is a ranged touch attack that deals 2d4 nonlethal damage and can be taken multiple times to give you something more to do in a fight, but that’s not exactly impressive, even compared to plinking with a crossbow. The other caveat here is that there is the Favored Mystery feat, which can advance a single mystery from a spell to a spell-like (thus increasing it from 1/day to 2/day) or from spell-like to supernatural (2/day to 3/day) or add an additional use to a supernatural mystery, so you could have a human Shadowcaster who takes Favored Mystery twice at level one to get three uses of that one first-level mystery at level 1 and thus gets some more staying power, but just like spells, mysteries don’t usually age well and tend to become obsolete, so you have to be very choosy about what you take Favored Mystery for.

Now, after all that, how are the mysteries themselves? Well… a lot of them are actually really good, often with unique effects that you’re not gonna get from spells. For example, Warp Spell is totally awesome. This is a 4th-level mystery that takes you can cast as an immediate action when an enemy casts a spell. You and the enemy make an opposed caster level check. If the enemy wins, you just wasted a mystery, but if you win, the enemy’s spell fails (kinda like a counterspell that you don’t have to prepare) and you get an additional use of one of your apprentice mysteries as you absorb the enemy’s spell and you can immediately use that mystery as a part of the same action. So, if the enemy mage tries to hit the party with ye olde fireball, you can negate the fireball and then in retaliation immobilize half the enemy orcs with Clinging Darkness when it’s not even your turn. Now that has potential. Honorable mention goes to Consume Essence, a 9th-level mystery that has one of the coolest effects you can ask for. It kills the target. Twice. Meaning the target rolls a save and if they fail, they die, come back as your slave for a couple minutes, then die again. Now that’s style.

The class is a real mixed bag, and is generally panned as a failed class. Heck, I came into this review with the notion that the only good thing to come out of Tome of Magic was pact magic (which still mostly stands), but it’s not nearly as bad as people make it out to be, and it can work reasonably well in capable hands.

First off, before using a Shadowcaster, I’d first suggest talking to the DM about houseruling in a fix. One of the more popular fixes is to 1) Grant bonus mysteries per day based on charisma, 2) Eliminate that stupid rule where you have to take mysteries in a path in order, 3) Make the save DCs for supernatural abilities work like most other supernatural abilities, making them 10+1/2 character level+charisma, making your numerous uses of low-level mysteries as supernatural abilities more useful, 4) Grant a bonus feat for each path you actually complete rather than for every two paths you pick mysteries from, and 5) Allow Sorcerer-esque retraining with level-up.

Even then, I would not recommend this class to a beginner; it’s riddled with landmines and potential mistakes that could leave you pretty useless. In fact, I probably wouldn’t recommend this class to a PC and I’d sooner suggest Beguiler, Psychic Rogue, or Lurk.

There are a lot of mediocre, situational spells of the type that a Wizard or even a Sorcerer could get away with taking (or even legitimately benefit from taking) that a Shadowcaster just can’t afford because they get so few mysteries, which cuts back on the problem-solving potential expected of an arcanist. We’re essentially talking two spells per level, after all. The best advice I can give? Choose those mysteries wisely and squeeze every bit of use out of them that you can; every mystery you take ought to be something you can use to significant effect on a regular basis for your entire career, and you ought to put some real thought into how best to use them in any situation.

However, there is one use for Shadowcaster that I highly recommend. NPCs. They’re a straightforward stealthy mage class with plenty of style and a lot of weird effects that can take the party by surprise, whether it’s from some caster mooks tag teaming to drop the PC Wizard’s strength to zero with Flesh Fails or the Big Bad whipping out the oddball that is Warp Spell at the worst possible moment, they definitely make handy NPCs, and it’s far easier to stat out a 20th-level Shadowcaster than a 20th-level Wizard.

Relatively stout for a mage-type, especially with those strong fortitude saves
Hide/Move Silently as class skills
A number of odd and unique spell effects you’re not liable to find anywhere else
Reduce food bills

Painfully few spells per day
Extremely limited flexibility from not being able to swap out spells in any way
Numerous turkey spells make it easy to build a really useless character
Lack of support coupled with lack of material
Overuses every synonym for “dark” in the English language

Remaining classes: Ardent, Artificer, Binder, Crusader, Divine Mind, Dread Necromancer, Erudite, Incarnate, Lurk, Psion, Psychic Rogue, Psychic Warrior, Soulborn, Soulknife, Swordsage, Totemist, Truenamer, Warblade, Wilder.

Next Week: Truenamer.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

+1 Blog

Well, here's yet another gaming blog, except this one's mine. This is for prattle about pen & paper roleplaying games (mainly D&D 3.5 since that's my main system), though I may ramble about other geek-related topics sometimes.

The first order of business, and the impetus for starting this blog? Well, the podcast 3.5 Private Sanctuary has an ongoing a Class Feature series which analyzes various classes starting with the core classes and then fanning out into other sourcebooks at a rate of two classes per month, interspersed with their standard topics. There were three restrictions on what classes they review: They must come from sources they have access to, they can't be setting-specific, and they can't use alternate mechanical systems. So, that means no psionics, incarnum, tomes, Artificer, or Dread Necromancer (they don't have Heroes of Horror, but Archivist is in the free excerpt on WotC's site). They feel they don't have the experience with the alternate systems required to do them justice.

So, I'm picking up where they're leaving off (or... will have left off once they finish... or something). Once a week (unless plans change, expect hiatuses as this is a busy time in my life), I intend to put out a write-up on one class that they're not covering. The list is as follows:

Ardent, Artificer, Binder, Crusader, Divine Mind, Dread Necromancer, Erudite, Incarnate, Lurk, Psion, Psychic Rogue, Psychic Warrior, Shadowcaster, Soulborn, Soulknife, Swordsage, Totemist, Truenamer, Warblade, Wilder.

That's twenty classes. I'm not sure what order I'll go in, but the Tome of Battle classes will need a primer or two, so they'll likely come later. The first class I'm gonna tackle will probably be Shadowcaster. I may begin with the real turkeys (Shadowcaster, Truenamer, Divine Mind, Soulknife, Soulborn) just to get them out of the way, but we'll see.