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.


  1. Thank you for doing thing, I look forward to future installments.

    The class, by the way, was designed by Ari Marmell, aka 'Mouseferatu'. Some of the fixes you mentioned were, I believe, proposed by Ari himself, who made himself unusually approachable and was admirably non-defensive towards the criticism levelled at his work.

    I also appreciate the mention of NPCs- there are many classes and prestige classes in D&D that are only failures for the purposes of PCs, but that are incredibly thematic or interesting choices for NPCs. A class that is too focused or unbalanced might well be a bad choice for a PC, but for an NPC, it makes things interesting.

  2. argh. proofreading. Thank you for writing this blog, not for doing thing. Though you may in fact do thing on occasion- I don't judge.

  3. I'm sure you know by now, but for the sake of other readers, there is now some supplemental materiel for Cityscape that includes a few new mysteries... including a 6th level one that can inflict negative levels in a rather interesting way.

    Of course, WOTC is going to take down all their 3.5 materiel, so it may not be up for much longer.