Wednesday, July 30, 2014

New Player’s Handbook is Coming Next Month

This week’s Legends and Lore previewed the classes in the new Player’s Handbook, sparking quite a bit of discussion online.  Much of the preview was material that we’ve seen before or that Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has at least previewed before, but there were some surprises, too.  My initial reaction was that WotC has done an excellent job putting together a wide-ranging set of classic classes and subclasses, that those looking to customize their characters in minute detail should find quite a bit of material here for exactly that purpose.  

That said, WotC stuck closely to the D&D’s classic class list, which is a reasonable choice for a primary rule book, but it also leaves the door open to some creative homebrewing of niche subclasses. That's not a bad thing.

We got:
-- Barbarian.  Two kinds--a Berserker and a Totem Warrior. But there's no Horse Lord to reflect Genghis Khan's particular niche in the history of barbarian conquerors, and that's perhaps the worst lapse in the current edition. It's not surprising considering that D&D is fundamentally inspired by the fiction of J.R.R Tolkien, and Tolkien was inspired primarily by Norse and Northern European mythology, but still... The barbarians here are both at least vaguely familiar to Anglo-Saxon history in that they are essentially Viking berserkers and druidic champions of pre-Christian Britain. That's fine, but they left out the greatest barbarian in history.

Genghis Khan was perhaps the most successful warrior in history,
but his martial archetype is not currently represented in D&D.
-- Bard. College of Valor and College of Lore. I'd personally like to see a Demagogue subclass that's based around oratory and/or poetry, but it's not a matter of life-and-death.
Patrick Rothfuss did more for the
Bard than any other writer I know.

-- Cleric. Lots of kinds of Clerics--Knowledge, Life, Light, Nature,Tempest (Storm?), Trickery, and War. As yet, we have no Death Priests, no one worshipping the various Fire Gods, no priest of Justice (i.e. Tyr), and no one involved in a heresy for one of the Primordials (Titans). I suspect you will be able to use the Light domain for your Fire Priest, but I'm genuinely surprised that we don't have a Priest of Hades or something like that.

-- Druid. Circle of the Land and Circle of the Moon.

-- Fighter. Champion, Battle Master, and Eldritch Knight. There's no Dragoon (or any other cavalry subclass), no Engineer, and most surprisingly, no Warlord or Swashbuckler subclasses. This is not to say that there aren't some very interesting options because there definitely are, but we have seven kinds of Priest and eight kinds of Wizard against just three kinds of Fighter and Rogue.

The forgotten archetype?

-- Monk. The Monk is the most interesting of the new classes to me. You get the Way of the Open Hand, the Way of Shadow, and the Way of the Four Elements. So you can be the classic "Quivering Palm" monk, a monk who wields some kind of shadow magic, or Ang from Avatar, the Last Air Bender. That's quite a few different ways to play a monk.

-- Paladin. If the Monk was my favorite, Paladin is my least favorite. I'd have prefered to see Paladins broken out by the domains of their gods per the Cleric class, but instead we have Oaths--Devotion, Ancients (Nature), and Vengeance. I want to see a Paladin of Lloth. I guess you could play that out with the Oath of Vengeance, but that's re-fluffing mechanics. I want my Paladin of Lloth to summon a giant spider as her Celestial Charger, shoot webs, and turn her blade to poison. These are things that a holy champion of the Demon Queen of Spiders ought to be able to do.

-- Ranger. Hunter and Beast Master. I'm surprised to see that they did away with the Horde-Breaker archetype from the Playtest packets, but it's not a big loss.

-- Rogue. Thief, Assassin, and Arcane Trickster. No Aerialist, no Swashbuckler, no Street Thug. The Aerialist is not some great loss, and the Swashbuckler can be modeled easily enough using a Fighter/Rogue build I suspect, but I'm a little disappointed that there's no overt way to play a Rogue who succeeds through his size, strength, and ability to intimidate others. 4e introduced a Thug subclass, and if it wasn't much played, it was still an interesting, innovative idea.

-- Sorcerer. Draconic and Wild Magic. During the Playtest, there was some discussion of making one of these a melee build. I hope they follow through with that. There's no reason why they shouldn't, and it would be a fascinating build for a Draconic sorcerer if you ask me. You ought to be ripping people open with your fangs and claws if the blood of dragons runs through your veins. That's just common sense.

Elric uses a sword of dread magic.
-- Warlock. Warlocks are broken down by the natures of their patrons--Archfey, Fiend, and Great Old One (Cthulhu). That is a logical way to break the class down, but it is far from the only way. 4e's Essentials line introduced the idea of Hexblades in the mold of Elric of Melnibone, and I liked that concept quite a bit. If you read this blog regularly, you will know that my favorite classes are the ones that can do both melee and ranged magic, and that's usually the Warlock's niche. 4e had several classes that relied on close burst/blast magic that I found interesting, and I hope that at least some of that flavor remains somewhere in the new edition.

-- Wizard. All eight schools are represented--Abjuration, Conjuration, Divination, Enchantment, Evocation, Illusion, Necromancy, and Transmutation. That is a lot of options, but unless they give artificing to the Enchantment school, there's no Artificer subclass and there's no obvious Swordmage / Spellsword / Bladesinger subclass, and in both cases, I find that very surprising.  

Don't get me wrong, it is very cool that they've come up with eight unique builds for the Wizard class. Who knows? Maybe one of them will even get a feasible melee option. Enchantment or Transmutation, perhaps? I could see an Enchantment subclass that is focused around enchanting your weapons and then forcing you into physical combat, either ranged or melee. This single subclass could then cover both the Bladesinger and the Arcane Archer archetypes, making it the default for certain kind of High Elf warrior. I'd like to see that. Similarly, a Transmutation subclass might focus on shapeshifting and/or physical tranformations that would allow the Wizard to wade into the scrum. Both ideas are well represented in fiction--even in the fiction of Tolkien. Recall that Gandalf frequently fights from horseback using his sword Glamdring. Leaving a melee build out of the Wizard class build would therefore be an inexcusable lapse.

"You Shall Not Pass!"
Gandalf is about to get medieval in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Well. I hope the Necromancy subclass is horrifying and that the Divination subclass is one that provides serious gameplay benefits. I think Diviners would be the most sought-out Wizards by far in the real world. Much of what the Internet does today is essentially Divination school magic, and look where that's gotten us.

I'm just sayin... Kings and merchant princes both would pay to know stuff.

That's all I've got.  

The new Players' Handbook looks like a pretty interesting book, but there's still plenty of room for expansion, and that's not a knock. In fact, I'm happy that there's room to grow, both because I'm curious to see how the game develops over time and because I like writing up my own stuff. Still, there is clearly going to be a ton of great stuff in the new book. That's awesome.


  1. Hmm. I'm not sure if I'd stat Mr. Khan as a barbarian. Archers are a real tough sell for the barbarian class outside of the subclasses (based on the playtest, obviously), without hanging the whole class on "you can use Strength for archery attack and damage," and "all of the things in the barbarian class that are melee-only are instead ranged-only for you." Now, obviously they could do that, though having to suffer through two levels of being normal barbarian with horselord stats before you got your first Path ability at 3rd level would be... well, exactly the problem with the concept of the Apprentice tier.

    The tactics of horse archery - hit and run, coordinated charges, and so on - suggest to me the fighter's discipline or the ranger's Beast Mastery (with the horse, in this case), rather than the barbarian's rage. Okay, there could be a Horse totem barbarian. But if you're willing to interpret the Big GK as a fighter or ranger, he works fine right out of the gate.

    Of course, if the archery part of the equation is uninteresting to you and you want to keep the focus on mounted melee combat, that's fine too. =) In that case, a horselord barbarian path makes sense, and I'd be interested to see what kinds of abilities they received. In general I worry that mounted combat is a poor fit for normal D&D play, but if the whole party is aware that most combats will be mount-friendly (your don't-Google-that phrase of the day), then it would probably be fine.

    The _apparent_ new home of the warlord concept is the fighter's Battle Master archetype, based on some leaked documents I've seen. It gets maneuvers like Commander's Strike (very, very 4e warlord) and Rally (granting temp hit points). I'm guessing that with the Inspiring Leader and Healer feats, you can cover the warlord concept without adding a whole new Archetype for it. At the same time, the Battle Master can also be the Swashbuckler (again, possibly with some feat support).

    I am mostly-sure the Eldritch Knight is going to cover all of the conceptual space that the swordmage/spellsword/bladesinger subclasses would entail. Really, the question is: would you rather bolt some spellcasting onto the Fighter, or melee combat and additional durability onto the Wizard? Both are valid, but _thus far_ WotC has chosen the former over the latter.

    I agree with you that more Rogue subclasses would be good, though I wonder if the Thug might be better modeled as a Fighter with the Criminal background.

    1. These are all good points. I particularly agree that Genghis Khan was personally a Warlord. His men, though, were--at best--noble savages who conquered a host of decadent but far more civilized societies using sheer ferocity as one of their primary weapons systems.

      I would argue that you could manage this Barbarian problem in two ways. First, you could key the Horselord's Rage powers to his being mounted. Second, you could build a Rage that gives Dex-based powers. In the first case, I might write something like this:

      Horselord (Lvl 3): While you are mounted and raging, you gain Advantage versus all dismounted humanoid creatures. (This would work particularly well if you wanted to do a Strength-based Barbarian who threw axes from the saddle.)

      The second case is straightforward, save for the Fluff. I would say something like: "You see red, and around you, the world slows. Your enemies move as though standing in quicksand, making you a terror on the battlefield."

      In crunch terms, your Dex-based attacks gain advantage. This makes sense for a mounted Barbarian because in actual history, the Mongols used curved swords similar to scimitars.

      With all of that said, there are certainly ways to model the concepts we've discussed using extant classes.

      My favorite thing about 4e was the Warlord as its own class, occupying a niche adjacent to the Cleric's. I would like to see that return, and I would like to see it devoted to some sort of tactical model like it was in 4e. Commander's Strike is a good start, don't get me wrong, but you yourself have pointed out that right now Clerics are SOLELY responsible for the party's healing. It's hard to know how much the current PHB will allow some diversity around this, but it'd be nice if there was A LOT of support for would-be Warlords. At a minimun, I'm surprised that there's not a separate Warlord subclass.

      My issue with the Eldritch Knight is that I'm conceptually annoyed at the idea of a Knight in platemail casting spells in combat. Of course, we haven't seen the execution of the subclass, so maybe I'm missing something fundamental, but I'd like to see more than one way to skin this particular cat. Maybe the EK will be great--it certainly could be--but I also think there's room for some other ideas. Granted, we may well see those in the PHB, and then too, there's plenty of room for the game to continue expanding.

      You're right about being able to model the Thug as a kind of Fighter. You could. But I don't know how many Fighters are going to have Charisma as their secondary stat, and a Thug would need that to be an effective extortionist / shake-down artist.

    2. Yeah, my one problem with that Horselord implementation is what I mentioned before - waiting until 3rd level to flip the class's basic function. Anyway, if you have thoughts on how to get more classes involved in mounted-combat play.

      I am with you on having loved the Warlord class in 4e. It was, to put it crudely, boss as fuck. What I'm seeing in the feat list that Mearls released is that you could splash Warlord-ness into any class with feat purchase, though I don't know how true that will really prove to be. While I would welcome a new Warlord class or Fighter archetype, I think that "I provide leadership in combat" can conceptually splash into any other concept really well. For example - wouldn't it be great if GK could be a barbarian who is also a canny combat leader? (You'd need to decide ahead of time that the barbarian's core class feature of Rage was not a thematic clash with providing leadership in combat. I'm personally comfortable with that; YMMV.)

      I am in terrible suspense to see the rest of the game's healing economy - whether there are druids, paladins, even rangers that are sufficient healers, or if we're back to 3.x where clerics are the only true healers and everyone else is half-assing it.

      I hear you about the EK being heavy-armor focused and feeling dissatisfied with that. I don't *know,* but I'm be a bit surprised if they haven't solved for that within the archetype's abilities with an Unarmored Defense ability, or with a kicker to Mage Armor.

      I also loved the Thug Background in the playtest packet - I doubt we'll see it in the final, since the name-drops in the previews are not identical to the packet. Anyway, the Thug's trait went a long way toward covering the shakedown artist without being especially stat-focused.

    3. I forgot about the Thug background, and likewise, I forgot that Backgrounds now give skills. That's a good point. Definitely a viable way of building a working Street Thug.