Tuesday, August 20, 2013

D&D Next Homebrew Swordmage (Aug. 2013 Playtest Packet)

I’ve made it no secret on this blog that my favorite class in D&D’s Fourth Edition (4e) was the Swordmage.  I liked the class because it was versatile, and because as a 4e player, versatility was the thing I prized the most.  
But I also liked it because it was evocative.  I liked the book Swordmage and liked the whole concept of a close combat wizard—a guy who could get in close to bad guys and then explode with power to lay them out.  I even liked the idea that to be a swordmage, you had to be both smart and tough.  Smart because smarts are what it takes to learn spells; tough because only tough guys go hand-to-hand with monsters.  Bottom line, the whole concept spoke to me, and ever since Wizards of the Coast (WotC) announced D&D Next, I’ve made it a recurring project to try to reimagine the swordmage class through the lens of the various versions of the playtest rules.

Unfortunately, I read the other day that the independent fighter/mage class, which I can only think of as the swordmage, didn’t make it through the early rounds of WotC’s internal playtesting.  So at this point it seems unlikely that D&D Next will support the swordmage as an independent class, at least in its earliest iterations.  On the other hand, WotC has also said that they’re working hard to make multi-classing a viable option in Next, so that if you want to play a mage who can fight with a sword, being a fighter/mage ought to be a decent option.  But.  That is not exactly what I personally am looking for.  I’m looking for a close combat mage, a mage whose sword is integral to his magic, a guy who can stab you, yes, but someone who’s really out there trying to blow you up at point black range with bursty, blasty sword magic.  And that’s not exactly the same thing as a guy who happens to know both a little magic and a little swordplay.
My daughter Hannah drew this wizard.
It's awesome, but you've got to admit
that it's missing sword.
The good news is that the latest iteration of D&D Next’s playtest rules includes a goodly amount of close combat magic.  Spells like Chill TouchShocking GraspBurning HandsMage Armor, and Shield go a long where towards getting us where I personally want to go.  I would like to see some additional spells added to specifically support swordmages—for example,Greenflame Blade and Electrified Lash—but I can live with what we have and the direction that we’re going.  Really, I think that all that’s missing here is a way to let you specifically channel magic as part of a melee attack and an Arcane Tradition that provides proficiency with a sword—and perhaps a bit of enhanced survivability—for the Mage class as it’s currently constituted.
Now, before we go on, let me just say that if you’re interested in D&D, and you haven’t signed up to get the Playtest rules, I don’t know what you’re thinking.  The Playtest rules are free, they’re an interesting read even if all you’re doing with them is reading them, and I’m not planning to take the time here to try to explain what you’ve missed if you haven’t been following WotC’s development efforts over the course of the last year or so.  What I will say is that the latest iteration of the playtest rules provides a slower build of class-specific powers, seemingly as a way to show how your character grows in ability as he or she grows in experience.  I really like the approach, but it makes it impossible to build a swordmage—or any other class specific kit-type build—straight out of the box.  That’s not a bad thing, but it is quite a departure from the design ethos that informed the development of 4e.
With all of that in mind, here’s my homebrew Swordmage Arcane Tradition, for the Mage Class in its current form.  For what it’s worth, I’m only going to go through Levels 2, 5, and 8 of the progression in order to save time on a project that’s not ultimately going to go anywhere.
Wizardry: School of Sword Magic
You’ve become proficient with the ancient elven school of battle magic known as Sword Magic.  Most practitioners of Sword Magic, called Swordmages, are either elves or elf-friends, outsiders raised in close proximity to elven settlements.  
Swordmages are the samurai of the high elves, and most serve either as personal guards to high elf rulers or as part of an elite elven strikeforce or military organization.  Swordmages are skilled melee opponents, but their true power relies in their close combat magic and their ability to take the fight right to the enemy, up close and personal.
Swordmage Features
Level – Feature
2 – Sword Bond
5 – Sword Magic
8 – Aegis
Sword Bond
You are bonded to a specific sword—a longsword, short sword, rapier, scimitar, or bastard sword.  You are proficient with that sword type and can use that sword as an implement for your spells.  Additionally, you can call that sword to your hand magically as an Action from up to a half-mile away.
You can change the sword to which you are bonded, but doing so requires a week of intense meditation.
Sword Magic
You can cast spells that require a touch or a melee attack roll (i.e. Chill TouchShocking Grasp, etc.) as part of a melee attack that you make with your sword.  When you do so, you must use your melee attack statistic, either Strength or Dexterity, for the associated attack rolls instead of your Intelligence, but you add your spellcasting bonus not your weapon attack bonus.  Both melee damage rolls and the spell damage rolls are figured as normal.
For example, Chill Touch cast by a 5th Level Swordmage through his longsword would require a single attack roll—1d20 + Strength modifier + Spellcasting Bonus (+2, at 5th Level).  On a hit, the attack deals 1d8 + Strength modifier slashing damage (the physical portion of the attack) plus 2d8 necrotic damage, along with the other associated effects of the specific spell in question (the magical portion of the attack).
When you have your sword in one hand, you can use your free hand to summon a magical aegis, a powerful ward of protection.  When you have your sword in one hand and your off-hand is free, your aegis provides a bonus to AC equal to your Intelligence modifier.
Anyway, that’s basically what I have in mind.  I’ve no idea how it scales with WotC’s current D&D Next math, but it’s the kind of thing I’d like to see in the way of a Swordmage or Battle Mage option for the next edition of the game.


  1. Since sword bond doesn't really give a whole lot, you could probably give them light armor proficiency as well, which would be very helpful at the time, but kind of overpowered (I think) once they get Aegis as it is.
    Also, I really enjoyed 4E's way of getting the Aegis to help allies more than himself. Also, if using it on himself, maybe the Int bonus replaces the Dex bonus to AC (which would scale better alongside the armor proficiency, I think).

    1. If not armor proficiency, then maybe a Hit Die/Point increase?

  2. Well, look, it's more of a concept sketch than anything else. I kind of felt like your want to take at least a couple of levels of fighter to make the class work anyway, and I was okay with that. What I really think we're missing here are some more Swordmage-specific spells, especially something a Swordmage or Fighter/Mage could cast on his sword to boost it up.

  3. Interesting topic, I currently run a female half-elf warrior/magic user that dual wields two +5 defender longswords under first edition D&D "guidelines." There are no rules in D&D except house rules of the GM. (We've been playing since the game was first published some 30 plus years ago.) So long in fact, that each of us has mutated the rules brazenly to fit our personal style. I personally run the future worlds, a mind-bending mix of Gamma World, Star Frontiers, and AD&D rolled together in a complex epic mess involving a war through time of cybernetic life forms vs mutants, alien races, AI's and infiltrators from the D&D worlds that brought powerful artifacts leaking magic and permitting spells to operate. The point I'm trying to make is that D&D is very flexible, the book doesn't make the rules, the GM does, the books are just a handy starting point to modify as suits your GM's needs for gameplay. Anyway, my half-elf has very low wisdom (8) and very high intelligence (19), she's stubborn, and even though people told her she wasn't dexterous enough to dual wield (15DX), she did it anyway (there's that low wisdom in operation.) (DX16 now.) She's picked up psionic abilities from an artifact (Air Power Stone) that allows her to warp spells, particularly those associated with air, i.e.lightning, teleportation, flight, etc. She's disappointed with her casting abilities in combat, so her plan is to learn conventional smithing to make her own swords, then modify spells to smith swords using psionics, and ultimately develop a new class of sword that can store spells for use in combat. There are many artifacts in D&D that are impossible to create with just the spells listed in the books. Somebody had to have made these things, so you can assume the spells do exist, its just a matter of discovering or creating them anew. The first magic sword iteration she plans is a split-blade sword with a cavity in the pommel that allows a wand to be inserted. Nice thing here is the ability to switch out the wands in her swords for the type of combat she anticipates. In later versions she intends to make the blades operate like a ring of spell storing, where she can store a variety of combat spells on the sword itself and trigger them in combat. Dual wield does not allow for a lot of somatic gesturing in combat, and is likely to leave her vulnerable. Enchanting the swords like wands reduces cast time to a segment (the spell has already been cast when it is initially placed on the sword,) and it will make for a hell of a surprise against her foes. I'm rather proud of this low-wisdom character, she has turned her greatest weakness into a strength, she has been commented on as fierce and utterly fearless in combat, and her dogged determination to ignore naysayers and do what can't be done is entertaining for the group, tickles the fancy of the GM, and garners the attention of the Gods. She is destined to become a very powerful Swordmage, as you call it. When the "rules" are lacking, or preventing you from playing the character you want to play, twist your GM's arm to use his/her imagination and make new rules. After all, it's a fantasy world, why accept mediocrity because some clown wrote a generic "rule" that may work in his fantasy world, but falls short in yours? The GM is the author of the game, not the official "rules," which are not rules at all, only guidelines to be tossed or modified as required for the most enjoyable gaming experience, all it takes is a pencil and a bit of imagination.