Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Designing the Engineer Class: A D&D Next Experiment

I wrote a series of posts last week called “13 Things I’d Like to See from D&D Next,” and I’ve gotta admit, I was more than a little pleased with the response.  I posted the link to the D&D Next Community on Google+, and folks there seemed to dig it, chiming in all week with comments about one or more of the ideas that I’d mentioned.  
The Warlord class—or perhaps Fighter subclass—got the most attention, but I personally was most interested in the discussions that arose around the idea of an “Engineer” class or subclass, envisioning the thing in military terms as mobility, counter-mobility, and survivability specialist.  To which I got comments along two basic lines:

1. That sounds like something that Thieves do.  This ought to be a Rogue sub-class.
2. You shouldn’t call them Engineers.  You should call them “Sappers.”

Now that's a gorgeous patch.
That got me thinking.  First off, I’d definitely not thought of these guys as Rogues, but rather as a Fighter sub-class that specializes in using specific tools.  And second, while I’ll agree that all Sappers are Combat Engineers, I don’t think that the reverse is true.  I worked with heavy Combat Engineers a lot when I was in the 3rd Infantry Division, and I definitely would not call those guy “sappers”.  Sappers, to me, sneak up in the middle of the night, snip the barbed wire with wire cutters, clear the minefield without the bad guys noticing, and then go through to hold the breach for the infantry.  Heavy combat engineers, meanwhile, use bulldozers to create massive excavations that can hide tanks, use smoke and explosives to breach deliberately emplaced heavy obstacles, and if necessary, reorganize to fight as mechanized infantry.  Granted, my friends who’re still in the Army who actually branched Engineer might see this a little differently, but for me, well… That’s the way I remember it.
And even then, it’s not like these two Engineer archetypes represents the complete gamut of fantasy-based possibilities for D&D.  For example, we might also think of an Alchemical Engineer as a viable sub-class specializing in the use of smokes, poisons, and alchemical grenades.  Also: what if you wanted to try to play a Blacksmith or Artificer?  Someone who specializes in the creation of unique magical and technological armor and weapons?  Such a sub-class might be challenging to design in combat, but the archetype is at least worth mentioning here.
This picture predates my service but it is more the kind of thing that I saw
back in the day.  All of today's pictures are from Wikimedia Commons.
The problem with all of this is that it’s a lot.  I don’t want to design a class with four sub-classes from scratch, especially for a project that is at best an experiment on my blog.  Also, I’ve no idea how to balance any of this against the other stuff that’s in the basic class document, i.e. armor and weapons proficiencies, class features, maneuvers, spells, etc.  
With that in mind, I decided to start by laying out a list of things that at least some Engineers might be able to do within the framework of D&D.
Things that various Engineers can do:
--Breach obstacles, traps, doors, etc.
--Emplace hasty obstacles to shape the battlefield (i.e. caltrops)
--Create mastercraft weapons and armor
--Emplace elaborate traps and obstacles, given time.
--Degrade an enemy’s weapons and armor (using rust monster dust, etc.)
--Fight as infantry, when necessary
--Brew alchemical potions and poisons
--Use a variety of ranged and melee weapons
--Read blueprints, maps, etc.
--Read magic, cast spells off of scrolls
--Create magical effects with sigils and glyphs
--Brew smoke bombs, tear gas, poisonous gas, sleeping gas, etc.
--Evaluate stone work and/or defensive positions
--Make maps
--Use wagons and tools, beasts of burden, plows, shovels, crowbars, etc.
--Read and write a variety of languages
--Improve the effective range of weapons with scopes and sights
Sappers from the French Foreign
Legion carrying axes.
--Improve the penetrating power of ammunition
--Design and use a hammer and anvil, mill, chisel, etc.
--Do basic carpentry and/or stone work
Now.  That is a long list, but a) not all Engineers will be able to do all of that stuff, and b) there is quite a bit of overlap there.  Looking at that, I doubt there is enough there for four separate sub-classes.
Then I started looking at the things that make the extant classes within D&D Next unique.  That gave me the following list.
Dichotomies in D&D Next Class Structure:
--Spells use vs. Weapon use
--Cantrips vs. Prepared spells only
--Fighting Style as a class feature
--Maneuvers, Ki Exploits, etc.
--Bonus Skills
--Weapons & Armor proficiency
Additional Thoughts on Engineers:
--Engineers are smart. Potentially capable of learning spells.
--They are also tough. Carry heavy packs, work with their hands, etc.
--At least some fight in the scrum.
--Others probably prefer ranged weapons.
--Some achieve effects with tricks: bombs, caltrops, etc.
--Some are capable of heavier, more permanent work, i.e. stone work, metallurgy, etc.
--Runic Magic?
In terms of mechanics, if you want to have an Engineer that is at all realistic, then he needs to have a high Intelligence score and a decent score in either Strength or Constitution.  Strength and Constitution both have obvious advantages in D&D, and indeed, it is not hard to imagine a smart Fighter taking a level or two of Engineer.  That’s fine.  The reverse is also fine.

Sappers capping an oil well in Basra after the first Gulf War.  Note the task
organization, the mix of heavy and light forces.
What’s a problem is finding ways to make the Engineer’s Intelligence matter.  Smart engineers need to derive significant in-game advantages from their Intelligence scores.  
Finally, I thought about ways that we might differentiate sub-classes of Engineers.
Potential Sub-Class Structures:
--Light vs. Heavy
--Magical vs. Mundane
--Sapper vs. Heavy vs. Alchemical vs. Smiths/Weaponeers
With all of this in mind, one final way to break this down occurred to me, which is to say that “Engineer” isn’t a class at all.  Instead, perhaps these ideas that I’ve been considered are rightly sub-classes of existing classes.
As Sub-Classes of Existing Classes:
--Sappers are Rogues who use smoke bombs, caltrops, etc.
--Heavy Combat Engineers are Fighters with skills and tools in lieu of a Fighting Style.
--Artificers are Mages who make weapons and use Runic Magic.
There’s nothing wrong with this last concept except that it doesn’t do much to capture or create a specific fantasy archetype, and speaking as an engineer myself, that’s one of the goals of this piece.  So I’m going to admit now that laying out three sub-classes in the existing class structure would work.  It just doesn’t accomplish my purpose, which is to come up with some kind of unified Engineer class that captures the feel of what a Combat Engineer might do in a D&D campaign.
These were my initial thoughts on designing a potential Engineer class.  Before going any further, I’d like to see what folks in the D&D Next Community over at G+ have to say about it.  So… your thoughts?

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