Coming up with a great backstory, personality, motivations and goals goes a long way toward making memorable D&D characters. But when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of what you can do, it’s all about class. Consider it your character’s vocation, calling, profession or craft, a character’s class picks up where their backstory leaves off, giving them the skills and abilities they’ll use on their life of adventure.
Rather than analyze the mechanics of each class, extolling the benefits of one option and admonishing the suboptimal drawbacks of another, what you’ll find in this “Playing D&D with class” is the usual musings that accompany any topic and hopefully some insight into different ways to approach the various classes in D&D 5E.
As a longtime player and DM, i’ve never put much emphasis on mathematical optimization, and when it comes to making characters i’m a purist – multi-class characters have never appealed to me. Instead, it’s always been about the concept, the who of a character more than the what.
Blinding them with [magical] science!
The weekly Unearthed Arcana articles have for a while now been focused on releasing new character options in the form of archetypes for D&D 5E’s core classes. But this past week they took divergence from that and instead introduced a very popular class from previous D&D editions to 5E: the artificer!
Originally a core class in 3.5’s Eberron campaign setting, the artificer is a caster class that focuses their magical prowess into invention and creation of magic-infused objects. An inventor and crafter, artificers bring a unique skillset to the array of class options that explores an aspect of D&D – the making of magical items – in a practical way for players. In various editions, crafting options are available but they require heavy investment of time and resources, usually resulting in characters forgoing more adventuresome character options in lieu of gaining skills needed to make their own magical items.
The artificer puts those abilities to use in the field, creating ad hoc items on the fly or by infusing their spells into temporary items to be employed by other party members.
There’s certainly no small number of folks with a distaste for artificers. The concept might not have a place in their campaign, or it might come across as too crunchy. For the former, like all the classes there are common perceptions of what each class is like that tend to become fixed in players’ minds and perhaps looking at things in a different way can overcome that. As to the former, like many new and alternate classes artificers include new systems for utilizing their abilities. It can be challenging to imagine a place for a noncore class in a setting.
But on the other hand, don’t all the classes have their own unique properties? Rage, ki, sorcerer points, maneuvers – without these individual systems and the options they allow players, what are any of the classes but vanilla warriors and wizards? When it comes to your group’s setting, perhaps the party’s artificer is the only one of his kind. The PCs are after all, extraordinary heroes. It’s not hard to imagine such a character with a very unique set of powers. That has huge potential for storytelling right there.
Choose your specialty
Like the rest of 5E’s classes, the presentation of the artificer is nicely streamlined. At its base is a reasonably tough caster with a nice mix of proficiencies including thieves’ tools, skills and saving throws plus some super useful adventuring abilities to detect and identify magic. The way they implemented magical item crafting – allowing you to choose from a list of magic items that the character has created in the same way casters get new spells – as early as 2nd level!
Even without the archetype abilities, the 5E artificer is a great chassis who will gain useful spellcasting ability, a nice selection of magical items, a capable construct and the ability to attune to more than the standard three magical items.
The specialty archetypes offer two very popular concepts for D&D players: alchemist and gunsmith. Both have a fairly reliable and definitely flavorful option that takes the place of casters’ combat cantrips.
Alchemists gain a magical satchel right off the bat, filled with all the compounds, reagents and substances needed to throw together fire or acid bombs, speed potions and even healing potions – each for the cost of an action (bonus action in the case of speed potions). In essence, these are akin to the alchemist’s cantrips, but i do like that they tempered the healing potion with the restriction that a character can only drink one per long rest. (The alchemist can create many of them but characters can’t just chug them ad infinitum.) The fire and acid bombs have a nice progression of damage based on level as well, making them a useful go-to attack throughout the character’s career.
Gunsmiths are centered around their “thunder cannon,” essentially a magical sniper rifle. Like the alchemist’s satchel, gunsmiths get a magical ammo bag for making rounds. Over time, the thunder cannon gains several interesting ways to control the battlefield, but overall its a one-trick pony. Gunsmiths have a magical gun and use it to lay down damage and employ tactics from afar.
Much of the mystery or mechanical questions the artificer presents are handwaved away, which speaks to the design of 5E being a streamlined version of D&D. Concerns about lead shot, black powder and chemicals are answered through the magical bags similar to a wizard’s spellbook. Likewise, the Wonderous Invention ability that provides tiered magical items at various level breaks is assumed to take place during downtime, without a bunch of clunky mechanics.
Looking for inspiration
Any sort of inventor, tinkerer, engineer or mechanic can provide a good starting point for imagining your artificer, who take a more scientific approach to magic. Unlike wizards, whose understanding of arcane forces translates into complex gestures, incantations and rituals to manifest that power through themselves, the artificer’s approach instead binds those energies into objects.
Forge, from the X-Men lore, is an interesting role model. In fact his background as a medicine man who broke from traditions by incorporating technology into his responsibilities would lend itself to something like the outlander background. Perhaps your artificer has some training and aptitude for wilderness survival and knowledge.
Edward Elric from “Full Metal Alchemist” could spark your imagination. Maybe as a character quirk, your artificer feels compelled to offer items of similar value in exchange for the magical objects they create and the spells they infuse.
Certainly, artificers lend themselves to being smart and resourceful. It’s difficult to get away from imagining artificers that don’t have some sort of studious background – their abilities rely on Intelligence and there’s no intuitive way around that.
On the other hand, an alchemist could be a rustic sort whose knowledge of the natural world gives them the know-how to put together various useful substances on the fly. This sort of character could just as easily be a tribal herbalist as they could a university chemist.
Likewise, the gunsmith could be a military weapons developer, or maybe a field tester charged with experimenting with new technology who over time learns to master it themselves. They could be a noble, with access to strange new technologies, or a folk hero using their village’s legendary weapon.
Either archetype could be a person who has unusual knowledge but is otherwise a simpleton. Think of a character like Ash from the “Evil Dead” films. He was smart enough to make gunpowder and a mechanical hand for himself, but beyond that wasn’t too bright and certainly not very wise.
In my spelljammer game, one of the characters is a human fighter with the guild artisan background who took up the gunslinger archetype that Matt Mercer shared at the DM’s Guild. With the release of UA’s artificer playtest material, i would absolutely allow him to rebuild his. Matt Mercer’s gunslinger is definitely well thought out with some really cool abilities, but it has a very narrow focus on gun combat. As an artificer, my player could have the same fun time sniping enemies from afar but with lots of other options – including magic with the added benefit of spelljamming capability.
Roles not rolls
As with any class in D&D, the best advice i can offer is to set mechanical concerns aside and instead focus on creating memorable characters. Unusual race, class and background combinations are just as viable as character built to take advantage of every stat and ability. What you’re giving up from category A only means you’ll be stronger at something in category B or C.
D&D gives players a chance to create the kind of game they want to play, using as many or as few of the rules as those gathered at the table wish. At the core, it is a group-centered game and your characters come to life as individuals working with others to achieve their goals, so what works in one group might not be optimal in another, and that’s something number crunchers might overlook.
For the artificer class, high Intelligence and Constitution lend themselves to making smart tactical decisions to help the party and survivability in the thick of things to be wherever you’re needed. Both archetypes lean towards remaining at range, but don’t rule out heading to the front line and spreading around the magical inventions to support allies.
Your artificer might have no interest in fighting monsters at all, instead focusing their attention on supporting the rest of the party. Besides, you’ve got a magical mechanical construct to do the fighting for you.
Outside of combat, artificers will prove their worth when confronted with any mechanical or crafted in nature. Beyond all the neat spell-infused items you can dole out to companions, at the end of the day the artificer is highly skilled with mundane crafting as well. There’s nothing stopping you from putting expertise with various tools to use making lots of useful stuff.
The next time you’re creating a character keep the artificer in mind. At their core, artificers are resourceful and creative, with unique and clever solutions to lots of different situations. Both archetypes are focusing primarily on combat, with the core abilities providing the wealth of other options.
It’s worth noting that there is some roleplaying hooks built right into the artificer class as well, suggesting that the curiosity that drives artificers lends itself to the development of intense rivalries amongst their kind, as well as motivation to explore and perform valuable field research. The class description prompts players to consider whether the character has a rival, and how and why they learned the ways of artifice.
Consider what role your artificer will play to their party and the world they adventure in. Will they share their amazing discoveries or keep the secret workings for themselves? Does their mechanical construct grow to become a trusted friend and ally, or simply a shell of metal and magic to be used like any other tool? Like any character, your artificer arrives with their own tale to spin, as well as one that has yet to be cobbled together.