Playing D&D with class: Fighter

Coming up with a great backstory, personality, motivations and goals goes a long way toward making memorable D&D characters. But the nuts and bolts of what you can do get determined primarily by class. (Race and background play a role though, too.) Consider it your character’s vocation, calling, profession or craft, class picks up where backstory leaves off, giving skills and abilities for a life of adventure.

DD-Logo

Rather than analyze the mechanics of each class in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, extolling the benefits of one option and admonishing the suboptimal drawbacks of another, what you’ll find in “Playing D&D with class” are musings and hopefully some insight into different ways to approach the various classes in D&D.

As a longtime player and Dungeon Master i’ve never put much emphasis on mathematical optimization. And when it comes to characters i’m a purist – multiclass characters have never appealed to me. Instead, it’s always been about the concept, the who of a character more than the what. Continue reading

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Playing D&D with class: Sorcerer

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.

The power chooses you

D&D had been around quite some time and evolved through several editions before the mighty sorcerer was introduced as a character class.

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Prior to 3rd edition, wizards/magic-users and the various permutations of specialists like illusionists, abjurers and the like, were the undisputed masters of arcane magic. There were some other classes with limited access, like bards in 2nd edition, but by and large when it came to arcane magic it was wholly the purview of wizards.

Unlike wizards that learn the ability to manipulate arcane magical forces through intense study and discipline, sorcerers have an innate link to these forces that surround them, penetrate them and bind the universe together.

Compared to other primary casters, including divine magic users like clerics and druids, a sorcerer has a much more limited selection of spells to wield. But because their magic is so personal and particular to them, sorcerers have an incredible amount of control over and manipulation of their magic.

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For a sorcerer, magic is in their blood and suffuses every fiber of their being. Sorcerer characters don’t choose to wield magic. Instead they are conduits of arcane forces that manifest and grow within them. In this way, they’re reminiscent of comic book characters like Marvel’s mutant X-Men.

Intrinsic origins

A sorcerers’ power stems from a mystical connection to strange events or events in their own past or in the recesses of ancient history. Unlike a warlock, whose magic is granted directly through a bargain with a powerful being, sorcerers owe allegiance to no such patron.

The meat and potatoes of sorcerous magic in 5E is represented by sorcery points. With this pool of resources, a sorcerer can manipulate their magic in a variety of ways – not the least of which is by gaining additional spell slots! Conversely, spell slots can be converted into sorcery points that fuel the core sorcerer mechanic: metamagic.

Metamagic abilities allow sorcerers to exert control over the spells they cast. They can extend the duration or range of spells, make their spells harder to resist, increase the damage, cast them faster, protect allies caught in area effect spells and even twin a spell and cast it two times simultaneously!

twinsorcerer

The Player’s Handbook presents two different sorcerous origins for characters to draw power from: a draconic bloodline or wild magic, with the Sword Coast Adventurers’ Guide adding a third with storm sorcerer. If those aren’t enough, there’s two offerings from Unearthed Arcana playtest materials: the shadow origin and the favored soul.

That’s quite a bit of variety to inspire your imagination when creating a sorcerer character. Arcanists who rely on force of will alone to harness magical powers come in several flavors but all share the common trait that they don’t use magic – they are magic.

Because of this, it’s easy to imagine a sorcerer coming from any sort of background. Anyone from a noble to an urchin has the potential to manifest a sorcerous origin that turns their world upside down. Draconic blood in the character’s ancestry could have lain dormant for millennia. A fluke of nature, random chaotic surges of wild energy, genetic disposition, the touch of planar energy or the whims of the gods are just a few of the possibilities of where sorcerers gain their powers.

Looking for inspiration

Fictional characters who have unexplained powers are vast and varied. Marvel Comics’ mutant characters are a good place to start for drawing inspiration. The manifestations of mutant powers, triggered by a significant event like trauma or puberty, are a terrific parallel for the emergence of sorcerous magic. This could provide a wealth of roleplaying and story opportunities as well. It’s just as likely that people who possess unexplained magical powers could be just as “hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason” as those comics characters with an X-gene.

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Force-users from the Star Wars universe share a lot of similarities to sorcerers, too. Arcane magic, like the Force, exists all around the world and for whatever reason (except the reason of midi-chlorians, which is stupid) some people have a sensitivity and affinity for it that allows them to channel and manipulate the energy.

force-lightning

For less specific examples, literature, film, TV, comics, video games and other media have countless examples of characters around whom strange things occur. Leaning more towards the wild magic aspect of sorcery, perhaps a sorcerer character is themselves largely unaware of their own power or ability to manipulate it. It’s not too difficult to imagine and roleplay your sorcerer not as a competent wielder of raw magical might, but instead as an instinctual caster. From a game perspective, sure, the desired effects are the the spells you as a player choose to cast. But in terms of your character’s existence in the world, it could be interpreted as dumb luck. (Also, there’s always the chance of wild magic surges…)

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.

acolytesorc

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.

Sorcerers rely on their Charisma in every regard for any class features that reference an ability score. This alone can inform your character in a variety of ways. Is your charismatic sorcerer charming? Manipulative? Domineering? Maybe they’re reluctant to tap into their strange magical powers and instead try to use their personality to navigate encounters as best they can.

A sorcerer with higher Strength might wield a great sword and focus on buff spells like false life and mirror image (yes, there are nonconcentration buff spells out there!). Maybe your sorcerers’ magic manifests itself as personal enhancements like this. They could even be somewhat unaware of what is truly happening when their magic works.

Crowd control isn’t a bad choice for sorcerers either, using their metamagic to make resisting things like web, hold person or stinking cloud more difficult. Perhaps your sorcerer is appalled by the violence of the adventuring life they were thrust into as a result of their strange magical powers.

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Sorcerers are one of those classes that are really only dependent on a single ability score (Charisma) so the direction you take with your character is as wide open as anything else about this class.

The next time you’re creating a character, whether as a DM or player, consider the sorcerer. At their core, sorcerers are possessed of strong will to harness innate magical powers. The limited selection of spells you choose for your sorcerer will determine what specialty they’ll bring to the party, with their metamagic providing flexibility to use those spells in different ways than any other spellcasting class.

Sorcerous origins give characters an avenue to think about where their powers derive from, whether the character is aware of them or not. But no matter how you envision your sorcerer character, they are if nothing else a truly magical character.

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Consider the role your sorcerer will play, how their origin, background and spells combine to make them a unique individual in the game world. Will they be hated and feared by those who don’t understand, or fear themselves and what they’re capable of? Will they seek to understand and gain more control over the torrent of magical power in their veins, or give in to the whims of fate and ride along like a twig on the shoulders of a mighty stream? Like any character, your sorcerer comes to the table with a story to tell, as well as one that has yet to be written.

Playing D&D with class: Bard

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.

We are the music makers

The dreamers of dreams. A jack of all trades, but master of none (and oftentimes better than master of one). Minstrels, poets, virtuosos, storytellers and loremasters.

wonka-bard

The D&D bard is all of these things and more, tracing their origins way back to a 1976 edition of The Strategic Review.

In 1st edition AD&D, bards were sequestered away in the back of the Player’s Handbook. There, the bard was a hybrid multi-class/prestige class of sorts. A character had to gain levels as a fighter, then thief, and then a druid – but at that point the character is a bard under druidic tutelage. As a bard they gained bonuses to charm things, legendary lore knowledge, defenses against musical magical effects and abilities to inspire their comrades.

Refined in 2nd edition AD&D, the bard was a subclass of rogue, retaining the same inspirational, influential and musical abilities with the addition of some thief skills and wizard spells.

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The bard didn’t change much since then, settling into its position as a multi-faceted class mixing skills, magic and fighting with unique performance-based powers. Often regarded as the ultimate fifth member of a classic party of fighter, wizard, cleric and thief, the bard can fill in or support any of those four roles, as well as bring a few of its own tricks to the party.

Better with age

Bards have been a favorite class of mine and a frequent go-to since 3rd edition. Prior to then i never much enjoyed magic and almost always played thieves or rangers. In 1st edition i wouldn’t have strayed from fighter and thief to pick up druid and a chance at a few specialty abilities, and since my days playing 2nd edition i’m almost always the DM.

But then came 3rd edition, and a rather large gaming group i joined with about ten players – the perfect situation to add a bard. These folks were all pretty power-gamey min-maxers so the idea of a character whose strength lay in helping others achieve success was anathema to them. They were more than happy to take their inspiration bonuses, and for my part i considered a significant (maybe even majority) amount of the damage being dealt out stemming from my otherwise weak and clumsy bard.

Because the group was so large, i was free to focus all the character’s advancement on his performance skill and utility spells. He didn’t even carry any weapons because a) he couldn’t carry very much at all thanks to Strength as a dump stat and b) he was terrible in combat. It was probably the most fun character i ever played. IIRC the campaign ended with a battle against a lich. The bard was the last man standing, and with his dirge singer prestige class was able to defeat the powerful undead with a haunting violin song.

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5E bards are the pinnacle of a class that’s only gotten better with each edition. To be fair, all the classes in 5E are presented well. With their signature inspire ability functioning as a bonus action, bards of today can boost their allies AND do their own thing, giving players a lot more opportunity to feel bard-like without being just a mobile stereo system. Countercharming magic, bonuses to all skills and expertise in couple of them are built into the core chassis.

The pen or the sword

When it comes time to choose a bard’s archetype at 3rd level, the choices in the PHB offer one path focusing more on combat and the other further diversifying the bard with more interactions with skill bonuses and magical knowledge, plus the power to inspire yourself and a reaction to unspire (negatively inspire) other creatures when they attack an ally.

Represented by Colleges that the bard presumably studied at, the colleges of lore and valor stay true to the bard’s origins as a daring loremaster, while offering distinct methods to go about that task.

Unearthed Arcana adds two additional colleges: glamour and whispers. The former increases the bard’s performances to greater heights with illusory and captivating effects, while the latter offers a dark twist to the bard’s repertoire that makes them deceptive assassins who capture and use the shadows of others to mask their activities.

Looking for inspiration

Although it’s difficult to separate the idea a bard’s performance being musical, that’s one place to start thinking about a bard character.

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Comedic bard

A bard’s specialty could be stand-up comedy, oration or rhetoric. Their performance might be juggling or whip mastery. A more martial-minded bard’s kata, shadowboxing or acrobatics routine perhaps inspires allies and intimidates enemies. An amazing performance and display of skill is moving regardless of the medium. Ballet, performance art, visual effects shows – these and more all have the potential to enthrall audiences and evoke emotional responses.

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Dancing bards

Keep in mind, too, that D&D takes place in a world where magic is real. Not only does a bard hone their skill with diligence, their mastery imbues their actions with mystical qualities the same as wizards tap into arcane forces or even a highly skilled warrior can make multiple devastating attacks with unnatural celerity.

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Object-manipulating bard

Classically, characters like the Pied Piper, minstrels, Norse skalds and the Kingkiller Chronicle’s Kvothe are excellent examples of audio-inclined loremaster types. Likewise, any musician can provide some inspirado for a bard’s adventures. Freddie Mercury, a high-level bard, sold out stadiums and inspired millions. Tenacious D literally went on an adventure to acquire an artifact and wound up battling the devil in a musical rock-off.

Without getting into a rules and mechanics discussion, the Performance skill in 5E is used for any sort of entertainment. This can certainly include such things as acrobatic demonstrations and magical light shows, for a different take on bardic (or any) performance. The skill check is determining how entertained audiences are, not necessarily how technically sound the performance is. A low-Dexterity character can absolutely attempt to entertain a crowd with juggling or tumbling, and if it were an Acrobatics check they’d more than likely fail miserably. Who’s to say their routine isn’t a comic spectacle that ensnares onlookers through sheer peculiarity?

It’s not hard to imagine Willy Wonka as a bard. He’s charismatic, sings, does a bit of tumbling, creates magical concoctions and has gathered strange lore from all over the world.

The public persona a bard affects might be a mask they wear while pursuing another agenda, too. Good bards are welcome most places, and a traveling entertainer is a perfect cover for a spy or other sort of clandestine operator to go about without arousing suspicion.

A bard at the core is an adventuresome sort with a smattering of skills, abilities and traits from several disciplines. Look at your bard’s ability scores, background and skills and imagine what performances they might enrapture audiences with. You can get a lot of roleplaying mileage out of what your bard’s talent expertise stems from.

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.

freddie-mercury

Epic-level bard

More than anything else, bards rely on high Charisma for their primary abilities. Inspiration and spellcasting are both dependent on a bard’s force of personality that Charisma represents and even if all the other stats are low, a bard can still do pretty well with a high Charisma. Vicious Mockery as a cantrip never gets old; despite low damage, which is of the psychic variety and does scale with level, it doles out the ever-important disadvantage for the target’s next attack. The Performance skill is Charisma-based, as is the pool of Bardic Inspiriation dice.

If you imagine your bard as a daring warrior in addition to their charismatic persona, by all means the bard can hang in there with other warriors, or likewise providing cover fire from range. A bard more interested in lore and NOT getting into life-and-death battles can tap into more magical secrets or rely on skills more as an adventurer.

The bard is a great class that leverages complete mastery of a single pursuit for decent aptitude in several. With so many options, a bard can evolve in many different ways and come up with solutions to problems that surprise the bard player themselves as much as their companions and fellow players.

The next time you’re creating a character for your game, consider giving the bard a chance to perform. At their core, bards are charming, personable, confident, entertaining and inspiring. Their big personalities are as diverse as the focus of their skills and abilities. No matter what methods the bard employs, bards are going to be influential performers whose allies count themselves lucky to have them along.

Think about what role your bard will play in their group. Will they shy away from bloodshed, preferring to aid more aggressive companions to overcome perilous monsters? Will they use their talents to cover the party’s activities from enemy eyes? Perhaps your bard has little taste for dangerous journeys and adventures, instead building a career and reputation as a performer who has fell in with more adventuresome folk as protection from the threats the world poses.

Playing D&D with class: Artificer

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!

techsmith

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.

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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.

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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

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.

edward-elric

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.

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Your primitive intellect wouldn’t understand alloys, or compositions, or things with molecular structure…

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.

tinkerer

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.

gunner

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.

Playing D&D with class: Rogue

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.

The ultimate dungeon delver

As one of the core four classes in D&D, along with the fighter, cleric and wizard, the rogue as it’s called today fills the spot not covered by the other three. A scout, stealth master and surprise striker, a rogue is the character you want watching your back. With their focus on a variety of skills, the rogue is one of the most versatile classes in D&D and in 5E is certainly one of the most popular as well.

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The thief’s first appearance in D&D

Originally a fan creation, the thief as initially presented in 1975’s Greyhawk supplement quickly became a favorite class. The suite of special skills that a thief brought to the table – climbing walls, picking locks, disarming traps, hiding in the shadows, moving silently, picking pockets, listening (??) and striking unaware enemies for extra damage – were all activities that players found invaluable. In those earlier days of D&D, gameplay was centered around dungeon delving, with DMs creating dangerous labyrinths for players to defeat rather than elaborate sprawling sagas for characters to take part in.

To that end, i imagine there had to be a fair number of players who were put off by the thief. After all, why couldn’t their fighting-men and magic-users engage in those same activities? Wouldn’t it behoove any of them to be sneaky, ambush the bad guys and unlock those treasure chests? Codifying the rules for those and handing them off to the thief might have felt like to players like their non-thief characters had diminished abilities.

On the other hand, having a thief in your party meant the other classes could focus on what they did best, leaving the thief to become the master of his own responsibilities in the dungeon. The original thieves were very, very squishy, without the clutch evasion ability and other defenses they’re known for today.

traps

By the time AD&D came around, thieves were solidly in the mix with other classes, expanding their versatility by allowing characters of any race to pursue the class without a level limit. They also gained a subclass of their own, the thief-acrobat introduced in Dragon Magazine #69 and officially added in 1985’s Unearthed Arcana.

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The thief-acrobat began here. Since the advent of straight-up skills in D&D this class became superfluous

In 2nd edition AD&D, the thief became a subclass of a sort under the Rogue group, along with bards. Thematically, thieves retained their identity as robbers but added the notion of being treasure hunters and skill specialists, moving away from being considered straight-up criminals.

When 3rd edition rolled around, the “thief” was left behind for good, solidly becoming the rogue class. As such, they reflected their place in the D&D class pantheon as masters of skills. Gaining their signature evasion ability, rogues became an excellent “dip” class, with many character builds benefitting greatly by a two-level jaunt in the rogue class for a ton of skill points and that sweet, sweet evasion.

D&D 4E, with its focus on tactical grid-based combat, gave the rogue a ton of mobility to get around the battlefield and strike at key targets, along with defining some of their flavor options as swashbucklers and brutal thugs.

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Now, in 5E, the rogue is firmly cemented in D&D gameplay. Many people consider the 5E rogue one of the most balanced and well-designed classes in the edition, with a solid core of abilities and terrific archetypes to choose from like the classic thief, assassin and arcane trickster. Adding to those already excellent choices are two more from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide: the mastermind and the swashbuckler.

Everyone loves a rogue

As a testament to 5E’s design, it’s pretty difficult to make a bad character of any class. Math and mechanics aside, i’m not just talking about optimization here – even characters without really high stats and with unusual combinations of backgrounds, races, classes and skills can still be effective and fun to play.

The rogue in particular benefits from 5E design because they have no resource management to worry about and all of their core abilities are passive bonuses. Even for the things that require a roll based on an ability score, because of 5E’s bounded accuracy (i.e. flat math) a lower ability score won’t have a too terribly adverse effect.

Interestingly, many of the rogue’s areas of expertise in previous editions are not their sole purview in 5E. Mobility, stealth – even picking locks – are no longer rogue-only activities. Anyone with a set of thieves’ tools can attempt to pick a lock. Proficiency with said tools makes the task easier, and rogues by default have proficiency. But! There are several other ways for nonrogues to become proficient with thieves tools.

Basically, what 5E rogues offer is skill in a broad array of areas, expertise in a narrow selection of skills and an overall canny character that can get around quickly and easily, with several unique defenses that make up for their squishiness compared to classes like fighters and other physical combatants.

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So why does everyone love a rogue? Rogues as a base represent a certain relatability for players, akin in many ways to fighters. They don’t rely on magic, supernatural connections, spiritual fortitude or otherworldly influence, nor do they have a limited pool of resources like spell slots, rage or ki.  Instead they rely on the same sort of training and discipline that a real-life person could achieve. Rogues are dashing adventurers who represent a gamut from the best to the worst that a person can achieve through cunning, guile and skill.

Any sort of character concept can be fulfilled by the rogue, because when it comes right down to it, the rogue is simply synonymous with skill experts. Taking backgrounds into account, a rogue could just as easily be an acolyte, folk hero, hermit or sage as a criminal, charlatan, entertainer or pirate.

A rogue can rely on strength or dexterity for fighting, and avoid direct combat altogether and instead bolster their allies – something the mastermind archetype in particular excels at. They can bend their will towards arcane magic, focus on thiefy skills or concentrate on deadly attacks.

Looking for inspiration

There are countless fictional characters that showcase the versatility of rogues to inspire your D&D characters. The Gray Mouser comes to mind immediately as an arcane trickster, as does Bilbo Baggins as a thief. Solid Snake is definitely a rogue assassin. Inara from Firefly is very mastermind-y.

One of my favorite characters that i’ve played was Zorax the neutral half-orc rogue assassin, very clearly a rip-off of Zarak the Evil Half-orc Assassin.

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Everyone in the party advised me away from the assassin archetype and often urged me to use a weapon other than a dagger (rapiers being the obvious suggestion). But i stuck to my guns…or knives in this case. With an urchin background and a story that involved being on the downlow after being set-up by his gang leader (or sort of evil Fagin who led a gang of adolescent thieves), Zarak evolved from a brutal, greedy thug to…a brutal, greedy thug with a conscience, loyalty to his adventuring company the Red Larch Irregulars, and his own version of a soft spot for unfortunate children.

Come to think of it, my very first D&D character ever was a thief named Zorax, too, way back in the mid-80s when i started playing D&D. That never occurred to me! That iteration of Zorax was an elf IIRC who spent his days adventuring with Mordecai the fighter. The pair of them made  a great team, with Mordecai tanking and Zorax flanking, while both of them shared the spotlight when it came to talking with NPCs, exploring dungeons and investigating plots, intrigues and situations they became involved with. i only have a few solid memories of the character. One is a dramatic showdown fight on some docks in the rain against a dark elf assassin. Another is he and Mordecai traveling to the Nine Hells, where all the devil lords were having a meeting and we fought all of them. Lastly, after the Immortals Rules were released, Zorax and Mordecai entered the realm of superheroism. The Nine Hells incident may have coincided with that; my memories are pretty fuzzy.

Back on track though, a starting point for imagining a rogue character is anyone who relies primarily on skills and savvy to succeed. Going from there, your rogue can work towards and evolve in so many different directions as to how you want to fight, explore and interact with your game world.

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.

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For the rogue class, high Dexterity and Intelligence and sneak attacking from the shadow is a perfectly excellent way to play a rogue. But don’t rule out the countless other ways to bring your rogue to life. A thief might rely more on Strength and athleticism to traverse crumbling ruins or scale a tower to reach the treasure inside. An assassin might use Charisma and disguises to infiltrate and gather intel. An arcane trickster can be the party’s scout and battlefield controller, relying on their Intelligence and magic to charm opponents and create distractions. A goliath can be a brutal striker, and a dwarf might be a crossbow-wielding master of locks, traps and gadgetry.

The next time you’re creating a character, whether as a DM or player, give the rogue a try. At their core, rogues are nimble and mobile, utilizing a smattering of skills with expertise in a few to overcome all sorts of challenges. No matter what path you choose, a rogue is going to shine when their expertise is needed, be difficult for enemies to pin down and offer a wide variety of options for players to explore as they progress in level.

Consider the role your rogue will play, how their background and skills combine to make them a unique individual in the game world. Will they become a hero of the people? A criminal with a heart of gold? An elite operative? An expert in their field?  Like any character, your rogue comes to the table with a story to tell, as well as one that has yet to be written.

Playing D&D with class: Barbarians

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.

The big, bad barbarian

With an origin dating back to 1982’s Dragon Magazine #63, the barbarian was introduced by Gary Gygax as a subclass of fighter. Presented as a tough survivalist with many skills suited to living a life in difficult terrain, the barbarian had the largest hit die of any class – d12 – that persists to this day. Coupled with their mobility and canny senses, they were adept at staying alive. Barbarians also had a large number of skills that were unlike other classes at the time, focused on wilderness survival. In that way, they were kind of like the thief, who had all the dungeon-delving skills one could want, making that class very popular when it was new. i imagine as D&D evolved and adventurers explored what lay above ground – away from subterranean labyrinths – the barbarian offered the kind of skillset that offered players a mechanical way to interact with the game.

Barbarians also hated magic.

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AD&D second edition relegated barbarians to a fighter kit, later getting their own Complete Handbook.

In 3rd edition, barbarians gained their most distinctive feature – their rage. Unlike fighters, who gained their martial ability through training and discipline, the barbarian relied on primal fury in combat. Barbarians also decided that magic wasn’t so bad.

D&D 4E stuck with the rage and added a leader archetype to the mix with the thaneborn barbarian.

The iconic barbarian rage, although not what brought the class to the dance, continues to fuel the barbarian’s place in D&D 5E.

A tough nut to crack

Despite their immense popularity in D&D, i don’t have much experience with barbarians. i played one briefly that was inspired by the Marvel Comics character Troll.

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In a campaign for my friend’s kid, where they woke up to find all the adults in the world had vanished, my barbarian was an adolescent female halfling bear totem warrior. She was raised by bears and believed herself to be one of them.

The only other experience i can recall with a barbarian was a player in an Adventurers League group when we played through Princes of the Apocalypse. She was an air genasi eagle totem warrior.

Both of those characters were mechanically suboptimal (bear totem because of the race – halfling – and air genasi because of the eagle totem). However, they both contributed to their respective groups and everyone at the tables had a good time, thus reinforcing my longstanding belief that a character you enjoy playing is far superior to the mathematically optimized options.

Nevertheless, it is challenging to conceptualize outside the box when it comes to barbarians. Their rage feature is so strong and iconic, looking at them in any way other than a battle-thirsty outlander warrior is difficult.

That being said, one of the best things about 5E is the backgrounds feature that adds new dimensions to characters. Optimally, players can choose backgrounds that sync up with their class, such as the outlander or folk hero backgrounds for a barbarian for example. On the other hand, something like the criminal gives barbarians some rogue-like abilities. Or maybe your barbarian was an acolyte of their people’s faith and their rage is a divine fury. Even a noble background can work well; perhaps your barbarian is from a landed family and is prone to frightening anger.

At the very least, all barbarians are tough – that’s their signature ability. Regardless of race, skills, backgrounds or the Primal Path chosen, barbarians can dish out and take incredible amounts of punishment. Beyond that, they have just as much room for customization as any other D&D character.

By steering away from mechanical and mathematical optimization, set your imagination free and instead create characters whose stories you want to discover. While D&D is a numbers game, it’s more importantly a storytelling game that rewards clever play and engagement with fellow players and DMs. You characters are more than the facts and figures on the character sheet!

Looking for inspiration

A few fictional characters come to mind that capture the D&D barbarian spirit. Chief among them is the uber-popular Marvel Comics X-Man, Wolverine. He’s incredibly tough, which syncs with the barbarian’s reliance on Constitution. In fact in 5E, barbarians’ Constitution not only adds to their prodigious hit point totals, it provides additional protection through their Unarmored Defense ability that ups their Armor Class. And, of course, like Wolverine the barbarian can enter a rage state that makes them a beast in combat.

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For a different take on a barbarian character, modeling one on Wolverine you might forgo gravitating towards wielding the biggest weapon possible and instead try two weapon fighting with a pair of daggers refluffed as claw-like weapons. Incidentally, refluffing skills, abilities, weapons, spells and the like is one of the beauties of D&D – you can use the same mechanics along with your imagination to easily flavor characters however you like. A hill dwarf sounds pretty nifty, with their increased Wisdom enhancing your feral senses and their increased toughness.

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For another literary barbarian, consider Fafhrd from Fritz Leiber’s amazing Lankhmar stories. With his companion the Gray Mouser, the pair are a couple of rogues who in some ways flip the script. Fafhrd is typically the more practical or level-headed of the two (although he does let his romantic nature get the better of him on occasion).

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Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, from the phenomenal series of comics by Howard Chaykin and Mike Mignola. Highly recommended!

Oddly enough, Conan the Barbarian has very little in common with stereotypical D&D barbarians, despite his immense strength and shirtlessness. Conan is also highly intelligent and disciplined, and many before me have likened him more to a multiclass fighter/thief in D&D terms. On the other hand, there’s nothing keeping a player from assigning higher Intelligence to their barbarian and scaling the Tower of the Elephant to steal the treasure inside.

Unearthed Arcana

Wizards of the Coast has been posting weekly content under the Unearthed Arcana brand, offering playtest material for the different classes. These new class options continue the tradition that 5E has established by offering new directions to take your base class without having to multiclass – a huge win in my book!

The entry for barbarians is one of the most interesting of these, presenting several new options for the primal path players get to choose at 3rd level. They’ve done an excellent job here, coming up with some new takes that keep the spirit of the barbarian but imagining their rage and connection to the natural world in interesting ways.

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The Path of the Ancestral Guardian translates that connection into a bond with the character’s past, calling on spirits of their forefathers and great historical warriors to aid them. In particular, the Consult the Spirits ability adds a new layer to the barbarian that allows them a bonus to Intelligence and Wisdom checks. This primal path reminds me a bit of the warlock class, not only mechanically but for roleplaying options, giving both the player and DM opportunities to incorporate the barbarian’s ancestral spirits into their interactions with the world. In this way, it is reminiscent of the Totem Warrior path.

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The Path of the Storm Herald adds a bit of magic into the barbarian mix. Based on various environments – deserts, seas or tundras – these barbarians manifest their primal fury with elemental effects like a damaging aura and resistances. Later effects control the environment to make movement difficult, knock foes prone or keep them in place. The idea of your barbarian’s deep connection to their homeland environment manifesting as magical abilities lends a mystical quality to their toughness. Picking up the Magic Initiate feat would mesh well with this path.

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Finally, there’s the Path of the Zealot. This one adds a heavily divine aspect to the barbarian, imagining them as holy warriors called by the gods to fight the neverending fight. The guys at Web DM discussed this in their video on barbarians and came up with several really neat ideas for this path. Zealot barbarians have a strong link between life and death. Among other things, they can be brought back to life very easily via magic. In this scenario, an entire culture could be built around the warriors of their past, holding them in reverence and keeping their bodies enshrined so that, when needed, they can be called back to life to fight the good fight. The Undying Court in the Eberron setting could inspire this sort of culture, elves whose revered dead are kept enshrined in a necropolis.

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 barbarian class, jacked-up Strength and Constitution and swinging a big axe as the party damage dealer is a perfectly excellent way to play a barbarian. But don’t rule out the countless other ways to bring your barbarian to life. A wolf Totem Warrior can focus more on tactics and surgical strikes with the rest of the party. An eagle Totem Warrior makes a terrific ranged scout. A Storm Herald might be the party’s battlefield controller. Even something like an elven berserker can work well – they might not depend on their Strength for everything and instead take advantage of a barbarian’s mobility and keen senses to make sure they’re wherever they’re needed most on the battlefield.

Outside of combat, barbarians can make excellent leaders, too. Consider something like a tiefling Ancestral Guardian, using guile, cunning and force of personality along with a few mystical tricks to inspire allies and even act as the party’s face.

The next time you’re creating a character, whether as a DM or player, give the barbarian a spin. At their core, barbarians are incredibly tough and mobile, tapping into primal forces that fuel their passion and manifest in all sorts of ways. No matter what path you choose, a barbarian is going to hit hard and be difficult to take down.

Beyond that, think about what role your barbarian will play, not just in combat or in the party dynamic, but in the world and story you’re creating with your fellow players. Like any character, your barbarian is a unique individual with their own story to tell, as well as one that has yet to be written.