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.

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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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Getting back to my roots

What a year 2017 has been so far!

After moving back to my beloved hometown of Cleveland, Ohio from sweltering Austin, Texas i laser-focused on a few life goals.

Squad goals! If by ‘squad’ i mean myself

One lofty ambition was becoming debt free. Mission accomplished! (Not counting the consolidated school loan i’ll likely take to my grave.) Savings sustained massive damage and frivolity was curtailed, but monies owed are no more.

Another priority was getting back to my roots as a tabletop gamer. This goal has enjoyed great success throughout the year. In Austin, the tabletop gaming community was a lifeline to a social life in a new city after moving there alone for my muggle job in journalism. Every night of the week was game night at one of the city’s many hobby shops. The gaming culture is strong in there.

Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League and a steady diet of board games reinvigorated my lifelong love of tabletop gaming, and i brought that passion back to Cleveland. Friends were cajoled into forming a fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons group, which is still going strong. Aside from our main campaign, we’ve played several one-shots and even welcomed a new player to the hobby. He’s already taken a turn behind the Dungeon Master’s screen and started a secondary campaign for the group. Continue reading

Staying nerdy with Nerdarchy

i couldn’t tell you which video i watched first, or how i stumbled upon it on YouTube. And with roughly 1,500 videos on their channel as of this post, i certainly can’t boast of having viewed them all. A substantial sum, to be sure, but it would be a Herculean task to catch up, especially with the prodigious amount of content they create and share.

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With their three-year anniversary approaching on May 4, 2017, the folks behind Nerdarchy show no signs of slowing down or running out of nerdy stuff to talk about. Recently hitting 30,000 subscribers, they are more dedicated than ever to growing their brand and fostering their own unique contribution to nerd culture.

Nerdarchists Dave and Ted took time from their lives to chat with me about the earliest days of Nerdarchy, how far they’ve come and how far they hope to still go. The same charm, humor and excitement for nerd culture on display in their videos was evident in our conversation, along with the camaraderie between them that lends their content a dynamic set apart from a sea of single-person YouTube personalities.

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Unabashed geeks, Dave’s chat location was packed with gaming rulebooks (lots of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons stuff if i recognize the book spines correctly) as well as a magnificent wood-carved Spanish knight display. In Ted’s chat window, the familiar Domo-kun figure seen in many of their videos loomed over his shoulder.

“The original impetus was not to start a roleplaying game channel,” Dave revealed. His brother Ryan was moving back to their hometown in South Jersey from New Mexico, where he’d been pursuing a career as an artist. The brothers wanted to create content for the internet together, and after some back-and-forth settled on tabeltop RPGs. For Dave, it was a matter of finding something close to his heart, and if you watch any of their videos, it’s clear how passionate he and the rest of the team are about their hobby.

“You have no idea how many iterations of ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ we went through before we could find a domain name that was available,” explained Dave. “The cool thing about that was we realized (Nerdarchy) is actually a word in the urban dictionary, and it was available. So we went with that and started doing it.”

Dave, who had experience with internet marketing, knew going in that the key to success in their endeavor meant putting a team together. “You can’t Lone Ranger it – that stuff only works in the movies.” Reaching out to Ted, they set to work making videos. And they haven’t stopped since.

Early Nerdarchy videos touched on broad topics, including one of my favorites where Dave discussed releasing his inner geek. At that time, their gaming group was playing a lot of Mutants & Masterminds as well as 4E D&D and Pathfinder, and several videos discuss those games as well the cult classic Paranoia and others. More generally, Nerdarchy videos touched on topics applicable to any sort of tabletop RPG. They also expanded beyond games to include a trip to their neighborhood comic book store to talk comics, demonstrations of yo yo tricks, movie reviews and interviews with game designers.

“Then we discovered 5th edition (Dungeons & Dragons) was coming out, and we’re like well, if we’re doing this website maybe we should talk about this,” Dave recalled. “As soon as we started talking about 5th edition D&D, we exploded. It just so happened that we really like the system, so that was a benefit.”

With an eye towards building Nerdarchy into a viable business, Dave, Ted, Ryan and fourth principal member Nate are constantly seeking improvement. Part of their growth included their video format evolving from a single person speaking to the audience to the conversational atmosphere seen in their content now. There’s a practical side to creating lots of videos as a group, too.

“As our stuff grew, we realized the more videos we wound up doing, the more ad revenue we’d wind up getting,” Ted pointed out. “And the more potential there is to find something that people are going to hit on.”

Expansion meant one video each day, Monday through Friday. Then two videos a day. Then an additional weekend video. And live gameplay sessions. And gameplay sessions with fans…

“Let’s just do more videos,” Ted said of their approach. “It was really a more business and financial decision.”

“I can’t even believe we have this much to say,” Dave chimed in.

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Nerdarchist Ted, Nerdarchist Dave, Nerdarchist Ryan and Nate the Nerdarch

As a testament to Nerdarchy’s dedication, creativity and affection for their hobbies and nerd culture, they maintain an enormous database of topics and ideas for videos. Inspiration comes from myriad sources, including viewer comments both good and bad, pop culture and the ever-growing nature of the tabletop gaming hobby itself.

Audience interaction is certainly an important part of the formula. Some of their favorite videos to create come through the GM 911 playlist, where they answer questions from fans about the challenges faced at their own gaming tables. Opportunities for them to be creative also rank among their favorites, with series like MageForge, Terrible Terrains and D&D-izing characters from pop culture, literature or history.

These come with a caveat, however – viewership. Nerdarchy is not shy about letting their audience know they’re growing a business, and that means casting a wide net when creating content. This isn’t to say they’re unscrupulous or compromising any principles, far from it. The challenge is knowing when to share the content they create.

“We really do have to be strategic about how we put content out,” said Dave. “The hardcore fans really like the more creative stuff, but the community as a whole wants to see character builds, what we think is broken or what’s overpowered. Using ‘most,’ ‘best’ or numbers almost guarantees we’re going to get higher views.”

Their efforts have paid off, too. “We can officially employ someone to be a poor person this year – just one person.,” said Dave. The first couple of years saw very little profit, with even that going right back into the business in terms of improving equipment, maintaining their website and so forth. With continued growth, Nerdarchy continues to set goals for themselves and treading carefully to ensure they can reach them.

The addition of staff writers for their website, under the direction of website manager Ty Johnston, is one area Nerdarchy would like to focus on. Currently, the stable of writers creates content on a volunteer basis. As a staff writer myself, the possibility of compensation is certainly appealing. On the other hand, i’m satisfied to contribute my part to help Nerdarchy grow. So if they can funnel those funds into continued growth, i’ll happily share my weekly column until the business takes off if it helps. Just don’t forget about me when you’re shoulder to shoulder with Nerdist and Geek + Sundry!

Because Nerdarchy has become such a big part of their lives, time is a precious commodity for the folks in front of the camera. Families, full-time jobs and other interests can sometimes take a hit from the work they put into the business, but the support of friends and loved ones keeps them motivated to keep going forward.

On the other side of the coin, they’ve had a lot more opportunities to engage with their favorite hobby through Nerdarchy. One of the fringe benefits, as Dave explained, is more chances to play games, which is justified because it’s a business. “The best way to ensure you always have a full gaming table is to have a mildly successful YouTube channel,” Dave joked.

What both Dave and Ted agree is one of their greatest achievements is that Nerdarchy has begun to operate on its own to some extent, at least the website aspect. With a steady flow of articles, the site is becoming somewhat autonomous, expanding in scope and depth without requiring their direct daily participation. As evidence, Dave cites the recent announcement of a free 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure in the works from several staff writers in honor of Geek + Sundry’s International Tabletop Day celebration on April 29.

Looking ahead, Nerdarchy aims to continue growing their subscriber base on YouTube as well as expanding the website. Additional goals include possibilities such as hosting a convention and publishing custom content and creating more Nerdarchy products, as well as reaching the point where Nerdarchy can be full-time employment. Fun events like a Nerdyque and Nerdcation are on the idea board as well, the latter consisting of an all-inclusive weeklong vacation with the Nerdarchy crew filled with themed events and tabletop games.

The most rewarding part of Nerdarchy, though, is an easy question for Dave to answer.

“The people,” he said. “The friendships we make, the contacts we’re making, that makes it all worthwhile – that’s the best part.”

“Hands down,” agreed Ted.

D&D Design diary: Blue Magic

With my first foray into creating content for Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeon Masters Guild, i offered my own take on a popular concept: the blue mage from Final Fantasy lore.

The Dungeon Masters Guild is a new program that allows you to create content (adventures and locations; new monsters; character classes, archetypes, and backgrounds; etc.) using Wizards of the Coast intellectual property (IP) and to make some money while you’re at it. – from the DM’s Guild website

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A Blue Mage from Final Fantasy reflects on the creatures whose abilities he’s acquired.

In the Final Fantasy games, blue mages are mystical warriors with the ability to acquire unusual powers from the monsters they face and add them to their repertoire. There are many homebrew versions of this character option for D&D across several editions. After reading a bunch of them and giving it some thought, i decided to take a shot at my own version. The outcome is something i’m really happy with and excited about, and i hope other D&D gamers give it a try in their campaigns.

What i thought i’d do here is give gamers a look into how i developed this idea, and generate feedback into ways to improve and refine the concept. Before getting started, i encourage heading over to the DM’s Guild and downloading the PDF version of this class option for yourself.

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Initially, i began working on the blue mage as a Sorcerous Origin option. After writing about the sorcerer in the Playing D&D with Class series, my imagination was really taken away with these arcane spellcasters, generally considered rather suboptimal from a mechanical standpoint. Longtime Long Shot readers and those who know me know that game mechanics are far less important to me than cool character concepts and storytelling potential.

In this version of the blue mage, these sorcerers could learn new spells that directly affected them. Only spells with a single specific target were eligible, with a higher level ability including those that a character was affected by, which included area of effect spells. I went through every spell in the Player’s Handbook and made a list of all of the eligible spells.

The list was quite long! The potential to acquire any spell specifically targeting the sorcerer would greatly expand the breadth and depth of their spell list. The opportunity to add healing magic was there, as well as numerous other spells from every other spell list. There were a lot of spells that wouldn’t be eligible at first, in particular area of effect spells (fireballs, e.g.) and spells with a range of Self. One idea, mentioned above, was to expand the eligible spells as a higher level ability, to make any spell that affects the sorcerer eligible to learn.

Tinkering around with this for a while, i came to an impasse for a couple of reasons. From a mechanical perspective, this felt way too overpowered to me. The niche of a sorcerer is having a small pool of spells overall but with the benefit of being able to manipulate those spells in various ways through metamagic. By giving a sorcerer the potential to acquire basically any spell that affects them, it threw the class off balance.

Another drawback was that sorcerers are squishy. With d6 hit die, they aren’t known for having a lot of hit points. Sorcerers also don’t generally wear any armor, and despite the option for magical defenses loading up your limited spell pool with protection spells would kind of make the character a wash. So the idea of a character that wants to be struck and affected with lots of spells, while at the same time being relatively fragile and unprotected, did not sound like a very good idea at all. A blue mage needed to rely on their body’s fortitude to pursue their path to power, and the sorcerer just wasn’t going to cut it.

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And then an idea came to mind. What class is known for being tough? The barbarian! With Constitution as a primary ability for these warriors, they had the natural toughness needed to withstand punishment. They’re reckless, and what’s more reckless than willingly going out of your way, nay, seeking out opportunities to get struck with all manner of strange effects? Additionally, the barbarian doesn’t have any other spellcasting to interfere or unbalance the blue magic abilities.

On the contrary, building this as a barbarian primal path option would open up new options for these characters, leveraging their focus on melee combat to give them interesting options for ranged attacks and utility abilities. The existing primal paths in both the Player’s Handbook and Unearthed Arcana focus almost exclusively on melee combat. There’s a smattering of noncombat utility here and there. My reasoning was that blue magic would offer an alternative path. A barbarian’s core class abilities would still allow them to be competent melee warriors, and blue magic had the potential to bolster this facet depending on what abilities were acquired while at the same time opening up different avenues and options for playing your barbarian character.

Using the spell list i’d made for the sorcerer idea, i struck all the spells that required concentration from the list. My thinking was that the primal path would allow them to cast spells, but only while raging. However, that was a deviation enough from rage’s limitations so i felt like allowing concentration spells on top of that was too much.

The spell list that was left was not very exciting, frankly. Most of them were damaging spells, which would be kind of cool since a large number of them are ranged – a common issue for barbarians as they rise in level is being stuck as a one-trick melee combat specialists when enemies start flying, teleporting and so forth. Outside of these, there’s some interesting stuff but really, how many times do you think you’ll cast Rary’s telepathic bond while raging? Tongues, water breathing, message and the like all fall under this perspective. On the other hand, there’s nifty stuff like the power word spells and healing that would be nice options to have for a barbarian. Taking it all into consideration, it felt plainly lackluster. The real nail in the coffin was asking myself “would i choose this primal path, over the ones in the Player’s Handbook or from Unearthed Arcana?” The answer was no.

More than that, it deviated too much from what makes blue magic so cool in the Final Fantasy games – the ability to collect and use monster powers as a player character!

Thus began my pouring through the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual, seeking some formula to convert creatures’ Challenge Rating into something equivalent to character and/or spell levels. Without getting too involved in describing my amateur mathematical equations, suffice it to say these efforts were fruitless.

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Only a barbarian would recklessly go toe-to-toe with a beholder…but the possibility of being able to use those eye rays…!

The solution i came up with after nearly abandoning the idea altogether, though, i feel is an elegant one: categorize creatures according to their placement in the Tiers of Play. Since characters would more or less face creatures whose CR matched the tier they were in, it felt natural to group them that way. So CR 0-4, 5-10, 11-15 and 16-20 creatures were translated into a table based on the Eldritch Knight Spellcasting table, minus the cantrips. That felt about the right balance of uses for the strange abilities the blue mage barbarian would acquire.

In keeping with the naming conventions of other barbarian primal paths, my blue magic creation was dubbed The Path of the Azure.

To a barbarian following the Path of the Azure, the dangerous monsters they face
become their strength. As reckless or moreso than others of their kind, these barbarians willingly put themselves in harm’s way against terrible aberrations, magical creatures and extraplanar threats. When their foes affect them with strange powers, barbarians of the Path of the Azure harness their fury to turn these creatures’ attacks back on them by unlocking those abilities within their raging souls. As varied as the foes they’ve faced, these barbarians build unusual repertoires of additional powers they are able to unleash while in the throes of their rage.

The first draft edition of this that i shared on the DM’s Guild was offered with the caveat of fully understanding it needed more work and refining, and an encouragement to discuss, share feedback and offer suggestions and criticisms in the comments. Additionally, i posted in several D&D-centric forums seeking that same engagement.

Based on feedback from those sources, i did some revising that clarified some of the language on the mechanics of how blue magic works. As it was originally written, a Path of the Azure barbarian could acquire things like a goblin’s scimitar attack, various creatures’ multiattack ability or a giants’ rock-throwing attacks. It wasn’t difficult to circumvent this by clarifying that creature Actions listed as melee weapon attack, melee spell attack, ranged weapon attack or ranged spell attack are not eligible.

Also, someone pointed out that the 6th level ability granted by the Path of the Azure was very similar to a College of Valor bard’s Battle Magic, which wasn’t gained until 14th level, making it overpowered. To address this, the 10th level ability to Consume a creature and thereby acquire an ability that doesn’t target a creature moved from 10th level into the 6th level slot.

While working on the the first revision, i went through each entry in the Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and the Tome of Beasts from Kobold Press and made a spreadsheet of every potential ability a Path of the Azure barbarian could acquire. It is huge! There are 381 creatures for a total of 542 possible abilities. Of these, 89 are only available through the Consume ability.

Because of the huge variety, and noting that several would be useful out of combat and particularly not useful at all during combat, the 10th level ability allowed for expending one use of the barbarian’s rage to activate an ability.

There are some other details i still plan to refine. The capstone Reflection ability needs some work, and i also want to take another pass at the Blue Magic table. But overall, this concept keeps me excited to continue tinkering with it. My hope is that gamers will give the Path of the Azure barbarian a try at their own gaming tables and have fun doing so. With any luck, they’ll head back to the DM’s Guild and leave some comments that will help further refine the archetype.

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Seething with blue magic, this Path of the Azure barbarian is ready to rock.

In the meantime, i’ve got a great idea for introducing a Path of the Azure barbarian in my own campaign, and i’m looking forward to seeing how that goes. More than that, i am really impressed with the whole experience sharing content on the DM’s Guild and working on some other projects to submit there. If you have any cool ideas for custom D&D content, give it a shot and see what happens.

If you give the Path of the Azure a spin at your gaming table, please share your thoughts, opinions, suggestions and feedback below or at the DM’s Guild and let me know how it went!