It could be possible to think that, given the ease with which I point out design and balance problems in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, you might think I hated this system, or hated its power level or had some sort of fundamental problems with the way the game worked. This is – well, it’s a half truth. I absolutely wish the game was better designed, a more elegantly crafted toolset for the stated aim.
But I loved making characters in 3.5 D&D. I loved playing them, and I loved the busted stuff I could make it do
So let’s talk about that stuff!
One of the things a D&D 3.5 character had going on was structure. Character building was both very structured but also pretty freeform; the most powerful things you were going to get tended to come from, first class, then feats, then items. That meant that choosing class levels was really important, and that meant that min-maxwise, I tended to focus on distributing builds to people that used up as little of their other options as possible.
Also I knew I was handing builds on to other people. Super-detailed builds were pretty interesting if you wanted to squeeze your lemon as hard as possible, but I wanted to make sure that if I told you how to build the character, you were most likely to get it. This pulled me towards elegance and simplicity.
With that in mind let’s do a quick talk about my favourite gish build: The Illumian Swordmage.
One of the things we were always searching for in D&D minmaxing was the fabled Gish. A character who could wield a sword and a spell about as well as one another, a spellcasting fighter. We knew we couldn’t Have It All, but the puzzle was still there. Back in 2nd Edition it became obvious that being a Fighter 5/Wizard 5 was way worse than fighter 10 or wizard 10 – levels in D&D 3.5 were too additive to be really good. The aim then, was to have 16 Base Attack Bonus pre-epic (so you had 4 attacks), and, usually, something like level six spells. That was our initial goal and as it so happens, we were able to blow the doors off that.
The Illumians were a race from the book Races of Destiny, a book full of busted stuff. Comparatively speaking, the Illumians were pretty fair. Their big thing was that they had runes that made them good for multiclassing, and as you levelled up in different classes, you got more runes, which built together to form neat special abilities or rules-altering gameplay options.
The Build: Illumian Wizard 5/Phantom Knight X
Necessary Details: Aesh rune, Krau rune, still spell feat, militia feat, some non-worrying skills, spending a spell slot on Phantom Steed
Necessary Books: Races of Destiny (The Illumian and feats), Player’s Guide to Faerun (Militia feat), and Five Nations (the Phantom Knight)
This is a build I like because you have to ask very little of the DM, it imposes some limitations on you, and those limitations let you get creative and cool, and the choice of class is from an established primary-source D&D book that doesn’t need organisational demands to work, annnnd, best of all, it overcomes a problem most builds don’t. Specifically, the problem it circumvents is Multi-Attribute Dependancy.
Let’s do the vital statistics: This character at level 10 has a base attack bonus of 7, which is 3 behind a full-level fighter, and has two attacks, same as a fighter. The fighter has 10d10 hp, the cavalry has 5d4+5d8. But, when we look to the Wizard side of things, you have 9 spellcasting levels, only one behind a full-blood Wizard; you can wear light armour, so the ubiquitous mithril chain shirt will jump on, and you can wander around with a big ole honking melee weapon.
The other thing is, by taking Aesh and Krau, your Illumian can dedicate precisely no stats to Intelligence. This character can be built with just an eye towards building a lightly-armoured physical character; in your classic 28-point ‘standard’ power array, this character can have stats like Str 18, Dex 13, Con 13, Int 10, Wis 8, Cha 8, and run around clubbing people. The Aeshkrau rune means that you use your Strength stat to determine the spell slots you get out of being a spellcaster. Not your saving throws, but you don’t need those; you have self-buffing spells, and spells that don’t give saving throws (that are usually better anyway). Spells like Enervation don’t care about saves, not really.
The other thing is there are a lot of nice but not necessary things you can throw in! The character has a third rune, meaning a +3 to strength checks and rolls, +3 to caster level (so, y’know, your caster level is 10, not 9), and whatever third rune they have adds other benefits. Me, I like Vael, since that gives you a way to burn spell slots for bonuses on saves and bonuses to attacking. There’s a lot of room to do cute stuff with your feats, too! You can pick up Improved Sigil (Aesh) for a +3 insight bonus (!) to all damage rolls on your weapon of choice.
The thing I like the most about this build is that it’s decent at every level from 5 onwards. If you had to play this character from 1 upwards, level 1 is literally the only level where you might find things weird – your best advantage is some level 1 combat-assistance spells, and a punching skillset – you could also just skip spells with somatic components and run around as a low-HP fighter hitting people with a sword (remember, Militia training).
The only ask you have to make of the DM is the regional requirements on the feat and class; since one is from Eberron and one is from Faerun, you might have a true hardass DM say they can’t be allowed alongside one another. That’s fair, but I’m much more used to DMs responding to regional requirements on feats as being pretty unnecessary and easily ignored.