3.5: The Archivist

Hey kid, wanna read some dirty books?

Original Art by Julie Dillon

D&D is a game of nerds, and therefore there is always some degree to which it will reflect the vision of the kinds of nerds that made it. By default, there is an idea of power that lends itself towards the obvious, with mighty barbarians and fighty fighters plunging onwards into the fray, but it almost seems too obvious that a game that for thirty years was seen as the domain of the kind of dorks who boasted about their test scores just so happened to land the majority of the powerhouse play options in the lap of the characters visually represented by being physically unathletic and carrying a big book everywhere.

In a game full of busted stuff, it’s well known that in D&D 3.5 the most busted stuff comes from the host known as the ‘full spellcasters’ – characters whose power derives directly from their spellcasting as the primary thing they do, and who get nine levels of casting spread out over seventeen levels, eighteen if you suck and pick a sorcerer. And amongst those, the typical top tier are the Wizard, the Cleric, and the Druid.

The Archivist is the rare example of a character class presented in the 3.5 D&D expansions books that manages to not just exist alongside those three, but in a way, exceed them.

The simplest descriptor of the Archivist is it’s a wizard made out of cleric parts. It’s a class with a smaller hit dice, it doesn’t get armour or weapon proficiencies, and it casts spells from a ‘spellbook’ that just gets called a prayer book. To supplement this stuff, you get an ability called Dark Knowledge and some nice bits-and-pieces stuff; scribe scroll, some bonus feats, and a bonus against enchantment effects. Very typical.

Dark Knowledge honestly owns! It’s an ability, limited use per day, where you pick an enemy, and if you can make an appropriate knowledge check about the type of monster you’re dealing with, and get an effect based on it. Particularly, one of the options is that everyone who hits the enemy deals an additional 1d6 damage if you make a DC 15 knowledge check, 2d6 if you make DC 25, and 3d6 if you make DC 35. Those numbers may sound challenging but, well, it’s perhaps easier than you may think, and the effect can be really huge. A boss enemy getting Knowledged on can really give groups a nova turn, where suddenly everyone finds every excuse to make multi-attack turns and make sure to get as many of those bonus 3d6ses.

If I have a beef with Dark Knowledge, it’s that it feels like something most ‘know things’ classes should be able to do; like it would be nice if it was a feat chain that Wizards, Bards, and so on could all take advantage of.

If you view the Archivist in terms of the cleric it can look a lot like a set of downgrades. You lose the armour proficiency, you lose the medium base attack bonus, you lose the d8 hit dice, you’re required to care about two spellcasting stats, not just one — your intelligence determines access and power, but your wisdom gives you bonus spell slots — and you lose the instant access to your entire spell list. That’s a pretty steep first step. Oh, you’ll be able to get almost all the spells eventually if you’re willing to pay money for them, but the Cleric doesn’t have to.

If you view it in terms of the wizard, though it’s a lot muddier. For a start, the Archivist gets 4 skills a level, not 2; it gets a d6 hit dice and not d4; it casts divine spells, so any proficiency you get in armour doesn’t interfere with casting. You don’t get access to the wizard’s enormous spellcasting list, but you can add ‘divine spells’ to your spellbook, if you can find a scroll of them.

It’s therefore probably pretty reasonable to look at the Archivist overall and conclude that while this class lives in the same general space as the Cleric and Wizard, as any other full spellcaster, it’s probably just fine. So what?

When we dig into the gristle of the Archivist, the two most notable changes from the Cleric are that the Archivist doesn’t get the convenience of spontaneous healing or Turning Undead, and that the Archivist can learn divine spells from any spell list. That opens up, yes, the entire druid spell list, obviously, but it also adds the Ranger and Paladin spell list, and every single domain. You can’t buy them by default when you level up, but the typical loot rules set a standard price for spells of a particular type, with distinctions like divine vs arcane versions of things effectively flavour text to the games’ stores.

This is a point to mention the game balance of the Archivist. Look, a lot of the way the Archivist works is a lot like Polymorph Self; the class, in the book presented, seems fine, if a little much, but every single book adds to your potential power level. What makes the Archivist challenging to work with is that even if you limit them to just the Player’s Handbook, they’re still pretty busted, but they get even moreso after that point. Plus, the only mechanical reason for a DM to curtail this power is to deliberately make sure that the Archivist doesn’t get out of control, which smacks of classic 3.5 ‘well, just don’t let your players do broken junk’ game balance. On the other hand, it can feel a bit like you’re smuggling ideas past the DM if you say ‘well, this is on the Adept spell list.’ What DM thinks about the Adept?!

What can you do, then?

Well, you can be a better Gish (fighting spellcaster) than most Clerics. You gain access to all the same cleric self-buffs that make you broken, and any prestige class that gives you armour proficiency (and there are a few) just get to stack on top of you. You can grab combat spells made for the Paladin; since the Paladin’s spellcasting is meant to be very minor, it only gets four levels of spellcasting, and they’re spread out much later. They get a few Cleric and Druid spells that are normally level 2 as level 1, and that makes them really cheap and attainable.

This means that the Paladin spell Holy Sword, which is a 4th level Paladin spell, isn’t available until even the wisest Paladins get at level 14, which means that Holy Sword is a pretty bustin’ spell designed to power up the late game. Which means an Archivist getting at level 7 is pretty out of bounds. And that’s just in the Player’s Handbook! This isn’t me reaching out to weird sources to get to do broken stuff! The Archivist starts at the power level of ‘Wizard plus cleric plus paladin plus ranger!’ and it gets better when it starts in other sourcebooks.

That means the Archivist is a better blaster caster too, because it gets the lowest-level version of every spell in its potential list. Wizards’ best blasts are available to the Archivist at the right levels, between Cleric domains, the Shugenja, the Druid, and other miscellaneous casters from prestige classes like the Holy Liberator.

And then you can involve what I only can describe as ‘Spellcaster Bullshit.’ For example, there’s the cleric spells Anyspell and Greater Anyspell from the Forgotten Realms Campaign Sourcebook. These let you prepare and cast arcane spells as if you were an arcane spellcaster, which means suddenly you have access to a bunch of wizard spellcasting prestige class options, and some oddball things like the Geomancer and that’s just the low key stuff! You start doing things like creating infinite feedback loops with spell malarkey and that’s a whole cavern of stuff where I just go ‘uh, don’t worry about it.’

Which means you wind up at this place where the Archivist can be everything the wizard can do, but with more hit points, better armour, and more skill points… and you also can heal the rest of the party.

Anyway, yeah, that’s the Archivist. Man, it really makes the way they were paranoid about the Warlock seem so silly and petty.

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