Tag Archives: DnD 3e

3.5: The Misfit Children Of The Complete Books

Dungeons & Dragons is a beast of structures. One of those structures is a class, which gives you a collection of mechanical abilities to express how you operate in the world. One of the other structures is a book release schedule, which gives you a sequence of products that Wizards would be very happy to sell you, and would make your game better, no really, check it out, this will totally address problems you’ve mentioned and noticed. Back in 3.5, the first wave of these was the Complete books, the Complete Warrior, Complete Adventurer, Complete Arcane and Complete Divine, which I will note, did not in fact, complete those options. Blatant false advertising in my imho.

Each of these books had three classes in them, meaning that after the initial release of the Player’s Handbook, we were presented within the first six months with twelve more classes to select from, which makes sense. Binches love classes. I have a long-standing opinion that every Complete book that presents new classes presents one legitimately interesting class and at least one complete turkey. What you almost never got was a powerful class out of a Complete book.

Of these classes, I actually think I have to revise my assessment. Like, some books didn’t really have an option that managed to reach the high water mark of fine.

But that’s a list! We can look at a list!

Presented then, in an itemised list, are the twelve classes of the Complete Books, 3.5 edition’s misbegotten I Guess player options. We’re going to look at the worst book to the best book, in terms of whether or not the classes are powerful. This is non-scientific and you’re reading along because I’m charming, so don’t get too het up about it.

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3.5: Sex Is Bad

The Satanic Panic did things to the culture. We can pretend it wasn’t really a thing (because it was a thing about a thing that wasn’t a thing), but undeniably, a bunch of angry parent-types bellowing about the way their kids were being exploited until the exploitation changed colour did pervert the course of business interests. It was largely, just not worth the fuss to do things that could annoy that vocal body, and you could just change the decals on some of the stuff you did. I mean, having a bunch of weird outsider kids who liked playing D&D doing things like ‘being friends’ could be super upsetting for the parents of those kids, especially if those kids were having fun with their friends and not wanting to have fun with their family. Maybe the family sucked? Anyway, point is, that the Satanic Panic had a direct and meaningful impact on the big business juggernaut that was Wizards of the Coast. Famously, they stopped using demonic imagery on Magic: The Gathering for seven years.

Was that why 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons and its followup edition 3.5 thought sex was bad?

Nah probably not, this was probably just further building on the game’s pre-existing protestant ideology that thought Sex Was Bad. Let’s talk about the Ace Rights prestige class.

Content Warning: Acephobia! And uh… amazingly, just general talk about sexual assault? THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A FUN ONE.

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3.5: The Adherent

The 3.5 D&D Paladin has problems. It may be one of the better melee classes in the book out of the box but that doesn’t mean a hell of a lot and there are a number of levels where the Paladin just increases a few numbers and nothing else changes for them. These are known as ‘dead levels,’ and honestly, in 3rd edition D&D, for the melee characters, you could do worse than that. A couple of classes got worse when they levelled up.

I therefore tried to solve this problem in the fashion that to me looked the most sensible, straightforward, and functional way. That is, I decided to make a single class that addressed the Paladin’s balance problems, integrated Domains as a design element, and let players play a whle bunch of different characters that were only united by being primarily combatants and empowered by something beyond the self.

I made the Adherent.

the least horny Legend of Cryptids art I could find
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3.5 Memories: Fighting Backwards

Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition was an interesting system with a lot of good ideas. In a big, top-level mechanistic way, it had some good ideas, like making standardised rules for how categories of things worked. Some abilities were spells, some were spell-like abilities, some were supernatural, some were extraordinary, and if it didn’t fit that category, it was generally unique, but by making these categories meaningful there were a lot of rules that just got tidied up. Things were complicated, and the rules system wanted to cover very complicated things. 2ed had some very complex monster abilities, and 3ed wanted to be able to run things that looked a lot like them. Not quite compatibility, but certainly to carry some of that same ‘oh, this can fight like this OR it can be a spellcaster OR it can teleport at will,’ kind of design.

Thing is, this kind of top-down design idea was done as a half measure, and also didn’t preclude the system from bringing in some real problems of its own, like the way that all the melee classes were garbage and the wizard and druid were overpowered. There had to be a big balance enema, and that enema was called 3.5. It was an opportunity to get you to buy all the books again, but also a chance to do some really comprehensive, holistic errata, onboard new players with the better rules. This could address those balance problems, too, by reigning in the wizard and druid and maybe the cleric as well, and then giving a good shot of power to those weakest classes, Everyone Else.

How’d that work out?

Uh.

Well, the Druid got Natural Spell in the core books, so it became even more powerful. The cleric didn’t get the slightest bit of reigning in. Wizards lost one of the most powerful spells they had and were still otherwise completely as busted as before. The bard, ranger, barbarian and Paladin all received improvements that didn’t really address the categorical problem of how they worked, but certainly made them less boring. What about the fighter…?

Well, and this is going to sound unbelievable, they made the fighter worse.

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3e: ‘The Exotic’ Weapon

Dungeons & Dragons is a game about creating a shared, temporary, fictional, consensus reality with your friends and ceding authority to manage the apersonal elements of that reality with one of your friends who can be trusted to use that trust in order to direct a narrative that provides satisfying engagement for the whole of the group, as I’ve always said. Part of that consensus reality is therefore the idea of managing what is and what constitutes normal, which is, overwhelmingly often, done with literal no rules or insight into how reality functions on an intrinsic level. You do not need rules for gravity (check flying rules, p56), you do not need rules for what dying means (check the head-in-a-bucket rager, p114), you do not need rules for why a culture wants a rightful king in power (check bend-at-the-knee page 1312). The fictional reality does not have a different set of mathematic rules underpinning their reality (though you can make a case that that’s what a D20 is if you’re very meta and boring), light and vision do not behave differently, planets whirl and matter can be touched.

Rather, the reality of D&D is a collection of signifiers of the very small set of differences between our reality and theirs, and that is, in part, established with rules that recognise the conventional vision of what is or is not normal, most often represented by the tools that are of interest to adventurer player characters. It is in this regard that the weapon proficiency system tells you what is normal and what is other.

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3e: Knowing What Love Is

Back in 3rd edition D&D part of the worldbuilding was done through Gods. Rather than give every single god a particular unique mechanic as was the trend in second edition (the rarely-spoken-of-on-this-blog 2e, for fear Lorraine Williams will sue me, on the internet), this was handled by creating a set of tools available for every god,and that god gave you a handful of them.

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3e: Challenge Ratings Are Hot Garbage

Sometimes an article is just a big tweet, and this is one of them. In this case, the bigness of the big tweet is however, beyond the boundaries of a mere tweet, so let’s go. The 3rd edition Challenge Rating system, which was replaced in 4th edition by the XP budget of each encounter, was hot garbage and nostalgia for it is at best rose-tinted glasses, and at worst a signal of complete mechanical illiteracy.

Let’s talk about the 3rd edition system for creating* balanced** combat*** encounters****, the Challenge Rating system.


* Sort of.
** Sort of.
*** Sometimes.
**** Sort of?

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The best of 2021, Part 1 – D&D

I wrote some bangers last year.

I sat down at first to give a sort of top ten articles of my own last year, that weren’t covered by specifically the header of How To Be, Game Pile or Story Pile. I tried it, and found that I had run out of slots for ‘absolute banger of an article’ in two months of summarising posts. Then I realised there were whole trends of things to write about and then I realised, hell, this is my blog, you’re here for my content, and unless you’re Vincent or Tab or Kate (hi, you three), odds are good you miss an article or three I write.

We’re going to do three of these this week. A whole bunch of bangers, divided up by the type of writing it is, and why I might want you to go reread it. First we’re going to talk about general content – stuff that I think you should link to other people outside the blog, posts that explain some complex concept in a way I’m proud, but also which doesn’t necessarily fit the other stuff.

And so here, I’m just going to bring your attention to a big pile of things I’d already written that are really good and which I know have escaped your attention, yes you, and today, it’s going to be about the Dungeons & Dragons, DMing and Worldbuilding articles.

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3.5 Memories: Worse Than The Fighter

In Dungeons & Dragons 3.5th Edition, a thing that’s not at all un-awkward to say, there was a set of hardbound expansion books released as a group to satisfy groupings of characters as an archetype. The first set of these, released around 2003, were The Complete Divine, The Complete Arcane and The Complete Warrior, a trio of books that kind of told you what they were about in the name. You had arcane spellcasters, divine spellcasters, and uh, everyone else, I guess.

The Complete Warrior had to bear up as the space for all the classes that weren’t divine spellcasters (but the ranger and paladin can play here too, sure) and all the characters who weren’t arcane spellcasters (but there’s stuff in here for melee spellcasters). Barbarians and Rogues and Monks all got to cram in on this book, but based on the name and the style, and of course, the preponderance of feats in this book, this is the book that’s for fighters.

It’s also a pretty cool book, if you’re looking at the good stuff in it that you want to use and make sure people can use. LIke this book has tactical feats, a category of feat that kind of roll together a small number of ‘not enough for a full feat’ advantages into a single grouping, and that’s a really good way to expand expertise on fighters. Prestige classes in this book include the Actually Good Frenzied Berserker, the kinda decent Tattooed Monk, the sorta-maybe-why-not War Chanter, the busted as hell Warshaper and that’s four classes worth having access to in most campaigns. The excellent Combat Brute tactical feat is in here, and uh

Anyway, the point is this book is one of the books I think of pretty positively.

It’s also a book that features the rare examples of a class actively worse than the Fighter.

The ‘Samurai.’

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3e D&D: SONIC FIREBALLS

In the pantheon of D&D spells, there’s nothing, it seems, more iconically important to the identity of the game than ‘fireball,’ a spell that apparently nobody ever anywhere would come up with without D&D bringing it to their attention. Hm. Bit sarky there, I should come back at that again. Anyway, Fireball! What a great spell! A classic, a powerhouse, a spell that always comes quickly to the fingertips and that players love to hear when the wizard is about to start some shit with a fireball.

Anyway, you’d never bother casting it in 3rd edition D&D.

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3.0 D&D: Everyone Shapeshifts

Min-maxed 3.0 D&D was fucking weird.

I use the term 3.0 to talk about ‘third edition’ because there’s this weird way that people treat ‘3rd edition’ D&D as a single game, and not a period of time between the last release of 2nd edition and the first release of 4th edition. 3rd edition content is still being made and the game is still being played, even if I’d moved on from it. Important to this, though, is that ‘3rd edition’ is a term that I feel inappropriately ambiguates the two games made in 3rd edition.

When people are criticising 4th edition — hey maw he’s defending 4th edition gain — sometimes you get a ‘timeline’ argument; the idea that 4th edition, as a game that was only actively published and promoted for six years before the introduction of 5th edition. 5th edition has been going for 7 years since then (two of which were pandemic years), and 3rd edition went from 2000 to 2008, showing that 7 and 8 years are ‘good’ times for a game to exist, and 4th edition’s 6 years indicate that it was a ‘bad’ time. Thing is, 3rd edition D&D, the thing before 3.5, was only around for 3 years, and it was not the same game as 3.5. You couldn’t just pick up classes, creatures, or monsters and port them over. First party feats and classes were generally all weaker than 3.5, and spells were largely stronger.

4th edition never released a supplement that wasn’t compatible with all of 4th edition. By comparison, 3.0 lasted for 3 years, and 3.5 lasted for four – an immense rules patch apology.

And trust me, it was an immense rules patch.

Like, did you know in 3rd edition, in min-maxed groups, you basically never bothered building for physical stats if you were starting after level 3 or so?

Because in a min-maxed party, you very rarely were dealing with un-polymorphed characters.

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3.5 Memories: The Struggles Of The Hexblade

We’ve spoken before about how the wizard and sorcerer presented a sort of top-and-bottom of the top tier of D&D 3.5’s utterly unbalanced nonsense space, and it’s something of a storied matter of lore that the Fighter represents a most obvious terrible class. It creates a pretty simple narrative that spellcasters are great and melee damage dealers are ass. This isn’t totally right – after all, the Truenamer, the worst D&D class, period, is a spellcaster, and there are classes that are primarily melee damage dealers that aren’t underpowered compared to standard enemy content.

But it does hold, generally.

The core rules brought with it a set of three arcane casters and four divine spellcasters. Of those divine spellcasters, two were what we call ‘full’ spellcasters – they cast spells at level 1, and every level their spells get better – and were the Druid and the Cleric, two of the most stupidly powerful classes in the game. The other two were the Paladin and the Ranger, who had a pretty interesting structure; both were full-base attack bonus classes, with special abilities that made them better in melee combat, and after level 4, they started to get a small number of spells that gave them a lot of potential options. And honestly, the Ranger and Paladin were pretty damn good. They weren’t the worldshakers that the primary spellcasters could be, but if you wanted to hang in their parties, you were at least going to get interesting choices and could do some cool things.

But what if there was an arcane class that was templated off the Paladin and the Ranger?

What if there was a melee-capable class that got arcane magic and special powers to round out their flavour space?

Well, there was.

Presented in the Complete Warrior, we got our Arcane Paladin-Ranger-type.

It was the Hexblade.

And it suuucked.

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3.5 Memories: The Complete Adventurer

Before I go on to bang about something big and complicated in this book, I want to note, up front, that this book has Wraithstrike, one of my favourite 3.5 D&D spells, and which introduced the idea of spellcasters spending spell slots for short-term, immediate impact in combat, something I love and which always thrilled me when I got to play with it. If I only got this book for that one category of spell, I’d be pretty okay with it.

Just some uncritical, unvarnished, un-preambled praise.

Going back through my old 3.5 books is sometimes an exercise in wondering, in hindsight, just what exactly justified the book’s cost. At the time I was actively playing 3.5 D&D, the books were purchaseable research tools, things to leaf through and read and cross-reference. It was like getting a complex box of lego, and you could share your creations with other people.

Most of these books, I look at the spines and I have a warm thought or two. It tends to be something like oh yeah, remember how this lets you do that or that. Most any given book has an absolute dogshit class, one really embarrassingly weak thing, and one really busted thing in it. There’s always some stuff that’s, you know, decent, or stuff that becomes decent when you know what you’re doing. Basically, these books were themselves, even if never used to build a character, fun to play with.

Sometimes you’d find a book that had in it something that resisted play. Something with an obvious allure to it, but something that was hard to see how to make it work. These were often a bit like Finger Traps, kind of like Rubiks Cubes – puzzles where the impracticality of solving them was the point. Character options that asked an interesting question.

For the Complete Adventurer, the question was the Fochlucan Lyrist.

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3.5 Memories – The Smoochless Book Of Exalted Deeds

Back in D&D 3.5’s hey-day, which was, it seems to look at these printing dates, 2003, they were so convinced of their infinite expandability and the depth of their market that they made themselves a special label warning that this book was of the Mature Line of products. In the time of this line’s existence, as best I can tell, there were a total of two books Wizards of the Coast published on it, with the first being the perhaps obvious Book of Vile Darkness.

The most obvious joke, ‘vile dorkness,’ writes itself, and is 100% justified.

The other book in this line, though, is the Book of Exalted Deeds. This book got to be Mature because… of… reasons, most of which seemed to be to add a few dollars to its sticker price and, I suppose, to let it reference the Book of Vile Darkness, which it felt a need to do. Now, there’s a lot to be said about the difficulty of composing a book whose entire foyer has to be a treatise on how to not only ‘be good’ but also be really good in these proactive ways that translate to good game mechanics and engaging character beats for an ongoing story. You can really feel the front end of this book trying to park a bus in a bike spot, as it seeks to bring up things that are good things for a character to do, in a proactive and engaging way, while still buying into the slightly mangled moral framework of D&D as she is written.

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3.5 Memories – The Cleric Archer

It’s by no means a secret that 3.5 D&D’s balance was off in some ways that made ‘good’ and ‘best’ categories of things a little unintuitive, like how the best stealth-based character was a wizard, or the best speed-based character was the wizard, or the best big, strong melee character who smacked things with a sword was a wizard.

Hm.

If you ever got asked, houwever, about ‘best’ builds, there were always a handful of builds that stood apart because they had unique combination of effects. There was the Supermount, for example, or the Wildshape Ranger, builds that were renowned for having access to something that set them apart from things of their type. And, especially since Legolas was in the popular media at the time, there was often a question about how to make the best archer. There were plenty of archery feats, and it seemed for once, this was a challenge the fighter was perfectly suited to address – the excessive strength of the Barbarian’s rages wouldn’t necessarily apply, and sneak attack for a rogue was harder to get, so perhaps, perhaps, with a host of feats available, surely the best character to take them would finally be the Fighter?

Nope.

It was the cleric.

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3.5 Memories: GAY RAINBOW SNAKE

Eff it, sometimes I need one that’s a walk.

The way these posts tend to happen is I go into the garage where my physical D&D books are kept and I reach into the shelf and pull out a book I haven’t read lately, flip it open and see if what I see on the page reminds me of anything and this month we got the Complete Divine and the page I flipped to was the Rainbow Servant.

Good news, this class can do some beautiful bullshit, and it can do it while looking really gay.

What we’re going to deal with her is a lovely overlap of unintended consequence. See, D&D creation was ultimately fractal; when you made a new class or a new race, you could test it against other stuff but as more stuff happened, you would always find combinations of stuff interacting in ways you maybe didn’t intend. Sometimes this meant you could find two different spells in different supplements did identical things, but one was much stronger, and sometimes this meant that a character could take two identical feats for double the effect. The copy editors at Wizards of the Coast could keep on top of this most of the time, but not always.

What mostly happened, then, was things were tested against a core of ‘what was in the player’s handbook’ and the more sources you added, the more wild things could get. That was one of the ways the game got weird, too – the more of the exciting and interesting stuff you started to include, the more weird byproducts you got.

This time around, what we have is the collision between the Complete Divine and The Miniatures Handbook and repeated in the Complete Arcane. The two parts at work here are the Warmage (a class) and the Rainbow Servant (a Prestige Class).

Rainbow Servants are spellcasters that learn from and benefit from a relationship with couatls, a type of sorta-kinda-Aztec-y divine monster creatures that are snakes, that relate to rainbows, and yet, suspiciously, aren’t shown in rainbows in their default art. Must seem gay. Anyway, these couatls grant special gifts to arcane spellcasters, and those casters get to be Rainbow Servants.

As written, the Rainbow Servant is a prestige class for arcane spellcasters that want to add a bit of divine vibe to what they’re doing, in exchange for eating some spellcasting levels. Most of the time, this tradeoff isn’t worth it: spellcasters that give up spellcasting levels need to get something truly immense in exchange. The stuff you get out of the Rainbow Servant is domains (which add spells to your potential repertoire), beautiful rainbow wings, and then, eventually, the entire cleric spell list added to your spell list.

For a sorcerer or wizard, this represents more options, but not more choices. These classes still have to spend resources to know those spells. Wizards adding the entire cleric spell list to their spellbook is a lot of power, but you had to give up four levels of spells to get there, and that’s typically not a worthwhile tradeoff. Sorcerers need to spend their very limited spells known to get those spells, but you already don’t have enough spells.

So, Rainbow Servant is a bit weak, and you might pick it up if you really really wanted the rainbow wings, for example, or you had a strong concept for a divine-arcane mixed up spellcasters.

But then, let’s introduce to the conversation the Warmage.

The Warmage is a class designed for a kind of different form of D&D. It was originally made to be a boomspell platform for the miniatures game, which used D&D combat rules to resolve a tactical miniatures wargame. Noticing that for fast combat, choosing spell preparation is a pain in the ass but choosing the right spell for the job on the spot is hard enough, they created a spellcaster who just always had access to all their spells, and made that spell list limited.

So.

If a warmage adds spells to their spell list – like with a domain – then suddenly, they can cast, spontaneously, every spell on the domain list that’s of a level they have access to. That’s pretty good. Then when they hit level 10, they have all the spells in the cleric list, available to cast spontaneously, and the existing warmage blast spells.

That’s really cool!

This build is also not especially strong, at least, not most of the time. You need to hit around level 16 before this happens, and at that point, you have a character who’s casting lots of different level 6 spells. You’ll never get access to 9th level spells (without some nonsense), but you’ll have enormous flexibility all the way up there – the best cleric spell for the job, all those lower level slots able to turn into useful buffs, and a bunch of handy special abilities to go with it.

Now.

This is clearly unintended consequence. The Rainbow Servant was not made to be a route to ‘late-game megacleric wizard.’ The Warmage was not created to turn into a support machine with the right level choices. These two elements were not created to interact with each other. One can argue that this interaction, being unintended, should be excluded. After all, if it wasn’t tested, it might have unforseen consequences. This is how a lot of MMOs behave: even things that are designed to replicate one another are often designed to not stack or interact, so as to prevent players from having too much of an effect. Check out how for a time, World of Warcraft had a standard list of ‘raid buffs’ (and may still have but I don’t care to check).

However, this is where TTRPGs have a freedom. You can look at how players engage with the game, and make those choices on the fly. You can decide if a player doing this stuff is eating up time. Hypothetically, you can even decide how in your game it’s okay for things to work out unfairly in one player’s favour, because that player may be less strategically minded, or not inclined to take advantage of the power, or bad at managing the information load. You might decide that it’s okay, because you can see other ways other things can be just as powerful that you are okay with. You can even decide to adjust this as the game goes on.

But don’t forget that sometimes, there are cool, odd interactions that some players may pick up just because they like the gay rainbow wings.

3.5 Memories: Okay, Fine, Let’s Talk About Zceryll

Back during August, I looked at the Tome of Magic, a 3.5 D&D book, which involved looking at the the Binder. The Binder was one of the classes presented in that book, where the basic idea was that the binder had these things, called Vestiges, that you could sort of cold-swap between to get different abilities based on your different needs; the task of swapping character mode was fast enough that you could do it between encounters, or on the far side of a dungeon door, or hurriedly while the guards are on their way, but it wasn’t something you could hot-plug in between combats. The Binder was a weak character class by default that could, with its variety of options, hot-swap into a form that was usually about as good as a rogue with most of the gear they want.

Note those italics.

When it comes to D&D content, Wizards put things in the books, but they also made a thing of web expansions – pdfs and website content that you could add to your game, stuff that came from the Official Source and was generally made to be safe enough to include in any game, and that is where we got the Vestige that on its own takes the Binder from ‘incredibly fair, even a bit weak’ to the upper tiers of power, brushing in the shadow of the wizard and cleric.

And bonus, that Vestige is spooky.

The actual text of the Vestige of Zceryll, from Wizards’ own web expansion, is pretty simple:

Zceryll was a mortal sorceress who communed with alien powers from the far realm. She became obsessed with immortality, seeking out the alien beings in the hopes of learning their eternal secrets. When she died, she became a hideously twisted vestige, forever seeking to re-enter the Realms via numerous artifacts she dispersed across the world. Zceryll grants you the ability to transform your body and mind into an alien form, granting you telepathy, resistance to effects related to insanity, the ability to summon pseudonatural creatures, and the power to unleash bolts of pure madness.

Okay, how is it broken? What’s it do that’s so good, power-wise? Normally when you talk about character power, you can usually point to something as a general rule – like you can point to the wizards’ spell list and that’ll explain itself. In Zceryll’s case, what you get when you channel this Vestige is:

Summon Alien: You can summon any creature from the summon monster list that a sorcerer of your level could summon. Any creature you summon with this ability gains the pseudonatural template. Thus, at 10th level you could summon any creature from the summon monster I-V list. When you reach 14th level, you can summon any creature from the summon monster I-VII list. You can only summon creatures that can be affected by the pseudonatural template. Once you have used this ability, you cannot do so again for 5 rounds.

Let’s simplify that: You can use Summon Monster (Half Your Level) every five turns at will. DMs may make you spend the action to do it, in out-of-combat ways, but at will summons is incredibly strong, not because you can flood the battlefield, but because summons are combat capable creatures that in many cases can cast spells. So every utility power available to any monster on the summon list is available to you, but in a spooky way. Need something big moved? Summon something big and stronk. Need to get out of a cage? Summon something that can move through walls. Need to wreck shop on the battlefield? Well at every tier, there’s a piece of cannonfodder you can dump on the battlefield and then not have to spend actions commanding. If your summon runs out of healing magic, you can just summon another one and get it to do the healing magic. If your summon is beat up, you can summon another one and get that to replace the other. It is one of the most startlingly effective spell families to have at-will access to, and the only real drawback for the Binder is that it’s a bit slow.

The actual theme of Zceryll is a weird one, and it bums me out a little that the Binder is a class ostensibly built around this variety of flavour choices, when every powerful Binder is going to be hard on Zceryll and the skills required to be good at managing Zceryll. It’s also frustrating because the name Zceryll is a person’s name first; the odd, hard to express mangled language of the name isn’t a language from outside reality – it’s someone’s name, a weird name, but it’s just… a weird name. It speaks of a culture that’s not common to you now, but Zceryll is still just a person, it’s not an extrusion of a reality where they don’t have vowel sounds.

I feel this is a dropped ball with Zceryll. At its root, it wants to be Lovecraftian; the powers are from the far realms, it’s about a refugee of our reality trying hard to get back in, it’s got this sort of lurking threat to it, and it shows you tearing reality open and letting in things that look like stuff you already know but which are definitely not, while you cast literal bolts of madness from your hand... and then disappointingly, it’s just… a wizard, like you, who drank of the outside.

My advice, if you’re going to use Zceryll in your game worlds? Soak in the eerie. Don’t say it was a wizard who started out researching the far realm. Make Zceryll something not someone.

3.5 Memories: Tome of Magic

Magic in D&D is…

Is…

Look.

Let’s try and be nice.

Magic in D&D, generally, is designed mechanics first. Spells are things that players do, and so, spells are designed to be player-facing, player-activated. They’re things that make sense when players have access to them, that follow predictable rules, and that players can coherently treat as game options. Sometimes those game options are a bit vague, with ideas like charm person that kind of try to dance around what they’re doing, and sometimes they’re extremely specific in terms of how much damage they’re doing and to what. There are tables.

In 2ed, there was a book called the Tome of Magic that wanted to present advanced spellcasting rules, and in 3.5, as part of the eternal experimentation in getting money out of players (but also because hey, throw stuff at the wall), they released a new version. Rather than just More Spells, though, the Tome of Magic tried to present three alternative magic systems for you to weave into your game. They were treated as old and mysterious magic systems, systems that were by definition, a mystery to the rest of the magical schools, something that didn’t exist already.

They were also bad.

They were in fact, abysmally bad.

Now, if you’re of the old-school 3.5 playing, dig-through-the-paperwork type, you’re probably thinking but Zceryll – and yes. Yes, that’s a thing, a web expansion to one class that makes one of them pretty strong once they hit level 10. Okay, cool. That’s not in this book.

And what’s in the book? There’s three types of magic presented, each with their own framing and page templates; Vestige magic, Shadow magic, and Truename magic. Vestige magic is kind of like picking a kit of abilities and turning them on each day, with a skill check to see if you get a convenient or inconvenient version. Shadow magic is a magical system that wants to try and capture more of the ‘just do it’ magical style, rather than the thinky-learny-study-y magic of a wizard. It’s a lot like the Warlock, but more goth. Then there’s Truename magic.

None of these systems are good; the Binder is capable of doing the job of a solid rogue-like character, who can maybe mode switch a few times a day from rogue-type to fighter type or pinch healer. It’s really quite neat, and if you’re playing in a game where Zceryll is allowed (because Zceryll is quite strong), you can probably get this one out there to hang in the big leagues, if you don’t mind being the kind of player who comes to the table with a stack of reference documents. Imagine a swiss army knife with forty five attachments. Shadow Magic, on the other hand, wants to turn spellcasting into a talent tree, and the character you get out of it is a very weak spellcaster who’s even more limited than a sorcerer. Basically, the Shadowcaster wants to be an alternate wizard, but it’s kind of more like a Bard for non-combatants, or a Warlock for people afraid of being overpowered.

And there’s the Truenamer.

The idea at the heart of Tome of Magic‘s three different magic systems is to introduce some form of magical system that relates to the existing skill system, something that had been attempted with melee weapons in other supplemental works. This is something to bear in mind as it relates to Magic Month – when you tie your magic system to a skill system, you imply that getting better at magic is a process of practicing. That’s something D&D tends to not do, accidentally or otherwise, because most of the time, you get better at magic by levelling up, which is pretty vague, and often means that you improve at casting Rope Trick by killing lots of goblins. There’s a disconnect.

Binders use a skill check to commune with their vestiges. Vestiges that are harder to commune with will exert influence over you, often imposing on you particularly difficult limitations, like limiting the number of rounds you can partake in combat, or making you obey characters who are prettier than you. Also you can possibly grow sick-ass rams horns and headbutt people while you swing your sword.

Shadowcasters don’t relate to skills much. They also try to make their magical powers the result of practice; as you level up, your easiest magic tricks get easier and easier, until they’re eventually supernatural abilities you can use at will, which would be nice, if they weren’t comparing poorly to a fighter’s bow. Still, that’s something.

Thennnnn

Okay.

Time to pull off the bandaid.

The Truenamer is an incomplete class.

The Truenamer has spells (“Utterances”) that are formatted inconsistantly, meaning that some of them seem to literally not work as printed. It’s designed so that the first spell you cast each day is the easiest, and therefore, every time you use spells after it, it gets harder. It works by rolling skill checks to use your spells, and your spells are weaker versions of things that the other classes get at earlier levels, and more conveniently. There’s a lot of talk about the Truenamer as ‘the worst class of 3rd edition’ and I personally think that’s valid when you take into account that a player who intuitively takes to this class and tries to make it work the way it looks like it wants to work is going to have a very hard time doing the things the class suggests you want to do.

This is a class for whom one of your top tier feats is skill focus. This is a class that at level 20 can turn your Truenamer into Batman provided the one trick Batman wanted to do is summon fifteen hundred solars. The character gets to be both Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit.

The Tome Of Magic is trying to do some interesting things. It even gets to stumble, ass-backwards, into doing some broken stuff. It’s definitely not a forgotten jewel of 3.5, and in a way, it shows that being three mini-books jammed into one skin, that experimentation is valuable, but so is proper practice.

3.5 Memories: Replacement Levels

Ever heard of this?

This mechanic, introduced in one of the Races Of books in 3.5, presented the idea that while the class structure worked in general for most of the game, there were more specific versions of classes for races that had a particular, peculiar affinity for that class. This meant that while halfling fighters and gnome fighters and dwarf fighters were generally all the same, a half-orc fighter might be different because of the way half-orcs did the job of ‘fighter.’

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The Epic Level Handbook (3E)

When it comes to D&D books, you’re talking about what amounts to academic reference material. That’s not a slam on the game, of course – I’m not objecting to the games or the playability of the game, as if they’re now these dusty tomes that are only meaningful in a sort of hypothetical framework. It’s more that the books are literally designed to be reference material for a specialty field. These books are dense. That can present a challenge in giving someone who isn’t already versed in the game a way to understand that book. Do we talk about specific chapters? A point by point analysis? Do we look at just an excerpt?

I think in this case, at least for now, what we want to talk about here is an overview of the Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition Epic Level Handbook.

This book is a punchline.

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Karmic Twin

Okay, I said I’d only do a few 3.5 posts a month, so this one’s going to be a quickie. Back in that day, there was a special crop of feats you could get that you could take at level 1, which were made to try and give a character a feeling of their ‘background.’ These feats were first trialled in Dragon magazine, then a few were tested in the Player’s Guide To Faerun (that horny setting I talked about earlier in the month), and one source that really went hard on them was the Oriental Adventures and Rokugan sourcebooks.


Now wait, hold up, let’s just mention something here because if I don’t bring it up, someone will huff their cheeks and go ahah, gottim. Look, Oriental Adventures is the label on a door behind which you can find yikes, yes, of course, obviously. Doesn’t have to be, we have room for potential here, I really like this setting and stuff, there’s lots to like, but let’s not get caught up there.

Because the really funny thing here is a player behaviour, based around a single ‘Background’ feat.


In Rokugan, a General Mish Mosh Of Asian Cultures setting, you had Ancestor feats instead of Background feats, and they tied to historical lore characters and that was kinda cool as a way to encourage players who wanted access to mechanics to be aware of the lore of the setting. Good idea, good move, do that in your settings.

Anyway, one of the Ancestor feats was a Scorpion clan background feat, Karmic Twin.

Karmic Twin is a feat that is pretty gonzo on the face of it; you get effectively 4 extra points of Charisma for most non-spellcaster purposes, you get the ability to track or find a single person without any help and oh yeah, if nobody else in the party is your karmic twin the party gets an NPC whose story is tied with yours.

Leadership was one of the most powerful feats you could get, because it’d give you an NPC that was basically 2 levels below you and that’s an enormous amount of utility. Power, maybe, but just having someone who could synergise with you under your control was really strong. Karmic Twin gave you the same thing at level 1. Sure, some DMs might use it to inflict a lifelong enemy on you (and if they did, the charisma boosts were probably reasonable as a trade!), but here’s the thing.

My players used Karmic Twin and its cousin feat Sons of Thunder a lot. And every time, what they used it for was not for power reasons – the players overwhelmingly didn’t care about the mechanics of the other character.

But they all used them to get hot boyfriends.

Let your players have hot boyfriends if they want ’em. It doesn’t hurt things and the stories are more fun with players getting things they like in them.

3.5 Memories: Soo-Nee

I’m trying to limit my writing about 3.5 D&D and 4e D&D to maybe once a month, because while I do love doing deep dives into subjects there, they’re time consuming and I’ve found a variety of different articles is the best thing I can do to keep my audience engaged. Plus, it’s a great kind of ‘content well’ where you can grab a book from the game in question, leaf through it, and find something to talk about – inevitably.

In this, Smooch Month, though, what content is there in 3.5 D&D to talk about that I haven’t gone over with a discussion of ‘roll to seduce?’ Lords knows we don’t want to talk about the way sex and romance are normally represented in D&D, because they’re mostly only ever brought up transgressively. We did the Book of Vile Darkness already!

Still, it’s smooch month and that means that while we may be talking about romance and relationships, there’s always with that aftertinge of ‘horny, maybe?‘ that I circle around and avoid, and when the time comes to talk about horny, maybe and D&D, there’s really no place to go but the Forgotten Realms.

If you’re not already aware, Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms setting is a place full of lots of different interesting countries (I’m trying to be nice) which are perhaps known for a pattern of having an elderly, cranky wizard in an important place that’s secretly guiding important political events and enabling adventurers. You might know it as a setting which has a large number of prominent women in positions of authority in some important, adventurer-centric places, meaning you may have a fond memory of being sent on an early quest by Aribeth.

It’s also perhaps a little less well known for being a setting where under the hood Ed Greenwood was fantastically horny and has definitely, definitely dedicated lots of time to thinking about the sex lives of those characters. Once you know about it, it just kind of lurks there like a fog at ankle-height, clinging to everything.

Now, something else about the Forgotten Realms is that Ed Greenwood started writing it in 1967 and pretty much has never stopped, filling the world with ever increasing levels of detail, conspiracies, political introgue, cities, townships, lodges, orders, empires, dragons, really racist drow stuff, and of course, gods. That brings us to the book I flipped open this month, Faiths & Pantheons.

If we’re talking about a love domain (and boy there’s a lot bound up in that conversation which I largely want to leave alone, but suffice to say fucking sigh) then why not look at the Forgotten Realms’ goddess of love, Sune?

 

Sune as a goddess is a bit standard. She’s a beautiful feminine woman, her descrpition includes how her lips are plump, how she dresses in ‘near transparent clothes,’ all that standard stuff. She’s a redhead, which I mean, you can make a case for any of those typical looks and what they encode, but the real basics is that Sune is a Hot Goddess of Hotness.

The descriptors of her goals, aims and dogma are all extremely in this vein, with a drop of how thanks to recent reforms in her church, women only outnumber men four to one. Her temples are described as public salons and bathhouses, with diaphanous robes and beautiful clergy and mirrors all over the place. Sune even communicates with you via mirrors, where you look into them, she changes your appearance, and then talks to you through your own, now hotter face.

Now, one thing in favour of this setting, and this character, is that Ed Greenwood has gone on record that Sune (and everyone good in the Forgotten Realms) says Trans Rights, so that’s something and that’s all we need to talk about there.

Sune’s a goddess of love, lust, pleasure and protection and it’s so weird that as represented, her faithful mostly seem to hang around taking care of people and not doing adventure stuff. They even talk about how commonly the Heartwarders are pacifists, and how this means that enemies often are reluctant to attack them, which let me tell you, that’s not how that tends to work.

What else has Sune got going for her? If you’re not getting sent on quests by the Goddess of Love to do things like smash tyrannical families that are keeping star-crossed lovers apart or destroying churches that are trying to control people’s expressions of love or pleasure, or even just building safe spaces and standing in the doorway with a sword, what else has she got going on, why worship Sune?

Girl Hot counts for a lot, right?

When you get a Player’s Handbook you may see the five or ten gods presented there and think that the power of a setting is built around gods of punching, fierceness, and maybe evil punching, and that’s certainly a place to start. As the pantheon of the Forgotten Realms built out, Ed expanded into things like racial pantheons, where elves have a bunch of their own gods, and maybe other races have whole bunches of other gods, and with that came the need for more things for gods to be about, represented by more domains.

Sune, therefore, required (?) the creation of the Lust Domain.

It’s not great.

I’m trying to avoid talking about the way you may frame enchantment spells or diplomacy checks in your game, but the good news is that you don’t need to worry about what the Lust domain does in any given 3.5 game, because it’s really bad and the Protection and Pride domains are right there. Okay, so she’s not setting the world on fire mechanically. What else is Sune bringing to the table?

Art by kiikii-sempai

Another mechanical space that these gods open up is the idea of prestige classes. This was a really good idea, because it served two possible purposes for player characters. If you liked Sune, you could look at her prestige class and get a feeling for the kind of mechanics she liked; if you liked the mechanics of that class, you could look at Sune and see if you liked that direction for your character’s personality.

Sune’s pretige class is the Heartwarders, which is a basket of yikes. This class increases your charisma (very rare to get like this, but not hard to get at all), gives you a ally buff power by kissing them (which also is so amazing a kiss it dazes them, meaning you can actually make them worse off), and lets you create holy water love potions by, um, crying. There’s a lot bound up right there in what a person sees as being beautiful or aesthetically resonant. The class is pretty broken, because it still lets your cleric be a cleric, but as far as stuff you can bolt onto an already-broken class goes, this one’s not worth what it gives you!

It’s a shame, because a rose-coloured knight of love and rage seems like a great character concept to defend the worshippers of a god of love. Someone should make a much better version of this idea.

And that’s Sune! A Goddess of love and lust in a subtly horny world. And if you’re like me, you were today years old when you learned this name is instead pronounced ‘Soo-nee.’

Bad Balance: Races of Destiny

I’ve made fun of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 a lot, and I do it because it’s easy, and fun, and it’s funny, and let’s do more of it.

There were two sets of the first wave of expansions for 3.5, the class style books, known as the Completes, and the race books, known as the Races of books. The Completes touched just a tiny bit on the early days of the class role system – with the first wave being Complete Warrior, Mage, Psionics, Divine and Scoundrel, but expanding into things like Adventurer and Champion. The Races Of books gave you a run down of three races at a time, linked by a common theme, and that was a theme that was routinely straining at the edges. Halflings got treated as a ‘race of the wild,’ and gnomes as a ‘race of stone,’ as opposed to their proper place they shared of ‘races of hobbits fans.’

No time for gnomes or halflings, me, I know.

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3.5 Memories: The Kaorti

Now, while I may be on the record saying that Dungeons & Dragons can do horror scenarios, doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with the way that the default books angled towards horror. One can point to the ‘mature’ Book of Vile Darkness (more like vile dorkness, boom, gottem) that tries to be shocking and edgy and it’s just kind of insulting and basic. But the BoVD wasn’t the only book of its type that tried to be creepy and horrifying, nor was it one that strived to be mature.

For example, the Fiend Folio is the only book I own with nipples.

Here, check it.

After this point I suppose it only bears to mention: Content warning, creepy monsters and horror imagery after this point.

This book is also trying to cover a lot of bases, with some artists getting quite a lot of work which I feel, though can’t say for sure, is a product of some artists being very productive in a short period of time and that being used by the art director. Like Thom M Baxa, who produced a bunch of work in this book which is meant to represent a lot of different things but mostly just seems to represent Just Thom M Baxa’s work.

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3.5 Memories: Psionics

Maaan, this system was cool.

Okay, so it’s twenty years old or something so I’m assuming you don’t really know what this was or how it worked. Psionics was one of those things that D&D 3.5 seemed to pick up because it was in 3rd edition and there was something similarly back in 2ed and then going back. It was never something the rules prominently featured, and was always meant to be its own little contained system that ‘couldn’t work the way that spells worked. The older systems, back in 2ed used ‘power points’ instead of ‘spell slots,’ you know, one of your rudimentary mana systems.

These required rules, coupled with the way they were sequestered meant that the Psionics systems got handed off into a small number of books, which were focus work by a small number of developers who not only really cared about them, but weren’t competing with anyone about it, like the core rules’ Druid, Cleric, Wizard and Sorcerer problems were.

The result is that the Psionics system is made up of a smaller number of powers that have to be flexible, because they just weren’t going to get a lot of different psionic powers the way that every different version of a fireball got to have its own fancy special effect.

It also meant the psionic powers had to be designed to scale much better than the spell system; rather than the tight restrictions of spell slots that force you to wind up collecting a large number of choices, and be aware of all of them as the best least tool for any job, you instead had the powers that you could do, and the choices were made at use. You could spend points to make your powers scale, and you could even choose the way they scaled.

That meant that yes, you still had fiddly spells, but you chose how fiddly they were, how fiddly they could get. You could pick your powers to get a wide variety of oddball stuff, or you could focus on a consistent theme, using your power choices to make one power you were absolutely great at, and small utility powers to go along with it.

There was something to the aesthetic of it, too. Rather than your typical wizards and robes and swirling lights, Psionics played in a realm that was more purple and crystals, with a sort of Cthuluhoid Lovecraftian horror to the enemies. Rather than drawing on the idea of old lore and ancient history, of things written in books, the storytelling of the psionic character was more tied into really primal knowledge, things that were born out by doing rather than learning.

This still put the books in some odd places, of course; mechanically, there still needed to be wands and scrolls, because those were considered essential parts of balancing the needs of a flexible spellcaster, so there are Dorjes and Power Stones (or ‘sticks and stones’ as they were known). There were psionic dragons, because of course you need dragons, and their gimmick was, well, they’re dragons, but they’re psychic.

Yet when I think back on this system, a thing that really sticks with me is how in 3.5, there were just so many builds you could make for psionic characters that weren’t constrained the way that wizards and clerics were. You could afford to lose a caster level or two, you could pick up other effects to build on what you had. You could share spellcasting skills between different psionic classes, and there were interesting, oddball prestige classes that gave you a niche, interesting way to craft your character.

Normally when I think back on 3.5, there’s a pretty clear hierarchy system that kicks in. Fighters form a sort of basement where everything that’s worse than it is seen as really hosed. Then there’s the crew of weird classes that aren’t bad for any specific reason, but because they have a niche that usually can be replaced by a spell from a wizard. Then there’s the really good renewable resource types, the powerful melee hitters, the prestige class complex builds, and then there’s the spellcasters, and then just at the bottom end of the spellcasters there’s the rogue and some gish, I guess. It’s a complex space and most of them, the best thing you can do is one thing.

But when it came to psionics – classes that mostly sacrificed variety of effects for flexibility of application – there were just so many different ways to build, just based on the powers you took.

Kinda preceded the Book of Nine Swords, too, and formed the foundation for the way 4ed worked.

Huh.

Funny that.

3.5 Memories: Heroes of Horror

When you sit down to play a game with your friends, you are ultimately looking to have an experience. That experience can be built around so many feelings, so many ideas, and it is just as valid an experience to seek out the tension and catharsis of a horror scenario as any other. The horror campaign, the macabre fantasy, the tangle of feelings you get when you find yourself pressed in the thorns and consider how much you’d give to just escape, even if it means leaving behind a little of your soul – this is absolutely something you can do in tabletop games.

It’s not even at odds with Dungeons & Dragons’ vision of heroic fantasy, which we can argue about, or wait, no, we can’t argue about it, because I find having to define the narrative parameters of a heroic fantasy or really deal with people who want to try and define the ‘genre’ of a game that’s as broad and flexible as D&D to be a task more akin to pulling teeth than having fun. Accept then that it is entirely possible to run a horror game using Dungeons & Dragons, because even if it’s not to your standards of horror doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to wear the genre label.

And Wizards of The Coast recognised it too, releasing the 2005 supplement for D&D3.5, Heroes Of Horror.

This book is, let’s say it reaches the lofty purchase of fine, I guess. I’m not wild about the content it offers (in no small part because my players have been horrified by things I made without any such guidance), but I’m also not against what it’s doing for the most part. Particularly nice is that the book contains an attempt to discuss player boundaries and emotional needs, even if it’s a very surface, a very 2005 discussion of those boundaries. I was going to give this book a treatment, only to find I already did a thread on it, and then saw how that thread kind of cooked away into just making fun of one thing in the book.

Even while the book is a thorough examination of a theme space, it’s not all one way of looking at it. There’s talk about player options, about how to handle ideas of tainted powers, kind of a Moorecocky thing. There’s some monsters meant to be more horrifying, there’s some discussion about the use of the inexorable, about the notion of the destruction or opposition of hope itself as component of horror. There’s also some horror scenarios, which I’ll admit I don’t find very engaging because they start at ‘murder clown mind-controlling orphans,’ and I don’t really need any kind of special rules to treat clowns as kill-on-sight targets in games. They’re up there with viziers.

Nonetheless, this is a 3.5 book and what that means is at least somewhere, you’re going to find a big list. In this, the list is a gigantic, 100 entry list of what it calls Creepy Effects. These are meant to be things you can dot into the game to give players a feeling of something unsettling being afoot.

There are three problems with this list. The first is the kinda fucked-up time issue; some of the list’s things can be singular moments, abrupt and dramatic arrests in the vision they have of normal – all the wildlife in an area falling silent to no effect, for example. Some of them are long-term problems, like fiding a persistent object you were sure you disposed of. These events aren’t really comparable – one is best when it comes out of nowhere, the other requires regular poking and prodding to make a repeated effect.

The second problem with the list is how many of these ‘creepy’ things are in fact very ordinary. One creepy happening is meeting a person who has a voice like an adult, but are as tall as a child. That is to say, meeting somone short. Another is a player hears something that none of the other players hear, which is a really common real-world experience, not to mention hearing voices or smelling smells nobody else notices. I get it, it’s horrifying to experience those things if you’ve never had to deal with doubting your own perceptions, but for people who have experienced that, it’s just kinda a reminder of how precious the writer must be. There’s also a bonus point here: in a world where there are Sending spells and Psionics, how is it weird to hear a voice? The real trick is trying to work out who sent the messages.

Finally, the third problem is this table ends on the entry: One Word: Fog, which made me laugh so hard it broke all chance this game had to ever act like it was going to lead to spooky games ever again.

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