Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Magic School Campaign, Part 2: Party Composition

Image from the Wizard's Academy, by 3D Total Games

Note: As a disclaimer, my main sources of actual play for D&D-alikes are Pathfinder and OSR retroclones.  If I ever get into other Editions of Dungeons & Dragons I might make another article for them as well.

Dungeons & Dragons games and its derivative works are strongly role-based.  A character's defining features within the greater party are largely determined by their class.  Ideally, the fighter classes protect the other party members from harm and are not as resource-based to use their iconic features (no such thing as 'sword swings per day').  The stealthy thief classes bypass dungeon obstacles and exploit enemy weaknesses such as locked doors, traps, and inattentive guards.  The cleric classes tend to the party's wounds, commune with nature, and cast beneficial spells as well as holding their own in a fight.  And the magic-users are fragile yet have a versatile assortment of spells for just about any occasion.

In a magic school campaign, everyone's probably some variety of cleric or magic-user class.

Party Composition in Pathfinder

In Pathfinder, there are more than enough classes, feats, archetypes, and spells even in official sourcebooks that a character concept is not so restricted by whether they call upon arcane or divine powers for aid.  A party has no need of a Barbarian, Fighter, or Monk to perform exemplary feats of martial might when one can just as easily be a Cleric with Destruction and War domains, a Magus, a wildshaped Druid, or any other number of versatile builds.

Conversely, the availability of stealth-based skills to all classes makes it so that your Illusionist wizard can pick pockets and disarm traps when his spells fail him.  A Bard with the Archeologist archetype makes for a cool Indiana Jones-style scholarly explorer, and the Alchemist class has access to several archetypes like the Crypt Breaker and Vivisectionist which grant iconic Rogue abilities.  The Summoner class' Eidolon can be turned into a mobile scout with variant movement speed upgrades and the Skilled Evolution which provides a whopping +8 bonus to a single skill!  Clerics make great divine gishes even straight from the core rulebook, and even archers with the right builds.

The Advanced Class Guide provides the Hunter and Skald classes, which serve as cool thematic reskins of Barbarians and Rangers along with spellcasting ability at 1st level.

Party Composition in OSR Games

Unlike Pathfinder, classes in old-school retroclones such as Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess are more central to what your character can and cannot do.  This can be alleviated somewhat with multi-classing, although some retroclones have specific guidelines on what combinations of classes are allowed.

I do have plans for write-ups of Battlemage and Abstract Thief classes for magical fighter and thief equivalents, but for the time being I'm going to point to existing works for inspiration.

In Labyrinth Lord and other Basic "race as class" games, the Elf serves as a useful fighter-mage.  Typically the Elf is able to wield better weapons than his Magic-User counterpart and can cast spells in light armor.  Along with the ability to detect secret doors, see in the dark, and a long life-span, the Elf has a lot going for it.  The only trade-off is fewer starting spells in the spellbook, a slower experience progression, and a lower maximum level.

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea  utilizes Subclasses, which are more specific versions of the classic four (fighter, mage, cleric, and thief).  The Warlock is a Fighter subclass which gets access to spells at 1st level and draws inspiration from Elric of Melnibone.  The Bard is a Thief subclass and sort of a jack-of-all-trades, who draws from both druidic and illusionist magical traditions while serving as inspiring loremasters.  The Legerdemainist is our final Thief subclass who combines stealth and sorcery to become the ultimate rogue.

Adventurer Conqueror King System is another useful OSR resource for hybrid mage characters.  The standard book contains several new classes such as the Blade Dancer (an order of holy women who serve the goddess of war) who don't get casting ability until 2nd level but serve the role of martial clerics quite well.  Elven Spellswords and Nightblades are fighter/mages and thief/mages respectively.

ACKS' Player's Companion not only provides a wealth of new character classes, but a system for players who desire to make their own.  Elven Courtiers make for good mage-noble archetypes, and Gnomish Tricksters excel at confounding and misdirecting their opponents.  The Nobiran Wonderworker's a hard class to qualify for, but it's a master of both divine and arcane magic.  Finally, the Zaharan Ruinguard makes for a fine "seeker of forbidden arts" class with some martial power to back them up when spells fail.

Finally, I've been blessed to own many products of Barrel Rider Games, a fine 3rd Party Publisher or Labyrinth Lord classes.  The Undead Slayer is a good yet highly focused class specializing in killing all manner of unliving creatures; the Dark Elf is sort of a jack-of-all-trades racial class, not possessing the martial capacity of its surface world cousins yet making up for it with some thief abilities and spell resistance; Dwarven Rune-Smiths utilize sacred stones related to crafting, divination, and protection; Fairies can fly, craft magic arrows, and can curse foes with bad luck forcing them to re-roll dice results;  Yule Elves both thrive on mischief and are good at remaining unseen.

My apologies if this post is quite long, but I hope it proves a useful resource for Pathfinder and OSR gaming groups who wish to design their own magic school campaigns.  Both games contain a wealth of variant classes and roles for mages of all kinds, and I'm sure there's a few I've missed.  If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!