The Analog Gamer: Powerful Options
Players always want choices. More skills, more powers, more spells, more gear. This is a given in most of gaming – be it traditional tabletop RPGs or MMORPGs like World of Warcraft.
When Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition launched last year, the cries of limits and simplifications roiled through Internet communities and among local gaming stores as fans of the previous game struggled with the changes introduced by Wizards of the Coast. I was one of the masses who noticed that the game by design limited the utility of some classes from previous iterations and introduced a limited number of choices for new players. Over the last year I’ve begun to understand that what a lot of us were complaining about was a temporary concern if Wizards continued with the business and publication plan they had openly disclosed before the systems introduction.
The plan was simple – get the starting books in the hands of players, old and new and then build in new choices through later books. If someone was satisfied with the core options introduced in the Players Handbook then they need nothing more to enjoy the game. However players and dungeon masters who craved new choices could plug in the later support books like Martial Power to expand class powers, builds and feats or even the later Players Handbooks ( They, like the Monster Manual and Dungeon Masters Guides, will apparently be annual releases with new content ).
The 4th Edition D&D product line has grown at a reasonable rate. New classes introduced in later books maintain the same design style as the initial core offerings but I’m sure that like my players, just about anyone who has played since launch is tired of every Rogue using a Reaping Strike at level 1 or having the game world only apparently populated by two builds of every martial and arcane class.
While Martial Power saw release last year to expand the options of the Players Handbook martial classes – the Fighter, Warlord, Ranger and Rogue – This years addition focuses on the Arcane classes of Dungeons & Dragons like the Warlock, Wizard, Swordmage, Bard and Sorcerer.
Arcane Power serves to introduce two new “class builds” for each of the arcane classes – including those introduced in PH2 and the Forgotten Realms Players Guide, a bundle of new powers for each class and to support the new builds as well as new Paragon paths and Epic Destinies. Each class receives a chapter of the book with a final chapter covering universal arcane feats, options and equipment for any of the classes.
The book is, as advertised, a good resource for players of arcane characters. The new abilities and builds will interest fans of spellcaster types and might even convince some players who feel magic users are complex, mysterious characters to experiment. Notable additions for fans of the older versions of D&D are the return of Summoning and Illusion based magic systems.
Summoning slightly abandons the 3.x concept of planar creatures in favor of more energy and spiritual manifestations or planar creatures. The summoned creatures don’t act as independent characters and like the Ranger’s animal companion system introduced in Martial Power act only when a player character expends actions not in addition to the player themselves. Initially this concept bothered me a bit – I like the concept of added characters on the good guy team but I thought back and realized that combats always got longer, more complicated and drawn out whenever summoned creatures existed on either side.
The new system more truly reflects what would happen if in some way you could summon a creature to do your bidding, to subvert its will and force it to arrive and act at your whims. Once I put the system in that light I found it made more story sense and became mechanically simpler to manage for players and GMs alike.
Another returning concept of the book applies to all the arcane characters not just one class – the Arcane Familiar is back.
Familiars in D&D games often served as a power cheat for arcane spellcasters. Wizards in many of my 3E games purposely threw the idea of getting a familiar out the window because either the available options were too mundane or the repercussions of losing a familiar in combat was too drastic and a likely event.
Familiars always felt like the sedentary or researching wizards tool. They were not active combat participants like a druid or ranger’s animal companions. Often they caused harsh penalties to be enacted on players or cost them lots of cash to acquire or replace, including penalties that punished arcane players when other classes could lose animal companions with impunity.
The 4E implementation however corrects both of these problems and adds an interesting new system into the arcane caster’s realm. Familiars are not real creatures, but bound manifestations that serve as companion and aid to an arcane spellcaster. The versions listed in Arcane Power tend to have fantastical shapes and forms and are encouraged to be presented with personalities and quirks that can set them apart from normal creatures they resemble.
Best of all they are no longer as vulnerable to death. When a players loses a familiar in combat it simply dematerializes and must be called again after a certain time has elapsed. The player is denied the minor bonus abilities of the familiar during this time but it doesn’t cause instant death or a loss of ability points as it once did.
Arcane Power is a great resource for anyone playing or planning to play an arcane character. The new options expand the seemingly limited selections of the core classes in interesting ways and reintroduce some familiar elements of editions past with a meaningful and balanced approach.