Like so many lasagnas fresh from the oven strewn about the floor, the state of the arcane-martial hybrid in D&D 5e is a hot mess. I am sure this statement comes as a surprise to many people, but I firmly believe it to be the truth. What follows is a discussion of the existing arcane-martial hybrids, but does not include any analysis of multiclassing. Why doesn’t it include multiclassing? Well, when you have ranger alongside fighter and druid, and paladin alongside fighter and cleric, it’s perfectly clear that hybridization is readily considered a unique item. I don’t want to get into a discussion about whether this is a correct approach or not. The fact is, paladin and ranger are core classes in 5e, each with their own archetypes and features. Now, I’ve spoken at length regarding ranger, but I’m not debating the space in the design itself. The divine-martial hybrid exists as a standalone class, and the nature-martial hybrid exists as a standalone class. So why is the arcane-martial hybrid spread across four different archetypes in four different classes?
The arcane-martial hybrid makes an appearance in the following archetypes: College of Valor Bard, Eldritch Knight Fighter, Arcane Trickster Rogue, and Pact of the Blade Warlock (not an archetype, but it’s a semi-archetype due to the way the class works). Now, I know there are some other overlaps in the Divine and Nature arenas, War Clerics and Oath of the Ancients Paladins spring to mind, but it’s not quite the overlap of those listed above. Bards can overshadow Rangers, but uh, see above. Problems caused by multiple castings of swift quiver are more systemic issues, after all.
Part of the problem is something that plagues Ranger, lack of cohesive vision. What exactly does an arcane-martial hybrid look like? Are they warriors of knowledge, devoted to arcane cabals? Are they bound by magical secrets? Are they trained in schools? Are the spells traditional spells, or are there specific spells to lend them additional might? There are a lot of questions, and so far the answer is really just, “I don’t know, wizards with weapons, except for when it’s not.” Paladins have their own spells, and unique martial abilities. Rangers have their own spells, and unique martial abilities. The arcane-martial hybrids share all these things, it’s a little sad.
For some specifics, let’s just take a look at College of Valor Bard and Eldritch Knight for a moment. A College of Valor Bard can use any armor and weapon, same as the fighter, and picks up a second attack at 6th, rather than 5th. The Eldritch Knight would continue to get Fighter attack scaling, giving them additional attacks, should they choose to take the attack action. The Bard gets a lot more spells, having a full progression. The Eldritch Knight has two separate abilities dedicated to the use of spells and melee in combat. At 7th, the Eldritch Knight can use a cantrip, then make a single attack as a bonus action. This ability increases to being able to cast a spell, then make a single attack as a bonus action, at 18th level. The College of Valor Bard gets both of these rolled into a single archetype feature at 14th level. These are both top end abilities for each of the archetypes. Attack once, get a spell. Now, the Eldritch Knight also gets a teleport tied to action surge, and can inflict disadvantage on saving throws against its spells with a melee attack. The College of Valor Bard turns its Bardic Inspiration into Fighter Superiority Dice without the maneuvers, and just using the dice in specific ways. The Bard, of course, can use spells to make up some of the difference in melee.
The big takeaway from this comparison is a similar capstone in each archetype. Attack once, cast a spell. Who is better at it at the moment depends on the level of characters, with a top end equilibrium being reached. The point is, a 20th-level College of Valor Bard and a 20th-Level Eldritch Knight have similar defenses, similar main attack mechanisms, and the difference is really whether you are more spell focused, or more martially focused. Don’t get me wrong, I think variation is great, but this is some core feature overlap. Again, if the Paladin and Ranger didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
Brothers from Another Mother
The Eldritch Knight and Arcane Trickster are each based on the same template. They are 1/3 spell casting progression, and are bound on the schools they can access. The Eldritch Knight has to mostly revolve around abjuration and evocation, and the Arcane Trickster is centered around enchantment and illusion. At certain intervals, they are allowed to select outside those two schools. Like the Eldritch Knight, there is a mechanism to provide disadvantage on spells they cast. The Arcane Trickster doesn’t ever get an attack and a spell, as rogues never get a second attack, but it does get a system to provide reliable sneak attack with their free mage hand, so it’s a similar yet slightly different mechanism.
Funny enough, the Pact of the Blade Warlock is the most like the half-progression hybrids of Paladin and Ranger. They end up with two attacks, have their own class spells, and have a damage kicker. Of course, there isn’t a lot of integration between the spellcasting and the martial pursuits. I mean, green-flame blade covers a lot of sins. Warlocks get a pseudo-full progression, and there isn’t a lot of other integration that lends itself to full archetype support. I am not saying it should. Pact of the Blade isn’t an archetype, it’s just a side-specialization for Warlocks. I have said a lot about that, too, so I will leave it alone for now. Anyway, this is probably the closest to the other spell-martial hybrid templates, but it’s not really a full thing like the others.
Homogenization and templates are dirty words for many designers and fans. Not to mention the paring down that occurred in 5e. The gigantic list of classes and niches was slimmed down to a more classic number, and presented archetypes as ways to build what previously came before. Since there wasn’t a core arcane-hybrid in the way there were for the other hybrids, I understand why one wasn’t created. This edition was a return to basics, afterall. Hell, look at the Warlock. The Warlock fans are bloodthirsty savages, attacking and bashing anyone who doesn’t support their vision of the class. However, I think the concept needs to be fully embraced and have the design space created around it. The Warlock class didn’t exist until it did. People bashed on it at the time, but the decision was made and the class stuck around. Several options have been tried out in various editions, and some of that has been rolled into archetypes. Unfortunately, the concepts are so spread out that things are repeated to complete them. It’s not like archetypes provide all that much design space, so seeing a lot of repetition is indicative of a larger design issue.
Anyway, I think it’s worth trying. I just hope others believe so, as well. Then again, I’m used to people disagreeing with me.