Quite some time ago, I wrote about the crazy disorganized state of the arcane hybrid in D&D 5e. This situation has only been exacerbated by the recent UAs released. It’s pretty clear at this point the staff desires to shove as many “magical melee” in the different existing magic-users as possible. I get it, to a degree. Everyone has their favorite version, and pairing it down to core functionality associated with hybrids might become an onerous task, particularly since this design team was behind much of the nouveau-iconic 4e spellblades. I’m not a hater on this front, the assault swordmage was super fun to play. However, with a new edition and a focus on a expansionist class framework, it seems like a waste to keep putting out a pile of archetypes for every possible spellcaster in the game, and multiple archetypes for certain concepts. As I stated before, so much of the design space is either dedicated to how the archetype blends magic and weapons, with many features just being straight lifts from other archetypes. How many times do you need to see “cast a spell, and makes an attack” as a distinct feature? Well, a lot more if you follow the current model.
Part of the problem is the help for arcane hybrids has been more than just archetypes. Cantrips are a huge deal when considering arcane hybrids. This is mostly because Forgotten Realms has established iconic arcane hybrids all over the place. Whatever was part of their package before carries over to 5e through these cantrips, though I would have loved to see more as combat die, and they are just clear examples of power creep. I love so much about 5e design, but booming blade and greenflame blade just do so damn much. This is a problem for many reasons, not least of all because I hate to see power creep like this, as it becomes the new template, but it also immediately separates the other two hybrids from all the arcane hybrid version. Paladins and rangers don’t get cantrips in their classes, and the arcane hybrids getting the beefy cantrips creates an immediate power issue. In many cases, the archetypes also get full spell progression. It’s kind of crazy. What I am saying is – how can you balance something like valor bard against eldritch knight fighter? It’s a tall task, and one that hasn’t been done all that well, as of yet.
Don’t Even Cantrip, Dog
This might be too controversial, but…how about we DON’T give the arcane hybrid cantrips?
*pause for pearl clutching*
I am serious. Paladin and rangers don’t get cantrips. It’s not as if having cantrips would really break them. You’d get shillelagh, which could make a more spellcasting focused ranger work, I guess? Besides stopping the proliferation of guidance there isn’t much to worry about from the cantrip list. Then again, guidance takes careful governance on behalf of the DM to make sure it doesn’t just run wild (Seriously, I’d rate it as the most abused/problematic cantrip in the game, hands down). Greenflame blade could have easily have been called deific blade or something similar, have dealt radiant damage or necrotic damage, and there we go. It could have easily have been called bramble blade and have dealt additional piercing damage. Instead – no cantrips, no precedent, and that’s that for the paladin and ranger. Their class mechanics are then balanced around doing things that aren’t a spell every turn, which helps bring their hybrid nature into focus.
Allowing breathing room for all the things the core class should do is important. Without the emphasis on full spell and core class progression, all sorts of opportunities are opened up. So many of the things that need to be consistently reinvented become core to the class, class-specific spells get designed, and you can now have a thematic through-line that guides the basics before delving into the archetypes. Having the hybrid actually feel like a hybrid is pretty important. A paladin smiting is more than just using a spell and making an attack. In fact, one of the problems with other hybrid designs is this design is so good that people want to consistently re-use it. Ranger could use some more love here, as I’ve mentioned a lot, I don’t deny.
Moving away from the cantrip is one of the best possible decisions for a cohesive arcane hybrid class. Another solution would be to ONLY allow cantrips, and build out from there, but I think that gets a too narrow on the arcane side of things. It wouldn’t be the worst thing, but you’d end up setting aside design space to turn those cantrips into spells you would expect a hybrid to already produce. It would also run counter to the established hybrid design. In short: you could do it, but you’d be better off not doing it.
What is My Purpose in Life?
“You pass the butter.”
“Oh my god.”
As with any class, an arcane hybrid needs to bring something unique to the table in order to justify its existence, but that something needs to be a strong thematic element. Paladins make oaths to the gods, with penalties and an archetype change associated with breaking those oaths, and are meant to be leaders, expressed by their auras and group-buffing spells, and they are meant to be able to act in the name of their god when action needs to be taken, smiting and Oath of Vengeance in specific. This is a clear theme supported by mechanics. It’s great stuff. The arcane-hybrid needs to be similarly strong thematically and mechanically. I’m not talking about actual strength of their mechanics, but rather how their mechanics support their theme.
One of the areas that isn’t seeing a lot of space occupied at the moment is battlefield preparation and manipulation. Yes, spells can provide difficult terrain, damage, and status effects, but bless and heroism supply friendly buffs and the paladins still have auras. There is the space here to make this a core theme rather than something solely produced by spells. Still, we want this to be easy to use. Zones were often a pain in 4e, but 5e has plenty of effects centered on the characters. There are some spells and effects that roil around the battlefield, but those are a rarity as opposed to the being the norm. Having a methodology to alter the battlefield and make it terrible when you do something is a good first step, and one that would parallel smiting more than the auras.
For something like auras, I believe the arcane hybrid would be a student of both magic and martial pursuits. These martial pursuits might vary (ranged, melee, skullduggery, etc.), but having unique insights and schemes is a good niche to fill. Allies should benefit from their actions rather than from their presence, like the paladin, and it shouldn’t be entirely selfish, like the ranger. Instead, I’d like to see conditional effects based on the actions of the arcane hybrid. After attacking then X, after moving then Y, after casting a spell then Z, that sort of thing. These would be core class functions, but have splash into the archetype space (paladins have two auras as part of their core, and then have additional in their archetype, for example).
One of the least used mechanics thus far in 5e is vulnerability. I understand the reticence, double damage is crazy! Funny enough, I always thought this was a little odd, since resistance is half damage but vulnerability is double damage. Doing 50% less damage and 100% more damage aren’t the same scaling. I understand this is for ease of play, but this is something that could easily be worked around to see it more often in this class. For example, vulnerability up to a cap determined by your class level. You’d have a chance to do 50 extra damage (throwing this out here as a random number) from a spell or hit as a 10th level arcane hybrid if you did 50 damage, but it wouldn’t necessarily be 100 extra damage if you did 100 base damage. These are just example numbers, so don’t get too caught up in them.
Like with paladin and ranger, it would also require its own spells. This is probably one of the easier tasks, to be honest.
Archetypes for the hybrid would be what we already know and love, the eldritch knight, the arcane trickster, the hexblade, the bladesinger, the arcane archer, etc. Once you have the core framework in place, it’s much easier to support myriad hybrid ideas within it. You carry more within the archetypes when you don’t have to re-hash, after all. An expansion or alteration of the given spell list is a must. However, dealing with the archetypes under a cohesive umbrella means the relative strength of each archetype should be similar. In some cases this will be a huge improvement, and in some cases this is merely a shifting of power.
The biggest fear, here, is the homogenization of the concepts. I don’t think that is too much of a worry, as there isn’t any doubt the vengeance paladin feels different than the ancient paladin, for example. There will be a bit of locking to weapon type, but it’s not like arcane archery lends itself to a maul, for example. Throwing spears? Sure, I don’t see why not. The answer is probably “because tradition,” but I’m obviously not a classicist.
Next Time On…
The next step is obviously first iteration class design. I don’t promise that soon, but getting the ideas down is a huge second step. Coming up with core spells along with that is important, too, and might be more digestible. Then again, I’ve only gotten through cantrips, 1st, and 2nd level spells for the OGL work. Too many papers, not enough time to pen them all. Still, I am just glad I have gotten this far.