A week ago, Wizards of the Coast’s R&D team released Unearthed Arcana: Eberron, the first supplemental material that’s been released for Dungeons & Dragons 5E, and the first hat tip to Eberron since the D&D Next playtest ended. Of course, this is all stamped with a huge DRAFT label, and effectively serves as a playtest feedback period for the materials.
The purpose of the Unearthed Arcana series appears to be providing an early glimpse into the R&D team’s priorities, projects, and products, as well as a way to get playtest feedback from the D&D community. Though the product strategy for 5E is still “evolving,”it seems clear that Wizards is more open to giving new content to players for free online. Leveraging the D&D community to validate design decisions and provide playtest feedback is an encouraging new trend for Wizards of the Coast, and I support any move towards transparency for the hobby’s flagship brand.
So while I think Unearthed Arcana is great in theory, now that we’ve had more than a week to play the beta of the first rules supplement, it’s time to offer some feedback. We need to talk about the Artificer.
Update 2/16: Unearthed Arcana was updated to v1.1. The Artificer wasn’t affected, but I’ve got the full changelog available here.
I’ve been playing in an Eberron campaign since 4th Edition. We switched to the D&D Next playtest, and eventually to 5th Edition. Eberron is very near to my heart for the rich diversity of locations and cultures, the gonzo steampunk high magic feel, and the various mysteries of the setting that are left to the DM to answer. The setting has iconic elements: unique races, the Dragonmarked Houses, and most notably, the Artificer class.
The Artificer’s Fluff
The designers have highlighted a conscious to change the fluff around the Artificer from a warrior who channels magic into enhancements to his gear to a sage who focuses on “mystical invention.” Mechanically, this is represented by a change from a separate Artificer class in prior editions to a new Wizard Tradition in 5E. Rather than using magic in a different form (infusions), channeled through weapons, the Artificer is now a full Wizard spellcaster. This is bullshit.
The 3.5E Eberron Campaign Setting made this distinction perfectly clear in its description of the Infusions class ability: “An artificer is not a spellcaster.” In 4E, though the Artificer had “spells,” they were infusions through his own weapons. The list of infusions has always been geared toward utility and martial combat: skill enhancement, healing, protection from damage, etc. In 5E, he just has spellcasting. Artificers now Polymorph, Teleport, and Fireball like any Wizard. What used to be distinct–and might I add, really effing cool–fluff has now been steamrolled to fit a Wizard archetype.
For a complaint about the Artificer’s fluff, I have been referencing his specific mechanical implementation a lot. This is intentional, because the mechanics driving this new Artificer simply cannot support the existing fluff; the fluff has to change to accommodate these mechanics. Why would Artificers–melee combatants who channel magic into weapons and armor–exist with these mechanics? They certainly wouldn’t be invited to adventuring parties; an Abjurer is much better in melee, and even grants protective bonuses and pseudo-healing (temporary hit points) to allies.
The Artificer’s Mechanics
Even if you’re willing to accommodate the changes to fluff and accept that the Artificer is a Wizard, the Artificer has a huge mechanical problem: it’s just not very good. I’m not advocating for revisiting the broken Artificer class of 3.5E, whose item creation abilities simply wreaked havoc on class balance and playability, but the Artificer should at least be in-line with other Wizard Traditions.
The Artificer gets three main abilities that differentiate it from other Wizards: infuse potions, infuse scrolls, and infuse weapons and armor. To infuse potions, the Artificer expends a spell slot to create a potion (up to three, four at 10th level), which cannot be recovered until the potion is used. To infuse scrolls, the Artificer expends slots his Arcane Recovery (limited by Arcane Recovery slots), which cannot be recovered until the scroll is used. To infuse weapons or armor, he expends a spell slot to grants a magical enhancement for 8 hours (a single item, two at 10th level), and he cannot recover the spell slot until the enhancement ends. Unlike other Wizard Traditions, who generally get bonus effects added to spells of their chosen school, this means that the Artificer makes himself a worse spellcaster in order to gain the benefits of his Tradition abilities. What does he gain for this sacrifice?
It’s tough to tell, honestly, but the answer is somewhere between “not very much” and “a little situational value.”
First, some of the benefits of potions and scrolls: they can be shared with the party for others to use, they can provide buffs that don’t require Concentration, and, in the case of potions, they generally last longer than comparable spells. The Potion of Healing specifically gives access to true healing, which no other Wizard Tradition has. Most importantly, these items can be created without using prepared spells, enhancing the Artificer’s versatility.
The problem is that the cost is simply too high: by taking 10 minutes to create any of those items, the Artificer is basically committing to his spells even more firmly than simply preparing. Take a look at potions: Climbing, Mind Reading, Water Breathing, and Resistance are only useful in very specific situations, so an Artificer would make them when the need arises for immediate consumption. It would make sense to brew two potions at the start of the day, leaving one “potion slot” open for these situations.
What can we make with the other two (three at 10th level) potion slots? The Healing potions are always useful, and the Potion of Growth is helpful for any melee character. Growth is also the most cost-efficient, since the Artificer spends a first level spell slot to gain the effect of a second-level spell. The Potion of Invisibility is nearly useless: it costs a third level spell slot to get the effect of a second level spell. In most cases, the Artificer is better off making a Scroll of Invisibility, or just casting Invisibility.
Scrolls are handy, because they allow the Artificer to cast known spells he hasn’t prepared. Put another way, as long as he has 10 minutes and Arcane Recovery slots remaining, the Artificer can cast any spell he knows. In addition, he can hand his scrolls to other members of the party, effectively allowing the party to cast from his pool of Arcane Recovery slots, as well.
The Infuse Weapons and Armor ability looks fair. If your DM doesn’t give out many magic items, but does use monsters with resistance or immunity to non-magical weapons, then it’s a valuable party buff (and your DM is a dick.) Otherwise, looks like a good use of a spell slot or two, assuming you use the infusion on your allies. The Artificer is a full caster with nothing to show for melee abilities, so he can scarcely expect to make enough weapon attacks or have his AC targeted often enough benefit from these enhancements. See what I mean about the class mechanics’ implied changes to Artificer fluff?
The level 14 powers for other Wizard Traditions are milestone abilities that give major buffs to all of the spells of the Wizard’s chosen school. The Artificer’s level 14 Master Artificer ability, on the other hand, allows him to occasionally craft a very weak magic item (seriously, take a look at Table A and B in the DMG) in less time than usual. However, Master Artificer item creation still takes a full week to perform, so it’s thoroughly a downtime activity that must be planned around subject to the DM’s pacing. Plus, the item still has the usual costs of construction. I get that it’s important to prevent magic item creation from breaking the game as it did in 3.5E, but between the weak item list and unreliable use, this ability is bordering on worthless in many campaigns. No other Tradition has a 14th level fluff ability.
Playing an Artificer
Aside from murdering my beloved fluff, the biggest problem with the Artificer class is that it just isn’t very much fun. It feels like a Wizard who isn’t actually good at anything. All Wizards have a good degree of versatility with a strong specialty; the Artificer has a good degree of versatility with a specialty in… more versatility? I leave that as a question mark, because the Artificer still doesn’t feel like he’s considerably more versatile than the specialized Wizard traditions. He’s a chef without a signature dish; he’s never going to win first prize.
As the Bard class has taught us in prior editions, versatility is a tricky thing to design for. Having that flexibility and utility is satisfying to a point, but it tends to generate very few rewarding moments for the player. That’s a fundamental design problem with the “jack of all trades” archetype; it lacks a unique contribution, so it is constantly outshined by specialists.
Frankly, the play experience feels like an exercise in optimization with little to show for it. To maximize the Artificer’s potential, you’ve got to carefully plan your spell preparation, potion preparation, and scroll preparation in order to maximize your versatility. You’ve got to give your consumables to the right allies, infuse the right weapons with the right effects, and make sure you’re always positioned to deliver the correct spell or potion to the right ally at the right time (yes, you will be running around shoving potions down your allies’ throats.) It can be exhausting, and there’s very little reward for it.
As a player, I know it’s helpful to the party that the Rogue is always attacking with a +1, or that the Paladin has +2 AC. I know that encounters are easier when the Monk is throwing an extra d4 damage on every attack with a Potion of Growth. It’s a good idea to share utility with other casters via scrolls. But as the Artificer’s player, all of those traits come at a cost to my play experience, and the benefit goes to other players’ play experience; they roll the extra dice, they get to hit slightly more often, they get to duck a devastating blow. Your action is often far removed from the effect; however large or small, it never feels like your victory.
My final complaint is the way that using spell slots as resources to power your abilities effectively slows down the party. Since the Artificer depletes his spell slots for others’ to spend, he’s always more resource-depleted than comparable casters, and he’ll never restore to full capacity. Since parties in 5E still have an incentive to take a long rest as soon as one party member loses combat effectiveness (the “five minute work day” problem), this leads to the Artificer either slowing the party down, or fighting at diminished capacity. Neither is very much fun as an Artificer player.
Fixing the Artificer
I like that the designers have been conservative in introducing unique resources for the Artificer. They have recycled as many mechanics as possible, right down to utilizing the existing magic item list. Unfortunately, the existing mechanics and items leave the Artificer flat.
The Artificer needs to be its own class, first and foremost. I’d like to see mechanics similar to the Warlock’s Pact Magic merged with the Bard’s College archetypes using a separate list of Artificer Infusions similar to 3.5E. I would then supplement the infusions with limited magic item creation and a second attack. Finally, I’d like to see one Artificer archetype (the Tinkerer) gaining additional consumable magic items, perhaps tied to Hit Dice, and one Artificer archetype (the Battlesmith) getting party buffs.
Have you played with the Artificer yet? Do you have thoughts, suggestions, or concerns about the first Unearthed Arcana packet? Feel free to use the comment section below for constructive feedback, and feel free to use email or Twitter to call me a moron.