Tuesday, April 25, 2023

(D&D 3e) Tome and Blood

Tome and Blood (Bruce R. Cordell and Skip Williams) puts me at war with myself. My favorite part of any fantasy setting is its magical elements, and many of my favorite characters in both fiction and gaming have been spellcasters. But the D&D Wizard (and to a lesser, but similar extent, the Sorcerer) are some of my least favorite classes, purely from a design perspective.

I'm currently making an effort to soften my pop-culture opinions, so I can acknowledge that there is a certain strategy to playing them, one that many D&D players find appealing. Manage your limited resources, think ahead and plan your spell loadout based on your anticipated challenges, collect new and more powerful spells. It's something of a puzzle, and puzzles can be satisfying to solve. However, if you're like me and you don't enjoy the puzzle, then all that's left is a class that is aggressively bland.

No, that's not right. The Wizard is hegemonically bland. It is the imperialist monarch of bland, leading an ever-expanding empire of bland, that threatens to swallow up everything non-bland about D&D and convert it to bland. And I am here to identify the source of this all-encompassing blandness and place the blame exactly where it belongs: on Specialist Wizards.

Or, more accurately, on what the mechanics of Specialist Wizards say about the construction of the D&D world. A Specialist Wizard gets one extra memorized spell per spell level per day from their chosen school of magic and they are forbidden from using one or more other schools of magic. Which means that every specialist is just shy of being a generalist. They don't need to follow a theme. They don't get any special benefit or drawback from the magic they wield. They don't even really need to do more than take their school's best spell at every spell level and then just continue to be a regular Wizard. And the schools themselves . . . blech.

Necromancy? Okay. Illusion? Okay. Enchantment and Divination? Yeah, those are still something. But Conjuration? Abjuration? Transmutation? Those aren't even a theme. They're just verbs that summarize things more interesting magic can do.

I wish I could say that Tome and Blood avoided the speedbumps, but it really didn't. It hit every single one. It gave us advice about what spells to learn that included "some fight it, but eventually, every sorcerer and wizard picks magic missile." And it broke down the different possible specialties with suggestions about which schools to skip, and somehow it always seemed to come back to Divination, Illusion, and Necromancy. Better to lose three full schools than even one of Conjuration, Evocation, or Transmutation. It's just a bad divide.

The strategy advice also wound up breaking 3rd edition's already tenuous game balance, though perhaps that wouldn't be obvious for some time to come. It suggested making scrolls of your less commonly-used spells and wands to let you keep casting once your daily spell roster was used up. We can now officially say goodbye to the Rogue. It was nice knowing you.

Wizards bug me, is what I'm saying. Having a "magic user" class in a fantasy game is as bad as having a "fighter" class in an action-adventure game. Give me classes that approach the game's fundamental activities in a unique and interesting way.

For all my griping, you might be forgiven for thinking I disliked Tome and Blood, but really I only disliked pages 4-9, 20-21 (maybe, if you have to ask what the difference is between Spellcraft and Knowledge [Arcana], that's a clue that you have one skill too many), and 81-83. That's only 10% of the book, pretty consistent with the series' track record. Once Tome and Blood gets past the questionable mechanics of the Wizard (and to a lesser extent, Sorcerer) class, and into actual fantasy flavor, it has a lot going for it.

Certainly, from a world-building perspective, this book's Prestige Classes are the best in the series. I especially enjoyed the transhumanist ones like the Dragon Disciple, which allowed a sorcerer to turn into a dragon-human hybrid, the Acolyte of the Skin, who replaced their own natural skin with the flayed hide of a demon, and the Elemental Savant, who demonstrated such profound elemental mastery that they became an elemental creature.

Mechanically, they have their flaws, what with the Dragon Disciple gaining abilities best suited to a front-line fighter, the Acolyte of the Skin losing five caster levels for some flavorful, but limited use abilities, and the Elemental Savant only benefiting from using elemental attack spells (though that's just as much a problem of the spell list as anything else). Given the edition's notorious caster/non-caster divide, it's probably a good thing that many of the Prestige Classes are weaker than just taking 10 levels of Wizard, which makes it a real shame that they won't see much use . . . due to being weaker than taking 10 levels of Wizard.

The rest of the book is also solid, if not quite as inspired. I liked all of the magical organizations, even if they were a little basic (though we covered this ground with Sword and Fist - the basic stuff needs to be written down somewhere, so why not here). My favorite was the Arcane Order, but only for an absolutely ridiculous reason - their leader is named "Japheth Arcane." That made me laugh ("No, no, you see it's the 'Arcane' Order, as in the Order that follows a guy named 'Arcane.' The fact that it does arcane stuff is just a coincidence.")

Overall, I'd say that this is probably my least favorite book in the series so far. Its high points were among the highest, but I feel like when all was said and done, the wrong side won my internal war. After reading the book about Wizards and Sorcerers, I was more convinced than ever that their cool stuff should be divided up and given to the game's other classes. "Magic" is simply too broad a niche.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked Phantom Ink, the special alchemical ink that could be made to only show up under certain predefined lighting conditions. Writing a note that's only visible in moonlight is pure Tolkien, and I'm here for it.

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