April 23, 2009

Review of 4th Edition D&D Arcane Power

I picked up two RPG books today: the new 4E Arcane Power Supplement and Savage Worlds: Explorer Edition. I'll review SW later on; but today I wanted to share my first impressions of Arcane Power.

First of all, I feel this book is superior to the Martial Power supplement previously released by WotC. Its a bit more narrowly focused on providing players (as opposed to DMs) with many new and creative options for their characters. As you may already know - this book is intended to provide new options for bards, sorcerers, warlocks, wizards, and swordmages. I can't really comment on the last one -- as I don't play in the 4E FRCS campaign setting; but I will share some highlights for the other classes.

The book opens up with this class, and the very first page and a half artwork is... less than awesome. In fact, it looks like something right out of an early 90's 2E book. The style is there, the art is good, but it seems way out of place. It was jarring considering that 4E has been thus far so flashy and glitzy with its artwork. But I digress...

This chapter provides a new set of bard class features (Virtue of Prescience) that, if chosen, allow the bard to be somewhat precogniscent. This plays out in the rules by providing a truck load of new powers aimed at 1) re rolling dice or rolling multiple d20s and choosing the better one; and 2) moving people around the battlefield as an immediate interrupt ability. Sure, as the bard increases in the levels these abilities become more powerful etc etc; but that's the basic idea. This, for me, wasn't all the exciting -- and didn't really fit with my notions of what a bard has been for D&D in the past. One bright spot was the reintroduction of the Haste spell [read:power]; which when used allows you to take an extra standard action. Couple that with an action point burned, and that's three in a round. Like I said: one bright spot. The second, probably bigger, annoying thing about the bard addons was the paragon paths. They are all (sigh) way too focused on combat. There's one half-elven diplomat paragon path that actually adds some skill bonuses to diplomacy, etc. This was "OK"... but The Cunning Prevaricator, a paragon path touted on trickery, lies and fabrication of fables does _nothing_ for skill checks. It's kind of funny... when I read the preamble text of this paragon I was thinking "Cool! Finally a paragon path that is not so combat centered" only to be immediately short-changed by yet another set of "illusions" and powers that merely alter combat in some minor way. This was a major annoyance, and I was setting myself up for a huge negative review.

In a word: awesome. The Storm Magic and Cosmic Magic options present in this chapter are both very powerful (storm magic) and inventive (cosmic magic).

Storm Magic, pictured at right, adds the PC's Dexterity bonus for damage bonuses when using arcane powers through the Storm Power class feature. In addition, player sorcerers choosing this option gain Storm Soul (resistance to lighting and thunder), and Storm's Embrace (shifts opponents when you score a critical). The devil is in the details here - Storm Soul alone is awesome because not only does it provide inherent resistances not normally available to other characters - your resistance bonus also applies negatively to enemies that have the same bonus: i.e. a Destrichan's Resist 10 Thunder would only be Resist 5 Thunder against a Heroic Tier PC (or zero at higher tiers). Also, two Storm Magic Sorcerers fighting would be perfectly vulnerable to each other's attacks. Very cool in my book.

Cosmic Magic is the second option made available to sorcerers and relies on Constitution. PCs choosing this option gain a AC bonus based on their Strength - instead of Dex or Int. In addition, these sorcerers gain Cosmic Power (bonus to damage on arcane powers from Strength mod), and Soul of the Cosmic Cycle. This last feature is my favorite new feature from all those presented in the Arcane Power book. Basically, the sorcerer chooses a "cosmic phase" and then every time the character is bloodied the phase progresses through three different versions: Phase of the Sun, Moon, or Stars. Each phase carries new benefits with it and new resistances. Makes the sorcerer a chameleon on the battlefield. I've never played a sorcerer myself; but if I were to - this would be it.

On a final note about the Sorcerer -- there's the expect addition of tons of new powers; but I was very pleased to also see more than just a handful of non-combat powers aimed at boosting roleplaying and skill challenge mitigation. namely: Deep Shroud, Spatial Trip, Subtlety of the Green Wyrm, Fog Form, and many more. The paragon paths presented are decent enough to be included, but don't really break new ground here. The Primordial Channeler does, however, include a Daily 12 Utility power that is essentially a Resist 15 to four different elements until the end of the encounter - which could be super handy.

I'm boycotting the swordmage. OK, maybe not entirely, but I just skipped over the whole thing. Honestly, this hand-me-down from the 1/2 elf fighter wizard archetype is so tired and old I have really not much to say. Drizzt fans will love this chapter no doubt. I just wish this class didn't exist... for some reason its painful to read. There are, however, some people who happen to love these stooges - so I'm happy to link to a Swordmage post for those of you who share a softspot for swordyswordwizzads.

This is probably my favorite class for 4E -- although I would personally never play one (just can't see myself roleplaying it out). Arcane Power presents one new Eldritch Pact for warlocks: The Vestige Pact. The basic idea is that you summon a vestige of some powerful dead person or other entity and have it do your bidding for you. It's not always a summoned creature though. The cool thing here is that the Vestige Pact has multiple Pact Boons depending on which vestige you currently have in play. Call forth the Vestige of King Elidyr - an ally next to you gains a defense bonus. Call forth Zutwa - your Prime Shot power gets a big attack bonus. Different powers grant new vestiges as the player levels, and there are feats included that allow you to mess with when you can call them forth, etc. Some may regard this as a workaround to having multiple Pact Boons in play, but on first read it seems like a pretty cool option for players wanting to play warlocks who are tapping into truly old and eldritch powers. Think Cthulhu for warlocks.

The eight warlock paragon paths presented include the God Fragment (pictured above). This paragon path is based around the idea that you have somehow managed to harness some lingering power from a dead god. Yeah, not only does it sound awesome -- the paragon path is awesome. Why? Deific Doom (Utility 12) is a zone that follows you around like a curse of "suffering, loss, and regret" - your opponents will not like this too much. Also, at level 20 you gain the vestige of Karmath the Unmourned God (can you say dominated enemy who wanders around damaging people just by standing next to them? yes, I think we can.. it's very cool).

The one class that gains the most from Arcane Power is, not surprisingly, the wizard. The book offers the following for wizards:
  1. three new arcane implements: Orb of Deception, for illusionists, is a new orb mastery option; and the new Tome implement which includes two mastery options.
  2. A new keyword for certain powers: Summoning. Sounds boring, but this has big implications.
  3. two new builds - Illusionists and Summoners.
  4. six new Paragon Paths
  5. Familiars (see below)
I consider the powers added to be a major upgrade to the wizard class. Illusionists are back (yeah!) and still operate as controllers in practice; and Summoner wizards can "off-tank" with their summoned creatures as well as dish out tons of hurt - making them somewhat like Beastmastery rangers. Its gets better though: many many old time favorite spells return. I'm referring to spells such as grease, phantasmal terrain, hypnotic pattern, maze of mirrors, glitterdust, fire shield and spectral hound; and that's only up to level six.

Chapter 6 of the book starts out with vast number of new feats - 58 for Heroic Tier, 23 Paragon Tier, 24 Epic Tier, and 10 new Multiclass feats. All of them are specific to arcane classes - which is a requirement for all of them. Where do they break new ground here? They don't. All the usual suspects are present in the lists and, after looking it over, nothing "wow'd me" in the Feats section. Bonuses for this or that in combat are all/mostly power or class specific. There are only two or three feats that would affect non-combat play (<3%). Oh well.

The new 4E take on Familiars is great - its one of the shining points of Arcane Power. It simplifies their use and makes it clear what they are ("a spirit... not a real creature... doesn't need to eat or breath") and what the can and can not do. This section describes in clear detail how familiars work, what their attributes are, and how much control you have over them. The sidebars, in particular, are actually worth reading in this section to get a good idea of what the designers were aiming for: familiars are much like advanced constructs. In fact, some of them are constructs: the homunculus for example. Altogether there are 12 familiars presented that give a good spread of added value. Players looking for combat bonuses or an advantage might choose the Dragonling (use its space as the origin for a burst effect spell or power). More roleplaying centric players might find an interest in the Owl or the Book Imp. Lots of room for growth here - I expect to see a whole slew of them in future issues of Dragon. In short, the new 4E familiars kick ass - I wish there was more of this sort of soft gaming in 4E. For a completely different view on the new familiars, see here.

Much like the new spells in the chapter on wizards - old timers like myself might be pleasantly surprised by the Rituals section. We see the return of AD&D spell such as Unseen Servant, Lower Water, and Fool's Gold (to name a few) all dressed up in 4E clothing. There's also a couple of new additions (that I've) not seen before.

My favorite new ritual would have to be Anthem of Unity - think of a political speech or rousing motivational speaker, gaining the trust and will of a crowd of listeners who then decide to (miraculously!) hide the stolen crown for you, or do something else they might not otherwise do. I know this is more or less a "mass charm" spell (using AD&D terms), but this 4E version just does it better. I want to go out and try this the next time my PCs are in an urban setting: "Listen up merchants of Marbracht! Everything in the marketplace is now half-price!" Seems like alot of mischief could be had.

All in all, I think the Arcane Powers book is a great value to players who play arcane classes (a bit obvious). At $29.95, the price seems hard to justify for DMs looking to complete their collection or for players not playing an arcane caster currently. Of course, Amazon has it for much less (~$17) which is crosses the gap for me and makes it a good buy at that price. Its a book for players looking for more crunch. There's virtually nothing there that DMs can use for campaign planning, new ideas for story development, etc aside from making new and different NPCs perhaps.

  • Highlights: Familiars rock; new spells for wizards and new rituals are of high value. The Cosmic Magic sorcerer option is extremely cool. Summoning and Vestiges for Wizards and Warlocks are a great addition that builds and doesn't overly diversify those classes.
  • Lowlights: Feats are a bit hoo-hum boring. Swordmages blow. The Bard paragon paths are stupid.

Interested in reading more reviews on Arcane Power? Check out these other excellent blogs that have also given their 2¢


  1. the thing I like about the feats are the racial incentive feats that may encourage interesting race /class combos. This I feel is new ground, and has the potential to encourage people to play outside the box (the box being: only choosing races with bonuses that automatically fit my class' primary stats).

  2. Swordmages blow? I assume you have proof of this? My sister plays one, and I can assure you that her oral regions are quite virginal :)

    Excellent review, Jon. Maybe now some of the louder trollheads out there wil STFU about all the "missing" elements they refuse to do without.

    As to the sorceror...100% badass, all around.

    I think your captcha is broken...it wants me to spell trifwatwth! WTF?

  3. @john - I guess that depends. In my experience munchkins will be munchkins: they always stack their stats to minmax the PCs they create. I mean, if a player is playing a certain race/class combo just to get a bonus on POWER XYZ; then... is that really a good thing?

    @donny - yeah. swordmages. geaaahhhd they blowarse! Just make a 1/2 elven fighter/wizard dual class and be done it already!

  4. Don't understand the hate for the swordmage. The flavor of the class is basically "teleporting dexterity-based fighter" which I personally think is a lot of fun. Don't know what that has to do with Drizzt. At any rate, the class has been a bit underpowered up til now and needs whatever love AP gives it.

  5. I have to strongly echo your endorsement of the familiar system. It is well fucking done. The minimalist mechanics make sure that familiars can't be used to "break" a scenario... they're essentially an extension of the player character for roleplaying with a few bonuses to make it worth a feat.

    I agree that the soft roleplaying aspect is a great addition, but I don't think 4E really lacks those... they're just not terribly explicit about it. There are no "rules" that elaborate on the nature of the Warlock's pact, but that also means it's very open-ended. I know one player who plays her star-pact Warlock as a small child who gained her powers after "the sparklies came", and she roleplays the use of Daily Powers as a full emotional breakdown.

    In a lot of ways, 4E provides an open framework with a skeleton of concrete mechanics on which you can build a body of roleplaying.

    Also... swordmages rule. :P I'll admit I only started playing an Eladrin Swordmage because it seemed like the absolute Mariest of Sues, but... eh. It works mechanically, and we have a lot of fun with the character's attitude being informed by the absolute speshul snowflakiness of it all.

  6. @alexandraerin Thanks for stopping by! Yeah.. its good _some_ people like swordmages... i guess with a different multiclass system they would have been irrelevant.. but sicne 4E nerf'd multiclassing somewhat, there's a need. I guess I just have never been partial to that archetype.

  7. Jonathan, if the swordmage was just a sword/mage I would agree, it's a pointless hybrid. The idea of the class never appealed to me for that reason, and I kept that opinion until I actually started playing the class.

    Just as the 4E Bard is no longer a weaksauce combination sorceror/fighter/rogue with mild artificial bardlike flavoring but an actual built-from-the-ground-up BARD archetype, I feel the swordmage is something unique in its own right. Yeah, it's something that does appeal to the same people who would play a Drizzt clone or a Jedi or whatever, but it's not something you could replicate by smashing a fighter and a wizard together.

    Really, I prefer a system that's class free like GURPS where you could build someone who has truly unique magical or divine powers or martial styles... where if you want to be a person who knows how to do any combination of swinging a sword, casting magic, picking locks, and calling on the gods, you just make the mix you want...

    But it's hard to get people to sit down with GURPS and delve into the mechanics deep enough to create anything like the 4E D&D classes and their powers. So I like 4E for its pick-up-and-play awesomeness, even as it removes true multiclassing and limits some forms of mechanical customization.


    But at the end of the day, I can understand a visceral dislike of swordmages. My first one was meant to be a joke character.

  8. Haha! that's awesome "Joke The Swordmage".. she starts every fight with "jokes on you pal!"

    Oh.. and I DO love the BARD in 4E. Definately a win.

    Your comments are making me want to go home and crack open the FRPG to take a second looke at "Ms. Joke, The Swordmage" and see if I may have assumed too much...


By submitting your comment below, you agree to the blog's Terms of Service.