D&D Design diary: Blue Magic primal path
[The ongoing live stream RPG review series is on hiatus this week because reasons. In their place enjoy a peek behind how I sussed out my idea for a new primal path for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons barbarians.]
With my first foray into creating content for Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeon Masters Guild, I offered my own take on a popular concept: the blue mage from Final Fantasy lore.
The Dungeon Masters Guild is a new program that allows you to create content (adventures and locations; new monsters; character classes, archetypes, and backgrounds; etc.) using Wizards of the Coast’s intellectual property (IP) and to make some money while you’re at it. – from the DM’s Guild website
In the Final Fantasy games, blue mages are mystical warriors with the ability to acquire unusual powers from the monsters they face and add them to their repertoire. There are many homebrew versions of this character option for D&D across several editions. After reading a bunch of them and giving it some thought, I decided to take a shot at my own version. The outcome is something I’m really happy with and excited about, and I hope other D&D gamers give it a try in their campaigns.
What I thought I’d do here is give gamers a look into how I developed this idea, and generate feedback into ways to improve and refine the concept. Before getting started, I encourage heading over to the DM’s Guild and downloading the PDF version of this class option for yourself.
Initially, I began working on the blue mage as a Sorcerous Origin option. My imagination is really taken away with these arcane spellcasters, generally considered rather suboptimal from a mechanical standpoint. Those who know me know that game mechanics are far less important to me than cool character concepts and storytelling potential.
In this version of the blue mage, these sorcerers could learn new spells that directly affected them. Only spells with a single specific target were eligible, with a higher level ability including those that a character was affected by, which included area of effect spells. I went through every spell in the Player’s Handbook and made a list of all of the eligible spells.
The list was quite long! The potential to acquire any spell specifically targeting the sorcerer would greatly expand the breadth and depth of their spell list. The opportunity to add healing magic was there, as well as numerous other spells from every other spell list. There were a lot of spells that wouldn’t be eligible at first, in particular area of effect spells (fireballs, e.g.) and spells with a range of Self. One idea, mentioned above, was to expand the eligible spells as a higher-level ability, to make any spell that affects the sorcerer eligible to learn.
Tinkering around with this for a while, I came to an impasse for a couple of reasons. From a mechanical perspective, this felt way too overpowered to me. The niche of a sorcerer is having a small pool of spells overall but with the benefit of being able to manipulate those spells in various ways through metamagic. By giving a sorcerer the potential to acquire basically any spell that affects them, it threw the class off balance.
Another drawback was that sorcerers are squishy. With d6 hit die, they aren’t known for having a lot of hit points. Sorcerers also don’t generally wear any armor, and despite the option for magical defenses, loading up your limited spell pool with protection spells would kind of make the character a wash. So the idea of a character who wants to be struck and affected with lots of spells while at the same time being relatively fragile and unprotected did not sound like a very good idea at all. A blue mage needed to rely on their body’s fortitude to pursue their path to power, and the sorcerer just wasn’t going to cut it.
And then an idea came to mind. What class is known for being tough? The barbarian! With Constitution as a primary ability for these warriors, they had the natural toughness needed to withstand punishment. They’re reckless, and what’s more reckless than willingly going out of your way, nay, seeking out opportunities to get struck with all manner of strange effects? Additionally, the barbarian doesn’t have any other spellcasting to interfere or unbalance the blue magic abilities.
On the contrary, building this as a barbarian primal path option would open up new options for these characters, leveraging their focus on melee combat to give them interesting options for ranged attacks and utility abilities. The existing primal paths in both the Player’s Handbook and Unearthed Arcana focus almost exclusively on melee combat. There’s a smattering of noncombat utility here and there. My reasoning was that blue magic would offer an alternative path. A barbarian’s core class abilities would still allow them to be competent melee warriors and blue magic had the potential to bolster this facet depending on what abilities were acquired while at the same time opening up different avenues and options for playing your barbarian character.
Using the spell list I’d made for the sorcerer idea, I struck all the spells that required concentration from the list. My thinking was that the primal path would allow them to cast spells, but only while raging. However, that was a deviation enough from rage’s limitations so I felt like allowing concentration spells on top of that was too much.
The spell list that was left was not very exciting, frankly. Most of them were damaging spells, which would be kind of cool since a large number of them are ranged – a common issue for barbarians as they rise in level is being stuck as a one-trick melee combat specialists when enemies start flying, teleporting and so forth. Outside of these, there’s some interesting stuff, but really, how many times do you think you’ll cast Rary’s telepathic bond while raging? Tongues, water breathing, message and the like all fall under this perspective. On the other hand, there’s nifty stuff like the power word spells and healing that would be nice options to have for a barbarian. Taking it all into consideration, it felt plainly lackluster. The real nail in the coffin was asking myself “would I choose this primal path over the ones in the Player’s Handbook or from Unearthed Arcana?” The answer was no.
More than that, it deviated too much from what makes blue magic so cool in the Final Fantasy games – the ability to collect and use monster powers as a player character!
Thus began my pouring through the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual, seeking some formula to convert creatures’ Challenge Rating into something equivalent to character and/or spell levels. Without getting too involved in describing my amateur mathematical equations, suffice it to say these efforts were fruitless.
The solution I came up with after nearly abandoning the idea altogether, though, I feel is an elegant one: categorize creatures according to their placement in the Tiers of Play. Since characters would more or less face creatures whose CR matched the tier they were in, it felt natural to group them that way. So CR 0-4, 5-10, 11-15 and 16-20 creatures were translated into a table based on the Eldritch Knight Spellcasting table, minus the cantrips. That felt about the right balance of uses for the strange abilities the blue mage barbarian would acquire.
In keeping with the naming conventions of other barbarian primal paths, my blue magic creation was dubbed The Path of the Azure.
To a barbarian following the Path of the Azure, the dangerous monsters they face become their strength. As reckless or more so than others of their kind, these barbarians willingly put themselves in harm’s way against terrible aberrations, magical creatures and extraplanar threats. When their foes affect them with strange powers, barbarians of the Path of the Azure harness their fury to turn these creatures’ attacks back on them by unlocking those abilities within their raging souls. As varied as the foes they’ve faced, these barbarians build unusual repertoires of additional powers they are able to unleash while in the throes of their rage.
The first-draft edition of this that I shared on the DM’s Guild was offered with the caveat of fully understanding it needed more work and refining, and an encouragement to discuss, share feedback and offer suggestions and criticisms in the comments. Additionally, I posted in several D&D-centric forums seeking that same engagement.
Based on feedback from those sources, I did some revising that clarified some of the language on the mechanics of how blue magic works. As it was originally written, a Path of the Azure barbarian could acquire things like a goblin’s scimitar attack, various creatures’ multiattack ability or a giants’ rock-throwing attacks. It wasn’t difficult to circumvent this by clarifying that creature Actions listed as melee weapon attack, melee spell attack, ranged weapon attack or ranged spell attack are not eligible.
Also, someone pointed out that the 6th level ability granted by the Path of the Azure was very similar to a College of Valor bard’s Battle Magic, which wasn’t gained until 14th level, making it overpowered. To address this, the 10th level ability to Consume a creature and thereby acquire an ability that doesn’t target a creature moved from 10th level into the 6th level slot.
While working on the the first revision, I went through each entry in the Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and the Tome of Beasts from Kobold Press, and made a spreadsheet of every potential ability a Path of the Azure barbarian could acquire. It is huge! There are 381 creatures for a total of 542 possible abilities. Of these, 89 are only available through the Consume ability.
Because of the huge variety, and noting that several would be useful out of combat and particularly not useful at all during combat, the 10th level ability allowed for expending one use of the barbarian’s rage to activate an ability.
There are some other details I still plan to refine. The capstone Reflection ability needs some work, and I also want to take another pass at the Blue Magic table. I also spoke with Nerdarchist Ted some time ago and he made several helpful suggestions that this procrastinator has yet to implement.
But overall this concept keeps me excited to continue tinkering with it. My hope is gamers will give the Path of the Azure barbarian a try at their own gaming tables and have fun doing so. With any luck, they’ll head back to the DM’s Guild and leave some comments that will help further refine the archetype.
In the meantime, I’ll continue playtesting the Path of the Azure barbarian I dropped into my own campaign as an NPC, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that progresses. More than that, I am really impressed with the whole experience sharing content on the DM’s Guild and working on some other projects to submit there. If you have any cool ideas for custom D&D content, give it a shot and see what happens.
If you give the Path of the Azure a spin at your gaming table, please share your thoughts, opinions, suggestions and feedback below or at the DM’s Guild and let me know how it went!
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