Dungeon Master’s Guild Review: The Swordmage

I chose the Swordmage as my first DM’s Guild review for a reason: these kinds of spellsword classes have always had a special place in my heart and in my games. Going way back to the Eldritch Knight of 3rd Edition, I was consistently enamored with these kinds of classes, and sought them out wherever I could. Bladesingers, Rune Knights, Spell Swords, Abjurant Champions, Daggerspell Mages, Duskblades, and even the blade magic of the Tome of Battle enraptured my early D&D years. My friends and I even tried to create our own class: the Arcane Swordsman (the original idea must be credited to a friend whose name I won’t reveal without permission, but you know who you are). And once I moved from D&D to Pathfinder, that love followed me. Whether it was the divine Inquisitor or eventually the Magus, I definitely have a type.

Except the Spellrager. I have an inherent and irrational dislike for the Spellrager.

So, of course, when I saw the Swordmage on the Dungeon Master’s Guild, I had to have it. It’s unfortunate that the class is so…underwhelming.

How I’m Treating This

One thing I want to make very clear before I begin is how I’m treating Dungeon Master’s Guild content. In my eyes, it’s homebrewed content. It’s not a third party product like those professionally produced by Frog God Games, Green Ronin, or Kobold Press. These are products produced by fans, for fans. Because of this, I am giving these products a bit of leeway that I would not give a genuine third party product. When Kobold Press’s Tome of Beasts comes out, I will be looking at it with much more scrutiny than I do Juan Marcano’s Swordmage. These are documents put out by fans without an editor or access to mass playtesting, so balance issues and minor grammar errors will be forgiven to a degree (though everyone should be holding themselves to a very high standard).

With that out of the way, here’s a link to the document itself on the Dungeon Master’s Guild:

SWORDMAGE, BY JUAN MARCANO

Note that I will be reviewing the document as of March 3, 2016. Therefore, if it is updated between now and when you read this, those updates will not be included in this review.

It costs $1 US, which is fine with me. I try to pay at least a dollar whenever I buy a DM’s Guild product. That said, the tendency toward Pay What You Want does mean that products that do cost money tend to need to justify themselves more than others. Overall, this review is going to ask the question of whether or not this class deserves your dollar.

Now, onto the document.

Document Statistics

It’s 18 pages long (big for a class, but we’ll see why), and is very obviously attempting to ape the Player’s Handbook in terms of style and formatting. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but tends to rub me the wrong way. I won’t count it against the class, though. In fact, if anything, it’s something in the document’s favor, since the imitated formatting does make everything look very clear and easy to read. I could have done without the little border around the class table, though. But that might just be me.

Flavor Text

The class follows the example of the Player’s Handbook classes, using the flavor text to try and paint a picture of the class itself, rather than give a rundown of its general features. I’m a fan of this method of class description, and I think he does a passable job at evoking the flavor of the class and giving us an idea of what it can do. It also has some direct ties to the Forgotten Realms, which is kind of nice to see. Inherent connections to campaign settings can help to create a more defined image. And while I’m no scholar of Faerun, the connections drawn here do help to establish that swordmages are an ancient order, and that they tend to come from specific locations, colleges, or academies, rather than being something any shmoe with a sword and a cantrip can become.

Class Features

The basics are about what I’d expect. 1d8 hit dice, light armor, specific blade-based weapons, Constitution and Intelligence saves, two skills and a generic set of equipment. Nothing special, but the d8 hit dice and the Con/Int saves does bely an understanding of class design that not much other homebrew content I’ve read contains.

However, one problem I see is that they do not gain any access to a ranged weapon. This isn’t a huge deal, as they’ll likely get cantrips like Fire Bolt to cover this, but it does prevent them from adding Ability modifier damage to ranged attacks, which could prove to be a problem.

And as we head forward, one thing becomes incredibly apparent. This class has one single purpose: to recreate the Swordmage class from 4th edition’s Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide in 5th edition. This isn’t a bad thing, per se. Especially since the structure of classes in 4e means that this class will have to branch out in order to create something that fits into the new system. It does, however, mean that everything is going to be colored through a 4th edition lens, and I’m going to be watching to see where things that made sense in 4e might not translate as well into 5e.

Swordbond. This one’s pretty basic, and exists in most versions of the spellsword archetype. Bonding yourself to a weapon and gaining special bonuses. This version prevents you from being disarmed of the weapon, allows you to summon it a la the Eldritch Knight, re-create it from a fragment if the weapon is broken, and lets you add Intelligence in place of Strength or Dexterity on attack rolls with it. That…is interesting. It doesn’t add your Intelligence to damage, which is in thinking with a 3.5e style class. This means that your attacks use two different Abilities: one for attack rolls and one for damage, which is something that 5e has been trying to get away from, and it feels kind of awkward here. I can’t say whether it’s balanced or not, but it definitely raises a red flag.

Spellcasting. It’s wizard-style spellcasting based on Intelligence, using a spellbook. They even get rituals, which is probably something I would have left out. They get up to 5th level spells, making them the arcane equivalent of a paladin or ranger. One note, however, is that they get cantrips where their comparable classes do not, and starting at level 1. This is interesting, and it’s something I like. It establishes that they’re spellcasters at level 1 without messing with the established spell-acquisition tables. This does mean that they don’t start filling their spellbook until level 2, however, which could prove to be problematic in terms of spell variety.

Swordmage Warding. This ability is lifted directly from the 4e class, and it really bugs me. Essentially, it’s a feature that incentivizes duelist-style combat, with a weapon in one hand and nothing in the other, by granting a +3 bonus to AC. You still get a +1 bonus if you don’t meet this condition, but I feel like if I were playing a swordmage, I’d be pigeon-holed into a particular play style.

The feature also allows the swordmage to add its Intelligence instead of Dexterity to its AC. This almost completely eliminates the need for dexterity, which is nice to reduce Multiple Attribute Dependency, but I see it making a lot of super-smart, super-beefy swordmages who make Dexterity their dump stat.

Overall, I think the class would probably have been better served with a simple Fighting Style here, allowing for a wider range of swordmage concepts.

Focused Mind. This gives you double proficiency bonus on all Con saves to maintain concentration. I have no problems here. This should be a staple for this kind of class.

Swordmage Aegis. And here we have another big lift from the 4e class. Your Aegis is your subclass, and your two options are the Aegis’ of Shielding or Assault. I’ll talk about them in detail later.

Ability Score Improvements. Standard 4, 8, 12, 16, 19. No extras along the way.

Arcane Mutterings. This feature is…huh. Essentially, it allows you to use Arcana in place of your Charisma-based skills once per short rest, which is…I don’t really know. The fact that this is one of the class’s 5th level features doesn’t really help its case. I get the idea behind the feature. It’s supposed to play to the ancient tradition aspect of the class, with you being almost more magic than mortal being. However, its placement, alongside the once per rest restriction, really makes this one feel like a miss.

Arcane Recovery. Your other 5th level feature is equivalent to the Wizard feature of the same name, except that you require your bonded weapon.

Elemental Acuity. This one allows you to reduce an enemy’s elemental resistances when you’re casting a spell that requires you to hit the thing first. It’s a neat feature, for sure, and I expect that the class will include several new hitty spells at the end to go along with it.

Extra Attack. It feels SO WRONG that this comes at 6th level, instead of 5th. Overall, this combined with Elemental Acuity makes 6th level your first capstone level as a swordmage, rather than 5th. And while this isn’t TECHNICALLY a wrong thing to do, it does go against the standard set by literally every core class in the game.

Arcane Warding. This essentially gives you Legendary Resistance once per day, but only against spells. I like it, honestly, and it’s kind of a subtle way to reinforce the idea that this class is meant to be in the front lines, taking hits.

Pierce the Veil. Part of me really likes the idea presented here. You’re literally able to see through the veil of magic, allowing you to see through the Seeming spell, and giving you the ability to see invisible creatures and objects. It even lets you know what this stuff looks like to you, which is the kind of subtle flavor text that I love.

HOWEVER, the wording of this feature makes it RIPE for exploitation. It allows you to see if something has been changed due to magic, but isn’t clear if that must be due to illusion or if you can see a polymorphed creature’s true form, or the true form of someone under the effects of alter self. Also, the wording regarding invisibility doesn’t specifically state whether or not it only functions against magical invisibility, or if it also affects creatures that are naturally invisible, or whether it affects creatures like Water Elementals that become invisible in water, which is something that just naturally happens when you put water in more water.

Overall, it’s a very cool feature that needs some clarification.

Arcane Savant. With this feature, your Intelligence checks will never have a result less than your Intelligence Score, which probably means that they’ll always be at least 20. Cool ability, and appropriate for its level, I think.

Swordmage Aegis’

The two aegis’ are the Aegis of Assault and the Aegis of Shielding.

Assault

Assault swordmages focus on offense over defense, which could make them quite breakable with that d8 hit die.

Arcane Might. This gives you proficiency and, potentially, expertise with the Athletics skill, as well as proficiency with glaives and greatswords. This is why I think the Swordmage Warding earlier should have been replaced with a Fighting Style. Now, you have a swordmage who has to decide between either smashing stuff and getting hit all the time due to a lower AC, or one that is betraying its aegis by choosing a lesser weapon in order to gain more AC.

Oh, and the expertise should come with the proficiency in Athletics, regardless.

Rune-Mark of Assault. This is actually a really nice translation of a 4e-specific concept into the 5e system. Specifically, we’re talking about the concept of marking. In 4e, marking an enemy was a nebulous concept that some classes could use to gain special benefits. In 5e, everything’s a bit more visual and specific, so marking is relegated to an optional rule. This feature, though strikes a nice balance, making the rune-mark a physical mark that you hex onto an enemy. It’s something that you can see, and that lets everyone know within the game world what’s going on.

In terms of what it does, the mark of assault lets you opportunity attack the creature a whole bunch of times and gives you advantage on those attacks. It also lets you teleport to them for free if they decide to attack your allies. In other words, it encourages them to either engage you or run away, because engaging an enemy calls down the wrath. Good stuff, even if I’m not a fan of low-energy teleportation.

Lashing Shield. This feature allows you to create a damaging elemental aura for one minute. On a superficial level, it’s technically tied to your Swordmage Ward, but it could be disconnected and made its own feature without it. Overall, I’m conflicted on it. On the one hand, it feels a bit under-powered. It deals up to 5 damage each round to creatures within 5 feet of you. However, it’s at the start of your turn, meaning that you basically have to rely on enemies to stay near you during their turn in order to gain the benefit. It also only lasts a minute, requires a rest to recharge, and requires concentration. That’s a whole lot of under-powered for 7th level. However, 7th level is also supposed to be around the time when your class should be getting non-combat powers.

Overall, it just falls a little flat.

Eldritch Speed. This increases your speed and gives you an Int bonus on Initiative, officially negating any real use for Dexterity and confirming my work-out-nerds concept I proposed earlier. It’s also significantly underwhelming for an 11th-level feature.

Intelligent Blademaster. With this feature, you gain a small force bonus to damage once per round and you can allow your allies to stand near you when using Lashing Shield by targeting specific creatures. This feels like too little too late. Especially when you’re giving a mediocre boost to an already-mediocre ability from 8 levels ago.

Eldritch Blade. Hooray! You can cast spells and attack in the same turn at 20th level. This feels lukewarm, honestly. Why give such a core spellsword feature at a level that most people will never play?

Shielding

If assault swordmages are strikers, then shielding swordmages are tanks. They focus on defense and protection of others. I also love it WAY more than the assault swordmage.

Arcane Fortitude. What assaults gain for Athletics, shields gain for Survival. Again, the expertise should come with the power, not be a bonus if you already spend a skill choice on it. In addition, you get a small bonus to HP and d10 hit dice. Nice. WAY better than a couple of questionable weapon proficiencies.

Rune-Mark of Shielding. Same deal as its cousin, except this time, instead of teleporting to the enemy, you impose disadvantage on their attack. It’s arguably less cool, but my verisimilitude prefers this one.

Channeled Shield. This one’s…interesting. First of all, it allows you to reduce damage on an ally as a reaction, which is cool. But then it also conveys the idea that the ward you create absorbs the damage and allows you to unleash it with your next attack. That’s pretty cool. The flavor of the feature isn’t explicitly stated, however, and its wording makes the two aspects of the feature feel disconnected, which makes the overall feature feel weird.

Arcane Resilience. This feature gives you free temporary hit points whenever you finish a long rest. No complaints from me. One could argue that it might be a little weak for level 11, but I’ve come to expect that at this point.

Improved Swordmage Warding. +1 AC and minor reduced damage once per rest at 15th level is a little weak-sauce for my blood. It’s following the pattern, though, of its cousin subclass.

Weaver of the Weave. Other than having possibly the worst name for a class feature I’ve ever read, it’s okay. Giving your allies temporary hit points whenever you cast a spell is nice, but I’m pretty sure the Abjurer wizard gets something similar at 2nd level.

Spell List and New Spells

This is where I’m going to be more general for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s because there are 53 new spells presented in this document, and analyzing all of them would push this review’s word count WAY higher than I intended it to be (I’m already almost a thousand words over my goal).

In general, though, a big chunk of them are “hit it with my sword and magic happens” spells, and they’re almost, if not entirely, spells drawn from the swordmage’s power list in 4e. The problem I have here is that these sorts of spells feel unnecessary outside of 4e’s “special power” based system. In 4e, it was thematically appropriate for each class to have its own list of spells that all suited its particular shtick. In the swordmage’s case, the shtick was “hit it and magic happens.” However, I think that 5e is a good enough system that you can instead go the “Arcane Channeling/Spellstrike” route, where instead of having a slew of spells that are custom-made for the swordmage, you could have just given them a feature that allows them to use spells in conjunction with spell attacks. Now, don’t get me wrong, some of these are very cool. Burning Path causes a creature to shed a path of fire that you can instantly follow in order to catch up with them and deliver a strike. Lightning Strider turns you into a bouncing bolt of lightning that hits multiple foes before running out of juice. However, many of these are simply too wordy, and follow an unnecessary spell-path that was originally set up by Greenflame Blade in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. You make an attack as part of the spell and then magic happens. The problem I view is that the game already had a system set up whereby you could get cool spell effects with your attacks: the Smite spells for the paladin. They simply affect your next attack, and maintain their effects until you actually hit something. With these, if you miss with Shadow Snake Strike, that’s it. You miss. The spell fails. You’re out a 2nd level spell slot.

Conclusion

The swordmage is a well-made class. Even if most of it was ripped directly from the 4e swordmage, the fact that Juan Marcano took it one step further and successfully transplanted all that meat onto a 5th edition skeleton proves that he definitely has the chops to continue making good work. For anyone who just wants a spellsword that isn’t the eldritch knight for their games—perhaps something with a little more mystique to it and some unique flavor, then this class is definitely worth your dollar. And if you’re actually looking for a legitimate update to the 4th edition swordmage class, then look no further, because this is about as good as it could get. Everything is here, and more.

However, for me? This isn’t the class I was looking for. While the swordmage is well-crafted, it’s not all that exciting. It’s a class that is going to have a really fun time up until around 8th level, at which point the excitement is going to slow down IMMENSELY. You’ll still keep getting features at a regular pace, but nothing you get is ever going to be as cool or interesting as those first few features. The Rune-Marks are incredibly-well implemented, Elemental Acuity is very cool, and some of the new spells are real keepers. However, the class just starts to feel tired as it increases in level, nothing past level 7 really wowed me or made me want to play a swordmage. Combine that with the wonky level-up progression that eschews some of 5th edition’s most hard-and-fast design mechanics, and you’ve got a class that simply falls JUST short of the mark.

Overall, I’d let my players take on the mantle of a swordmage, but it’s definitely not anything that’s going to get me out from behind the screen. I’m not sad that I spent a dollar on it, and I encourage you to support Juan Marcano if you’re at all interested. I look forward to reviewing more of his work in the future.

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