Friday, December 23, 2022

3E OdditE: Archive

I think I've gone on record enough by now, talking about how I grew up on 3rd edition D&D. I've never actually played much of it or Pathfinder 1E, but it's the ruleset I spent the most time with, and through which I discovered my fondness for the character building process. But I don't have any illusions that 3E wasn't an extremely lopsided system prone to bloat and breakage.

It was, or at least tried to be, granular and simulationist with certain facets of play, mostly combat. But it was pretty abstract and vague in a lot of other areas. Or, where hard numbers were given, it's apparent they weren't given the greatest scrutiny during playtesting- a few examples are economics, item weights, and the way the skill system tends to get out of hand and devolve into big dumb numbers (dumbers, if you will) at medium-to-high levels.

In my opinion the biggest gulf in direction, ambition, and quality exists in prestige classes published in core, splatbooks, and the Dragon or more rarely Dungeon magazines. They brought a flavor of player character jank to the biggest tabletop RPG on the market that hadn't really existed outside of the smaller d100 market before then, to my knowledge. Don't get me wrong, I know 2E AD&D kits could be wild sometimes. But you were typically limited to one at a time back then, whereas 3E players were mechanically incentivized to cherry-pick levels from a huge range of base and prestige classes to get the kind of character they wanted, as long as they met qualifications and the table allowed it.

This system and design philosophy allowed prestige classes to be hyper-focused in terms of flavor and abilities, to the point that many were considered really only for use by NPCs, which were built the exact same way as PCs. But PCs could still use them if they were on the table. There was nothing stopping them from tearing open those flavor packets and dumping some or all of their contents into the gooey mélange that was their character gumbo, except maybe the knowledge that it wasn't necessarily a good idea to do so.

All of this is rambling preamble to me exploring some of the quirkiest character options 3E had to offer, dealing mostly but not exclusively with PrCs published through splats and Drag Mag. I know for a fact that dozens, probably hundreds of other people have already written similar-but-better things across blogs and message boards over the past two decades, but it seems fun.

I don't mean to rag on any particular creation for its failings, except in instances where I very clearly am trying to trash something into oblivion. But otherwise, I love and celebrate this kinda junk. It was a weird, new time for writing player-facing material, and it wasn't an easy job.

I'll be pulling most of my information from the "complete" edit of the 3.5E SRD, or by digging into my old collections of books when the material hasn't been added yet. When possible I'll just link to the entry and make reference to it, and if you want to you can read along, to save space reposting entire tables or other minutia word-for-word.

OdditE's so far:

Official Splatbooks

Ambient Tempest (Bestiary of Krynn, 2004)

Hexer (Masters of the Wild, 2002)

Dragon/Dungeon Magazines

Branch Dancer (Dragon #310)

Githyanki Prestige Classes (Dungeon #100)

Urban Druid (Dragon 317/Dragon Compendium)

3E OdditE: Branch Dancer (Dragon #310, August 2003)

Click here to return to the OdditE archive.

Branch Dancer

The Branch Dancer feels like a logical conclusion of the shallow, "tree-hugging" elf stereotype that D&D products regularly dip in and out of, though notably the class isn't limited to elves or half-elves. You just have to be non-evil, possess a handful of low skill and feat requisites, prove your arboreal heroism to a treant, and get another Branch Dancer to train you.

The Branch Dancer is a 5-level prestige class written by Michael Merls and/or Jeff Quick in the "Rogue and Dagger" section of Dragon #310. It's a class that wants to be a woodland warrior who has grown so close to the forest's trees that they can use them defensively and offensively. The cinematic potential for this is obvious; dodging in between tree trunks to avoid blows, ambushing invaders from the safety of boughs and canopies, knocking someone flat with a wound-up sapling like it's a slapstick skit, etc.

A demonstration by Belkar, of all people.

But in its execution, it uses one of the inexplicably funniest sentences I've ever read in D&D:

"The character essentially gains "tree" as an exotic weapon proficiency."

That line comes from the 1st level ability Branch Fighting (Ex), which does exactly what it says. It lets you use branches as 1d8 damage weapons or double weapons while you're within 5 feet of a tree. At 4th level they go up to 1d10 and count as +1 weapons. Notably, these are branches still attached to the tree- not broken off.

The ability accomplishes what the class sets out to do, but it does so in a way that highlights the goofy steps you have to take to conform to 3E's rules in order to make things work, while still leaving frustrating holes elsewhere for you to interpret. By RAW, you only need to be next to a living tree, but it doesn't say anything about tree size or reach, so that redwood or Vallenwood tree serves perfectly well even if you're standing hundreds of feet below its actual branches. Branch Fighting also grants cover, which means even a sapling is potentially as good as a tower shield.

All of the class' other abilities are similarly tree-reliant. They can speak to trees, spider climb across wooden surfaces like a 10th-level sorcerer, and tree stride as a 9th-level druid, though they can only use each of these twice a day. Developers were leery of giving martial characters "too many" magical or supernatural abilities up until very late in 3rd edition, and it's illustrated here.

I don't know if that feeling was felt by most writers involved with D&D at the time, or if it was something only shared by the editors and project leads who had final say in the matter. I should look into that. Regardless, if the dancer could do all of those at-will they'd fill their modest niche pretty well. But outside of those minute-long increments they feel a little like a ranger deprived of their favored terrain- and most of their other class features.

An unexpected break from this trend can be found in the 3rd level ability Skill Mastery (Ex). It's an extremely simple ability that lets the dancer Take 10 on any climb, balance, jump, move silently, or survival check regardless of circumstances, even when distracted or in danger. It's... not amazing, but just kinda nice to have? You get it much earlier than a rogue would have the opportunity to select their own version of Skill Mastery, and it would be nice if more mundane characters got something similar early on. Or maybe it would have only caused the skill optimization dumbers game to be that much worse for half a decade. Who knows?

One other ability I want to focus on is Instant Fletching (Su). At 2nd level the dancer gains the ability to magically pluck wooden arrows from trees as a free action like they're giant free-range quivers. The arrows are normal in all respects, can be hoarded because unlike similar abilities they don't have a limited duration, and also they upgrade to +1 at 4th level. But it's the back half of the ability's text that interests me:

"Each 20 arrows drawn from a tree reduces its age by one year. Trees generally do not mind this, but the ability can kill a sapling or weaken a young tree with repeated use, so it is generally reserved for mature trees (usually of Huge size or larger)."

It doesn't reduce a tree's lifespan by 1 year, it de-ages it. That's an effect that is pretty rare across 3E rules outside of higher-level magic spells. Sure, it only affects trees, but there are still so many unintended implications and possibilities opened up by this weird wording.

Imagine a dancer pulling a functionally infinite number of arrows out of the forest and giving them to the surrounding communities as a more sustainable source of not just arrows, but everything else a bunch of feet-long wooden sticks can be made into. Trees that bloom or bear fruit only once every few years could be made to provide them regularly, meaning a deep forest village could survive entirely on silviculture as long as the local fey are permissive. Some ancient magical tree somewhere could be reaching the end of its lifespan, and only a group of branch dancers can revitalize it to avert a local catastrophe. Etc. What starts as a bit of shenanigans could ultimately lead to some real emergent gameplay.

The Branch Dancer is not a strong class, not even within the niche it aspires to. It probably is best left as an "NPC PrC", or maybe as a thematic quest reward at the end of a character arc. But it's still interesting to look at and think about. And I think that might be what really matters in the end- it gives me something to write about here, after all.