Friday, December 23, 2022

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

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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.

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