The “gish” has been a very loved character concept for decades in Dungeons and Dragons. What’s a gish, you might be asking? It’s a fan term used to describe D&D characters who wield both magic and martial prowess in equal tandem. That is, it’s a fighter that also does magic stuff. Or a wizard that also does weapon stuff. Both, really. The term gish comes from the D&D race of the githyanki, and gish is their word for such an individual. More common terms which you might see in video games and other fantasy works include battlemage, spellsword, spellblade, and warmage.
What sucks is that, currently, 5th edition doesn’t quite represent this much-loved archetype. There are attempts at it; the eldritch knight is a fighter that gets access to a few spells and cantrips, but it still feels overly martial. The bladesinger is a wizard that learns how to use a sword, but it still suffers from low damage die and feels overly arcane. Blade pact warlocks get some magic and swordplay as well, but the class is still too focused on eldritch blast to feel like a proper swordmage and, like the bladesinger, isn’t very resilient. Arcane tricksters are too roguish and carry too much baggage with their base class, and like eldritch knights just aren’t magical enough. A swordmage should float right in the middle; properly both martial and arcane in equal amounts and able to blend the two together seamlessly.
5th edition does have a class that feels this way already. The paladin, which gets access to a fighting style and good survivability while simultaneously putting out cool magic effects and being able to cast useful spells. The problem is that the paladin is a divine caster; they received their powers from a god or a divine oath. They aren’t wielding arcane magic as a proper swordmage would. And that’s an important distinction for most players. Sure, you could just refluff a paladin into an arcane caster if you worked with your DM: smite does force damage now, you don’t have an oath anymore but just get spells based on the mechanical choice you made, etc. And if you wanted to do that then all power to you. But I, and many others, want to see something different.
So an arcane 1/2 caster is a common homebrew you see floating around the Internet. “Half caster,” by the way, is a term used to describe the two classes in 5e (paladin and ranger) that have access up to 5th level spells and get no cantrips, but do receive fighting styles and extra attack. There are various attempts at the archetype; some add additional resources (like how sorcery points or ki points work) to allow them to perform various abilities. Some add cantrips, simply because the cantrips from Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide are so flavorful and built to be used by the existing “gish” classes. Most of these I feel don’t quite hit the mark, and alter the way 1/2 casters work too much to be really proper. And I really really like swordmages/spellswords/battlemages/whatever the hell you wanna call them. It is easily my favorite character concept. If I were sucked into the Forgotten Realms I’d either want to be one of those…. or an artificer because science.
So here’s my own attempt at an arcane 1/2 caster.
The class takes a lot from 4th edition’s swordmage class, including the name (clearly), the strong weapon bond, and two of the archetypes receive abilities directly based on swordmage abilities in 4e. But it’s also something a bit new, and borrows some mechanics from the magus class of Pathfinder (which is that system’s own “gish”). While designing it, I tried to keep it similar to the paladin while also being different. Instead of the ability to sense divine beings and undead, the swordmage can sense the presence of magic. Instead of getting smite the swordmage can infuse their weapon with arcane power for extended periods, and channel the strength of full-powered spells through weapon strikes.
The three archetypes presented are designed to reflect the ways I feel a weapon-bonding arcane fighter would choose to focus their abilities.
The battlemage is the heavy-armored battle wizard. They are designed to take punishment and simultaneously dish it out with spell-and-swordplay, and can help their allies by making an enemy more inclined to attack them.
The spellsword is more a lightly armored skirmishes, and more focused on hitting with arcanely-powered sword strikes. They are better able to strike spells into a target and can momentarily teleport to take advantage of an opponent’s openings.
The third archetype, the eldritch archer, can do many of the things that other swordmages can do but at a longer range. Arcane Archer is coming out as an official class in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, but for now I feel that my own “magic archer” archetype will differ enough from the fighter archetype Wizards is releasing to justify its existence.
Anything I release through Geeks New England for D&D will be available completely for free, though you can donate to any project I upload at the “pay what you want” price on DMsGuild if you’d like. I prefer DMsGuild for one simple reason; it lets me see how many people like the product, how many have downloaded it, and gives you (the customer) easy tools to rate and critique it. But if you dislike DMsGuild for one reason or another, feel free to download from any other provider.
Version 1.8 21Feb2018
- Added shield proficiency to the third level feature, helping with overall tankiness for the tank-based subclass.
- Changed the wording of various features to reference “ammunition” rather than “arrows.” Crossbows exist, too! Arcane Arrows has been changed to Arcane Ammo as a result.
- Changed the phrasing of Phasing Shot, and it can now work with any kind of ammo (not just your Arcane Ammo).
- Changed the name of the Counterstrike feature to the Arcane Counter feature.
Version 1.7 18Jan2018
- Fixed a few spelling errors.
- Added a line to the “Increased Casting Range” and “Long-Range Casting” features to establish they have to be used with a ranged weapon. I mean; obvious maybe, but just a small QoL thing.
Version 1.6 13Nov2017
- Added a few spells from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.
- Included a line in the Increased Casting Range and Long-Range Casting features, specifying that you must be wielding your bonded weapon to use them. In effect, the fluffy idea is that you are casting the spells by firing your bow with a special arrow, thus increasing the range of the spell. But, you can only do this with your bonded weapon, pushing the idea that the bonded weapon (cause it’s just so special).
Version 1.5 02Nov2017
- Closed a loophole in the Spell Strike feature. As written it would have technically allowed the swordmage to use a cantrip for the feature. Now written to establish that the swordmage has to use a spell of 1st level or higher.
Version 1.4 27Oct2017
- Updated PDF with proper credits.
Version 1.3 20Oct2017
- After a lot of critiquing, it’s available.