Spicing Up Your Class Features

There are a lot of mechanics in Dungeons & Dragons that do not have much flavor to them, but when given the right amount can completely change how the game is perceived and played by those at the table. My experiences detailed here all relate to 4th Edition D&D, but the ideas can easily apply to any RPG that’s out there. I first started to realize that something magical could be done with the 4E class features at GenCon last year while playing in a delve run by Jeremy Crawford. I sat next to Jared from Head Injury Theater who picked the WotC pregenerated warden and I picked the pregen druid, but quickly we realized that I’d need a mini to represent my druid’s wild shape form.

Jared, for reasons that are entirely his own, had a perfectly sized and hilarious looking Pokemon toy (pictured) that he offered to me and it was quickly dubbed the “Shmoo”. The hilarious image of a giant Pokemon running at incredible speeds through the dungeon, combined with my impromptu penchant for yelling “SHMOO!” whenever my druid took any actions, quickly made this a memorable session. It hadn’t really struck me at the time that the unique flavor given to my character’s standard wild shape ability is what made things that much more interesting. On top of that, I took note that Jared had latched onto the snowy white coloring of his character’s portrait and had built the entire feel of his character around it – whenever his warden marked a target he described handing the creatures a snowy white rose. This simple, entirely visual element added to his character’s mark introduced a world of detail about the character.

More recently, I’ve started playing occasionally in an Eberron game run by E the Geek’s Dream Girl and I decided to try this idea out again. My character is a Xen’drik drow warlock following the dark pact, and as such I’ve decided that any creature under the effects of my warlock’s curse is covered in small, shadowy spiders that don’t harm them until an attack of mine hits them. On top of that, when a cursed creature is killed my character gains the effects of the dark spiral aura pact boon, at which point the shadowy spiders drain the body’s soul and proceed to slowly saunter back to me as fattened and lazy shadow spiders. Sure the effect is slightly goofy, humorous, and a little bit grotesque but I figure those are good feelings for my warlock to inspire. The additional effects that I did not anticipate is that this makes my warlock’s curse class feature feel a lot more unique and gives it more of a presence in each encounter, and that now if I need to flavor any of his other powers I have a solid grounding in the game to base them on as long as they include shadowy spiders and a flair of the grotesque!

Almost every class in 4th Edition has a defining feature that is used regularly and lacks a good amount of detail to really define it – the defender’s mark, the striker’s quarry or curse, and the leader’s healing. I’ve found that many players who have a leader character have already started to define the healing in a unique and descriptive way, most likely because this ability is typically used on other player’s characters and is a much more personal interaction than those between the PCs and monsters. My proposal is that the next game of 4th Edition that you play in try to spice up your character’s abilities in a similar manner. If you’re playing a fighter try carving a letter into the clothing or fur/skin of each creature you mark, or if you’re playing a swordmage have arcane chains secure around the target of your aegis that tighten when it attempts to attack anyone but you. This philosophy can go well beyond simple class features to race benefits and paragon paths, but I feel the basic class features are the elements that are the most lacking in flavor and are the most used in the average D&D game.

I’d love to hear about any other unique interpretations for game effects that people have experienced or implemented, and of course if you try this out please let me know how it works out!

Comments

  1. For my paladin of the Raven Queen, I described a large, shadowy raven sitting on his shoulder at the start of combat. When I used my divine challenge, the raven flew to the target, ready to strike if the target attacked anyone but me. Divine sanction was smaller ravens keeping watch.

  2. That’s great advice! Taking the rules of 4E and weaving your own description around them is one of the great strengths of the system.

  3. Chronosome says:

    Very inspirational — thank ya!

  4. Shilling says:

    When I run 4E I ask each player to describe in detail each power the first time they use them and each time they kill an enemy with one. This goes especially with magic user classes.

    The exact flavour mechanics of powers can also help define the atmosphere and tone of a campaign. I like magic to be invisible, felt rather than seen – so a magic missile, for instance, would give all observers a sense of movement between the caster and target, then the target would feel sudden pain and impact even though there appears to be nothing there. A more high fantasy setting might have magic missiles that look like fireworks.

    The dissociation of powers from real actions was a bad mistake by WotC, but it can be rectified with creativity round the table.

  5. This is right up my alley. I love reflavoring powers of all kinds (those that need them).

    (1) Ranger: instead of arrows, he fights with javelins. He uses the stats for the bow, so no mechanical rules are broken, but it’s reflavored as a javelin. It’s what he’s known for, “Did you see how far he threw that?”

    (2) Swordmage: According to his powers, he occasionally gets to teleport. However, it’s reflavored as him simply being able to jump very far/high (he’s an athletic type).

    (3) Paladin: For his mark, he says a prayer to Bahamut, one that the target can hear. The player actually has about 10 different prayers that he uses. It’s kind of cool.

    -Tourq

  6. As a GM, I tend towards the more creative aspects of powers. Just as this article can help with creating memorable characters, it can also be used to give a lot of flavor to creatures that have been modified with monster themes.
    As a player, I love throwing in flavorful descriptions of my attacks and powers. My tiefling invoker, Damakos follower of Silvanus, is famous for charging into the middle of mass undead and spinning in a rapid circle. As his gaze passes undead his demon-born fury at the corruption of natural cycle flashes out and strikes at them, striking at them. (Rebuke Undead)… Any that manage to hit him on their turn get a glare of defiance which enforces the demonic/divine strike (Infernal Wrath).

  7. DM_Binthar says:

    Great advice! Really inspiring!, both for players and DMs. I’ll give it a try but I’m sure it’s gonna grasp my whole group.
    Thank you!

  8. @Shilling, I don’t think that it was a bad mistake to not include these touches of flavor, I think it was the best possible thing. When everyone’s mark, or cure light wounds is the same, it gets kind of boring. Players in my game have really noticed the difference in flavor of playing a leader now, compared to playing a cleric in other editions. “Get up, maggot!” is a much cooler way to revive someone than “Cure Light Wounds”.

    I do, however, wish that they emphasized more that player’s should be doing that.

    @Tourq – For fun one time, I ran a one shot using the 4e rules but in a modern fantasy setting. You’d be amazed at how well a ranger turns into a pistolero, or a paladin becomes a vampire.

  9. This is absolutely coated with genius. Every time I marvel at my own creativity and think-out-of-the-box-itude, I read an article like this and realize I’m just a big old dope. “But that’s not in the GAME!” is my instinct, which is just as sad as it is whiny. I love the warlock’s curse as shadow spiders and the swordmage’s aegis as tightening chains, I love the shadow raven on the paladin’s shoulder and the javelin flinging ranger. How crazy evocative.

    It’s never been about what you can’t do, but what you CAN. I need to start living in that “say yes” space.

  10. For my fire-loving wizard, I opted to take the Enchant Magic Item ritual. Every time she enchants something for herself or another party member, I write a desciption of her sitting around the camp fire, meditating until the ritual has reached completion before tossing the requist gold into the fire and adding the item to be enchanted to the flames. These items come out with a description that includes some feel of fire. For her Shimmering Robes, they appear in shades of fiery red. For Screaming Armor, there were smokey swirls visible in the armor.

  11. @Dixon: if you think about it, “But that’s not in the GAME!” is right in a sense, and that’s the beauty of this. You’re adding to the game through your own description. That, to me, is one of the strengths of 4E, that you can add to the game in so many ways, to tell a story with unique flavor.

  12. Namtaws says:

    In the current 4e game I am playing in my chain smoking warlock uses his cigarettes as a focus and the smoke is what delivers his powers. I try to describe the smoke as it travels into enemies eyes or ears gripping them in fear….muhaaaaaa!

  13. I like this idea, but I’m having a hard time coming up with one for my archer ranger (and his Hunter’s Quarry). The goofy one (that we always joke about in the group) is a giant red arrow over the target’s head. But I want something more serious and “elfie”. I thought about an aura that surrounds him and his quarry, or having both their eyes turn solid black. But in honest I don’t picture his quarry being anything mystical. Maybe it should just be, “I lock eyes with him for a second and mark him as my next quarry”.

    Any ideas?

  14. @Theo: Depending on how persnickety your DM gets about resource management, what about this: Almost faster than the eye can follow, I loose an arrow, sinking it at my quarry’s feet up to its fletching. The creature jumps in surprise, and as it meets eyes with me, I say in elvish, ‘O eisi toli, shor.’

    The initial shot is to get the quarry’s attention, and makes for a nice cinematic moment. It should have some fancy effect, like buzzing by the ear, thwanging off the helmet, etc. The elvish phrase means, “You are mine, [unflattering term].”

  15. @Dixon: Cool idea. I actually have an infinite quiver (or whatever it’s called now) that constantly replenishes with all the arrows that other archers around the world have lost. So arrow supply is not an issue for me. I like the idea of it being something different (I nick him, bounce off his helm, etc.) with each shot. Thanks.

    So what elvish is that? Tolkeen?

  16. I rather like the paint-ball idea for marking enemies 🙂 This was something my wife tried with her fighter’s Combat Challenge after having read this article.
    She actually threw a ball of dye at her targets, and literally marked them…

  17. Great article, I’m glad someone else does this too.

    For my Ardent, I have a psionic echo of a hawk that flys around me and when I hit a monster, I command it to fly to an ally and form a psychic barrier (temp HP) or to infuse them with psychic energy allowing them to make a saving throw.

  18. Thanks for all the great comments, glad you all like this so much and definitely glad I shared it!

    Theo: I actually almost included a Ranger Hunter’s Quarry example in the post – the example I thought of was a ranger that throws a bag/sack of ash at it’s quarry which literally marks them (much like the paint ball idea) and also distracts them some which can account for the bonus quarry damage. For me as a DM, if a player did this and wanted to take a homebrew feat that added some in game effects related to the ash, I’d be all for it! Another suggestion is just shooting the target with an arrow to mark them as your quarry – just say it hits them in a not-so-painful spot and doesn’t do any damage to them at the time, but they slowly bleed the more you shoot them (again, the quarry damage) or with a melee/2 handed ranger throwing an axe or javelin into an enemy works as well, so long as you can get passed the logic-hurdle of “why isn’t this doing immediate damage” it ends up being a very physical indication of which monster you’ve designated as your quarry, and that’s what I go for usually.

  19. My archer-ranger is a beast-master (or whatever it’s called) and there’s not a lot of ways for the beast companion to do much for an archer (other than be a speed bump). Since the quarry can be the closest target to the companion (and I usually that to Control my target some), I’m thinking my quarry-effect might be the cat companion slashing the target:

    “Hathel [my cat] runs up to the giant and slashes at its leg, leaving a deep gash and marking him as my quarry.”

    On the occasional time when my quarry isn’t by my cat I can mix it up with marking arrow, etc.

  20. I was looking forward to return from my vacation and read that piece Bartoneus. It didn’t disappoint! I too agree that the sheer liberty to screw around with the fluff of 4e can lead to awesome descriptives that make this very crunchy game an extra layer that brings the experience to a new level that I adore.

    As a seldom player, I got to touch some of that in playing a Drow warlock too in the 1st D&D encounter scenario where I decided to act as a washed up hustler trying to return home in the Underdark to die.

    Great piece my friend! See you in 2 weeks.

  21. I do something like this with the somewhat-insane halfling sorcerer I’m currently playing. I simply renamed all his powers after Mythbusters episodes.

    Firing a Chicken Gun at will is a bit more evocative than a “Chaos Bolt”. Everyone at the table now knows what it means when I yell “CHICKEN!” and throw some dice. Incoming psychic chicken, eat that, bad guy!

    It started by accident at character creation when I started to tell my wife “I think for my encounter power I’ll take Explosive Pyre” and she interrupted the last word with “YOU’RE TAKING EXPLODING PANTS?!?”

    I figured the only reasonable response was “Yes. Yes, I am.”

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