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.
Version 3.0 29Nov2018
- The overall document has been updated, including a new title page to conform to the Arcane Athenæum’s new style.
- Added guiding bolt and conjure volley to the spell list.
- Removed the spells expeditious retreat and freedom of movement from the spell list. This was due to the decision to make them bonus spells for the spellsword subclass, as they were originally added to the spell list for that subclass anyway.
- All three subclasses have received a set of bonus spells as part of their features. When you look at existing half-casters in 5e, you have the paladin (where each oath gets bonus spells) and the new ranger subclasses from Xanathar’s, which also get bonus spells. Following this logic, half-casters should get bonus spells as part of their features, hence the change. The chosen spells are designed with the intended playstyle of the subclass in mind; battlemages get spells which help them protect and defend their allies, eldritch archers get a lot of ranger-like spells which give them more options with things like ammunition and quivers, and spellswords get spells which let them move around quickly and more easily, cementing their role as skirmishers.
- The Arcane Ammunition feature has been altered, so that the ammunition created does not count as magical. This was done for three reasons. 1) It was too easy to gain “free” magical damage at such a low level, which generally shouldn’t get so quick to come by. 2) Swordmages can make their attacks magical already with their Arcane Infusion feature, which at least costs a resource to use. This also makes Arcane Infusion slightly more important/valuable, as it was designed to be, as you’ll need to use it to get that magic damage. 3) Most of the new bonus spells that eldritch archers get require that they be used with ammunition that isn’t magical. This change thus allows one to use an Arcane Ammunition for the casting of that spell. Note that the ability to conjure a piece of ammunition is still, itself, magical, so you cannot create a piece of ammunition in an anti-magic field (and one that passed into an anti-magic field would be destroyed). Magic still creates the ammunition and keeps it around; it just doesn’t impart “magical” damage.
- The Arcane Beacon feature has been improved. Now, it can be used on arcane ammunition as well as other pieces of ammunition. The overall wording of the feature has also been changed to be cleaner and, hopefully, work a bit better.
Version 2.1 07Jun2018
- Equipment options mistakenly listed “studded leather armor” instead of “leather armor.” No class, at least to my knowledge, should start with studded leather.
Version 2.0 23May2018
Special thanks to Peter Sherwood for helping me develop these most recent changes to improve the class. version 2.0 because this does fundamentally change a lot of the subclasses, and alters some features at higher levels.
- Changed the name of the “Weapon Bond” feature to “Swordmage Bond.” Though it is very similar to the Eldritch Knight’s “Weapon Bond,” there are some key differences which I believe necessitates altering the name, since it’s not the exact same feature. This does mean that an EK/Swordmage multiclass can bond to three weapons as the features are different, but I’m comfortable with that; only the weapon chosen for the Swordmage Bond gets to use the Swordmage’s features.
- Added the “Protection Fighting Style” to the “Fighting Style” options, since Battlemages now get shield proficiency. Yes, there is a single level (2) where you’ll have the Protection style but no proficiency with a shield. Not quite as clean as it could be, but hopefully no one is sitting at 2nd level for very long (I always advocate starting new campaigns at 3rd level anyway).
- Changed the time a weapon can be infused *back* to 10 minutes. 1 hour provided too much freedom to infuse and then be able to use that single infusion for multiple combats, which messed with the resource usage. Reducing this to 10 minutes means the Swordmage can’t just “infuse and forget”. For most this likely won’t be much of a change, since most people aren’t having multiple combats an hour, and you can still sheath your weapon and keep it infused during a situation where you will be facing multiple enemies in a short time frame (it’s still “being carried” afterall).
- Magic Ward now requires you to be wielding your bonded weapon to benefit from it. Again, an ability that probably won’t actually cause too many changes, but prevents some weird situations.
- The “Empowered Infusion” feature has been changed to “Empowered Spell Strike.” After some deliberation, it was decided that the potential +10 damage at these higher levels was so good as to be *too* good, and projections showed that it was just doing too much damage. Instead, the class now gets to improve its Spell Strikes by rerolling the spell’s dice, similar to the Sorcerer’s Empowered Spell metamagic. This is one change I’ll be keeping a close eye on for feedback.
- Added a number of spells to the class’s spell list; sleep, magic missile, witch bolt (this is actually kinda okayish now for an Eldritch Archer), fairie fire, hold person, Nystul’s magic aura, vampiric touch, and blight. These are all flavorful, and provide some more useful options for spell strike. *Bestow curse*, however, has been removed as the flavor of the class didn’t quite match with its effects (but honestly, if your DM decides they like that spell there, I’m not going to show up at your house and tell you that you aren’t allowed to use it).
The Battlemage is meant to be a tanky spellcaster first and foremost; heavy armor and the Swordmage’s martial training allows them to wade into combat in a way that your average wizard can’t, and they are meant to be the most spell-focused subclass. This change attempts to push that last part harder.
- Changed the “Heavy Armor Proficiency” feature to the “Studied Soldier” feature. This still provides the same bonus of heavy armor and shield proficency, but in addition allows a Battlemage to pick from the Swordmage spell list OR the Wizard spell list when gaining a new spell or re-learning a spell. Inspired by the Divine Soul Sorcerer as precedent. In practice, I believe every Swordmage spell *is* a Wizard spell, but this increases the Battlemage’s options for more utility and allows me to keep the Swordmage spell list relatively short. Battlemages get much fewer spells than Wizards and don’t have a spellbook, so the ability to choose from a much larger pool of spells is limited by the fact that the Battlemage only gets so many to begin with. They also only get up to 5th level, so many of the really really powerful Wizard spells remain out of reach. I believe this keeps the feature perfectly balanced, as all things should be.
The original Eldritch Archer concept was a long-rage spell sniper, but the way its features worked with each other were quite boring (“Yay I’m level 15 now! I get to… cast spells from even farther off the battlemap. Neat, I guess…”). These altered features make it a more effective sniper and give it a few more tricks, both in-combat and out.
- “Arcane Ammo” is now “Arcane Ammunition.” Otherwise identical.
- The “Long-Range Casting” feature for the subclass has been replaced. It’s effects have now been rolled into the “Increased Casting Range” feature, which improves at lvl 15 to be the weapon’s long range. I think a majority of players and DMs will agree that combat rarely occurs at such increased ranges, and so this doesn’t throw off balance, but if this ends up being a major issue I will either just remove the “long-range casting” altogether and cap the feature at normal weapon range (which is still a boon for many spells), OR make the feature the weapon’s long range from the get-go, so that every spell benefits from it. Feedback as always is helpful here.
- “Arcane Beacon” has been changed due to the new lvl 15 feature for the Eldritch Archer. Now, instead of granting advantage the beacon can be used as a mini-scrying spell. This provides no direct combat bonus, but instead the Eldritch Archer gets a strong utility spell which allows it to take full advantage of features like its “Phasing Shot” and even its increased casting range. The ammo can be set up to provide sight for the Eldritch Archer, meaning more potential angles to “Phasing Shot” from, scouting, etc.
- The new 15th level feature is “Eldritch Accuracy,” which allows you to temporarily convert your “Arcane Infusion” from damage to a bonus to hit rolls. This helps push the Eldritch Archer into the king of accurately hitting things from far away, which is where its strengths lie.
Changes made to the Spellsword are designed to help cement its fantasy and role as a skirmisher. Now, the Spellsword is able to reposition itself on the battlefield through short-range teleports and make better use of its Arcane Infusion damage and weapon strikes.
- Removed the “Parry” feature, which wasn’t doing much for the subclass’s fantasy and stepped on the Battlemage’s toes a bit as the “resilient” subclass. It has been replaced with a new feature, “Infusion Surge,” which lets you double the damage of your “Arcane Infusion” once per turn. This helps push the Spellsword as the subclass that does the best job of running in and hitting people really good with their weapon. Note that this is once per TURN, so yes you get to use it on your turn and again later during another creature’s turn if you get a chance to attack.
- “Recursive Spell Strike” has been replaced with “Recursive Strike,” which combines the “Recursive Spell Strike” concept with the “Spellsword Flourish” concept, which is now also removed. Now, the feature allows the Spellsword to use a bonus action to attack with their weapon on the same turn that they attempted a “Spell Strike”. If the “Spell Strike” missed, that bonus action can also be used to attempt the strike again (but they do not have to miss to use the bonus action). This was done because the two features we removed did not combo well, and there was a lot of “I never get to use this feature because using this other feature makes up for it.” I personally don’t tend to like that kind of build as it makes one feature feel useless. The Spellsword should be allowed to get more weapon attacks in; that is its greatest strength compared to the other subclasses, and so this feature essentially lets them attack twice (at the cost of a bonus action) even when they Spell Strike.
- “Adaptive Infusion” has been replaced with “Arcane Advance,” which lets the Spellsword reposition itself through a short-range teleport after making a strike. While “Adaptive Infusion” was an interesting feature, it didn’t really sell the skirmisher playstyle well and, ultimately, was something that wouldn’t have been used much.
- The new 15th level feature is “Enhanced Counter”, which gives the Spellsword advantage on the attack roll it makes when it uses its Arcane Counter feature.
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 Arcane Counter.
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.