Building a Better Blackguard

Or, “How Heroes of Shadow made me angry enough to sand back and repaint an entire variant class”

If you’ve been following my design at all, you’ll know I’m not a big fan of any Essentials-style content. But even then, I’m tempted to put Heroes of Shadow into a class of its own.

I think this book suffered for a lot of reasons. For starters, it came out in 2011, right near the end of 4e’s lifespan—a time in a game’s development with all the energy and common sense of the last week of school, when your science teacher will just throw their hands up and let you watch the copy of Blues Brothers somebody taped off TV because there’s zero chance they can get you to work on anything by now. This was the same year they brought back the goddamn elven chain shirt—I should hardly be surprised that they had grown so distant from their original robust design rules.

To me, this book feels like it’s filling out a list; Book for the Feywild, Book for the Elemental Chaos, Book for the Shadowfell. But the shadowfell is pretty inherently player-unfriendly, so it’s not too surprising that the same goes for a lot of the content in this book. You may be thinking that this would have been a great opportunity to show how “void of life” and “indifferent to death” need not necessarily be evil, and… well, they almost got there. “Shadow magic is no more evil than any other magic”, says the book, right before it says that you can only get the shadow power source by literally murdering the kind part of your soul. If I were the Raven Queen, I would sue.

What’s the big deal?

As tedious as the fluff is, I could have made peace with it if it was just flavour. I’ve made my share of edgelord characters—honestly I’m really fond of them, when the story and the author treat them as the melodramatic babies they are. If a player came to me with the concept that their warlock’s pact worked as per the shadow magic description, I would have no issues1.

No, what makes me so unwilling to forgive this book is that they decided it would be a good idea to bring back one of D&D’s dumbest legacy bugbears: class/alignment restrictions.

The Essentials line had already bent or broken many of the principles that guided 4e’s early days, which occasionally yielded decent results (I’m a big fan of the floating secondary stat bonus) but mostly just served to limit player creativity (enjoy thirty delicious levels of predetermined power choices, nerd). The most egregious of these was of course publishing gender-locked races, which I have already discussed on this blog. But the runner up is absolutely the return of alignment-locked classes, a nasty little nugget of archaic design sensibility that had no business ever showing its face in the brave new world of 4e.

It’s hard to describe how much I hate this choice. I’m not exaggerating when I say I was overjoyed to see the back of alignment restrictions when 4e launched. Like the race/class restrictions that finally went away in 3e, class/alignment restrictions were an ugly relic of the dogmatic Tolkien-aping that D&D had spent its entire history pulling away from, albeit at a truly glacial pace. 4e was the first edition to present alignment in a way that was for players to use—simply a description you could apply to a character’s personal philosophy, not a punitive tool for bad GMs or an arbitrary flag to keep you from applying the “wrong” flavour to a class.

Just like the explicit permission for players to re-flavour their powers at will, removing these restrictions was an integral part of 4e’s greatest strength; making player options into tools that let you realise your vision of a character, not rigid concepts to be played “correctly” according to their published flavour.

However, this was not the purpose of the post-Essentials classes. They were designed more as a soup-to-nuts vision of one particular concept—a bit like taking one of the existing optional builds, and making that the entirety of the class. And while I resented them for several reasons—bizarre layout choices, stumbling back toward the bad old days of “fighters don’t get powers”, inexplicably changing some classes’ names and not others—I wasn’t properly mad at them until I read “how your vice restricts your alignment choices.”

Oh hell no.

In for a copper, in for a gold

Can’t I just ignore a stupid alignment rule? Well yeah, I could ignore anything I don’t like2. But at the point where I went to build a Blackguard character, I was using a character builder program (HeroLab), so I was going to have to make some changes to the files if I wanted my sheet to come out correctly. And, once I was working on the files anyway, I couldn’t resist changing everything else I didn’t like too.

Because all over, for my money, this class is just sort of incompetent. Undercooked. Second-draft. The concept is muddled. (Why does “focus(ing) divine power through a dark vice” make it shadow magic? Were we not told you get shadow magic by stabbing yourself in the soul? Why is divine power necessary to this equation?) The fluff is clumsy and contradictory. (All Domination blackguards “impose order by force whenever necessary, crushing resistance and making others do their bidding”, but we are informed this only “becomes tyranny” in the hands of evil.) And the powers are mediocre, never returning enough mechanical value to justify the class’s heavily restrictive design3.

Yet for all this, if we ignore the fluff and concentrate on the things the blackguard actually is as a character-building asset, it does occupy a unique mechanical space; a heavily-armoured, weapon-based striker version of a divine class, that uses Str/Cha as its key stats. That’s what I came to the class for, so that’s what I decided to salvage in the form of the Vindicator, a paladin variant somewhat more in line with classic 4e design.

Something old, something new

The first thing you may notice about the Vindicator is that a lot of it is still pretty familiar. This is not a new class, but a remake of the Blackguard with different design and flavour sensibilities. Most of the changes are in the flavour and the base features—and of course in allowing more build freedom—but for a lot of the actual powers, I haven’t felt the need to change too much.

Below I’ll discuss the main departures I’ve made from the Blackguard. (If you don’t care, you can also go straight to the Vindicator’s compendium entry.)

1. No more shadow

As far as I’m concerned, shadow is a badly thought out power source that has no reason to exist, pre-emptively outplayed at its own edgy game by anybody who decided their deity or warlock patron was a bit on the grim side. And that’s how it should be—edginess should be a per-character flavour choice, not built into a power source. You can ignore flavour when it only applies only to your own character, but you have less control over a power source, since it’s a shared element of the game world.

Furthermore, it suggests that a divine class shouldn’t offer this kind of grim vibe, which is a huge waste of concept space to me. Divine power is as diverse as the beings and ideals that grant it, so deferring this archetype to shadow is missing a chance to show the more complex side of “virtues” like faith and conviction.

Thus, the vindicator is divine, just like the other paladins. To bring them back into this fold—and to unlock access to a wealth of feats, paragon paths and such that basic paladins enjoy—I’ve given the Vindicator channel divinity, and turned their shroud of shadow into channel divinity: warded soul.

2. Less villain, more antihero

This is strictly a matter of flavour, but the Blackguard as described feels a lot less sympathetic than the text keeps trying to tell me. The book casts shadow magic as a temptation, an easy way out, a deliberate choice to become a worse person in exchange for power. It’s not hard to enjoy that character, but it is hard to see them as particularly deserving of sympathy (certainly as long as they keep doing it).

To make the class more accessible to all characters, I went for a flavour more directly geared toward the good or neutral characters assumed to make up the typical 4e party. Instead of glorifying a harmful behaviour they have deliberately chosen to embrace, the Vindicator takes a potentially dangerous element of their own nature, and turns it to productive ends.

The difference is perhaps subtle, but to me it’s very much preferable. (And of course, the original flavour is still there for you if you prefer it.) Like any other class, an evil character can use the Vindicator to great effect, but the “serving suggestion” flavour is unambiguously that of an antihero.

Either way, of course, the alignment restrictions can get in the fucking bin where they belong.

3. More freedom

My biggest beef with post-Essentials classes as a whole is the handling of power choices. Most have noticeably fewer powers than a classic class—particularly if they are weapon-based—and the powers they do get are frequently predetermined by a level one build option. All in all, it’s fewer choices and less creativity for those who enjoy crafting a build, for a perceived benefit of simplicity for new players. (How much benefit, I wonder, since we thereby lose the elegant simplicity of the unified class progression?)

Anyway, I did what I could to bring back some semblance of build customisation to the class. Obviously since these classes are compensated for missing powers with more features over the course of their progression, one cannot simply revert them to the classic universal progression. But, one can certainly take what powers they do have (with levels), and allow them to choose from the class’s full list instead of being forced into a particular power4. Easily done!

4. A bit of spice

Overall, the blackguard isn’t drastically weak—it’s just a bit naff. I had already given them a nice boost by giving them channel divinity, so I didn’t feel they needed a great deal more. Something just a little spicy, something that’s a bit hard to come by so it helps them feel distinctive.

In the end, I decided that this would be combo damage. The Vindicator’s powers share a theme of damage that’s both radiant and another type (either cold, if the power is geared toward the callous build, or fire for the wrathful build). On its own it’s a subtle advantage, since its true strength is being difficult to resist, but like channel divinity it also lets them take advantage of some excellent feat and item support. I also think it’s a nice nod to the dualistic flavour of the class.

…And the rest is violence

Put together it’s the Vindicator, a slightly less edgelordy but far less restrictive divine striker paladin. Oh, and I split the Grim Blackguard paragon path into the Heartless Vindicator and the Vicious Vindicator, in case you wanted it come paragon tier5.

Is it composed of 50% me getting on my design soapbox and 50% me being a fool for the sunk cost fallacy? Pretty much yes. But also, is it a worthy alternative to an extremely rigid class that really wanted for a bit more flexibility and support? I believe so.

Boy, though, the shadow power source sucks.

1 That’s part of why it’s poorly designed as a whole power source—there’s nothing unique about it, it’s just any other magic type + be a bit of a dick.

2 Interestingly, the alignment restriction didn’t even make it into the compendium entry for the class, suggesting that it should be viewed strictly as flavour and not as a requirement. If only they had stuck to the original principle of a clear boundary between flavour and mechanics, maybe I wouldn’t have anything to get mad about in the first place.

3 Some powers I straight don’t understand at all—like, who thought the summoned shadow servant was so integral to this archetype that it needed to be a forced utility power pick for both paths? I must have missed something in the literature.

4 Arguably this is how the rules should be read anyway, but customer support said both yes and no over the years, and there seems to be no community consensus. To avoid confusion I just made it explicit.

5 Who decided to include post-Essentials paragon paths mixed inline with their base class’s per-level abilities? Holy hell these books had some awful layout choices!

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