- Jun 2005 -
19235 Posts

A New Division of Gish Classes

My most current blog series is Long Division, a theoretical reorganization of power sources, classes, archetypes, and subclasses.  In my previous articles on the topic, I suggested new division of magic and martial.  In this article, I discuss the division of the blend of martial and magic, known as "gish".

A History of Gish


The "gish" is a curious term unique to D&D.  The origin of the word comes from the original White Dwarf #12 article (1979) on the Githyanki.  The gish are there described as a group of githyanki who try to balance their skill in the martial and magical fields.  D&D players adopted this term to describe any character who attempts to excel at both magic and weapons.  However, although the term was not created until five years into the game, the concept was with us right from the start.

Original Dungeons and Dragons

The original gish is the elf.  In early D&D, elf was not just a race, it was a class (along with hobbit and dwarf).  While the hobbit was sneaky and the dwarf was all about the axes and hammer, the elf was master of longsword, longbow, and magic.  Before multiclassing and hybrids, the elf was the first (and at that time only) way one could master both sword and spell.  While not as magical as the magic-user, and slightly less facile with the sword than the fighting-man, the elf was a popular choice for its versatility.

Truly, however, the original cleric was also a "gish".  It used armor and decent (though limited) weapons, as well as a selection of spells.  In general, the clerics' spells were weaker than the magic-user's, but the magic-user was far more fragile.  (Whether this made the classes balanced is well beyond the scope of this article!)

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

In AD&D, the elf was relegated to a race, nut the concept of a magic-using warrior continued in four forms: dual-classing, multi-classing, subclassing, and psionics. 

Humans could "dual-class", which meant choosing a class, pursuing it, and then abandoning that class for a new class and pursuing that.   When the second class had a higher level than the first one, you could use the powers of both equally.  Dual-classing came at some serious costs, which made it very unpopular, including nigh impossible ability requirements, wild swings of power imbalance, high mortality, and rules that discouraged teamwork.

Nonhumans could multi-class.  What this meant was that you advanced in two or more classes simultaneously, dividing your XP evenly among the classes.  Racial limits ensured that only elves and half-elves were likely to multi-class a spellcastign and martial class (except for gnomes who could multiclass with illusionists).  Multiclassing was considered so powerful that elves, half-elves and gnomes used this option. 

Two subclasses of fighter, and one of rogue, offered some spellcasting: the paladin, the ranger, and the 2e bard.  And, of course, the cleric, with its better selection of armor and weapons, should also be considered a form of gish.  These classes got decent armor and weapon choices as well as a thematic selection of spells, mostly of the divine variety.  For humans, this was the only practical choice for gish.

Finally, one could go psionic, if you had rolled exceptional Abilities and you hen rolled very lucky on the check for psionics.  However, if you succeeded, you were almost immediately in a separate power class form your fellows and were effectively playign a parellel game.

In short, of the four options, dual-classing and psionics were wither too restrictive or too difficult to get by the rules.  Only three gish classes were available (cleric, ranger, paladin), which left multi-classing, usually for elves and NPCs (like the actual githyanki gish).  Multiclassing was thus an oddity, considered appropriate for experienced players, and, in thir hands, fairly overpowering (particularly psionics).

Third Edition

Third edition expanded the possibilities for gish considerably.  First, multiclassing and dual-classing were merged and given to all races.  Now you could pick and choose classes level by level, allowing people to "dip" into fighter for armor and weapon proficiency and a few feats before picking up some spellcasting levels.  Because the multiclassing options were so fluid and dynamic, many characters ended up being some form of gish. 

In addition, third edition introduced an explosion of gish classes.  In addition to the bard, cleric, ranger and paladin, supplements added the duskblade, factotum, lurk, psychic warrior, soulknife, spellthief, swordsage, warblade, and warmage. Unearthered Arcana also introduced gestalt characters, which allowed you to merge two base classes in one.  It was arcane, however, complicated, and rarely used.  In Third Edition, playing one class all the way through becomes the exception and gish becomes the norm. 

Fourth Edition

In Fourth Edition, the use of power sources makes it easy to identify the gish.  The gish is a class that accesses a power source other than martial, and uses weapons to channel its powers.  The game has given us a number of gish classes, including the ardent, assassin, avenger, barbarian, bard, battlemind, cleric, monk, paladin, runepriest, seeker, swordmage, vampire, and warden.  In fact, of the 28 classes, 14, or half, are gish classes.

In contrast, multiclassing has gone by the wayside.  Multiclassing onlu allows one to dabble.  Hybrids are another way to make a gish, but that is considered somewhat difficult to accomplish well, and competing ability requirements make it unlikely. For this reason, most 4e gish is centered on gish classes, which also likely explains why there are so many gish classes.

A New Division

So how should hybrids be divided?  Well, given that, traditionally, all the gish classes involve a martial base with spellcastign added on, we can discard schema that involves the merger of two magical power sources.  Instead, I propose there be a gish class specifically for each non-martial power source. 

However, for subclasses or builds, the classes should be organized like the martial classes.  I divided martial classes into offensive, defensive, and exotic subclasses or builds.  Since the gish classes will be invoking powers through their weapons, designing the builds akin to the martial classes makes a great deal of sense.  While magic classes can be given builds based on specilaization in magic because magic is all they have and the only real way to distinguish magical classes, any class that uses weapons (including gish) can be distinguished by fighting style.  Fighting style generally more evocative and intuitive than distinguishing magical warriors on magical specialization. 

Thus, I have given each gish class an offensive build, a defensive build, and one build whose concept is to delve more deeply into the melding of martial prowess and that class' unique power source.  More builds can of course be introduced as the edition is developed.  My proposed division of the gish classes is as follows:

Here is a more detailed description of each class and their subclasses:

Assassin (Shadow): The assassin channels the dark magic of shadow to assist him in attacking his enemies with his swift and silent weapons.  The ninja uses the fatally erosive power of shadow to accentuate his attacks, making them deadlier and more accurate.  The shadowguard uses the deceptive, concealing shadows as a shroud to protect him and his allies.  The shadowdancer delves into the combination of shadow and movement, dwelling in the shadows and making them an extension of the assassin's own persona.

Barbarian (Primal): The barbarian channels primal magic through his blood to become a more potent predator.  The hunter channels primal energy through his weapons and into his enemies with deadly prowess.  The warden summons the power of nature to protect himself and his allies from harm.  The skinwalker uses primal magic to wild shape into the form of animals that allow him a variety of abilities, and a deeper more intuitive knowledge of the primal element.  The skinwalker is not merely a shapeshifter, but an "enurgemens", a mortal vessel through which primal spirits can exert their will.

Mystic (Psionic): The mystic harnesses the power of the mind to enhance her own martial prowess.  The monk uses meditative techniques to become a living weapon, centering her breath and focus into powerful flurries of attacks.  The yogi uses meditation and fluid forms to redirect her own enemies' strengths away from herself and her allies, with serene prescience.  Finally, the ardent delves deep into the power of the mind to unlock martial potential that produces truly astounding abilities.

Paladin (Divine): The paladin is a divine warrior, anointed by the faith to confront the enemies of her gods.  As an avenger, the paladin is quick and light, striking hard and true, imbued with divine zeal to smite infidels.  As a templar, the paladin is a defender of the faithful, shielding the virtuous from the depredations of the sinful.  And as a favored soul, the paladin is a chosen one of the faith, delving into the mysteries of the divine as they alter and augment her own physical exemplar.  The favored soul thus becomes a physical manifestation of an aspect of the deity on the material plane.

Stormlord (Elemental): The stormlord channels raw elemental energies through her armor and weapons.  The fury is like a thunderbolt striking at her enemies with weapons enshrouded in ice, flame, or other elements.  The archon radiates auras and of elemental power that inhibit the enemy and protect her allies.  The tempest becomes like a living storm of elemental power, imbuing herself with the essence of any or all the elements and energies, becoming one with the power source, and manifesting a variety of effects, and warping physical reality around her.

Warmage (Arcane): The warmage uses magic to enhance his martial technique.  The hexblade channels magic into the enemy, enhancing the physical damage of his weapon with a variety of hexes and curses.   The runeguard protects his gear, allies, and himself in magical runes to ward off attacks and danger. The swordmage invokes magic directly, using his weapon as a superpowered magic wand, that alters magic in its most raw shape, allowing the swordmage to teleport himself or others around the battlefield, to split the earth with mighty blows, and to create gaps in space and time with a deft flash of the blade. 

Despite the use of the "blade" suffix and "sword" prefix", the hexblade and swordmage, respectively, should not be limited to bladed weapons. I see no reason a swordmage should not be able to wield a hammer, and a hexblade could not curse his foes with an axe.

Culture Shock

Most of the gish classes should be perfectly familiar to D&D players, or at least the archetypes are not too unfamiliar.  The runeguard, of course, resembles the current runepriest, though I've now made him arcane and not divine.  Runes always seemed to me to be quintessentially arcane magic, and with arcane and elemental being separated, arcane could use runes to achieve more definition and clarity. 

The "yogi" is a new class, and I am concerned that actual practitioners of yoga might take offense.  I hope, however, that it is clear I am using "yogi" with a fantastical twist, and that no resemblance to real-life yogic practices are intended.  The archetype of a passive meditative martial artist whose mental powers aloow him to use an enemy's strength against him, is sufficiently part of the fantasy realm to be accessible and acceptable.

The biggest change, however, may be the introduction of the skinwalker as a gish class, rather than as an option for druids. Wild shaping was intended to give the druid a melee option, and a melee caster is a gish class.  So the skinwalker is, in fact, the melee druid, but concentrating on wild shape.  The druid class, as we will see, is to be limited to the spellcasting variety.  While some may not be happy with this divide, the entire point of Long Division is to analyze where historical class divisions were muddied and to try to clarify them in a meaningful way.  I feel that separating the druid and skinwalker is a meaningful division that will make both classes ultimately all the richer.

In the next article, we'll discuss the division of magical classes using the nonants of magic I described in my first article in the series.

Read all the articles in the Long Division Series:
A New Division of Magic
A New Division of Martial 
A New Division of Gish
A New Division of Spellcasters
A New Division of Weapons
A New Division of Implements

See more at Unearthed Wrecana!

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