(It's also been a month of me posting these, so I'll shorten the preamble.)
As usual for the showcase, these builds are intended to spur discussion and perhaps inspire a few people in the spirit of the old CO boards. They come from members of my gaming group - me, Radical Taoist, DisposableHero_, Andarious, Sionnis, and Seishi - and I'll always identify who wrote the build at the start, so do not assume I'm the guy behind all of them (because I'm not!).
Unless otherwise noted, showcase builds use 28 point-buy, and have their snapshots evaluated using fractional base attack / saves (because it simplifies the math). None of them actually rely on fractional to be built, though. The format I use showcases their progression at key levels rather than just presenting the build and showing off a few tricks at level 20; most of these are capable of being played 1-20 if you so choose.
With that out of the way, let's get started. This week, two builds: in this thread, one of mine, using a prestige class that really should have had more love during the heydays than it got.
General Gish Gouda
Required Books: PHB2, Eberron Campaign Setting, Five Nations. Optional feats from Complete Arcane, Dragonmarked, Dragon Magic, Complete Warrior, and Complete Champion.
Unearthed Arcana used: Bloodlines. Any one of any grade will do. Unlike other bloodline builds of mine, this one doesn’t make the assumption that you can buy multiple levels at once – a single bloodline level just before your third character level, exactly as UA implies is intended, will work.
Background: Most of us know the cheeseball trick of entering Eldritch Knight at level 2 (Any two flaws, Illumian Sorcerer 1 (Krau sigil), Militia/Otherworldly + Precocious Apprentice + Improved Sigil (Krau) = full martial proficiency and able to cast 3rd level spells, so level 2 you take Eldritch Knight). Well, for the longest time, I was wondering if a similar trick could be employed with a slightly more fluffy class than the Eldritch Knight – the Knight Phantom in Five Nations – using the Lesser Mark of Passage to get Phantom Steed far sooner than a pure spellcaster would normally be able to cast it. Nothing I tried worked (usually the feat only buys you one level over pure wizard casting), until I realized I could really speed up the access using a single bloodline level. The result is a pretty elegant gish build, and it has a surprising degree of flexibility in it.
If you've never seen it - and since it's from a less-than-flagship setting-specific mostly-fluff book, I don't blame you - the Knight Phantom is basically a variant Eldritch Knight with a strong affinity for the phantom steed spell, and a few class features themed off of that imagery as well. In exchange, it's slightly harder to get into than Eldritch Knight usually is, since it requires a feat (Still Spell, which it makes obsolete) and access to the 4th level Phantom Steed. However, its requirements are much more interesting and just begging for optimization: it doesn't have a base attack requirement, its skill requirements can be met at level 1, and its casting requirement is limited to that single, specific spell. Which is available to humans on the Lesser Mark of Passage.
...Although you will have to explain, somehow, how your character has ties both to the Knights Arcane of Aundair and to House Orien, when the Dragonmarked Houses are supposed to be neutral transnational organizations, and how your member of a specific human-only family manifests traits from a non-human bloodline. There's a lot of possible RP routes here, though, so it isn't all that tricky.
EDITED IMPORTANT NOTE: People might think this is a mounted build. It isn't. Phantom Steed isn't Special Mount or even a true summon - it's really fragile in combat, even at caster levels in the 30s. The Knight Phantom itself makes it clear that members of this class aren't historical cavalry, but rather historical dragoons, using spells instead of firearms, but mounted infantry nonetheless. (The steeds are used to transport elite spellcasting troops to wherever they're needed, rather than serving as combat steeds. Ostensibly, this is because teleportation effects can be screened, blocked, traced or redirected while phantom steeds cannot (basically, you "fly under the radar"), but this conflicts slightly with Eberron's character level demographics as it's still a fourth-level spell! Apparently there were many more high-level characters during the Last War.).
The build has a lot of free feats and thus includes Mounted Combat, but this is intended to allow you to use your Phantom Steed to give your melee self a boost when fighting flying enemies, not to serve as a primary mounted character. (Note that even at your exceptional CL and with three bloodline levels, phantom steed HP is barely 41 at level 20; consider that even fireball has been averaging 35 since level 10, and that not even Mounted Combat can block an AoE. Even if you're using the steed as an elevator in melee, you'd still probably want to teleport or jump from it to your target, and have the steed keep its distance with an action readied to intercept you if you fall.). Mounted Combat itself is optional, and any further mounted support beyond that feat is supplied through equipment or ignored altogether. The build works perfectly well if you never mount up while initiative is ticking!
- Race: Human, from House Orien. Any bloodline of any grade will do, but for illustration below I went with Major Silver Dragon. This has very nice ability score boosts and isn’t as thematically odd with a dragonmarked character as it would normally be (link him to the Chamber trying to act on the Prophecy or something).
- Ability Scores: 15/10/13/14/8/12. Intelligence is bumped up at every opportunity. We assume a +1 Intelligence tome at some point; a bigger one is appreciated. This particular array is chosen due to the ability bonuses from the Major Silver Dragon bloodline; if you pick a different bloodline (type or grade), you'll want to adjust the scores accordingly.
Skill Notes: This is actually kind of interesting despite being more or less open. You need 7 ranks in two skills to enter Dragonmark Heir (which two don’t matter, but Concentration and one Knowledge skill work well). By taking a bloodline level just before character level 3, you raise your maximum skill rank at 3HD to 7, letting Dragonmark Heir come online at level 4. From there, you just need the requirements for your PrCs (which, believe it or not, amount to just Ride 4 and Knowledge: Arcana 6, pretty easy). The rest are entirely up to you based on your concept; since the demo build below uses Knowledge Devotion, I’d suggest at least 1 rank (and possibly as many as 5, if you like the synergy) in assorted Knowledge skills and the Collector of Stories skill trick.
Basic Equipment: The best light armor you can find (probably a mithral breastplate) and a lance will serve you well. You could also make use of a sword-and-board style if you prefer. Since your combat feats generally don't care about your weaponry, you can switch around as you need.
Magical Gear Goals: The MIC has some surprisingly good gear for you, including the Riding Boots (12k to basically buy Ride-By Attack; at your mounted speed this is insane). Other than that, equip like any duskblade gish - +Int, +Str, Rings of Wizardry, and related gear. Any method of expanding your Duskblade spells known takes top priority, particularly if it grants abjuration magic; these can REALLY help in expanding your defensive repertoire. (The Explorer's Handbook has the Drake Helm, for instance.) As usual for my combatants, I also recommend Eternal Wands of Heroics to expand your fighter style options.
Build Stub: Duskblade 3 / Dragonmark Heir 1 / Knight Phantom 10 / Abjurant Champion 5 / Spellsword 1
Note: As with many bloodline builds, I’m listing bloodline bonus feats, unique powers, and ability score increases only. This illustration uses a Major Silver Dragon bloodline, but any bloodline (minor, intermediate, or major, of any type) will do.
Note 2: Any feat marked with a * can be rearranged (prerequisites allowing) or completely replaced without affecting the integrity of the build. See the level they appear at to explain why I suggested them; see the Variants at the end for alternatives.
1 – Duskblade – (Arcane Attunement, Armored Mage) (Favored in House Orien, Least Dragonmark: Passage)
2 – Duskblade – (Combat Casting) (Alertness)
3 – Duskblade – (Arcane Channelling) (Still Spell) (Strength+1)
Arcane Channelling + a reach weapon is a well-known good combination as well; good thing we use a lance.
As noted above, you’ll have picked up one bloodline level by this point, raising your maximum skill rank by one to 7 for this level. Be sure two skills have 7 ranks in them. (It also raises your duskblade caster level, but this isn’t all that significant just yet.)
4 – Dragonmark Heir – (House Status) (Lesser Dragonmark: Passage) (Resist Cold 5)
5 – Knight Phantom – (Phantom Steed, Somatic Prowess)
6 – Knight Phantom – (Mounted Combat*) (Natural Armor +1)
The other reason we take this feat is that a few magic items activate secondary features if you have Mounted Combat. However, it’s still optional.
7 – Abjurant Champion – (Abjurant Armor, Extended Abjuration)
It’s worth noting that bloodlines combine obscenely well with the Abjurant Champion, since several of its abilities are keyed to class level, which is inflated with bloodline levels. Here, that includes Abjurant Armor – eventually adding +8 to any abjurant AC bonus is beyond badass. Check the snapshot below for an example.
8 – Abjurant Champion – (Swift Abjuration) (Resist Cold 10)
9 – Abjurant Champion – (Extra Spell: Shield*) (Constitution +1)
This was originally Shield of Faith until Omen of Peace pointed out that Abjurant Armor doesn't work with deflection bonuses, something I keep forgetting.
10 – Abjurant Champion – (Arcane Boost) (Alter Self 1/day)
11 – Abjurant Champion – (Martial Arcanist)
12 – Knight Phantom – (Arcane Strike*) (Natural Armor +2)
13 – Knight Phantom – (Aspect of the Phantom)
14 – Knight Phantom – (Power Attack)
15 – Knight Phantom – (Knowledge Devotion*) (Charisma +1)
I chose Knowledge Devotion because it synergizes well with duskblade-type combat and your high Intelligence, but it’s not required nor necessarily the best choice for this build (since most knowledges aren’t class skills for the majority of your levels; this is also why it isn't picked up sooner despite being a "classic" duskblade feat). Still a good choice when you can get it to work, though, which is why Collector of Stories was suggested above.
16 – Knight Phantom – (Countenance of the Phantom) (Breath Weapon)
The breath weapon from the bloodline isn’t all that amazing and may not show up in your version, but it’s worth noting that it appears to be usable at will.
17 – Knight Phantom – N/A
18 – Knight Phantom – (Versatile Spellcaster*) (Natural Armor +3)
19 – Knight Phantom – (Blade of the Phantom)
5th level spells are now available too.
20 – Spellsword – (Reduce Spell Failure -10%) (Cold Immunity)
Snapshot: With the usual three +6 items on Str, Con, and Int, and a +1 tome of Intelligence (normally I assume higher, but the gear demands on a gish aren’t cheap; if you can afford it, do it!), we’re looking at 198 HP, base attack +19 (melee +30 with Greater Magic Weapon, ranged +19, usually reserved for touch-attack spells), saves of Fort 20 / Reflex 7 / Will 13, casting as an 18th level duskblade at CL 21. (This gives us spells per day of 9/13/12/11/10/4 before we start looking into Rings of Wizardry.) We have an effective level 8 in Abjurant Champion for its level-based abilities, and effective level 13 in Knight Phantom for its level-based abilities. Using, for instance, a +5 Mithral Breastplate (or a drakehelm/knowstone with Magic Vestment; the armor allows for special abilities though), Shield of Faith, a drakehelm/knowstone of Shield (the alternative is an expensive +5 light shield with +5 defending shield spikes, which is actually one point lower than the Shield spell here!), and a +5 amulet of natural armor gives you a final AC of 52. If one of your armor abilities is Ghostward, your touch AC works out to an impressive (for a non-agility character) 27. Between Arcane Strike, Arcane Channelling, Power Attack, and Knowledge Devotion, we’re not lacking for direct offense either - it's pretty typical Duskblade offense but with a significantly improved arcane defense. Oh, and you can basically give this guy the most amazing spring attack known to man without resorting to Chuck Increments – double damage charges with a lance + Ride-By Attack on the boots + a Phantom Steed (base speed capped at 240) = “Where the hell did that hit come from?”.
Overall Strengths: +19 base attack, 18th level casting at CL 21. That’s a respectable (almost top-tier) gish even before you consider the class features augmenting your attacks and defenses. Five of the feats are more or less free for you to choose, and the spell selection is totally open. Ridiculous magical stamina for a gish, even with a lot of abilities that drain spell slots. Although it relies on a bloodline, it will work with any bloodline even under the most conservative interpretation.
Overall Weaknesses: That high casting you get is duskblade casting, which is pretty much only good at damage rather than reshaping reality as we know it. Similarly, it can be expensive to equip this kind of character, particularly if you want to employ the mounted abilities in combat (which is optional). Finally, like most duskblade/prc builds, you lose out on a lot of what makes the duskblade a fine class in its own right.
Variants: Since your feat selection is pretty open, you have many possibilities in rearranging the ones marked with a * above. You can even rotate them; three other feats that come to mind as possibilities are Dragonmarked Spellturning (lets you reflect spells of up to 3rd level cast at you), Mark of the Dauntless (gives you the very-difficult-to-get immunity to dazing and stunning), and Orien Battle Stride (allows you to evade attacks in melee in an interesting way, costing you nothing but an immediate action if an attack aimed at you misses – and speaking of misses, did you see this guy’s AC?). These three are only available to dragonmarked characters and are very rarely considered in actual builds (well, we have a few serious uses for Mark of the Dauntless in builds yet to be showcased, but that's another story.)
If you want more powerful or varied casting, replace Duskblade with your casting class of choice, pick up Combat Casting as one of the “free” feats (probably the Extra Spell, since most non-duskblades don’t need it for AbChamp), and just use Knight Phantom levels to bide time until you qualify for Abjurant Champion. Be advised that this is actually harder to do than you’d think – Knight Phantom requires full martial proficiency to enter, so you might need to rely on a flaw to grab Militia or something. However, since the only other caster class with full base attack is the hexblade (and really, you're not playing a hexblade for its spells...), you'll need more levels in the base class to hit the base attack requirement; this means that you don't need the bloodline level to enter Dragonmark Heir (in fact, if your casting class is low base attack, you may need to skip the Heir altogether and just pick up Lesser Dragonmark at 6th, a mere one level earlier than wizards get phantom steed - not as much of a rush, and a large source of the reason I got frustrated trying to early-entry Knight Phantom.)
If you’re able to do the controversial “buy all three bloodline levels early” stunt, you can actually pull this off without Dragonmark Heir – a major bloodline bought up to 3 raises your 3rd level max ranks to 9. Although you have to pick your class first, you can do the rest of the level-up procedure in just about any order under my understanding, which means you can meet the skill requirements for Lesser Mark at level 3 and take it that same level. Under this build, level 1 becomes Least Mark and Still Spell, level 3 becomes Lesser Mark, and level 4 gets you into Knight Phantom (which, unusually for gish PrCs, doesn't have a base attack requirement). By picking up another level of Duskblade somewhere along the way (or another +1/+1 gish PrC) to replace the Heir level, you can reach BAB +20/casting 19/CL 22 with the same suite of class features above; even without the features that's a damn fine set of stats. I don’t like doing this as the base approach already relies on Unearthed Arcana, but it’s worth noting this if you’re in a no-holds-barred game.
There you have it. An alternative early-entry gish with an interesting suite of class features and a non-game-breaking selection of spells, with its own unique style and a reasonably smooth progression while you’re at it.
Next up: Due to other discussion, next week will probably be the Storm Knight... but other options include my Inevitable Nightmare, Andarious’ Captain Constitution (note: these two builds actually go together), a joint Andarious/Tempest Heavy Crusader, or a theoretical build of mine (the first to be showcased) called Gun Fu. Go ahead and place your votes!