The long-anticipated Eberron: Rising from the Last War—a campaign setting for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons—hit the shelves this past week. The masterfully artful tome officially introduces to 5th edition the synonymous world of Eberron, a war-ravaged place where magic meets technology in a steampunk-noir aesthetic. If the conventional fantasy-realm is feeling a bit drab, Eberron: Rising is well worth finding at your local game store.
Although much of the book is dedicated to describing some of the NPCs, places, and patrons that players will encounter in the updated world, Eberron also publishes to canon 5th edition’s first supplemental class: the Artificer, an intriguing admixture of arcane prowess and cool magical item crafting. Mechanically, the 5th edition Artificer is a spell caster that specializes in versatility and is widely open to customization and inspired roleplay. It defies the traditional fantasy tropes by highlighting themes of magically infused technological engineering and MacGyver-like crafting abilities. The fascinating complexity of the Artificer’s mechanics is matched only by the equally complex history of the class’s development.
The many Artificers of 5th Edition
The release of the Artificer in Eberron: Rising does not necessarily mean that the class is new, even to the 5th edition. It was a staple of D&D 3.5 and eventually released in 4th edition’s Eberron Player’s Guide as well. The class’s absence from the initial 5th edition rulebook compendium subsequently resulted in the circulation of a number of play-test, beta, and bootleg versions; and some were astoundingly better than others.
The first attempt to create a playable 5th edition Artificer class came from Mike Mearls’ early February 2015 “Unearthed Arcana: Eberron” conversion guide. Instead of refitting from a previous edition or even writing a fresh one, the D&D design lead opted instead to write the Artificer as an additional Wizard Tradition option for the Wizard class. This meant that artifice did not have its own class but was just one school of wizardry that a Wizard character could pursue alongside necromancy or divination. “I think it’s a really solid tradition,” Dave Friant of Nerdarchy said at the time. “The real question is ‘Does this tradition make a wizard feel like an Artificer’?”
A tepid “no” was the answer, as WotC and players alike soon found out. The mechanics were lackluster. There was no complex alchemy or intricate crafting expertise; instead, the Artifice Wizard merely expended spell slots to create potions from water and change basic armor and weapons into slightly better armor and weapons. One of the most unique and versatile classes had become little more than a generic wizard who could perform some narrow transmutation.
5th Edition Artificer Reception
Something was missing. One EN World forum user commented about the Unearthed Arcana release: “while they are definitely an artificer, they aren’t the Eberron artificer.” The problem lay in the decision to embed the Artificer within the Wizard class. Wizards wholesale tend to lack the crafty je ne sais quoi that players typically enjoy in Artificers, especially in an alt-fantasy campaign setting like Eberron. Mechanically, Wizards are simply incapable of the proficiencies in physical crafting, roguish thievery, and unconventional weapons manufacturing that are expected of a versatile Artificer.
The prelim supplement was wholly not well-received by fans who were used to a more defined arcane tech mechanics with unique lore to support them. This disquiet prompted players to generate their own Artificer classes. For example, Corey Orlik wrote and published a primitive version of one on the Dungeon Masters Guild that featured a “schematics binder” as a sort of spellbook of the Artificer. The more traditional arcane alchemy and inventive crafting were all there, but reviews on the post suggest there were some playability and balance issues.
Wizards of the Coast listened to critical feedback on the preliminary release. In January 2017, Mearls and co-lead designer Jeremy Crawford rereleased the Artificer as its own class, tagged as “a master of magical invention.” The playtest class was highlighted by much more classical-feeling infusion and crafting mechanisms and some interesting abilities like forging an automaton servant. Still, some aspects needed tweaking. The “Alchemist’s Satchel”—out of which players could ambiguously pull a seemingly infinite number of premade concoctions—was in some ways the core of the Alchemical Artificer’s arsenal and lacked any arcane or logical explanation.
The release of the playtest version was accompanied by a feedback survey for improvements for the next release. Some players didn’t want to wait. Now that the core mechanics of the 5th edition Artificer had been made available, alternate homebrew versions of the class circulated on the Dungeon Masters Guild, ttrpg blogs, and D&D content subreddits. No two Artificers were the same, but interest in the class was apparent.
A revised Artificer was released in late February of this year with some significant improvements. The Alchemist’s Satchel was replaced by a homunculus conjuring ability and the Gunsmith subclass was replaced by the Artillerist—an explosive-tossing engineer of the battlefield. The class was again surveyed for feedback, and a final playtest version was released once again just a few months later. This version offered a few new subclasses—the Archivist and the Battle Smith—more spells, including some from Xanathar’s Guide, and some exciting infusion options.
All of these edits, tweaks, homebrews, and alt-versions contributed to the revision of the class into its published version in Eberron: Rising. Nearly four-a-half years of playtesting and editing went into the new class and the refinement shows.
The Eberron: Rising Artificer Review in Brief
The Artificer has always been one of my favorite classes in D&D. Back in high school, during my first long-haul homebrew in 4th edition, I played a testy Dwarf Artificer named Geertz who stands as one of the most variable and fun-to-roleplay characters I’ve ever made. Brandon Grugle’s multi-class Barbarian/Artificer, TR8c, from Join The Party Pod is another example of just how multifunction and profound the class can be.
After much ado, Wizards figured out Artificer mechanics that are in-sync with the roleplay-heavy 5th edition as well as versatile playstyles fit for Eberron. It has the classic feel of a cagey innovator and the contemporary coolness of a scrappy and learned spellcaster. The opening description reads:
Masters of unlocking magic in everyday objects, artificers are supreme inventors. They see magic as a complex system waiting to be decoded and controlled. Artificers use tools to channel arcane power, crafting magical objects … The magic of artificers is tied to their tools and their talents.
The Artificer is defined by its melding of magic and material; and the Eberron: Rising release highlights this characteristic throughout. The Magical Tinkering ability is available at first level and allows players to get a feel for the infusion of magic into items that are more impressively performed at higher levels. This introductory machination is essentially an arcane crafter’s version of the thaumaturgy or prestidigitation cantrips available to other low-level spellcasters.
At 2nd level and higher, Artificers can infuse non-magical items with magic. This is where the class gets crafty. Imagine a scraggly Gnome finding an old scrap of metal and tinkering it into an enhanced shield or a young half-elf in an oversized coat reworking the gears of a plain old iron ring into a Ring of water walking. This is how Artificers infuse mundane items and scavenged materials into powerful accessories and it is the centerpiece of the class’s strengths.
The ability allows Artificers to know a certain number of infusions, or in other words, a set number of specific items that can be arcanely crafted (four at 2nd level and more at higher levels according to the Artificer’s table). The main feature of the Artificer is the cool stuff they can make and the strengths and abilities they get from those magically infused items.
Some of these magical items require attunement, and the class adheres to the standard attunement rules of the Players Handbook. Typically, a character cannot attune to more than 3 magical items at a time, but by 18th level, the Artificer can attune twice that number.
Not everyone is happy about that. In a sneak-peak review of the new class, Polygon’s Charlie Hall said that the attunement rules would be a “nightmare for some Dungeon Masters.” Hall writes that one of the biggest problems in D&D is the proliferation of magical items that supposedly slow down gameplay and take the excitement out of big encounters. That the new class is an exception to this rule makes the Artificer “more trouble than its worth.”
Hall seems to have missed the point. What makes the Artificer a unique class, and such versatile character to play, is that its primary ability is the admixture of magic and material. An artificer is defined by the infusion they can perform and the resulting magical items they can wield. By thinking of magical items as little more than ways to cheat the DM and easily bypass encounters ignores that these accessories make gameplay more fun and can offer out of the box solutions to difficult puzzles. The Artificer is designed to be an uncommon problem solver and an adaptable combatant because of the magical items they command, not despite them.
The three Artificer subclasses chosen for the Eberron: Rising release were the Alchemist, the Artillerist, and the Battle Smith.
The Alchemist has come a long way since the initial playtest release—I’m sure no one is sad to see the Alchemist’s Satchel go. WotC finally figured out a good way to navigate the arcane potions angle too. The Alchemical Artificer doesn’t just mix potions to use in the dungeon but instead draws on a deep knowledge of chemistry in order to create potent elixirs, improve inherent arcane capabilities to cast powerful spells, and buff the party. Overall, I like the gameplay potential here.
The Artillerist also looks like a ton of fun and I like this write-up far more than the Gunsmith of the playtest release. This subclass is defined by two traits: an impressive array of spells to use on the battlefield (thunderwave at 3rd level through wall of force at 17th) and a frightening Eldritch Cannon to back them up. (I’m not sure Gygax and Arneson ever thought they would see magically imbued flamethrowers in D&D but here they are). The Eldritch Cannon embodies the 5th edition Artificer and exemplifies Wizards’ approach to this class. The cannon is crafted with advanced knowledge of technology and engineering, activated with arcane prowess, and improved at higher levels as Artificers become more powerful spellcasters and more adept crafters. My only fault with the Artillerist is the lack of explanation of how the cannon is also supposed to provide a “Fortified Position.”
Unlike the Alchemist and Artillerist, the Battle Smith subclass seems like a bit of a disappointment. Other than the ability to create a Steel Defender—which is a marked improvement on the Mechanical Servant—not much else is going on here. Between the three options, I’m not surprised if most Artificers select the other paths.
Overall, I’m excited for the publication of the Artificer in Eberron: Rising for a few reasons.
This is by far the most refined version of the Artificer ready for 5th edition gameplay available. People shouldn’t get turned off the class because the playtest versions were works in progress; that’s the point of a beta playtest. I’m pleasantly surprised with the job WotC did in not only listening to, but applying critical feedback on early versions of the Artificer. It has resulted in a more gothic and mechanically-sound class that is fit for the world of Eberron (and beyond).
Furthermore, artificers are going to be more widely used by casual D&D players with the class’s release in a canonical hardback. Players that wouldn’t otherwise spend the time and effort to find and tweak a beta-version online are going to find the Eberron: Rising class ready to go with more-or-less straightforward and easy-to-learn mechanics, suitable for any campaign setting.
Charlie Hall can be skeptical of the new class, but I for one can’t wait to experience the unconventional mechanics and fresh sophistication of the artificer.