Last week, I requisitioned more warlord variants from the general region of 3.x, to pair with Green Ronin Publishing’s The Black Company setting book. Because I still haven’t found my copy of The Wheel of Time Roleplaying Game, and not a lot of drive to go all the way outside of medieval fantasy adventure into pre-/post-/quasi-medieval laser fantasy adventure for Star Wars content. I’m doing The Black Company and Pathfinder’s skald class today.
Part One | Part Two
The Black Company
If you’ve been reading my articles here on Tribality for any length of time, you may recall that I am a long-time fan of Glen Cook’s crushingly bleak series. There aren’t many things that I like that are so manifestly not for everyone as this is. The main characters are the scumbag mercenaries of the Black Company, the last of the Free Companies of Khatovar. Because it’s what they do for a living, the Company is almost always involved in one war or another over the course of the ten-book series.
In Green Ronin’s book, Robert J. Schwalb (he’s going to come up a lot in this series) and Owen K.C. Stephens offer a 3.5e variant that emphasizes relentless, brutal violence and very low magic – at least in PC hands. Where the rules differ from 3.5, I’ll try to explain. The most warlord-like options here are the Officer background, the noble class, and the Topkick prestige class.
The Officer Background
Backgrounds largely replace ancestry mechanics in The Black Company, since all of the characters are human. At the same time, their format is recognizably similar to 5e’s backgrounds, except for the absence of personality features. They grant 4 skill points that must be spent on a limited list, plus 1 skill point per level thereafter that goes to those skills. In a very 5e-friendly move, they’re always class skills for you. In the general 3.x meta where it’s hard to add new class skills without multiclassing, this is surprising and potent. Backgrounds further grant a bonus feat (choose one of two), a trait (very much like 5e’s background traits), and a favored class (in the same sense that 3.x races have favored classes for multiclassing).
The Officer’s skills are Command, Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Ride, which sound about right to me. Iron Will and Skill Focus (Command) are their feat options – fine, I guess? Cranking your Command skill as high as possible is a big deal in some areas of the game, so I’d almost certainly go with that one. The background trait lets you roll a Command check in place of an attached unit’s morale check. Reasonable and on-point. Fighter as favored class makes sense – noble may be the more warlord-y class, but I don’t blame them for not choosing it for Officer.
There are, as it happens, no shortage of classes named “noble” in 3.x, especially in setting books. They tend to have a mighty lot in common with non-spellcasting bards (spoiler: still a common design motif in 5e), and this one is no exception. Eight of their class features start with the word “inspire.” The class concept here is “an aristocrat that does their job” – a comparison that the text calls out explicitly.
- d8 Hit Die. Reasonably front-line playable, sure.
- +3/4 BAB.
- Medium Fort and Reflex saves, good Will saves.
- 4 + Int class skills, from a large list of class skills. The text suggests going deep on Int to support more skills; I’d say that this class already looks painfully multiple-attribute-dependent, and we haven’t even gotten to features
- Proficiency in simple and martial weapons, all armor, and non-tower shields.
- Education is the poor cousin of Bardic Knowledge, granting a +2 bonus to Knowledge skill checks and untrained Int checks.
- Inspire Courage shares a name with a bard feature, but it’s much less powerful than the one found in 3.5: it takes a full-round action, only lasts as many rounds as your Cha modifier, and doesn’t scale up past +1. Spending a full-round action to get a +1 bonus rolling for your party for 3-4 rounds is not super appealing at any level of play, unless you have an enormous number of allies or you’re looking for an excuse not to attack the enemy directly.
- Diplomat grants a scaling bonus to Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Sense Motive rolls, growing from +1 at 2nd level to +8 at 16th It also lets you add your Int bonus to one of those rolls, a number of times per day equal to your Int modifier. 3.x has some issues that crop up in extremely high Diplomacy skill bonuses, and I expect this rules variant is no exception.
- Organize at 2nd level lets you grant bonuses greater than +2 for Aiding Another in skill checks, scaling from +3 to +7 at 18th level (and continuing to scale in levels above 20th). Importantly, this can’t be used for magic skills.
- Inspire Competence is basically similar to the bard ability of the same name, but with a shorter range and duration (probably not so much that you’d notice).
- Resources are a line of credit from… whoever, and you gain this feature repeatedly over the course of 20 levels, gaining more money each time: 200 silver at 4th level, 400 silver at 8th, 600 silver at 12th, 800 silver at 16th, and 1,000 silver at 20th.
- Contact at 5th level is someone you can call on for favors, as long as you spend the time and energy maintaining that relationship. A lost contact can be replaced by getting down on the floor and looking for it investing more time and money. You gain a new contact at 10th, 15th, and 20th levels.
- Inspire Complacency is the poor cousin of the Fascinate bard feature, applying a penalty to Spot and Listen checks for a short time. Penalizing NPC skill rolls is one of those functions that seldom feels great, since PCs often don’t have a ton of clarity on the DCs that NPCs roll against.
- Leadership is a bonus feat for nobles at 6th Congratulations, you are now a pet class, sort of!
- Inspire Awe, at 9th level, is a full-round action to impose a -2 to Reflex saves and -1 to AC on enemies that fail their save. You can use this a number of times per day equal to your Cha modifier. As with Inspire Courage, this is unlikely to be worth the full-round action that it costs you, because it’s relatively unlikely to convert any misses to hits.
- Inspire Valor at 11th level lets you end fear effects on yourself and nearby allies, and grant a +2 bonus to Will save and saves against fear effects (in this book, a good number of fear effects are level checks rather than Will saves). It’s a free action to use, so this is a pretty great feature.
- Inspire Fear at 13th level lets you Bluff or Intimidate enemies into being shaken for a few rounds; they get a level check to resist. The text doesn’t specify the action that this takes, but probably full-round?
- Inspire Zeal at 15th level lets you drive your allies into a rage: +2 Str, +2 Con, +5 ft speed, -4 AC. The action that this requires from the noble is unclear. It does stack with other rage features.
- Inspire Greatness at 17th level is the same as the bard feature of the same name, except that you receive it later and thus it scales to additional targets later.
- Inspire Heroics at 19th level is the same as the bard feature of the same name, except that you receive it later and thus it scales to additional targets later.
Overall, the noble is what’s on offer as a warlord class, though you can also go a good long way with a fighter that just buys all the Command feats. Much like the marshal, it’s heavily based on passive features; unlike the marshal, it takes full-round actions to get those passives rolling. You’re going to spend most of your time declaring your inspiration, and that’s it for your turn. I have little love for it as a gameplay loop. In fairness, if you’re a player who wants to engage as little as possible in combat scenes and have most of your fun in intrigues or negotiation scenes, then the noble is for you!
Since I don’t know much military terminology, I had to get from context that this is a sergeant, particularly a first sergeant. I appreciate that this prestige class is easy to qualify for – the Soldier background easily covers the skills, +5 BAB isn’t too demanding, and Improved Initiative is an inoffensive feat to have to buy in this game. (Striking first matters more here than in standard D&D.) The Topkick is a 10-level prestige class that grants:
- d8 Hit Dice.
- 4 + Int modifier skills, from a large list.
- I am amused to see that even though you’re still a non-commissioned officer, you forget how to work for a living: Craft and Profession are not class skills.
- +1/1 BAB.
- Good Fortitude and Will saves, poor Reflex.
- Lead is about how you engage with company-scale actions, as it determines how many people can benefit from your Command skill checks at a time. It has different formulas for character-scale and company-scale leadership.
- Swift Strike lets everyone under your command borrow your Improved Initiative feat.
- Get the Drop grants a +4 bonus to Hide and Move Silently checks to those under your command. That’s a huge help for all of those less-stealthy characters, and covers a lot of armor-check-penalty sins.
- Squad Tactics, for whatever reason, explicitly only applies to NPCs. It grants a +1 bonus to damage rolls to everyone under your command.
- Bonus feats at 4th and 8th levels.
- Veteran at 5th level grants a +4 bonus to Command checks (I suspect an absent “not” in a parenthetical note here), a +1 attack and damage bonus in company-scale conflicts, and a +1 to your side’s AOQ (part of the mass combat rules) for army-scale combat when you aren’t the commander of the force.
- Against the Tide at 6th level lets you mitigate battlefield events, rolling twice and taking whichever you prefer. A battlefield event is a random occurrence at the start of a turn, intended to introduce more chaos into the D&D combat turn.
- Veteran Squad at 7th level lets you grant a single squad +2 AC, damage, Fortitude, and Reflex; at 10th level, you grant that bonus to two squads. I think this only applies for company-scale conflicts?
- Elite at 9th level grants a variety of bonuses: +4 to your Will defense, +2 to the Will defense of anyone under your command, +2 to attack and damage rolls for companies you’re part of in company-scale conflict, and +2 to Command checks at army-scale if you’re not the commander. Much like Veteran, this is about how good NCOs make a good CO a whole lot better. I think this stacks with, rather than replaces, Veteran. It also means that you’re losing some meaningful, if not MOST critical, benefits if you go into the Great General prestige class once you finish Topkick.
- Inspire at 10th level can spend action points (a significant character resource, received per level) on those under your command. The things this lets your troops or allies do are the fundamental gameplay of the 4e warlord – take an extra attack, double the AC bonus of fighting defensively, or take an immediate move action.
The Topkick, then, strongly emphasizes passive bonuses to every scale of combat. Because it’s The Black Company and healing is unbelievably hard here, it’s a lot less surprising that this warlord has no healing features, though I’ll say that some temporary hit points wouldn’t have been out of place as a way to improve team survivability. Only at the highest levels do they get the more active features that are the core of 4e warlord play, and of Robert J. Schwalb’s warlord class.
That’s all I’m covering in this book – the other military-focused content is so much about company- and army-scale play that I think it’s off-topic for the character-scale warlords that we’re primarily concerning ourselves with. One of these days I’ll cover mass-combat rules in tabletop roleplaying games, and I’ll come back to this book for one heck of a deep dive.
Pathfinder: The Skald
Alert reader Case Aiken pointed me toward Pathfinder’s skald class, which is an intersection of barbarian and bard. It’s a concept that comes up fairly regularly in fantasy gaming. What can I say, everyone loves spear-Danes in days of yore, including the Beowulf poet. What’s not to like about the glory of those aethelings (princes), who performed courageous deeds? After all, fate oft spares an undoomed lord while his courage prevails!
Editor’s Note: We have informed Brandes that no one gives a flying fuck about how he spent a semester on Beowulf in college. Not a single solitary fuck. He has been severely disciplined.
The skald gains:
- d8 Hit Dice. I kind of wish this were a d10, the midpoint between the PF bard’s d8 and the barbarian’s d12, but sure.
- 4 + Int skill points, with plenty of physical and social skills, but no stealth.
- +3/4 BAB.
- Good Fortitude and Will saves, poor Reflex saves.
- Proficiency in simple and martial weapons, light and medium armor, and non-tower shields. They ignore arcane spell failure while wearing those things.
- Bardic Knowledge lets you add half your skald level to your Knowledge checks, and they can roll Knowledge checks even when untrained.
- Skalds cast spells as bards, including Cha as a casting stat. That’s probably going to be some fierce multiple-attribute-dependency. What if your barbarian also needed to stack Cha?
- Raging Song works basically like bard songs, but with fewer varieties. You have a number of rounds per day of raging song equal to 3 + Cha modifier + twice your skald level.
- Inspired Rage makes your buddies so mad. Your allies opt into this rage round by round. Like other rages, it boosts Str, Con, and Will saves; penalizes AC; and locks out Int, Dex, and Cha skills. The bonuses scale up at higher levels. There’s no fatigue at the end of this song.
- Song of Marching (3rd level) lets the party hustle for free in overland travel – that is, they don’t accumulate extra fatigue for doing so.
- Song of Strength (6th level) lets your allies add half your skald level to Strength checks and skill checks.
- Dirge of Doom (10th level) attempts to make enemies shaken (that is, the lowest-grade fear condition).
- Song of the Fallen (14th level) gets your dead allies back on their feet for a short time – you spend rounds of raging song for each person and each round that you keep them going.
- Sagas are big masterpiece works that… have more involved rules. The SRD only describes two sagas. Each one costs you either a feat or a spell known of a particular level, and they have extensive other prereqs. I’m not really getting why these are here, but whatever.
- Scribe Scroll shows up as a bonus feat at 1st level.
- Versatile Performance at 2nd level, as the bard feature – you get to use Perform checks in place of some other skills, depending on your chosen style of performance.
- Advanced Versatile Performance at 6th level lets you either add more skills to the versatility of an existing performance style, or lets you pick a weapon and be a pseudo-fighter with it. You either gain proficiency, or you gain Weapon Focus; you’re also allowed to buy fighter-only feats as if you’re a fighter of half your skald level, as long as your performance type suits the weapon you want to use.
- Well-Versed at 2nd level grants you a +4 to saves vs. bardic performances, sonic effects, and language-dependent effects.
- Rage Powers at 3rd level let you pick one rage power, and an additional rage power every 3 levels thereafter. Reading the SRD, I’m not completely sure what I’m looking at here, but it’s obviously a barbarian feature that stacks on top of your rage benefits. Thanks to Inspired Rage, you also share these with your allies. That’s pretty warlord-y.
- Uncanny Dodge at 4th level is the same as the barbarian and rogue feature of the same name.
- Spell Kenning at 5th level is a lot like Magical Secrets in 5e (casting a spell from another class’s list), but this lets you choose a different spell each day, a smaller number of times per day (1/day at 5th, scaling to 3/day at 17th level).
- Lore Master at 7th level lets you take 10 on Knowledge checks, and 1/day you can take 20 on a Knowledge check (up to 3/day at 19th level).
- Improved Uncanny Dodge at 8th level.
- Damage Reduction at 9th level gives you DR 1/–, scaling to DR 3/– at 19th level; the big thing about this is that you also grant that DR to allies with your Inspired Rage.
- Master Skald at 20th level erases every drawback (AC penalty, action restrictions) from your Inspired Rage, and your Inspired Rage grants an extra attack to everyone it affects. It’s about as leader-y as you could ask for.
It’s a thrash-metal bard. Maybe the featured image for this article should just be a black and white album cover of five white dudes standing around in a forest. It’s a perfectly playable warlord concept, though it’s more like the company drummer or standard-bearer than a commander, just because the music aspect isn’t what most people are looking for in their warlords. This concept fits very well indeed with the College of Valor bard; it could also be a new barbarian subclass concept. I don’t think we have any war-shout barbarian subclasses right now?
The great thing about the skald as a perspective on a warlord is that it supports areas of gameplay that aren’t just combat. No one has trouble remembering to make bards and bard-adjacent classes interesting outside of combat, and the same for nobles. Classes called “marshal” and “warlord” tend to be marginally better in the combat pillar, but outright MIA in social and exploration pillars.
Of all the content I’ve covered here, what most interests me is seeing what Stephens and Schwalb were doing with warlord, leader, and support concepts all the way back in 2004 – just a year after WotC’s marshal class and the 3.5 revision of the bard. Looking at all the work that was going on in these years, it starts to look inevitable that 4e would have a marshal or warlord as one of its core classes.