Design Diary: The Aberration Hunter’s Handbook


I’ve been spending a lot of time the last month or so developing a suite of rules for what I like to call “The Aberration Hunter’s Handbook” – essentially, an update of a lot of 3e-era prestige classes from Lords of Madness. I think it’s worth sharing some of the things I learned in working on this.

The Favored Enemy Problem

The material I’m converting contained some of the same issues that the iconic Favored Enemy ability of earlier-edition rangers had: in a campaign that happened to feature the intended enemy (aberrations in this case), the abilities were fine (if not “too good”), but in a campaign that didn’t, the abilities were nearly useless. Because levels and class features are high-cost resources, most players wrote off these options entirely because they were too narrow.

Lords of Madness seemed aware of this problem, and was apparently trying to encourage “aberration-focused campaigns” that the classes could be used in. While that would work to make the character options worth taking, it’s putting a pretty high demand on the DM in that case. It also didn’t make those character options MORE appealing than others – just because being a Keeper of the Cerulean Sign was now relevant didn’t mean that it was any better than being anything else, even if a campaign did focus on the aberrations that the archetype was intended to fight against.

After 3e, D&D lost most of this kind of design, for very good reason. Even in 5e, negative effects of this design can be seen in the Ranger class: the utility of your abilities depends on the whim of the DM, and that’s not exactly empowering.

Solutions. I realized early on that a straight “Prestige Class to Archetype” conversion wasn’t going to work for a lot of these options because of their specificity. What did work was magic items. In 5e, magic items being entirely add-on in power and not guaranteed made this kind of specificity acceptable: a DM could reward it when it was useful, and the player could drop it when the campaign no longer had a use for it.

Some of this work was already embedded in the 3e material. Topaz Diademsamulets of the Cerulean Sign, and Darkrunner Emblems were all part of the original prestige classes. I expanded this a little to include blessings, which are a category of magical rewards that aren’t objects, but are more granted, inherent abilities. The flavor of a blessing fit very well for many of these archetypes, and helped the abilities feel more connected to the player, less like an accessory.

So, I kept many options as magic items. I also expanded in areas that warranted class archetype options – most notably for the Sanctified Mind fighter archetype. Modeling it after the Eldritch Knight, I was able to include enemy-specific abilities as “ribbons,” while expanding the power set to be useful in a variety of circumstances.

The Size of a Paragon Path

A few of my archetypes had echoes in 4e material (notably, the Abolisher and the Cerulean Adept, but also some racial options for shardminds and killoren), most prominently as paragon paths. I found that the impact of a 4e paragon path wasn’t much more significant than the impact of a feat in 5e, and so found that system to be a good home for many 4e paragon path options. The feats grant a few spells and a few power-light tactical options, and none seem especially powerful in comparison to a +2 to an ability score, so they seem costed about right. I’m pretty excited with how well this works, and since 4e’s paragon paths are pretty much built according to this formula, feats might be good at capturing a lot of their options.

I notably had to simplify or increase the impact of some of the tactical options that came with each “paragon feat.” 4e’s focus on minis combat isn’t a comfortable fit in 5e, and since the spells are fairly power-neutral, the main value of the feat would come from these options or enhancements. I didn’t blunt these as much as I would for a class feature, though – using feats is already a buy-in for character options that represents a certain appetite for additional complexity.

Organizations & Backgrounds

I found that the biggest source of additional material for my document came from backgrounds. The 3e prestige classes are fairly closely linked to some organizations meant to show up in an “aberration-themed adventure.” In 5e, these organizations formed the creative core around which these new options would crystallize – the organization is the “why” of these abilities in most cases.

The general principle of “Organization as Background” works pretty well in 5e, and it helped ground these options in something a player could take and point at and say “I am X!”, even when the options were mostly feats or magical rewards. Some of the features got a little repetitive, but there seems to be some tolerance for similar background features overall.