5E Supplement Review: Vani Swiftbottom’s Guide to Advanced Player Options

Did the title of this review fit on one line? Huh. How about that!

Vani Swiftbottom’s Guide to Advanced Player’s Option is a supplement that offers a number of new races, classes, spells and other features for D&D 5E games. It’s 113 pages long and available on the DM’s Guild. It’s obvious a lot of effort has gone into it: it’s nicely formatted, with a lot of art (mostly stock art), and is well written.

But does that mean it’s well designed? That’s harder to tell.

Eleven races (and a number of subraces). Eighteen classes. Nine character themes. Thirty-nine feats. Ten spells. New psionic disciplines. New magic items. New NPC and monster stat-blocks. There’s a lot of material here.

Some of the design decisions are very interesting. The feral gargun gains a mere +1 to their Strength; the only ability score increase their race gives them. Is the loss of ability scores worth what they gain? They gain cold resistance, 35 ft. speed, darkvision, +1 AC, powerful build, and proficiency in Athletics. My feeling is it’s not worth it, and though I appreciate conservatism in new rules elements, the loss of ability score increases is a big deal. It feels like an error in editing, especially when the Half-Giants get +2 Strength and +1 to another ability score, depending on their subrace, as well as other benefits.

Incidentally, I think one of the most insignificant benefits you can have is a natural attack that deals 1d4 damage (rather than the regular 1 unarmed). It’s a flavor feature, which will go unused in pretty much every game that ever gets played. Yes, I know it’s part of the Tavern Brawler feat, but what makes that feat interesting is the ability to grapple when you hit. Seeing races with that ability and little else to distinguish them makes me sad. Thankfully, it’s a feature of only a couple of these races here.

Unfortunately, when you get to the Lupin, a race of humanoid dogs or wolves, which are otherwise brilliantly described, they have a natural attack and +1 to two ability scores. Yes, they have other abilities, that are fairly well judged (although the implementation of Scent is problematic), but with both the lesser ability modifiers and the natural attack being used, I get a little sad.

What redeems these races is their descriptions. They’re good and evocative. Rulewise there are rough patches, but even then the rules aren’t that far off being good.

Things get a lot more ambitious in the chapter of new classes. Not always in a good way. The simple fact is that designing classes is hard. 20 levels of a class? It requires a huge deal of playtesting to get it right. So, eighteen classes. Are they even close?

The product dives right into the “What the hell were they thinking” mode with the Arcane Avenger prestige class, which attempts to provide a multiclass progression for the ranger and sorcerer. It’s fantastically complicated: 15 levels of taking abilities from both base classes at a reduced rate. It’s not the only attempt here at providing a mixed progression for classes: the Argent Fist combines monk and paladin; the Eldritch Mystic combines mystic and warlock; the Marshal combines bard and fighter; the Theurge combines cleric and wizard; and the Verdant Blade combines druid and rogue.

These progressions are tremendously difficult to evaluate (and thus to balance). The basic implementation is as follows: you need to be fifth level to take the multiclass (by which it means you gain the class when you advance to 6th level), and have levels in both the two classes as well as fairly high ability scores. (The arcane avenger requires Dex 13, Wis 13, Cha 15 and Dex or Wis of 15, which seems odd). You gain the class features of both base classes, but advance at two-thirds of the regular rate. For the levels where these features don’t advance, you gain abilities unique to the hybrid class. For instance, the Arcane Avenger gains Avenger’s Mark: using a bonus action to gain advantage on your next attack, as long as you alternate between spell and weapon attacks.

These additional abilities look quite nice, but I can see some issues just to begin with. Avenger’s Mark is interesting, but it competes with War Magic, which requires a bonus action to activate as well. When you have signature abilities competing with each other, you have a problem.

The second form of class in Advanced Player Options are the hybrid classes: a full base class of 20 levels which mixes and matches abilities to form the complete class. In theory, I prefer these treatments, but they don’t appear to have much in the way of unique exciting mechanics. They just give you abilities at a reduced rate in exchange for greater versatility.

There are also prestige classes like the Evangelist, which wanders into many rules issues (and manages to contradict itself!) as to how it handles spells. Yikes! Avoid!

Finally, you have a couple of Paragon classes, which provide an alternative set of abilities as you make your way through the higher levels and beyond 20th level. The Mythic Paragon isn’t worth it; the Epic Paragon is messy. I don’t have many good things to say about them. (An Epic ability is a +3 to one attack roll once per rest? You give up a level of advancing your regular class for that? Pretty awful…)

The feats include those that make no sense, like Wand Mastery: “You do not have to devote your entire day when crafting common or uncommon wands and you can make progress crafting a wand in 10 gp increments for each day that passes.” (How much time are you spending each day crafting the wand?) There’s the terribly weak – Combat Style – which allows you to spend a bonus action and your concentration to temporarily gain the ability of a Fighter’s Fighting Style ability. And ones that should be marked “handle with care”: Monstrous Wild Shape allows you to assume the shapes of monstrosities using your Wild Shape ability.

There are mystic (psionic) disciplines as well, but I haven’t played with that system and I’m unsure of the balance issues.

The magic items primarily show a desire to break bounded accuracy for high-level characters. The epic cloak of protection gives a +3 bonus to AC and saving throws.

As a DM, I’d approach this supplement cautiously. It certainly lives up to its name by giving players a lot of advanced options, but it would require a lot of use in play to discover if they’re balanced. The races are the best feature of APO, but there are nice bits amongst the classes as well; I just wish I had a better handle on their balance. This very much looks like the work of a 3E fan who wanted to bring some of that methodology to 5E. This isn’t something that is wrong, but the mechanics used wander towards the terribly complicated and messy.

This isn’t helped by the lack of flavor text in the class descriptions. The Eldritch Mystic: “A multiclass mystic and warlock”. The Evangelist: “Evangelists travel the world proclaiming their devotion to a particular deity or patron.” These classes need more than that. They need more context than that; as it stands, it seems they’re aimed primarily at players who like fiddling with mechanics.

So, that’s Vani Swiftbottom’s Guide to Advanced Player’s Options. Handle it with care.

2 comments

  1. Paul Connolly

    Fair review Merric. If you get a chance, can you look over To Serve on the Guild. I like your critical eye and would be interested in your thoughts. BTW do you also post these reviews under the products?

    Like

  2. Vanida Plamondon

    I have just finished the second major revision of Vani Swiftbottom’s Guide to Advanced Player Options. All races have been completely revised using the Race Creator rules I have developed for a forthcoming book. Additionally, the mechanics of the character themes have been simplified in their implementation. I don’t have enough general feedback to evaluate and revise (if necessary) other parts of the book. Thought I would give you an update.

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