This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Ten on 11th May 2022.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
The Artificer is so far the only official new class that has been released for 5th edition, and that’s something that’s unique in a number of ways. 5th edition released with 12 classes, all of which were present in the initial player’s handbook, and those were the only options for years, despite multiple groups of fans clamoring for old favorites to make a return. And while every other past edition had seen at least one release with a new class or classes in it within a year or two of the initial offering, 5th Edition fans had to wait 5 years before the Artificer made its official debut in “Eberron: Rising from the Last War”.
The long delay was only one of the hurdles the Artificer has had to overcome. The second issue is that it was put out in Eberron: Rising from the Last War, rather than a generic reference resource like Xanathar’s or Tasha’s. Not only did that mean some people kind of missed the release, it also hampered its ability to be used in the Adventurer’s League, since at the time the so-called “PHB +1” rule was still very much the standard.
Finally, as we’ll discuss, the Artificer has an odd place in the lineup of classes in D&D. Above all else it’s primarily designed as a support class. The only other class that really comes close to that is the Bard, but many people argue that the Bard can do the job better and become a powerhouse on their own outside of combat where the Alchemist falls short.
Before we get into the controversy, let’s take a look at how exactly the Artificer does their job. To start with, the Artificer is a so-called “half caster”, meaning they gain spell slots very slowly and only ever get slots up to level five, like the Ranger and the Paladin. At the cantrip and low spell levels they have access to a decent mix of assistance and damaging spells, but they don’t get any of the biggies like fireball or lightning bolt, and the only healing spell they can grab is cure wounds. But spellcasting isn’t really the focus of the artificer, at least at first. It’s all in the toys.
At first level the artificer can make a few different magical trinkets, most of which aren’t majorly impactful, but they can make you a talking doorbell of sorts and you never have to worry about spending money on torches again. The big impact starts at 2nd level. The Artificers gain the ability to put magical infusions on items. Think of them like Warlock Invocations, but for equipment rather than Eldritch blast.
The infusions are a bit more versatile. To begin with, they can turn any weapon or armor into a +1 magic version. That may seem like nothing much but keep in mind this is level 2; a lot of magic weapons and armor that actually have mechanical bonuses don’t show up for a while yet, and because I see Ostron nodding off, I’ll just quickly reiterate that a +1 to hit or added to armor means a lot given the realities of bounded accuracy.
That was close. So the Artificer can pass out two free goodies to start with, and the number goes up from there. Also the infusions get better as time goes on, introducing things like adding spell effects to weapons and armor.
The next major combat-focused boon is “Flash of Genius”. Similar to bardic inspiration, this allows the artificer to add their Intelligence modifier to an ally’s check or save as a reaction. In some ways this is actually better than inspiration because it’s just a flat bonus, rather than a die roll, and by later levels it’s probably a guaranteed +5.
The rest of the basic class bonuses all have to do with creating and attuning to magic items, for the most part, including storing spells in a magic item for use at a later time. So at this point you may be asking yourself “why did I take the magic item vendor out of his shop and drag him on an adventure with me rather than taking, I don’t know, a cleric or something.”
Where the artificer really differentiates themselves is in the subclasses. The whole role of the class can shift dramatically depending on what subclass they pick, possibly more than any other class, though the Ranger and the Monk have similar paradigm shifting options with their subclasses.
The one most people are familiar with is the artillerist. That’s the one with the turret. Also, if your DM decides guns are a thing in their campaign, the Artificer is proficient with them. They can create a turret that either acts as a long range sniping bot, a close range flamethrower, or a healing generator that grants temporary HP to allies every turn. Also, in short order they can create what the game calls an arcane firearm, which allows you to add a d8 to the damage of any spell cast through the firearm. And they definitely have options there, as the Artillerist’s spell list grants them access to spells like scorching ray, shatter, and, yes, fireball.
The artillerist is the obvious choice if you want to play the Alchemist like a caster; staying in the back, damaging from range, and supporting the back line if it comes to it. But what if you want to get more up close and personal? Well that’s where the Armorer and the Battle Smith come in.
The Battle Smith is for the people who secretly want to be a ranger but don’t want to deal with all of that “feeding my pet” nonsense. In addition to proficiency with martial weapons and the ability to make attacks with their intelligence modifier rather than Dexterity or Strength, the Battle Smith gets the Iron defender. The defender is a magical construct they can direct in a variety of ways, mostly ways of tearing things apart that the Artificer doesn’t like. So the Battle Smith can craft themselves a magic crossbow and fire powered up attacks at people while their lovingly crafted iron capybara keeps all the mean people away. Oh did I mention they can heal themselves and impose disadvantage on enemies’ attacks? Because they can do that too. And they get better at it as you level up.
But If that’s not up close and personal enough for you, you have the Armorer. The armorer…no there’s nothing really vague about this, they just are Iron Man. They get proficiency with heavy armor, which they can then craft into special arcane armor. The armor ignores any strength requirements, acts as replacements for missing limbs, and can be put on or taken off with 1 action. Then you choose a variety of arcane armor to use. The guardian suit essentially gives you lightning punches and the ability to generate temp HP basically at will. The Infiltrator gives you wrist blasters, an extra 5 feet of movement, and advantage on stealth checks or, at least, takes away any disadvantage you might have had.
Note that all of that can be combined with the infusions from earlier and at higher levels you can put multiple infusions on it because the armor gets to count as separate pieces (helmet, breastplate, etc.). Players have said that using the correct combination of armor, shields, and the arcane infusions, they’ve been able to give themselves a static AC of 23 or 24. That’s better than most dragons manage.
The alchemist is kind of the black sheep of the Artificer subclasses. It somewhat bills itself as a healer, and they do get access to Healing Word through their subclass spell list. They also gain the ability to produce potions that convey different bonuses, including one that’s a budget healing potion. However, spell slots have to be expended to create the elixirs, so there are a limited number that can be created each day, and if the campaign or adventure doesn’t stretch across multiple days the alchemist has very little to do after the magic items are infused and the potions given out.
The other things that should be mentioned about the artificer is their efficacy depends a lot on the DM’s setting and position on magic items and crafting. Many of the artificer’s class abilities relate to using tool sets and creating them, as well as crafting magic items. If your DM doesn’t usually pay attention to use of tools and if crafting magic items isn’t a thing or it isn’t something the campaign has enough downtime to allow, a lot of the Artificer’s class abilities are going to go unused. If you’re considering playing an Artificer, you should either talk with your DM about including those items, or possibly figure out some alternate options as far as class abilities go.