Save My Game 09/23/2005

Managing Artificers and Constructs

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Constructing Havoc

In this installment of Save My Game, we look at the artificer class, and particularly the constructs that a member of that class can build. What's a DM to do if the artificer's constructs threaten to unbalance the game?

Problem: Too Many Constructs?

Related Series
Interested in learning more about the rules governing constructs? The recent Rules of the Game column explored this very topic, examining the definitions of a construct, constructing a construct, and the particulars of living constructs. Be sure to consult these articles for additional guidance.

In my Eberron campaign, I have an artificer who is going crazy building all sorts of stuff! I have tried to double-check his work, but so many rules have to be taken into consideration that I don't have time to vet them as thoroughly as I'd like. Why is construct construction so very complicated? How can I control his constant building of constructs, and do any limits exist on his ability to command them? Should I just limit the creation of constructs to NPCs? -- Adapted from a post by Pseudolife on the D&D message boards of the Wizards of the Coast website

The artificer class provides a great deal of grist for a player's creativity mill, particularly when it comes to building constructs. The constructs already published for the game are well defined and relatively simple to use as opponents for PCs, but when a PC gains control of several constructs, he can create a serious headache for the DM. And when he strikes out on his own to build new and better constructs, the difficulty of managing them can increase still more. But handled correctly, the artificer and his constructs can add a dimension of enjoyment to a campaign that no other class can.

Solution 1: Building is What the Class is All about!

Limiting the artificer's ability to make constructs is no solution to the problem. After all, building things is the entire point of the class. Artificers are mediocre at physical combat, their saves aren't great, and their infusion ability is pretty limited. If you take away or hinder their ability to build useful items (including constructs), you have just eliminated the one and only thing they are really good at. Doing so is like taking away a rogue's sneak attack ability or a barbarian's rage -- if not worse. If you're going to ruin the class, why bother allowing it in the campaign at all?

Solution 2: Commanding a Construct Effectively

One way to gain the upper hand in construct control is to ensure that the system for commanding them stays realistic. On the downside, a construct is unintelligent, so it takes no initiative until its creator tells it what to do. However, it does not resist its creator's commands or have any chance of misunderstanding them. But exactly how much can a PC expect from a construct?

If you want to clarify what a construct knows how to do, you could model its "programming" on the tricks defined in the Handle Animal skill description. If you wish, you could even set a limit on how many tricks a given type of construct could know. The amount of time it takes to issue commands to a construct should vary with the complexity of the order. A very simple command consisting of no more than a few words could be issued as a free action, but giving a more complex command should require a move action, just as handling an animal does. A full-round action might be required to relay a really complex order, but commanding your construct to hold someone's mouth closed isn't really that complicated.

Solution 3: Compare Crafting Constructs with Other Class Abilities

The artificer can't create a construct until 6th level at the earliest because of the prerequisites for Craft Construct. So to decide whether the ability unbalances the game at that point, compare it with the mid-level abilities granted by other classes. Is crafting a construct really better than a paladin's ability to summon a special mount, or a druid's wild shape, or a barbarian's improved uncanny dodge? If you compare the constructs an artificer can make to a druid's animal companion, a paladin's mount, or even the familiar of a mid-level wizard, you'll see that the power levels compare pretty favorably -- especially since the latter creatures come essentially free. They take little if any time to acquire, are pretty easy to replace if killed (although replacing a familiar does involve a hefty XP penalty), and do not cost a feat slot (much less three, if you count Craft Construct's prerequisites).

The big difference between the artificer's ability to create constructs and the comparable abilities of other classes is that the artificer isn't limited to just one construct -- he can theoretically build as many as he likes. But making constructs costs resources, and a PC artificer shouldn't have the means to make anything particularly troublesome -- especially when he first gains the ability. And even if he does, you have to weigh the value of the constructs against other items that could be made or bought with that money. Every gp and XP spent on creating constructs is one the character isn't spending on creating or buying magic items or other resources. So while the artificer may have a great construct to command, he may be quite vulnerable personally.

The official errata for the Eberron Campaign Setting on the Wizards of the Coast website states that the superscript note on the Feats Table indicating that the Artisan feats can be taken multiple times was an error. These feats can still be used in conjunction to gain a 25% decrease in XP cost, gp cost, and creation time, but each feat can be taken only once. To let them stack would be pretty silly, since if an artificer took one of those feats four times (which he could do by 12th level), he could craft items of the chosen type (such as constructs) instantaneously or for free (in either XP or gold). Madness!

Solution 4: Constructive Complications

One way to simplify construct creation is to limit it strictly to the constructs detailed in the books. Lots of the min-maxing that can take place with item creation comes from characters creatively manipulating item values and slots to make the benefits fit just so. If you stipulate that item creation does not allow PCs to make custom items and constructs, then yes, you are stifling innovation and squelching player creativity, but you're also making life a lot easier on yourself. If that solution doesn't sit right with you, but you feel that you can't take the time to deal with integrating a nonstandard construct into the campaign, then just disallow it.

This kind of situation is why some DMs avoid psionics. Because they don't have the time or inclination to study the fine points and mechanics of the system and adjust the rest of the campaign to compensate, they are at the mercy of a player who knows how to work the system and who -- since her psionic character is the one who benefits -- has a vested interest in finding and exploiting every loophole. My own shameless exploitation of the psionics rules has driven two of my DMs to ban psionics from their campaigns in 3rd Edition alone!

Obviously, calling for redesign or replacement of characters in the middle of a campaign can cause some problems, especially since it disproportionately affects one player. In fact, this tactic could be seen as penalizing someone for playing well or for investing time and effort in making full use of his character's abilities. For this reason, disallowing the use of whole systems in midstream is a less than optimal solution, but it can save your sanity in the short term.


At first glance, the artificer's ability to create constructs might seem like a threat to game balance. But when compared with a paladin's special mount, a druid's animal companion (not to mention her ability to wild shape), or a mid-level wizard's familiar, the construct's power level doesn't look that much different. And coupled with the artificer's mediocre combat skills, saves, and magical ability, a talent for creating constructs doesn't seem so out of line. Furthermore, commanding a construct is not necessarily a free action, depending on the complexity of the instruction. However, allowing players too much free rein with this ability can create headaches for the DM, particularly when PCs start designing custom constructs that must be analyzed before approval. The best way to deal with this problem is to disallow constructs that aren't in the books. The artificer need not be a game-breaker; include one in your campaign and see how much excitement he can add!

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.

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