Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Human Diversion's Guide to the Caster-Centric Arcane Archer

The Human Diversion’s Guide to the Caster-Centric Arcane Archer

Way back in 3.5 when Living Greyhawk was all the rage, I would often marvel at the high level wizards who went for the Archmage prestige class as fast as possible. They were able to dish out tons of damage that most creatures couldn’t resist (*cough sonic cough*) and were usually the most effective characters at the table. I had started a grey elf wizard as a ray specialist but was already too far along to take the proper feats to play an Archmage. One day someone pointed out that no one played Arcane Archers, most likely because the prerequisites were just too cost prohibitive to get mediocre abilities and if you went the traditional route - heavy on fighter or ranger - you couldn’t make good use of the Arcane Archer’s 2nd level ability:

At 2nd level, an arcane archer gains the ability to place an area spell upon an arrow. When the arrow is fired, the spell's area is centered where the arrow lands, even if the spell could normally be centered only on the caster. This ability allows the archer to use the bow's range rather than the spell's range. A spell cast in this way uses its standard casting time and the arcane archer can fire the arrow as part of the casting. The arrow must be fired during the round that the casting is completed or the spell is wasted. If the arrow misses, the spell is wasted.

The part about using the arrow’s range for an area spell even if the spell could normally be centered only on the caster got me thinking, “what area spells would this be useful for?” Area damage spells generally don’t need an arrow’s range, but what spells are out there that can normally be only cast on the caster? While going through the spell compendium I noticed one of the first ones (alphabetically) that had an area and was target: self - Antimagic Field.

It suddenly dawned on me that I had a near-unbeatable way to take out high level casters. Get a caster high enough to cast Antimagic Field, give that caster 2 levels of Arcane Archer, and then shoot an antimagic field imbued arrow at a bad guy. As long as the arrow hits, he’s getting a spell with no SR and no save being cast “on” him and suddenly he can’t cast any spells or spell-like abilities, use any magic items, have his magic items function, receive healing, etc.

So how does one go about creating a caster-centric Arcane Archer? The prerequisites are:
Base Attack Bonus: +6.
Spells: Ability to cast 1st-level arcane spells.

The Base Attack Bonus is the biggest stumbling block. You’re going to need to be a 12th level arcane caster to get that. Since the goal is to shoot Antimagic Fields at people, that works out just fine since you need to be an 11th or 12th level caster just to cast 6th level arcane spells.

I will be using Treatmonk's color coding for convenience and coherence with the other guides
RED will be used for options that should be avoided
ORANGE will denote options that should be approached with an open mind.
GREEN will represent good options, which in certain situations may be the best
BLUE will represent options that will be regarded as "The best" most of the time. These are usual safe bets and you will be glad you have them

What races work best for this extremely focused build? It used to be that you had no choice, you had to be an Elf or Half-Elf. I’m guessing someone connected with the rules decided not enough people were playing Arcane Archers and dropped the racial requirement, so now any race can be one.

Dwarf - If you’re approaching arcane archer as a wizard, this isn’t a horrible choice, but it’s not even close to the best one. The bonus to con is nice, but the bonus to wis is all but wasted. If you’re approaching arcane archer as a sorcerer, this is a clear-cut RED ranking.
Elf - The best choice, hands-down, for both a wizard or sorcerer-based AA. For a wizard the bonus to dex and int just happen to be your 2 most needed abilities. The bow proficiency helps as well by giving you an extra feat to play with. For a sorcerer the +dex and weapon feat make it closer, but still better than Half-Elf, Human, Gnome, and Halfling.
Gnome - This gets a green if you’re going with a sorcerer-based AA as the bump to charisma is obviously big, +2 to con never hurts, and being small means you get a +1 to hit. If you’re going for a wizard-based AA, I’m going to rank it an orange - just not enough going for it compared to Elf.
Half Elf - Half-Elves are a good choice but only if your campaign or DM lets you take the Ancestral Arms alternate racial trait and you use it to take a bow proficiency. You can and should apply the +2 stat bonus to int, as eventually you’re much more of a caster than an archer. Half Elves are pretty much equal to humans for both wizard and sorcerer-based AAs.
Half Orc - Half-Orcs are not a good choice for AA. About the only thing they have going for them is the +2 to any stat, and they don’t have the Half-Elf’s alternate racial trait to take bow proficiency and the human’s extra feat.
Halfling - As far as wizard-based AA’s, Halflings are in pretty much the same boat as Half Orcs, having the extra dexterity and the +1 hit for being small as the only things going for them. If you’re going to make a sorcerer-based AA the +cha isn’t bad, and brings them up to an orange rating
Human - Humans are about as good as Half-Elves for both AA builds, with the +2 to any stat and a bonus feat to spend weapon proficiency on.

Your primary casting stat will be where you put most of your attribute credit, int if you’re a wizard and cha if you’re a sorcerer. Your second highest stat should be dexterity, as it has the dual purpose of giving you both AC and +hit on ranged attacks. Con should be third for the hit points and fort save. Str is a distant 4th, the only caveat being if you have lower than 10 you’ll take a penalty on bow damage, but we’re not aiming for bow damage here so it’s not a big deal. Wisdom and your other non-casting mental stat are your dump stats, put them as low as you’re willing to go for an RP’er.

Arcane Archer only gets 4 class skills, but one of them is useful as it’s not normally a class skill for wizard or sorcerer.

Perception - The best of the four, and one of the best skills in the game. It lets you notice all sorts of stuff (traps, ambushes, stuff that’s far away, etc) and not noticing stuff can do bad things like not being able to act in the surprise round, fall into the pit trap, not see the assassin about to stab you from behind, etc.
Ride - Unless for some strange reason you have a mount-flavored game or you’ve got feats to burn and have created a mounted arcane archer, this is a pretty much useless skill for you. In addition, a majority of combat encounters are built in places where mounts for medium creatures just can’t go, so that makes this a doubly useless skill for our build.
Stealth - Not a bad skill, but often the arcane caster has ways of making themselves undetectable anyway. Still, there always seems to be a situation where the party as a whole needs to sneak and it’s nice to not be the weakest link.
Survival - Again, not a bad skill, but usually there’s someone else in the party making the survival checks for the group as a whole. For most mundane uses of the skill there are magical ways of avoiding the hazard (severe weather, foraging, etc). If your party has no one who can follow tracks it might be worth it to drop a point or two in here just for that purpose.

Of course nothing is stopping you from plopping your precious skill points into things you’ve been building up all along as an arcane caster - spellcraft, knowledge: arcana, and use magic device.

Preferred Spells
Burning Hands - 1st level spell, but useful still
Grease - use the area version of grease at your bow’s range
Magic Circle - Have a party member dominated? Fire a magic circle at them (or at their square!)
Crushing Despair - hit someone with an arrow and have the bad guys behind them hit with the cone of crushing despair!
Detonate - unique in that the effect happens 1 round after you cast the spell
Dragon’s Breath - use that 30’ cone without having to be in melee range
Obsidian Flow - One of my favorites, deals damage and makes difficult terrain, now at the range of your bowshot rather than close
Shout/Greater Shout - As with Dragon’s Breath, useful in that you can use your bow’s range rather than having to get into melee
Waves of Fatigue - make people fatigued from long range
Tar Pool - Like Obsidian Flow, but better

Other Stuff (Feats, Equipment, Class Role, etc)
Once you’ve gotten to the level to make this happen, you should consider taking arcane archer only up to 4th level, as 5th level will not give you a spellcasting class. Levels beyond 5 for this class will really only give you phase arrow (not a bad trick) and hail of arrows, although if you went the sorcerer route, arrow of death could potentially be a really nasty trick, but you wouldn’t get that until epic levels anyway (level 22 for our build).

Any feat that helps a ray-based wizard should be considered useful here, including Spell Penetration, Reach Spell, Arcane Blast, and Elven Accuracy (if you went elf). General metamagic feats aren’t bad either - Empower spell and Maximize spell are nice, Preferred spell might be worth it if only to swap out spells when you need an extra Anti-Magic Field to fire.

Equipment should be as per building a wizard as well with the exception of anything that improves your attacks with a bow, so both flavors of bracers of archery are good. Boots of speed are nice if you need to maneuver a bit, and a belt of physical might is good, (obviously focusing on Dex > Con > Str). When I get a wizard up to 9th or 10th level I almost always try to acquire a ring of counterspells to put in a feeblemind or disintegrate - both of those spells can really ruin an arcane caster’s day.

Finally remember above all else, that even though you are a decent archer you are still an arcane caster above all else - the archery is just a way for you to deliver spells at a distance that you would normally be able to only cast from your square or on yourself.

Final Note

One of the stumbling blocks of this specific build is that a lot of GMs really don’t know how to adjudicate the imbue arrow class feature. I had one GM say that the bad guy could pull the arrow out and the antimagic field was still stuck to the arrow. I had another say that if the arrow hit a bad guy it technically never “landed” and therefore the spell never went off. If you’re going to use this in a home game, ask the GM first. If you’re going to use it in an organized setting like PFS, it might be wise to get a consensus of your local GMs and/or Venture Captains.

Note: I did not write this guide. This guide was in the owner's trash, to be deleted. It is saved here to prevent that. If you are the owner please make a comment or send me an e-mail if you would like to re-host it.