This week in Dragon magazine has seen the release of Class Acts: Hierophant Druids, yet another piece by Rob J. Scwhalb which, while solid enough (as all things Schwalb) would not be particularly remarkable on its own merits: it features some really nice and original flavor, but I found the mechanics that support it to be rather mediocre. That is, except for the little fact that they introduce a new power source to the game...
Unless I'm missing some obscure paragon path out there, the three powers featured in this article are the only ones in the game with the Elemental keyword - and I don't even know if there's any specific name for spells of the elemental power source (like divine powers are called prayers, and martial ones are exploits). And two of them aren't even fully elemental, but a combination of elemental and primal. So it's not like we can figure out the contents of an upcoming Elemental Power book from that (or rather, Heroes of the Elemental Chaos, if we follow the most recent naming pattern).
But there are some things we can tell about elemental, even from this tiny sample. The mere fact that they haven't dismissed the idea altogether, and that they are willing to release material related to it is encouraging - we didn't get to see anything labeled as 'ki' before that power source got axed, after all. We won't see any elemental-themed class in print this year, though - that much we can tell from the current release schedule (something about which I should write one of these days, by the way), which has Heroes of Shadow and Heroes of the Feywild as the only player-oriented releases for 2011. But, as I speculated above, it does look like a sign that we should expect a similar product inspired by the Elemental Chaos somewhere around 2012.
What can elemental offer, as a power source? I am a bit torn about it... on the one hand, I find the whole element concept pretty cool, and there is a lot that can be done with the four classic elements. Also, I just love how it all fits in the 4E cosmology, as the primordials are engaging villains, and the Elemental Chaos is a much more interesting place to visit than the plain old monochromatic, single-element planes found in the old Great Wheel. But is that enough to support cool new character concepts?
This is the greatest strike against an elemental power source, for me. I really can't think of a fantasy archetype that would make for a great elemental class. Sure, we have had our share of placeholder role/power source combinations in 4E, like Invokers and Wardens, which felt a bit too forced at first. But at least we had clerics and druids as strong pillars to base their respective power sources. Is there any concept out there that could fill that gap for elemental? Like the wizard is to arcane, or the fighter to martial?
It's not that the four elements lack design space - in fact, the opposite is true. But they have already seen so much use in other power sources, that maybe there's not a clear niche left. Arcane has always been strongly related to the idea of huge explosions of fire, ice, lightning and whatever it is that earth does these days. I am of the opinion that you can't do anything with fire that's cooler than the good old fireball, anyways. And primal magic also makes good use of the elements, usually spicing them up with some animal themes. Hell, even divine characters get to have some elemental fun every other day, particularly of the lightnign and thunderstorm variety. And any of them can choose to focus on a single element, or just use any number of them, so our fledging elemental class can't even hold to that.
The solution we have seen in the powers from the Hierophant Druid article (all three of them) is to introduce powers that use all four elements at once. Or, rather, a choice of one of the four each time you cast them. The implementation in this article isn't particularly brilliant, and I'm afraid the basic idea is flawed: you are just spreading the power too thin. It's difficult enough to come up with a power effect that is original, fun, and balanced - designing something with four variations that fill these criteria, and are somehow related but different enough from each other is a painful task. And it's not even particularly rewarding! I guess the added flexibility is welcome, and at least you can tell it's a different power source because nobody tried the four-elements-in-one shtick before, but what is the point? I honestly think any of these powers would be better off if they had focused on one, or maybe two of the elements.
So, what else could they do? I think that having powers that combine two or more elements in one single effect (rather than presenting a bunch of bland options) could have some potential. It's the same idea that led to the creation of hybrid elemental monsters in Monster Manual I: it still feels elemental, but opens up a ton of possibilities. Sure, single-element monsters (or, in this case, powers) feel more iconic, but they have also been done to death by now. I still don't see how this could be used as the basis for three or four classes, but it's better than nothing...