Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Effectiveness of Shamans in Dungeon Fantasy

The shaman is a weird template. It's described as a primitive mix of a cleric and wizard, a technical specialist focusing on dealing with spirits. Unlike just about every other delver, the text explicitly says that adventuring isn't the point of shamanism, and makes it sound like most shamans would be just as happy not delving. There's some token nods to adventuring, but for a game line focused on killing monsters and taking their stuff, the shaman feels misfocused.

The shaman also feels underpowered, on several levels. The basic abilities aren't very good, the spell list is bad, and the special abilities that define the class are underwhelming.

The basic chassis

Shamans are among the physically weakest templates, with ST10. They're also the lowest DX template, at DX11. They're the least smart of the "smart" templates, with IQ13 (even the maligned bard is smarter!). The shaman is clearly not a melee combat or a stealthy backstabber; a shaman is going to need to be protected in combat. They even have worse melee combat skills than a wizard.

Despite being described as expert negotiators and diplomats, shamans don't have Charisma as a required advantage. Diplomacy isn't a primary or secondary skill: it's an optional background skill.

Shamans don't get Herbal Lore or Esoteric Medicine, but they do get First Aid and Pharmacy (Herbal). They can bandage wounds and prepare antitoxins for poisons, but not provide general healing or healing potions.

They do get Naturalist and Hidden Lore (Spirits). Naturalist is a good monster identification skill and has some other uses in outdoor adventures. Hidden Lore (Spirits) is probably the most obscure Hidden Lore skill, but it is the kind of skill you'd expect from shamans. The lack of other Hidden Lore skills means that the shaman can't substitute for a wizard very well.


Shamans are, in theory, spell-casters. With IQ 13 and Power Investiture 2, they're not very good spell-casters, which is only acerbated by having a mere 8 points in spells. Their spell list is composed of obscure utility spells such as Astral Vision and Sense Spirit. At PI6, they get moderately useful spells like Create Elemental and Beast Summoning, spells that other casters got with much less investment. Despite being described as possible replacement for clerics, the only healing spell they get is Cure Disease, and even that requires PI4.

Shaman spells are unaffected by mana or sanctity, but are "reduced in effectiveness in places that are somehow barred to spirits." This restriction is both flavorless and maddeningly vague for the GM.

Supernatural Abilities

All shamans get Channeling, Medium, and Spirit Empathy: 30 points of advantages that pretty much translate to "you can see, talk to, and try to influence spirits." Completely appropriate. They also get 90 more points of discretionary advantages, which can either be used to buy various allies, shamanic gifts, or mundane advantages like Charisma. The mundane advantages aren't very impressive, and include such depressing oddities as ST or HT +1 (but not IQ or DX!) and Power Investiture 3. Going back to spells, it's sad that the default Shaman isn't even allowed to purchase enough Power Investiture to get the better spells.

Shamanic Gifts

Shamans have a power modifier which is basically a Pact. Fair enough. The actual abilities aren't very impressive: Active Luck, See Invisible (Spirits), Speak with Animals, True Faithing (without Turning, so a Shaman can protect himself but no one else). Dark Vision is probably the winner here, but given the shaman's generally weak abilities, sending one off by himself to scout is a cruel joke.

Shamanic Allies

Shamans can take a range of allies, from indentured petty demons that are almost free (2 points each!) to potent elemental allies (15- less, summonable, for 30 points each). Shamans are summoners, so it makes sense that allies would be their reason for being.

In play, shamanic allies aren't bad, but they're not great. A lot of them are Diffuse, which can be helpful when fighting a lot of typical DF enemies (most orcs do not have area effect attacks). Still, most of the sample allies in DF: Summoners are weak in play: low Perception, low Will, low DX, and low attack skills can make for an ally that gets surprised in ambush situations and can't hit anything when it finally attacks.

Even with hand-crafted allies with more power, the shaman isn't that much more impressive. A demonologist can have demon allies, an elementalist can have elemental allies, and a necromancer can have undead allies. The shaman can have any of those allies, and so if there's some special synergy in having a ghost, a demon, and a fire elemental, the shaman brings something unique to the table. If there's no synergy, it's just as easy to replace the shaman with one of the other summoners (or a druid, cleric, or wizard) with the appropriate ally.

In Summary

Shamans are a bit disappointing. What could have been a mix of Bard, Cleric, and Wizard - basically, a replacement healer and face-man with some utility magic, excellent for small delving bands - is instead a highly focused expert on spirits whose main combat utility is whatever his Allies can do. In an adventure with a lot of focus on spirits, a shaman is really powerful, but as a general delver, the shaman doesn't bring much to the table.

In a 5 person delving band, running through a conversion of a standard AD&D module, the successful band is going to be some collection of (Knight, Barbarian, Mystic Knight, Swashbuckler, or Holy Warrior), (Cleric or Druid), (Scout or Bard), (Thief or Artificer), and (Wizard, Sage, Necromancer, Elementalist, or Demonologist). The shaman can't easily replace any of those roles. He's a specialist, brought in to deal with spirits, but not a regular member of the delving band.


  1. I crunched the numbers on the DF templates a couple of times for wildly different reasons. The shaman stuck out both times for an obvious reason: low attributes. Even the wizard has more sunk in his attributes than the shaman. This also leads the shaman to have pathetic mundane attacks, since he has about as much in skills as anyone else.

    This is a template built for having scads of advantages, which makes it unusual among DF templates and therefore suck at traditional DF activities. This wouldn't suck as bad if he didn't have to spend his advantage points on mother-may-I advantages. They need to have a useful spirit around to make them work, which means the GM has to bend over and do extra work to make the shaman's player happy. Same story with the spells: they need a spirit around unless he has higher PI.

    If a GM wants a non-traditional campaign based around the shaman's abilities, I guess he could be quite mighty. But in anything near any D&D, T&T and Runequest-type game, meh. Everyone else can do stuff well all the time, while the shaman needs the GM to go outside the genre to pull in things he does well.

  2. This bald assessment of the Shaman template makes me sad. It points to a fairly common failing in RPG magic systems to deal well with shamans, spirits and the like.

    I can definitely see an Allies supplement for GURPS that could grow out of solving this problem.

    1. Shamans already have allies from Summoners, and there's more allies in DF: Allies. Of course, shamans don't technically get the allies from DF: Allies, which are the mostly decent ones. The ones from DF: Summoners tend to be mechanically under-powered.

      Having allies is fine, but a character needs some ability to stand on his own. As Charles points out, if there aren't a lot of spirits in the game, there's not much for a shaman to do. That needs to be fixed.

    2. I think the presence or absence of spirits should be modeled in a way similar to the way mana is handled. Unless otherwise noted, fantasy games take place in places that are entirely accessible to the astral plane, and there are spirits everywhere - just most folks don't see them. It's only when you get into places where "angels fear to tread" - where spirits actively avoid - that you get the equivalent of low- and no-mana zones.

      I think that allies are a little flavorless, mechanically, and while the shaman gets access to them now, they don't have the same allure as being able to do things entirely for yourself all the time. Combine that with innate abilities fluffed to be "a spirit did it" and I think you can get a reasonable shaman out of the deal.

    3. The shamanic gift power modifier works the way you say: roughly equivalent to mana, with potential low power and high power zones. It's not how I'd do it, but it's not a bad model. That part works more or less okay.

      The problem is that the shaman has 50 points of mandatory advantages sunk into "I can talk to spirits", plus another 8 points in spells for "I can affect spirits", plus up to another 90 points in spirit affecting abilities. If there aren't any actual spirits as NPC/Monsters for him to interact with, that's 60-150 wasted points. That's the problem that Charles was referring to.

      It's somewhat similar to bringing a Thief to an adventure with no traps, lock doors, barriers that can only be bypassed by the athletic, secret doors, or searchable loot found inside of monsters. Even then, the thief can scout and backstab, unless all the monsters are homogeneous and can see in the dark. But no one writes an adventure called "The endless gold piles of the floating electric jelly" while there are a fair number of published adventures where the shaman has nothing special to contribute.

      It makes me sad. I'm not bashing the shaman as a concept. I'm okay with people playing shamans. I just want the shaman to be a good mechanical design.

    4. Would it be sufficient to allow a greater breadth of spells or abilities, ones with general practicality, with the fluff being that they're spirits doing the dirty work? I mean, that would be more mechanically sound, and more broadly useful. If Affliction was directing a disease spirit to possess a foe, Healing is a spirit of healing, and some sort of Clairvoyance being spirits scouting ahead and reporting back to the Shaman?

    5. The devil's in the details, but broadly speaking, that's what the shaman needs: some abilities that let him contribute when there's a couple of orcs and golems in the room.

      So the spell list needs to be expanded to include some Healing, Body Control, and Mind Control at affordable PIs. The ability list needs to include some clever powers with fluff as spirits doing the dirty work: Affliction (Stun or Paralysis), Clairsentience, Healing, Mind Control, Telekinesis, and Terror are probably enough when added to their existing abilities.

      Look, I'm going to write a post with an improved version of the template, okay? Quit making me reveal my secrets early =)

    6. Write like the wind, damn you! I demand fiddly, number-crunchy, GURPS content!


      Content delivered!